How the Elite Meet

Sampling employee events at some of Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For

Engineers from Granite Construction
gathered for posterity
in front of a huge piece of
Caterpillar equipment

In a clip from The Office, the Golden Globe Awardwinning television comedy from BBC America, regional manager David Brent, played by Ricky Gervais, tells his subordinates that a pending merger brings with it some bad news and some good news. The bad news is, “Some of you will los.0e your jobs.” The good news is, “I’ve been promoted.” His staff stares at their manager with a mixture of loathing and disbelief. “You’re still thinking about the bad news, aren’t you?” he pouts.
    One imagines no such scenes play out in the offices of the firms that make Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. Organizations are chosen for this honor mostly by contented employees. One great recurring theme of these workplaces? A sensitivity to employees’ needs for recognition and bonding.
    For this year’s list, 46,526 randomly selected workers from 304 companies filled out a survey called the Great Place to Work Trust Index, created by the Great Place to Work Institute in San Francisco. Their answers accounted for two-thirds of the scores, and information provided by the companies made up the rest.
    M&C spoke with planners at six of the corporations that made the list to find out how they weave the organization’s culture and philosophy into the employee events they oversee.

Fire and ice
SEI Investments might sound like a stuffy Wall Street firm; in fact, employees work at a 90-acre campus in Oaks, Pa. Here, the office floor plan is very fluid, with desks on wheels and “pythons” (clusters of wiring for computers and phones) hanging from the ceiling.
    “Whole teams can move within an hour; you don’t have to call anybody for help,” says Caryn Taylor-Lucia, CMP, director of corporate events for the financial services company.
    SEI encourages teams to get to know each other or celebrate a job well done off-campus, so smaller events like bowling outings are scattered among Taylor-Lucia’s bigger projects.
    One funky companywide celebration is Clean-Up Day, which includes a competition among the 15 floors for the most Dumpsters filled. “There are different points for what you turn in, things like paper, furniture and computer equipment,” says Taylor-Lucia. A big scoreboard is kept in the cafeteria; employees on the winning floor get chair massages. The events team picks the cafeteria’s menu for the day, which is offered free to all employees.
    Taylor-Lucia is most fond of planning the company’s holiday party, an annual black-tie affair at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, because it offers great exposure for her team. Last year’s fire-and-ice theme featured CEO Alfred West emerging from an ice formation, along with entertainment by aerialists and fire-eaters. Four years ago, at the turn of the millennium, many of the tech employees were scheduled to be stuck in the office on New Year’s Eve, on a Y2K vigil. That year the holiday party, themed as a New Year’s event a few weeks in advance, held a countdown at 10:30 p.m.
    Taylor-Lucia has been working at SEI for eight years; it’s easy to see why she says, “I’m never leaving.”

AllStar game
Arbitron, the market research company that rates radio stations, is another Best Company winner. Maybe that’s partly because Tony Gochal, the director of event services based at the Columbia, Md., campus, spends much of his creative energy each year on the employee-recognition AllStars conference. For what essentially is an incentive trip, attendees are chosen by their peers.
    Employees nominate their colleagues, describing how the person meets customer service expectations, increases sales or demonstrates the company’s values. From 800 eligible candidates, about 30 are selected for AllStars honors by a committee of the previous year’s winners.
“It’s not often there’s a repeater, but as we go along, we’re likely to have more,” says Gochal, who won in 1994, the second year the AllStars were awarded. “We have a long-tenured employee base,” he notes. “I’ve been here for 25 years.”
     The winners, who get to bring a guest on the trip, are announced at a companywide meeting in February. This year, Gochal told the 29 winners they would be traveling to Los Angeles in May, staying at the Regent Beverly Wilshire.
     Winners of the company’s sales awards also take the trip. The itinerary includes a talk by a Universal Studios executive on the process of movie-
making, followed by a private tour of the studio and a buffet on one of the backlot streets; a free spa treatment at the hotel; lunch at Spago with a speech by chef Wolfgang Puck, and plenty of free time.
    The executive staff tags along, of course. To enhance the recognition of the AllStars, each of the top brass gets a write-up and a photograph of the winners. “They make an effort to meet every AllStar during the trip,” says Gochal.
    After the event, Gochal sends out a survey to garner suggestions for the following year’s trip. Gochal loves handling the AllStars, “because I get to plan a three-day event that has the employees smiling and enjoying themselves from the minute they arrive to their departure.”

All in the family
Helping employees handle work and family is a focus at Robert W. Baird & Co., an investment firm in Milwaukee. “We get graded on how well we balance our life at the office and at home,” says Sarah E. Roethel, assistant vice president and corporate events planner.
    Employee-recognition days are held throughout the year, including the day everyone gets their annual bonus (which, for a lucky few, can equal their salary), when breakfast also is offered to the troops. The entire work force also receives a holiday gift; last year’s was a popcorn bowl, some mixed popcorn and a gift card to Blockbuster.
    The big gathering for the investment firm is Baird Night at the Zoo, which has been held for more than 20 years. All employees and their immediate families are invited to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which is rented out for the evening. About 2,800 people attended in 2003.
    A band featuring a Baird employee gets to entertain at the zoo. “Last year we had Crazy Man’s Basement, a cover band that also sang some original songs,” notes Roethel, who has been at the company for four years but attended Baird Night at the Zoo while growing up, when her father worked for the company.
    Roethel’s favorite internal event to plan is the Study Group Trip, an incentive program for the financial advisers (and their guests) who rank numbers 41 to 111 in the company (numbers one through 40 take the Chairman’s Club Trip). “I get to use my creativity to its fullest,” she says. “With invitations, amenities, impeccable destinations, exciting activities and smashing evening events, there is a world of choices, and I love making them to accommodate and recognize our financial advisors.”
    This year’s study group will travel to the Four Seasons Resort Aviara, North San Diego. Attendees and their guests will start with a convertible to tool around in for a day, then spend the evening at the commissioned officers’ club of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, where a karaoke competition is part of the plan. “These people are very, very competitive,” notes Roethel. “We try to feed that need.”

