On their game

11 companies have made the list for five straight years

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Being one of the best places to work in Virginia is an accomplishment. Remaining on the list for five straight years calls for a toast.

Since 2011, the year the Virginia Best Places list began, 11 companies have met the program’s stiff criteria year after year.

One of them is PadillaCRT of Richmond, a public relations and marketing firm.

When the company first made the list — as No. 1 in the small companies category — it was under a different name, CRT/tanaka.

In 2013, it was acquired by a Minneapolis public relations agency, to form one of the nation’s 10 largest independent PR firms.

Change is one of the certainties of corporate existence, and being able to adapt successfully to change is a key to survival — and to staying on the Best Places to Work list.

Giving millennials purpose
Mark Raper, president of PadillaCRT, says that understanding and accommodating the changing needs and worldviews of a youthful workforce has been critical to his company’s success.

“This is not a 60-year-old person’s game we play. Young, talented, youthful folks are the lifeline of our organization,” Raper explains. “The millennials really want us to help them make a difference with their lives. It’s all about adding purpose.”

One goal, Raper says, is for PadillaCRT’s employees to help each other become better people, as well as better professionals.

Nearly three-quarters of Padilla’s approximately 180 employees are female, and the company has focused on women’s needs as a priority.

Extended maternity packages, flexibility with work schedules and financial assistance for daycare are among the ways the company helps women employees. “We have young moms. We want them to stay,” Raper says.

Although some public relations and marketing firms favor an open floor plan or cubicles, PadillaCRT wants each of its employees to have an office, which they can paint and decorate any way they wish.

The firm wants to develop an environment that stokes a creative spark. The concept is carried over into the firm’s headquarters building, a former warehouse with a trolley inside.

Because many people spend more time with their colleagues at work than with their families, Raper says, it’s important to create a family atmosphere in the company.

It’s not unusual, he says, to see dogs or children in the halls. “I’m sure some of our clients scratch their heads before they get to know us better,” Raper says with a laugh.

“But we take client work seriously. We want our employees to expect greatness from one another,” he says, and clients should expect nothing less.

Profit sharing at Sheetz
Companies with headquarters in other states are big contributors to Virginia’s economy, and one perennial on the Best Places to Work list is Sheetz, the convenience-store operator whose headquarters is in Altoona, Pa.

The company has 16,000 employees and nearly 500 stores nationwide, with more than 1.5 million customers coming through the doors annually.

In Virginia, the company employs about 2,000 workers at 63 convenience stores. “Most people are surprised that we do almost $7 billion in sales a year,” says Earl Springer, manager of employee programs for Sheetz.

The family-operated business shares with its employees, returning about $46.8 million in profits to workers last year in the form of bonuses, an increase of approximately $5 million over the previous year. Employees also own about 9 percent of the company.

Part of the Sheetz culture is being active in the communities it serves, sponsoring hundreds of local sports teams and events.

Springer says that nearly two-thirds of the company’s employees are millennials, who bring high energy to the workplace and thrive on the company’s fast-paced environment. “They tell us that the stores are busy, and the day flies by,” he says.

Sheetz began as a dairy store in 1952 and didn’t add gasoline pumps to its mix until the early 1970s.

Springer says that the company is constantly changing because that’s what it needs to do to survive and compete. “Our vision,” he says, “is to create the Sheetz that puts this Sheetz out of business.”

The newest innovation of the company store is being built on the campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown — a Sheetz without gasoline pumps. “It’s all food, no fuel,” Springer says.

The 15,000-square-foot restaurant and grocery store — more than twice the size of a traditional Sheetz —  will be the ground-floor, anchor tenant in a university housing complex with nearly 1,000 students.

Springer said the same concept will be tried at other universities, such as Penn State.  “We do extremely well in college towns, in any size college town,” Springer says.
Back to the future
In 2007, Gary Lisota left a defense contracting company with 5,000 employees where he was CEO to start his own defense contracting business, Valkyrie Enterprises.

“I wanted to go back to the beginning,” Lisota says, expressing a desire to have a more personal contact with customers than he had in a large corporation and to once again help grow a company.

Since 2009, the number of employees at Valkyrie has nearly tripled, to 270, despite a slowdown in defense spending.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Valkyrie has made the best places to work list for five straight years is Lisota’s hiring philosophy. “I hire for life,” he says. By that he means looking for the very best employees he can find, then treating them so well they don’t want to leave.

Lisota says he was able to employ high-quality people from the beginning — some coming with him from his former company, AMSEC — and those initial employees have referred other “A-quality” workers. “Our niche is we can handle some tough engineering job, because of the quality of our personnel,” he says.

As part of his effort to get to know employees better, Lisota schedules regular “Drum Beat” meetings — conversations with a meal — which draw in workers operating out of far-flung sites.

He tells them where the company is in its journey and where he thinks it’s heading. Then, he asks for their ideas. “I don’t want our company just to be a name on a paycheck. I want people to feel they’re important to me and the organization,” Lisota says.

Although about 80 percent of the company’s employees are male, more than a third of executives are women. Lisota says his hiring decisions at either level have nothing to do with gender.

“We look for the best athlete,” he says, referring to a practice of many teams in the National Football League in picking the best players available regardless of position.

The company’s motto is: “We hire the best to be the best.”

Face-to-face emphasis
Another out-of-state firm that is ubiqu­itous in Virginia communities is Edward Jones, the financial services firm that focuses on financial products at an individual investor level.

Based in St. Louis, Edward Jones has 11,000 offices spread across the country. “The reason we have all these locations is so we can conduct business with our clients face-to-face,” says Bill Swanson, a financial adviser in Arlington and a regional leader for the company.

Swanson says training is an imperative at Edward Jones. That training includes structured, formal sessions at out-of-office locations.

But it also includes veteran employees volunteering to help those who are still learning the finer points of the business. “There is a culture and commitment to giving back,” he says of the mentoring program.

Swanson says Edward Jones draws its financial advisers from a wide swath of society — accountants, pastors, attorneys, teachers — and offers them a wealth of support to aid their clients.

No single adviser is expected nor required to be an expert on every stock, mutual fund or insurance product, Swanson says.

But Edward Jones has a stable of such experts just a phone call or key stroke away to help local financial advisers inform their local customers.

“At the end of the day, if you want your clients to do well and reach their financial goals — and you have the passion to do that — this is the place for you,” Swanson says.



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