Best Companies to Work For: 2014

From the pages of In Business magazine.

There are a variety of ways to evaluate a Best Company, but we prefer to focus on attractive employee benefits packages. Well-run companies approach their benefits offerings with employee recruiting and retention in mind as they develop ways to take care of the people who take care of their customers.

Participating companies that address this in the most affirmative ways are featured in this, our third annual Best Companies presentation. Their generous benefits packages, which contribute mightily to employee-friendly company cultures and comparatively low turnover, advance both company and community alike.

To be certified as a “Best Company,” local employers were asked to share information about their medical benefits, their commitment to wellness and retirement programs, life and disability insurance, the Madison living wage, workforce training, and paid time off.

Each category was assigned a certain number of points to reflect its importance in the overall benefits package, and Best Companies are those that reached 70% of our maximum score. Special congratulations go to top scorers Meriter-UnityPoint Health and CUNA Mutual Group.

We will continue to revise our Best Company survey to reflect best practices and feedback, and we ask organizations interested in the 2015 presentation to wait until Jan. 2, 2015, to fill out the revised survey on

Best Companies to Work For

An alphabetical list of the organizations that reached at least 70% of our maximum Best Company score.

■ CUNA Mutual Group
■ Electronic Theatre Controls
■ Epic
■ Exact Sciences Corp.
■ Fiskars
■ Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. & Affiliates
■ Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin
■ M3 Insurance
■ Madison College
■ Mead & Hunt
■ Meriter-UnityPoint Health
■ National Guardian Life Insurance Co.
■ Perkins Coie LLP
■ QPS Employment Group
■ Research Products Corp. (Aprilaire)
■ Roche NimbleGen
■ Royle Printing
■ Stafford Rosenbaum
■ Strategic Brand Marketing
■ Suttle-Straus
■ TDS Telecom
■ Terso Solutions
■ Tri-North Builders
■ Turville Bay MRI & Radiation Oncology Center
■ Valicom Corp.
■ WEA Trust
■ Widen Enterprises

Meriter-UnityPoint Health: Mad About Madison

As an employer, Meriter-UnityPoint Health is in an enviable position. When it comes to attracting and retaining employees, its special advantage is Madison’s status as the type of community that medical professionals want to be a part of. Even with the need to take cost out of the care business and the top-line pressure that comes with a low-reimbursement environment, Meriter-UnityPoint has little difficulty attracting and retaining employees with the skills it needs, says Dr. Geoff Priest, Meriter’s interim president and chief medical officer.

Investing in the ongoing development of medical talent like the professionals shown here in Meriter-UnityPoint Health’s Monona Clinic is one of the practices that helped make Meriter this year’s top-scoring “Best Company.”

“I think we’re fortunate because Madison is a great place to work and live,” says Priest. “Other health care systems across the country have reported difficulty with attracting and retaining nurses and other qualified technical staff. We’ve been very fortunate because we’re in Madison, and that helps us attract all the talent we need.”

In building a benefits package, Meriter cannot rely solely on Madison’s status as a “best community” that is highly ranked in multiple quality-of-life measures. That’s because it has to compete with local hospitals to be a best company within the community. Due in part to this competitive pressure, Meriter did not find it particularly challenging to meet the ACA’s employer mandate.

Most of the structural elements, and a good number of the things that insurance companies are now required to offer in their insurance plans, were already in place here. As a result, the organization recorded one of the highest scores on the health insurance, dental insurance, and wellness portions of the Best Company survey.

Priest credits the level of beneficial competition between various local health care systems, which motivates each entity to keep a sharp eye on both clinical and business performance. He concedes that local hospitals still have a ways to go to become more efficient and add more value, but he also thinks Madison is further along than other markets.
“Madison is actually an interesting case study in how health insurance can work and, believe it or not, be more affordable than it is in some other places.”

Actually, a great deal of the credit goes to local institutions of higher learning. The young medical talent produced by UW-Madison, Edgewood College, and Madison College is one of several reasons the health care industry is so strong here, but building a community that people flock to is not just the responsibility of elected officials. It’s something employers must take on as well, and that’s another area where Priest counts his lucky stars, because given the care ethic of medical professionals, it’s easy to get them involved with the philanthropic efforts associated with the Meriter Foundation.

