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Top Workplaces: Three companies that hear their employees

Spoor Bunch Franz, The Oaks of Clearwater and the TradeWinds Resort all scored well in the Top Workplaces survey when employees talked about the companies’ internal communication.

Good companies listen to their employees, and three companies in this year’s Top Workplaces survey show that good listening does not come about by chance.

St. Petersburg accounting firm Spoor Bunch Franz, retirement and assisted living community The Oaks of Clearwater, and the TradeWinds Islands Grand Resort on St. Pete Beach all stood out when employees responded to separate but similar questions that teased out details about the bottom-up communication at each company.

Read more: Check out the top large workplace of 2020

For Spoor Bunch Franz, the question was, “How are new ideas encouraged at this company?”

For The Oaks of Clearwater, it was, “How does your manager show they care about your concerns?”

For the TradeWinds, it was, “What do senior managers do to show they know what’s really going on?”

Here’s a look at how each company works to set the stage for meaningful conversation.

Spoor Bunch Franz

Robert Schaefer thought his colleagues needed to know more about cryptocurrency.

Nancy Fitzgibbons wanted to learn more about trusts and estates — and she thought it would be cool if the company had a team in a local sports league.

At Spoor Bunch Franz, all each had to do was mention their idea to one of the firm’s three partners. Schaefer ended up giving a couple of talks on cryptocurrency to the firm’s two main working groups. Fitzgibbons got some focused mentoring and work in the area where she wanted to gain proficiency.

And the company soon fielded a kickball team.

“I said, you know, it’s really important that we all know about this,” said Schaefer, 30, a senior tax associate who has been with the firm for more than seven years. It was partly because he had done a bunch of research on his own and partly because the IRS had just come out with new guidance for taxpayers engaged in transactions involving virtual currency. Partner W.G. Spoor II said, “Great. What do you want to do?”

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That kind of response, plus the chance to develop understanding in a new field, Schaefer said, "makes you understand that you can come up with more ideas.”

Once she decided she wanted to learn more about trusts and estates, Fitzgibbons mentioned the idea to a more experienced colleague who is a mentor, who suggested she talk to Schaefer, then made an appointment with partner Rich Franz. Right after she talked to him, he sent an email to managers asking them to help allocate her workload so that she could gain experience in the area that intrigued her.

Nancy Fitzgibbons is a certified public accountant at Spoors Bunch Franz in St. Petersburg. [ Spoor Bunch Franz ]

“I feel like I can go to Steve (Bunch) or W.G. or Rich for anything,” said Fitzgibbons, 26, a certified public accountant who has been at the firm about two and half years. “They say anytime, anything.”

Read more: Check out the top small workplace of 2020

Franz said that’s intentional, and it starts with a tone at the top, but for several reasons. For one, he said he and his partners don’t have time to micromanage the firm, “nor do we want to,” so to have the firm work the way they want, “we have to have our people involved in the process.”

Also, he said, “in order to attract and retain quality people you have to give them the ability to have a seat at the table and genuinely feel that their input is valued in the company.”

The firm cultivates this in a number of ways, starting with its on-boarding process, but also convening groups a few times a year for focused discussion on a single topic (“How did it go in busy season?”) and having a new employee committee that meets quarterly to sound out recent hires on what they’re noticing.

“When we bring somebody new in from day one, we’re asking them super regularly, how’s it going? What’s your experience been like here so far? Are there any challenges that we can help you (with) and help in your learning process?" said Jessica Espaillat, the firm’s relationship manager. “We basically beg people to talk to us about how it’s going.”

Jessica Espaillat is the relationship manager at Spoor Bunch Franz in St. Petersburg. [ Spoor Bunch Franz ]

Spoor Bunch Franz was created four years ago through the merger of two smaller firms in St. Petersburg and Clearwater and now has 50 area employees. Soon after the merger, the partners realized that different people had different processes for getting things done based on where they had worked before. Instead of imposing a process to maximize client service, they drafted people who were good at it to draft a document that included all the steps.

“In my opinion, allowing our employees to develop the process got us buy-in to the process immediately,” Franz said.

The Oaks of Clearwater

Interesting thing about the managers at The Oaks of Clearwater, a retirement community and assisted living facility with about 300 residents and 165 employees: A good number of them started with the company at the bottom.

The executive director? Started as a certified nursing assistant giving the most basic care to patients.

The human resources director? Certified nursing assistant.

The marketing director? A dining room server.

