Greater Madison's Best Companies to Work For

JC Rose Associates' employees strive to follow the example of company founder June Cora Rose.

In this issue, In Business proudly presents its first annual list of the “Best Companies to Work For.”

When evaluating employee recruitment and retention, there is no greater reflection of a company’s values than its employee benefits. So, for our inaugural  list, we placed all of the emphasis on employee benefits. In other words, this recognition is not about fancy facilities or buddy-buddy management.

All of the organizations certified by IB as a “Best Company” scored very highly in the health care section of the survey, where we measured commitment to individual and family coverage and spouse and domestic partner benefits, plus dental and vision insurance and the depth of wellness programs.

We also asked employers to provide information on their 401(k) plans and any profit sharing, child care (flex time), paid time off provisions, and benefits such as life and disability insurance, transportation reimbursement, and employee training and education.

Each category was assigned a certain number of points to reflect its importance in the overall employee benefits package. After scoring the surveys, we gave extra weight to small companies that scored highly with fewer resources.

Certified companies are divided into three categories: Gold (scoring 226 or better), Silver (scoring 200–225), and Bronze (scoring 175–199)

Inside, we describe the approaches our “Best Companies” use to take care of the people who take care of their customers.


# of Employees

CUNA Mutual Group


Stafford Rosenbaum, LLP


Tri-North Builders, Inc.



# of Employees

Aprilaire, a division of Research Products Corp.


Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP


CG Schmidt, Inc.


Fiskars Brands, Inc.


Gingras Cates & Luebke, S.C.


Mortenson Construction


M3 Insurance Solutions


Madison College


QPS Employment Group


Suttle-Straus, Inc.


Valicom Corp.


Widen Enterprises, Inc.


The Kosnick Financial Group/Northwestern Mutual


The QTI Group



# of Employees

Agrace HospiceCare


Creative Business Interiors


First Business Financial Services, Inc.


Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau


JC Rose Associates


Melius Schurr Cardwell & Raichle


Palmer Johnson Power Systems




Safe Bridge Solutions


Summit Credit Union


Temperature Systems, Inc.


Von Briesen & Roper, S.C.


Wegner CPAs


The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups



Tri-North Building the Top Score

In the construction industry, with its aging workforce and difficulty attracting young workers, it might be trite to say that benefits are more important for recruitment and retention than in other industries, but Thomas Thayer, president of Tri-North Builders, isn’t taking any chances.

“Benefits in any industry are important for recruitment, especially on the health insurance side and with disability coverage,” he noted. “In our industry, we’ve recently added some people, and benefits have been of major importance to them.”

Tri-North Builders had the highest score among all companies responding to IB’s Best Company survey, edging two other Gold-certified Best Companies – CUNA Mutual Group and the Stafford Rosenbaum Law Firm.

Tri-North, a construction management firm founded in 1981, concentrates on health care, hospitality, institutional, and retail construction in the United States and Canada. Its workforce level and sales volume took a hit during the recession, thanks largely to steep declines in market segments like retail. Staff-wise, the company is back to 65% of its 2007 workforce level – higher with supervisors in the field – and to 70% of its pre-recession sales volume.

“It was like night-and-day scary, like ‘what just happened?’” Thayer recalled.

If not for the industry’s emphasis on sustainable construction, things might have been worse. Yet even after completing millions of square feet of sustainable construction, including its own Gold LEED headquarters, there have been lost opportunities in green building. “A sad thing about the recession is that green building has taken a backseat for a lot of clients,” Thayer acknowledged. “Some view it as very important, but others have kind of pushed it aside.”

When the economy turned south in 2008, Tri-North reviewed its benefits package to evaluate it on a competitive basis. Like many employers, it had to increase health insurance copays and deductibles to reduce costs. The company also looked at how to improve areas like short- and long-term disability coverage. For the overall employee population, Thayer believes this is the next most important benefit, mainly because of an aging workforce. 

Another benefit that ranks highly with Tri-North employees is on-site daycare. Tri-North has offered on-site, state-licensed daycare since 1994, prior to the construction of its current headquarters, and it can offer the service to employees at 30% below market rates because it is simply trying to cover costs. To fill openings, it also serves families from outside the company, but they pay market rates.