Count Priest among those who believe that corporate altruism, and its influence on fringe benefits such as paid time off for community service, are no longer “nice-to-haves” but “must-haves.” All three of Madison’s hospitals have a strong community mission, and Meriter’s three main philanthropic areas are aligned with its care mission: diabetes, because it’s so far-reaching and has such profound effects; behavioral health, which is part of the mission of Meriter’s child and adolescent facility and its addiction medicine services; and women’s health because Meriter is the largest provider of obstetrical services in the state.

“The people who work in health care generally are highly motivated to be of service to others,” Priest noted, “and I would say that seems to be true across my whole career, from when I went into health care through today. I [recently] oriented a new group of employees, and they’re all cut from the same cloth.”

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, health care organizations are operating in a stressed environment, but Priest isn’t complaining because the law is bringing some overdue changes in the way larger health care systems are structured. Meriter’s 2013 consolidation with the West Des Moines-based UnityPoint Health is a case in point, and Priest believes real cost benefits will materialize over time.

While Meriter is now part of a larger system, Priest is quick to note that it remains a nonprofit, community-based hospital. Nothing was expected to change in terms of Meriter’s governance structure, but with more resources at its disposal as well as similar facilities with which to share best practices and technological capabilities, change is inevitable.

Much of it will be positive.  When it comes to replacing retiring baby boomers, health care has the same concerns as other industries, perhaps more so. Not only has Meriter invested in professional development to keep up with the constant churn of new medical knowledge, the organization also is mindful of the need to archive the knowledge that’s about to depart. The hospital has provided reimbursement for professional development and worker training, but programs for both internal talent development and leadership development are another advantage of partnering with a larger entity like UnityPoint.

“There is so much knowledge that’s in the heads of all the people who work here, not just knowledge about [business and clinical] processes and how they work, but technical knowledge about health care,” Priest noted. “Many of the people who work in health care have gone through long periods of training to get here.”



Terso Solutions: Taking Inventory

When you’re operating in the competitive technology sector and you must find the skill sets you need, it helps to operate in the growing technology cluster that Madison is working to develop. And when you offer a long-overdue solution to a problem that has bedeviled an industry under duress, the workforce development stakes are high. Joe Pleshek, president and CEO of Terso Solutions, runs such a company, and that’s why he’s put a great deal of thought into the company’s benefits package.

Thumbs up to Joe Pleshek (front right) and his staff at Terso Solutions for crafting a benefits package that competes in Madison’s hot IT sector. 

As a small employer, Terso Solutions is not subject to the ACA’s employer mandate, but the pressure to provide a good benefits package comes from another source. Terso employs 29 people, 26 of them in Madison and three in a subsidiary in Mannheim, Germany. It might be a small workforce, but it’s a broad one because the information technology-centric company has both mechanical and electrical engineers as well as people who assemble hardware in a manufacturing capacity, and it places a major emphasis on software development and software engineering.
Pleshek notes that these roles, particularly IT roles, are highly sought after, but Terso is competing for talent with many well-known technology firms in Greater Madison. It must therefore be competitive in terms of salary and benefits in a high-paying sector while creating the right culture to attract and retain employees with the skills it needs.

Given the company’s modest size, Terso Solutions’ score on the health care portion of the Best Company survey was very impressive, but its perfect score in the wellness category is what really set it apart from other small companies. Terso doesn’t have a cafeteria or a café at its facility, but the company brings in fresh fruit on a weekly basis, and it’s free for employees to snack on. Once per month, it offers a catered, healthy lunch, and it has brought in a nutritionist to conduct a seminar on healthy eating. The company offers employees the chance to work with her, free of charge, on an initial consultation, and then it’s pay as you go from there.

Terso Solutions also provides Fitbits to employees to help them monitor the number of steps they take, and it has arranged some fitness challenges around that.

The company’s focus on wellness and the basics of living a healthy life isn’t prohibitively expensive, and Pleshek sees cost benefits from the investment. “From a wellness perspective, with the Affordable Care Act and all the things that are happening with helping to educate people on the changes that are happening in health care costs, if you are living a healthier life you are probably going to pay less for health care in some way,” he stated. “If you are not, you are probably going to pay more.”

The willingness of U.S. hospitals to pay more for inventory is the reason Terso Solutions was founded. The company provides automated inventory management products for tracking high-value medical and scientific products in health care and life sciences. The company has deployed more than 1,400 RFID-enabled cabinets, freezers, and refrigerators around the world, and business continues to be good, with hospitals, medical device companies, and other health care industry players trying to remove costs from their systems in a low-reimbursement environment. Better inventory management could play a role in removing those costs.

