TOP WORKPLACES

This year's list of Top Workplaces is a special group

I can easily get used to this annual Top Workplaces survey. In the past month, it's let me visit some cool, disciplined, visionary, entertaining and sometimes very countercultural companies throughout the Tampa Bay area. Some I knew a bit about and learned more. Many are new to me. They all make up the Top 70 Workplaces 2011 presented in this section. • The 70 are a salute to the depth, diversity and richness of Tampa Bay's increasingly complex business scene. They are a mix of publicly traded companies based here and elsewhere, and many more private companies headquartered in this region, some with parent firms in other states and even other countries.

I urge your careful review of this section. Employers will gain insights into what makes good workplaces even better. Take away what works for your operation. You'll need every edge as Tampa Bay and Florida crawl out of this recession and find the business world is getting more competitive than ever.

Employees, too, can learn which businesses — identified by their own workers — really have their workplace acts together. No less important, workers may get a feel for the types of attitudes, skill sets and gumption that top workplaces look for when they hire.

Do you possess these traits? Can you thrive in one of these Top Workplaces?

Every one of these companies profiled in this section boast several things in common. They have powerful workplace cultures. They know who they are and what they are trying to do. Does that sound like a cliche? Perhaps. But in my 20 years at this newspaper, I've visited plenty of companies that simply drone along, trying to lip-synch some pop management mumbo-jumbo, but are hesitant or afraid to push the envelope of opportunity. The next time you check on those firms, they are diminished, losing business and good workers, absorbed into a stronger competitor or simply gone.

You snooze, you lose.

Top Workplace companies have strong, focused and usually approachable leaders. They tend to push their workers hard, demand high quality and make darn sure everyone has a decent amount of fun in the process.

In this Top Workplace section, you will find a CSI-like company whose unofficial mascot is Gumby (every employee gets one) as a tribute to flexibility. You'll find a 76-year-old managing attorney whose 3-year-old firm celebrates courtroom victories by sounding an office gong. You'll learn who makes a living feeding a 35-pound octopus named Hector, what company last fall helped discover water on the moon, and which RV business found that mutual sacrifice amid Florida's most pressing recession actually forged the bonds of survival and recovery.

Let's not forget the company whose employee of the month gets to spend 30 seconds grabbing whirling bills in its famous cash machine. That story's here, too.

You'll meet one worker who's met Tony Bennett, Naomi Judd and Gregory Hines. And you'll read about three executives who were named the top leaders, respectively, among the large, midsize and small companies represented here.

One of the three top leaders is Terri Osteen. She runs the Spring Hill senior living facility called the Residence at Timber Pines as if it is one part four-star hotel and one part her own home. The place even has its own house dogs, shih tzus called Timber and Patch, for the seniors and staff to enjoy.

I mention Osteen not only because she is one of a few female leaders in the Top Workplace rankings, but because she struck me as especially dedicated, intense and surrounded by a loyal staff. Osteen says she looks for the "right stuff" people to hire 24/7. She does not wait for them to come to her. And by the way, those with tattoos or piercings need not apply. In a facility of seniors, that doesn't cut it.

Consider the range of Top 70 Workplaces — from the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay and the Bank of Tampa to insurers New York Life, American Strategic Insurance and Bouchard Insurance in Clearwater. The workplaces of two big public companies, Raymond James Financial and HSN, made the list, as did Tampa heavyweight Moffitt Cancer Center and new-to-the-ranking Universal Health Care in St. Petersburg.

Tampa air-conditioning experts Tampa Bay Trane and Air Rescue Air Conditioning made the list, as did Tampa beverage maker Nestle Professional Vitality and wireless communications giant T-Mobile (being acquired by AT&T for $39 billion).

By no means can I skip some of Tampa's technology companies, from online learning business VectorLearning, run by tech veteran Tom Wallace, to imaging software firm Accusoft Pegasus. Technology integration firm Connect­Wise is still run by two brothers, founders David and Arnie Bellini, who both attended Tampa high schools and Florida universities. Their firm has such a fun-lovin' YouTube video of its workplace staff hamming it up to Pump It! that it's worth sharing the Web address: tinyurl.com/4mr7a86.

That's not a bad recruitment tool. Neither is ConnectWise's daily free catered lunch.

In last year's Top Workplace rankings, our inaugural survey, the impact of the Great Recession was much more front and center on people's minds. Companies were still catching their breath, glad to still be alive and functional. Employees were happy just to be part of strong workplaces that had good support systems and survival instincts.

A year later, the recession has receded a bit. As hiring slowly gathers steam, many Top Workplace companies say they are as keen as ever to retain their best workers. Most of these businesses pride themselves on low turnover.

Two of the private schools on the list use books to bolster the workplace culture. St. Mary's Episcopal Day School says its entire faculty last summer read The Fred Factor, a book about a mailman who goes the extra mile for the people on his route, and how passion for work can turn into something extraordinary. Another school, Carrollwood Country Day, built a workplace theme around a Kathryn Otoshi book about how one person can make a difference against bullying.

Keeping workers motivated means they are less likely to jump ship and more likely to be strong contributors. At USAmeri­Bank, employees own 15 percent of the bank. Tampa Bay Trane emphasizes lots of training opportunities so workers can add skills and earn more. At Esurance, employees vote on which local nonprofit receives a $5,000 grant. Universal Health Care provides workers and their spouses (or domestic partners) with a free gym membership.

Even the nonprofit Religious Community Services, a Clearwater food bank, tells the story of a man who showed up one day for the first time to get food for his family. Learning it was his 30th birthday, food bank workers had a birthday cake with candles lit for him before he left, as everyone there (including those waiting for food) sang Happy Birthday.

Top Workplaces come in all shapes and sizes. Thank goodness.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

This year's list of Top Workplaces is a special group 04/16/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 17, 2011 3:04am]

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