A spirit of giving
The inclusive environment at Monsanto in Creve Coeur, Mo., is embodied by the company’s joint managers of meeting services, Kathy Brassil, CMP, and Susie St. Cyr, CMP, who have been working together as planners for 12 years, the last six at the agriculture giant. “Susie oversees everything on-site and I oversee everything off-site,” says Brassil, and they each manage two other planners.
    “Our leadership is very visible to the employees and has very direct and open lines of communication,” Brassil adds, noting that regularly scheduled town hall meetings are held by videoconference, incorporating the global corporation (there are more than 60 Monsanto locations in the United States alone).
    Each year, the company conducts a massive United Way campaign ($1 million was raised in 2003). To encourage the entire staff to make pledges, a kick-off event is held, during which the CEO speaks, the campaign theme is introduced, people who have benefited from the charity share their stories and refreshments are served. Last year, groups that accumulated the most pledges and groups whose members best met pledge-card deadlines got an afternoon break, with themed munchies such as Brain Freeze (ice cream and soda),  Hot Dog Daze (hot dogs and soda) and Snack Attack (assorted junk food and soda) delivered to their area.
    Every May, the headquarters campus is opened up to the surrounding town for Creve Coeur Days, a carnival with games and rides. “Half a day, the carnival is closed to the public and becomes a private event for Monsanto employees,” says St. Cyr. Everybody gets “funny money” to spend at the fair; about 2,000 people attended last year, counting employees, their families and local retirees.
    All employee events at Monsanto include people who ended their working lives at the company. “We have been asked by upper management to continue to include them, and to come up with an event for them alone,” says St. Cyr. For example, at the United Way kickoff last year, a special luncheon for retirees was held, at which the CEO and CFO spoke.

Community service
VHA Inc. in Irving, Texas, is a network of healthcare systems, where big employee meetings are few and far between. In fact, the annual holiday party is no longer held; instead, monies that once were earmarked for that event are now used to fund an all-employee community service event.
    Last Sept. 24, about 450 people (two-thirds of those working at the Irving office plus the company’s senior management) worked with five groups the Dallas Life Foundation (women’s and homeless shelters), the Salvation Army, Our Children’s House at Baylor (a nonprofit children’s hospital), Asford Hall Nursing Home and the Irving Independent School District at 21 sites, doing everything from painting and landscaping at an elementary school to holding a talent contest and ice cream social at the nursing home.
    At the end of the day, the spent employees were bused back to the Omni Mandalay Hotel, across from the corporate offices, for a laid-back evening of hot dogs and hamburgers outside by the Mandalay Canal. “It was a time to come together and celebrate what we had done,” says Sheryl Kolb, CMP, events planning manager, who coordinated the buses, the T-shirts and box lunches.
    “We accomplished so much,” adds Kolb. “A courtyard at an elementary school was all overgrown. In a matter of four hours, a group of 40 people transformed it, putting in a new flower bed.”
    VHA will hold a similar event this year, looking for organizations that will be able to put larger groups to work. “Last year’s groups ranged from 10 to 70 people; we’re trying to find sites that could take a couple of hundred,” says Kolb. This year, the company’s regional offices will do similar projects in their communities to help them feel more tied to the corporate headquarters.
    Kolb also finds fulfillment planning the quarterly service-recognition lunches that honor employees who have reached five-year marks with VHA and its affiliates, Novation and HPPI (both health-care supply-chain companies). “In 2001, we made major changes to the format of this meeting based on employee feedback,” she says. Before, the recipients were asked to stand in front of the whole company while their managers talked about their contributions to VHA. But many people didn’t feel comfortable standing before a group, to the point of dreading their anniversary date. Now, those who have reached the milestone and their immediate supervisors join the senior management team for lunch at the Omni. They get to choose a gift from a catalog of varied items such as jewelry, bicycles and appliances.
    “The response to these changes has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Kolb, who will celebrate her own first five-year anniversary in January 2005.

On-the-job training
Infrastructure is the job and the core philosophy of Granite Construction Inc. The company builds bridges, highways, power plants and dams (and the occasional home driveway, too). To shore up employees, the company emphasizes training that goes beyond the classroom to working on actual jobs.
    For example, using the Green Valley, Ariz., training ground of partner Caterpillar Inc., 60 project engineers chosen by their area managers come together each year to learn how to manage, maintain and repair the equipment used on the big jobs. It’s sweaty work for people whose day jobs require them to be liaisons between the customer hiring Granite and the workers out in the field.
    “For this weeklong event, the engineers operate equipment they don’t usually touch,” says Charlotte Patterson, CMP, the Watsonville, Calif., company’s corporate meeting planner. “They do an actual job that Caterpillar has for us as part of the partnership, and they maintain the equipment at the end of the day.”
    The engineers love the event, she says, and are eager to attend when they are chosen. Upon arrival, they are broken into eight groups, staying together throughout the week, planning their projects, dining together and doing homework. They’re deliberately put with people they’ve never met before. “I’ve seen a lot of these guys build relationships with each other that last for a long time,” says Patterson. The final-night dinner is a program graduation, followed by a casual Southwestern barbecue.
    “The one thing I’ve noticed over the years is the individual pride we have working at Granite,” says Patterson, a 26-year veteran of the company. “We have generations working here. We have fathers and sons and daughters, husbands and wives.”