“What has happened in the past, and rightly so, is that being out of stock of a high-value medical product was not acceptable,” Pleshek said. “It just can’t happen from a patient safety perspective. So the old way of doing things has been just to overstock hospitals and clinics with inventory to ensure that nothing runs out of stock.”

Hospital nursing staffs have traditionally tracked and counted this inventory manually. Nurses have devoted precious time to counting inventory and making sure none of the products are past their expiration dates. “Our solution is being looked at as a way to automate those processes and to bring visibility to the inventory on hand, and what’s just been consumed, so that you can put less inventory in the supply chain, thus reducing a lot of cost and then just saving people time, especially nursing staff,” Pleshek explained.

When it comes to employee attraction and retention, Pleshek believes time is better spent on one-on-one professional development. To stretch employees professionally and expose them to different areas of the business, the company gives them projects that might be out of their comfort zone. As a result, Pleshek has seen employees not only grow professionally but also grow in value to the company.

With health care transformation driving a real growth opportunity for Terso Solutions, the company expects enough growth to add staff. Without its approach to employee benefits, Pleshek noted that it might have been impossible for Terso to have approved an expansion plan to add 10 positions across the organization in the next 12 months.

“This is why it’s so important to have good benefits and an overall program because as you grow, it’s all about finding and retaining good talent that wants to be part of a growth organization.” 



Research Products Corp.: We Are Family

Larry Olsen doesn’t only sell products designed to make the home environment comfortable, he sells something that helped make Research Products Corp. one of the top scorers in this year’s Best Company survey.

With the help of RPC’s benefits program, CEO Larry Olson (front row, second from left) has created a (big) family atmosphere.

It’s not unusual for the spouses of retired employees to thank Olsen, the company’s president and CEO, for that environment. But when a company offers retired workers a chance to stay connected socially, as Research Products Corp. does with the monthly breakfasts and annual parties of its 25-Year Club, it’s going to build workforce loyalty.

“We really sell the culture,” Olsen says, and apparently more than 300 employees have bought in. The company, which last year celebrated its 75th anniversary, has attracted employees who previously worked for the likes of Kohler, Honeywell, and Trane. Olsen notes that these prominent employers are no slouches when it comes to providing generous fringe benefits, and he credits Research Products Corp.’s culture and family-type atmosphere, where “pretty much everybody knows everybody,” for the company’s ability to attract talent.

Based on its high score in the Best Company health insurance category, pretty much everyone has top-flight medical benefits — Affordable Care Act platinum-level benefits, according to Olsen. As an employer with well over 50 employees, the company is subject to the ACA’s employer mandate to either provide medical benefits or pay a tax. The latter would mean that employees would have to shop for insurance on the health care exchanges established by the law, something Olsen says was never considered. “Frankly, the way we approach heath care is that we want to be good consumers of health care, and we’ve provided a lot of education and support,” he noted.

That support includes RPC’s Health Matters initiative, for which the company brought on board a health educator — a permanent member of the workforce who, according to Olsen, took a good wellness program and sent it into “hyperdrive.” Research Products’ wellness plan not only features a gym membership but actually allows employees to use it three days a week during the noon hour — if they go over that time allotment during these lunch workouts, it’s okay. Add “lunch and learns” in which employees are taught to cook in a healthier fashion, the sponsorship of cancer walks, and CSA (community supported agriculture) subscriptions, and you have a comprehensive approach.

With CSAs, healthier food options are provided to employees who want to receive locally grown fruits, vegetables, meat, and eggs, etc. The company also has multi-grain bread delivered for participating employees from nearby Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse.

The purpose of these initiatives is simply to be more proactive in improving key biometrics for blood pressure, glucose, and weight loss, and others have taken notice. For its efforts in health education and wellness, the company has been designated a “Workplace Superstar” by the Institute for HealthCare Consumerism.

With large numbers of baby boomers set to retire, professional development to train the next-generation workforce is a focus of many employers, and Research Products Corp. is no different. Olsen traveled this road 15 years ago, and he admitted the company did not do a good job dealing with a wave of retirements. This time he’s ready to capture a lifetime of working knowledge and transmit it to younger staffers — before it walks out the door.

