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Compassion, communication and clued-in execs make these places special

Robbins Property Associates, a Tampa Bay top workplace, received accolades from its employees for its ability to make them feel appreciated. One way managers show they care is by hosting a yearly employee appreciation week. Robbins manages the WatersPointe property site in South Pasadena. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Apr. 6, 2018

The doctors had prepared Letha Imboden for the worst.

Her husband, Robert, diagnosed with a brain tumor, would need a delicate surgery. The outcome was uncertain. If he survived, he would require a long recuperation.

Imboden struggled just weeks before Christmas in 2010 with a thousand details, among them how much information to share with her three young children. One thing she didn't worry about was her job as an administrative assistant at Center Academy in Pinellas Park.

"There was never a thought in my mind about that," said Imboden, whose husband made a full recovery. "Whenever I've needed anything at work, someone has always stepped in and helped out."

Imboden's experience was dramatic, but she's not the only Center Academy employee who's been impacted by director Neall Jones' insistence that "family is the most important part of anyone's life."

Her praise and that of her colleagues earned the small private school, founded nearly 50 years ago, a special award recognition above and beyond its Top Workplace rank among small businesses.

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For Center Academy chief executive officer Andrew Hicks, being compassionate is a virtue in itself, but it also makes good business sense.

"We know that valuing the importance of work-life balance and providing people the chance to spend time with their families helps them to be more productive," Hicks said.

He and Jones offer the school's teachers enough support so they rarely have to take work home with them. They encourage teachers to disengage from email when they're on vacation. And their open door policy ensures they stay apprised of both the professional and personal status of their employees.

Center Academy was one of 15 businesses in 13 categories, including ethics, benefits and communication, singled out this year for what they do extremely well. Special award recipients were chosen based on standout scores for employee responses to specific survey questions.

KnowBe4, a security awareness company that teaches businesses how to avoid getting ensnared by hackers, earned kudos in the leadership category for its founder and CEO, serial entrepreneur Stu Sjouwerman. Overall, the Clearwater-based firm ranked second among midsize businesses in this year's Top Workplace contest.

Sjouwerman has grown KnowBe4, his fifth startup, to 450 employees since 2010 — 241 in the past 12 months — with annual revenues of $62 million. Posting a year-over-year sales increase of 255 percent for fourth quarter 2017, the company now boasts more than 16,500 customer accounts.

Sjouwerman's leadership philosophy is simple: Treat every employee like an owner. The logical extension of that idea, he says, is to provide everyone with enough information to make the best possible decisions for the company's future.

"I'm frequently accused of being an unusual CEO because I generally let people know things other CEOs don't," Sjouwerman said. "You could say it's kind of a buzz word, but we like to practice what I call radical openness here."

Marsha Jones, who joined KnowBe4 as a lead generator in October, views her boss' mandatory 9 a.m., all-hands-on-deck "stand-up" meeting as a clear call to action.

"We have a ton of fun here, but we're ultimately focused on the vision that leadership delivers each morning," Jones said.

Employees across Tampa-based Robbins Property Associates' six locations lauded the company for showing appreciation for a job well done.

Coming in at No. 6 among small businesses on this year's Top Workplace list, the property management company nearly doubled in size in 2017, expanding its acquisitions to 60 apartment home communities in six states.

Despite its phenomenal growth since its founding in 2009, Robbins' management team remains committed to showing how much it values those responsible for its success, said property manager Sandy Schuele.

"Employees who feel appreciated are happy employees," Schuele said. "And when you have happy employees, you have happy residents."

Managers like Schuele reward employees with annual appreciation weeks, one for office workers and one for maintenance crews. The celebrations feature gift cards, catered breakfasts and lunches at area restaurants.

When employees have an especially good month —work orders completed ahead of schedule, compliments delivered from residents —- Schuele takes them aside and tells them she values their efforts.

Robbins employee Maximo Calderon enjoys the special recognitions during the year, including getting his birthday off with pay, but said there's a gesture he appreciates even more.

"They promoted me from maintenance technician to assistant supervisor to supervisor in five years," Calderon said. "Every time I've been promoted, I've gotten a raise."

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