Another reason Tri-North was certified as a Best Company is that 100% of its employees make the city of Madison’s living wage – $12.19 for 2013. If Tri-North wants to compete for city of Madison project work, it must meet this mandate, but given the competitive pressure for skilled labor, Thayer said Tri-North would have reached this average wage without a requirement. 

“I would say with large general contractors in the metro Madison area, there are competitive pressures to keep wages up, even at the administrative level,” he said. “We need to hire good people, and wages are part of that.”


Valicom Corp.: Expressing Values Via Benefits

In the view of Nancy Peckham, CEO and founder, Valicom Corp., offering an attractive employee benefits package has enabled the company to express its values and has resulted in tangible business benefits.

“We value health, well-being, and work-life balance for employees, and we wanted to have a benefits package that actually was in keeping with those values,” she explained. “We’ve really benefited from providing that kind of benefits package through high levels of productivity and operational excellence, high levels of client satisfaction, and being able to attract and retain good employees.”

With a staff of 14, Valicom is an example of a mid-sized (for our purposes) Madison business that scored highly on the Best Companies survey. Through online software, competitive bidding, contract negotiations, cost-reduction analysis, and audits, the firm provides telecommunications expense management services to clients. 

Peckham believes there are 1,001 ways in which firms pay too much for their voice, wireless, and data services – including charges for cellular phones or voice lines that people no longer use. “This is an age-old problem,” she stated. “With all the disparate billing systems that carriers have, a lot of times they don’t implement the types of discounts or plans that clients are supposed to have.”

In crafting its benefits package, Valicom works through the QTI Group, which helps hold down costs because member organizations are part of a larger pool, Peckham said.

After health insurance coverage, the employee benefit she believes is the most important is wellness. Among the wellness benefits Valicom provides is reimbursement for health club memberships. If an employee can demonstrate he or she has gone to a health club eight times a month, Valicom reimburses half of the monthly membership cost; if a staffer can demonstrate 15 monthly visits, the company reimburses the entire monthly cost.

Peckham believes there is both a productivity payoff and a bottom line return. “Our employees have been more productive, so we haven’t had to grow our staff as much,” she said. “We can take on a lot more business with the workforce we have.”

Since Peckham manages a knowledge-based company that develops online software – its solutions are offered on a software-as-a-service platform – compensation must befit that of a creative class organization. All of its 14 employees make more than Madison’s living wage, in part because of its focus on innovation. 

“The types of positions we have here are knowledge-based positions, and they demand that we pay competitive wages, which exceed the Madison living wage,” she noted. “One of our values is innovation, and with our solutions and our software, constant innovation is required.”

Whether knowledge-based or not, more workers want flexible work hours. Valicom offers telecommuting opportunities – not every day, but enough to provide coveted flexibility. As a result, the company has had employees with health problems work from home with the communications and technology tools they need. 

“If they are more comfortable and can be more productive at home, we provide for that,” Peckham said. “We benefit from that because we get to keep good employees.”


JC Rose Associates: Minding Mother Rose

For Barbara Schlaefer, owner-president of JC Rose Associates, being named an IB Best Company is especially gratifying, not only because it demonstrates that small companies can provide competitive benefits but because she’s in the business of reducing benefit costs for small to mid-sized clients. 

The insurance agency employs five people, and Schlaefer knows full well that smaller employers often want to provide better benefits for their employees but view those benefits as too expensive and hard to manage. “We are proof that it can be done, and it doesn’t have to be expensive,” she said. 

Schlaefer said many small employers are surprised to learn how inexpensive it is to add vision benefits – JC Rose paid about $2 per person to add its vision plan – and long-term disability. Many times, if the workplace is large enough, there is no need to go through an underwriting process. 

JC Rose serves clients by shopping the market, negotiating, designing benefits that make sense for their workforce, and keeping up with constant change. “To design a benefits package, you have to look at what employees want,” she counseled. “Normally, the number one thing they want is health insurance benefits, and since that’s also the most expensive benefit, that is where you need to concentrate the most.”

That’s especially true with the new health care law either one year away from full implementation or a few months away from being repealed, depending on the results of the national election. Aside from the law’s very existence, uncertainty reigns in several areas, including the slow pace of regulatory guidance. That will likely change after the votes are counted, but Schlaefer has advised clients to focus on what they know and plan for several different scenarios.

“People have always wanted to talk about health insurance and benefits, but now it’s a little different. The conversation is more along the lines of how do we react to this? What’s coming down the pike? How do we prepare? 