Like many companies, Research Products Corp. has a set of processes that define the business. Much of its training is done on the job, especially for processes that are unique to the company. One example is the splitting or expansion of substrates like aluminum, paper, and plastic, and the knife patterns involved with those procedures. The knife patterns influence efficiency, holding capacity, and resistance to airflow, and the company wants to make sure this knowledge is documented rather than simply archived in someone’s brain.

“We are putting in place a number of programs that cross-train, but extraction is even more important than cross-training,” Olsen stated. “There is so much inside the head of somebody that has been here for 30 years that we’re putting programs in place two or three years ahead [of their departure] to understand and capture what they know.” 



Turville Bay: Just the Right Dose

As a health care executive, Barbara Thiermann, executive director of Turville Bay MRI & Radiation Oncology Center, can relate to what hospitals and health care systems are going through in a low-reimbursement environment. She faces some of the very same challenges when it comes to finding efficiencies and removing cost, which is appropriate because Turville Bay was established with expense in mind.

Barb Thiermann (standing, center) and members of her Turville Bay workforce.

The MRI diagnostic imaging and radiation oncology cancer treatment center was launched in the 1980s in a joint venture between St. Mary’s and Meriter Hospitals, which pooled their resources because of the expense of providing imaging technology. Today, Turville Bay and the Carbone Center, which serves UW Health patients, are the only two radiation oncology departments in the city.

As a business with 70-plus employees, Turville Bay is subject to the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, but there was never a question about whether the center would continue to offer medical insurance benefits. As a joint venture between two hospitals, Turville Bay tries to align its benefits with those of its two “parents.”

“We try to mirror our benefits to our owners, because that’s really the responsible thing to do,” Thiermann stated. “Would it be fair if Turville Bay employees only paid x-amount for their premiums, when employees at our owner centers are paying more? We really try to align our benefits with both hospitals, so going into accountable care [status], we kept hearing around our table about ‘what’s St. Mary’s doing? What’s Meriter doing?’”

One thing Turville Bay looked at was the average number of hours that employees are working. The facility has never had a lot of part-time workers, and it once offered benefits to people who worked at least 50% of the time. Remaining part-timers have simply been grandfathered into the benefits program until they are ready to retire, but the facility won’t hire anybody new for less than 30 hours a week because it just doesn’t fit its business model.

“We changed that a few years back, and then with the ACA, as with a lot of employers, we’ve just taken a stance that if you work   30 hours or more, we’re offering benefits,” Thiermann said. “If you’re working less than 30 hours, we’re not offering benefits, but then we also really don’t have any positions within the clinic where we would need a part-time individual. So our employees all work 75% and above because with our MRI business, it’s a 24/7 business where we’ve got employees covering at the hospital.”

An employee-referral program compensates workers if they refer someone to Turville Bay and the clinic hires them. “It’s not a large amount of money, but it’s really nice to see employees referring people to Turville Bay because they believe in where they work, and they like where they work,” Thiermann said.

The ACA has incentivized health care organizations to control their costs while providing quality care. For radiation oncology, that’s not an issue because when someone has cancer, they need treatment. It’s a different matter on the MRI side because now these expensive procedures must be preauthorized by insurers. Scrutinizing this expensive technology is nothing new, but increased scrutiny is something Turville Bay management is watching very closely.

“I’m trying to plan and budget around that,” Thiermann noted. “There is a lot of uncertainty because every year Medicare comes back and says, ‘Okay, we’re going to pay you less,’ and advanced imaging seems to take the hit on that. It’s one of those things where we watch our volumes very closely. We watch our staffing and our productivity, and we’ll adjust as we need to adjust.”

Adjusting is important because as the volume of MRI procedures declines, professional development on increasingly sophisticated machines will remain a big investment. Radiation therapists who apply treatment typically come trained from school, but for advanced degrees and certifications, continuing education is required, which Turville Bay helps pay for. For MRI technicians, there is no specific technology program, so new technicians typically are hired out of radiology school and are mentored by senior technicians.

While there have been some education cutbacks, “we’re very supportive because we want our employees to be on the cutting edge and know what’s going on and what’s changing, especially with radiation oncology,” Thiermann said. “The technology is changing every day, and as procedures change and we implement new technologies here, it’s one thing to buy this advanced imaging, it’s another thing to be able to use it.”

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