1. Business

Beyond perks of pizza and Ping-Pong, what really makes a workplace tops?

Published Apr. 11, 2014

It's tough to celebrate a top workplace if folks can't even decide what it means. "Best places to work" lists abound. Fortune magazine's version is heavy on pay and perks, this year naming Google its No. 1. Online jobs site Glassdoor picks Facebook as best in its "Employees' Choice" awards. Pollster Gallup's 2013 "Great Workplace" awards focus on companies best able to "engage" their employees.

We have our own thoughts about what makes a workplace tops. And it's not just about profits, free snacks and Ping-Pong tables.

It's a workplace where you want to get up and go to every day. It's where employees feel respected, energized, engaged and connected, know where the business is heading, and know how they are contributing to that mission. It is where workers are encouraged to be innovative and offer better ways to make things happen.

Sound too good to be true?

Don't bet on it. Top workplaces are demanding and seek the best of their people. And employees stand ready to deliver. No survey is perfect. But I will argue that the bulk of top workplace firms here survived the wrenching recession better, hired more people lately and are more likely to prosper in the future than most other businesses.

The Tampa Bay Times compiled its fourth annual Top Workplaces ranking businesses in the Tampa Bay area with help from Workplace Dynamics. Competing firms, take note. Learn why these companies earned top workplace marks. Or just skip this section. And eat their dust.

Employees, pay attention. Is your company not one of the 100 top workplace firms? Is it likely your company would ever make this list? Is it time to change jobs?

This year's top 100 workplaces — ranked from nearly 35,000 employee surveys — boast plenty of mainstream businesses. An abundance of insurance, accounting and banking firms reminds us of the broad financial foundations in the Tampa Bay economy. Major hotel chains can claim workforces obviously pleased with their employers. Hospitals and health care firms are well represented, as are several private schools, a few law firms and, of course, a gaggle of real estate-related companies.

This year's three top workplace winners (large, midsize, small employee categories) all display passion and intensity in what they do. Consider:

• Large category winner (with 500 or mores employees in this region), Tampa credit union Grow Financial, wanted the simplest of mission statements, writes Times staff writer Jeff Harrington. It chose six empowering words: Be Bold. Be Great. Have Fun.

• Midsize winner (with 150-499 employees), Century 21 Beggins Enterprises of Apollo Beach, looms large this year as it has in all three past top workplace surveys. Times writer Drew Harwell quotes broker-boss Craig Beggins describing how he motivates 250 real estate sales agents: "We have a saying: 'The speed of the leader determines the pace of the pack.' I can't be down. Not with a bunch of salespeople relying on me."

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• Tops among small business workplaces (less than 150 employees) is the 7-year-old, boutique insurance and risk management firm BKS-Partners of Tampa. Times writer Susan Thurston captured the firm's commitment to employees through a rough recession. "Since day one, we have never not given raises,"' says one BKS partner. "We've never not paid bonuses. We have never not contributed to the 401(k)."

Some less typical top workplaces rally around a higher calling. Employees at phosphate mining and fertilizer giant Mosaic feel empowered by a product that helps grow the food that feeds the world. Budget-strapped Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, writes Times writer Curtis Krueger, reminds its staff that they protect the accused who can't afford legal representation and have no one else to help them.

The mission is crystal clear for 120 employees at Metropolitan Ministries. Tampa suffers one of the higher rates of homelessness in the country. Since the start of the recession and housing crash, Metropolitan Ministries has seen a 325 percent increase in requests for housing assistance.

This is the fourth year that I've tried to capture the core of a Top Workplace survey. In good economic times, making the Top Workplace list is commendable. Since first publishing the Tampa Bay Times Top Workplaces in 2010, when the regional jobless rate hovered near 12 percent, a better word for those making the annual lists is heroic. A few insights:

• Four major public companies based here made the list this year: Kforce, Jabil Circuit, Bloomin' Brands and Raymond James.

• St. Petersburg's Universal Health Care made the Top Workplaces in 2012 but stumbled and declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Maybe employees sensed something was wrong, because Universal did not make our 2013 list.

• Sometimes the small stuff can provide the big edge. As Times writer Jamal Thalji reports, the Tampa Airport Marriott operates by the "15-5 rule" that says any time visitors come within 15 feet, employees should acknowledge their presence by eye contact or a friendly nod. Within 5 feet? Employees should smile and say hello.

Don't underestimate this. An April Wall Street Journal story, noting giant McDonald's earnings woes, says the company is pushing hard to get its work force "to provide service with a smile."

Maybe McDonald's should ask Tampa Marriott event assistant Charmaine Kerr. "I learned it in all my years at Marriott," she told the Times. "A smile makes a difference."

Workplace Dynamics CEO Doug Claffey, who's worked with the Times and more than 30 other major newspapers nationwide in conducting regional workplace surveys, says a corporate culture, a message of values and even an emphasis on smiling can't simply be communicated by memo from a company's senior top executives. They have to mean it at the top, Claffey says, because employees will recognize what's fluff and what's real.

Claffey calls it "authenticity." And it can put the word top back in front of workplace.

Contact Robert Trigaux at