“Even though we don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s worth having a conversation about what could happen. It also depends on type of business. If it’s smaller, it won’t affect you that much. Larger businesses with a lot of part-time employees need to keep their ear to the ground.”

For Schlaefer, the recession provided an opportunity to heed her mother’s advice and not whine, but persevere. The company was named for June Cora Rose because she embodied all of the characteristics, particularly service to others, that Schlaefer wants her business to reflect when advising its stable of small and family-owned business clients.

So when JC Rose advises clients on their employee benefits packages, it does so with an eye toward helping a company accomplish its mission. “Your employee benefits package is really a reflection of the rest of your organization,” Schlaefer stated. “It’s not the only component for making a business a good place to work, but it’s definitely an indication of that.”


Employee Service = Customer Service

A headline-making labor dispute can cloud public perceptions, even for a company that had a good reputation. In 2004-05, CUNA Mutual Group was involved in negotiations with the union representing its professional employees, an imbroglio involving management missteps and the resignation of CEO Michael Kitchen. 

The dispute surprised many, given CUNA’s reputation as a company with generous employee benefits whose labor-management relations had rarely been out of kilter. Today, the company is led by CEO Jeff Post and is right on the heels of Tri-North Builders in terms of overall Best Company score. 

David Sargent, senior vice president of human resources for CUNA Mutual Group, doesn’t necessarily want to be perceived as “one of the richest benefit guys in town” because CUNA approaches employee benefits from a very different perspective – talent performance management. He said the company, which provides financial services to credit unions and their members, does a tremendous amount of work understanding customer needs and then providing employees with the technical and growth capability to support customers.

This ensures that over the long haul “employees not only understand our customers, they understand our business, the multiple parts of our business, and our ability to retain talented employees increases substantially,” he stated.

As proof, Sargent points to the average tenure of CUNA employees, which is a little more than 14 years. Perhaps CUNA Mutual Group’s best employee-retention weapon is the opportunity for staffers to engage in community service. The company has four major community outreach efforts to aid local nonprofits and offers employees paid time off to give back to the community.

Sargent has worked in much larger companies, and he’s never seen the likes of it. “I’ve been here for seven years now, having come from West Coast, and I can tell you there is a very unique culture in this business, a culture of service to customer and community,” he said. “You live and breathe that.”


Flexing Your Flex Time

An organization does not have to be based in Madison to be a Best Company – it simply has to conduct itself like one. Several “Best” employers made the list with headquarters outside of Madison, but with local offices here, and they have the advantage of a corporate headquarters establishing generous benefits.

For Mortenson Construction, that’s not enough. With business units in several geographic locations, including Madison and metro Milwaukee, HQ knows that to attract employees in different regions, it has to be flexible enough to tailor benefit packages that reflect local recruitment needs.

This might be difficult for Madisonians to digest, but not every metro area is big on the flexible work schedules afforded here. Mark Sherry, vice president of Wisconsin operations for Mortenson Construction, said Mortenson realizes that flex time helps the company build a talented staff.

Technological tools enable employees to access business systems from home, but the key is flexible scheduling. “I can’t speak for all markets, but I don’t have any other people on flex time other than the people in Madison,” Sherry said. “I believe it relieves them of stress in their lives and helps them accomplish multiple things.”

One of the beneficiaries is Alicia Dupies, who has the customer-facing role of director of project development and splits time between the Brookfield and Madison offices. A mother of three children who lives in Delafield, she has a 32-hour work schedule with Fridays off, and 24 hours during the summer months, when Wednesday typically is a vacation day.

This enables her to get home to shuttle her children to their after-school sports, and then make up for it on the “back end.” When the kids are put to bed, she will work another one to three hours on anything from calendar management to materials review to meeting planning.

“My family will always come first, but there are times and days that I can’t be there for them,” she acknowledged. “But 90% of the time, I am able to be there for them, based on our culture and work environment.”

Is Your Company One of the Best to Work For?

Greater Madison employers who want to nominate their organization's for IB's 2013 Best Companies presentation can visit As our introduction notes, our Best Companies evaluation is all about the employee benefits package, so come prepared. IB will score completed surveys throughout the year in anticipation of presenting another listing of gold-, silver-, and bronze-certified Best Companies in 2013.

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