That gives them insights into things important to the business — like which staffer to talk to in order to improve the delivery of a patient’s care — as well as things important to the staff, like do the vending machines have enough teas and breakfast items.

Sheila Stephens, a longtime team member at The Oaks of Clearwater, started as a certified nursing assistant and now works in medical records. (The Oaks of Clearwater) [ The Oaks of Clearwater ]

“There’s several of us that’s been here about 30 years, and so, of course, we’re like family,” said Sheila Stephens, 64, who started as, you guessed it, a certified nursing assistant. Now she’s a medical records clerk, but she’s all over the facility, from the front desk to the dining room to the bingo games. That puts her in a position to hear things that need attention and speak to the people, both in and out of management, best suited to address them.

“The philosophy here is definitely growth and development from within," said executive director Fran Davis, who worked with Stephens as certified nursing assistants when they were first starting at The Oaks. “A big part of that is, what is your goal, and how can we help you achieve that?"

The Oaks of Clearwater executive director Fran Davis started as a certified nursing assistant at the waterfront retirement community and assisted living facility. (The Oaks of Clearwater) [ The Oaks of Clearwater ]

Marketing director Michael Davis also gives credit to David Jones, a former executive director and a vice president of TJM Properties, which owns the community, for helping to create a workplace culture that prizes employee ideas.

“He would always say he doesn’t want employees to check their brains at the door,” Davis said. “He wants people to think and use their mind and not just assume what he would want in every situation. So he values kind of our spin on things.”

Safety meetings, for example, draw on the observations of front-line employees who know the building in minute detail.

“We’re all kind of taught as managers that the employees, the line staff, are the ones who are the closest to the problem so they’re the ones with the best info,” Davis said. For employees, having managers who have done their jobs helps because “they’re going to understand what you’re saying versus talking to, like, a suit or somebody that’s never been in there.”

TradeWinds Islands Grand Resort

Asked what senior managers at the TradeWinds Resort do to show that they know what’s going on, one employee in the Top Workplace survey said, “they walk around and talk to us everyday to make sure we’re doing okay.”

So when activities supervisor Kiyonna McFrazier ended up with a bunch of flower pots from a kids craft activity that didn’t quite click, she felt comfortable proposing an idea for a different craft that would put them to use.

And when she had a problem with the sound system she used for a daily activity called the poolside invasion — think swim races or cannonball contests — her bosses got it fixed quickly “because they want us to be able to give our guests that top-notch experience without any, you know, hiccups.”

Activities supervisor Kiyonna McFrazier sets up a cotton candy maker in preparation for a morning kid's camp at the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Like the survey said, part of that communication comes from bosses being visible. "They’re always walking around, stopping and talking with us,” McFrazier said. But she said it also helps to have an app, called the TradeWinds Way, the company uses to communicate with employees on everything from answering questions on what they need to know about Red Tide to sharing photos from around the resort to offering tips on how to prepare for tropical storms.

'Something good or bad happens, everybody’s kind of linked together," she said. “So I think they are really perceptive to what’s going on with us.”

The app helps, especially with a staff of nearly 950, TradeWinds vice president of human resources Glenn Willocks said. Still, nothing replaces face-to-face contact, he said, and the TradeWinds also has the luxury of being a single-site workplace.

‘If I want to go talk to a chef, I just go talk to the chef," Willocks said.

Another key is to hire for the culture you want to create, as opposed to the particular job.

“We talk a lot about having a passion for hospitality, because there is frankly nothing in our industry that cannot be taught,” he said. “Everything can be learned. But unless you have a passion for what you do, unless you really want to serve others in guest services, you’re not going to be successful.”

TradeWinds Island Grand Resort vice president of human resources Glenn Willocks. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Special Award Winners

Here are the Top Workplaces that earned special recognition based on employee comments.


Stu Sjouwerman, KnowBe4 (Large)

William Lombardo, Monin, Inc. (Midsize)

Land Mendelsohn, Vantagepoint AI (Small)


Equinix, Inc. (Midsize)


The Oaks of Clearwater (Midsize)

New Ideas:

Spoor Bunch Franz (Small)


Precision Garage Door of Tampa


Grow Financial Federal Credit Union (Large)

Clued in Senior Management:

TradeWinds Island Resort (Large)


Senior Connection Center, Inc.


DITEK Corp (Small)

Work/Life Flexibility:

Parallon - Tampa Shared Services (Large)


Power Design, Inc.