Piecing Together the Best Places to Work

What sets these companies apart as the best

April, 2007

Think back to your first day at your new job. Remember the butterflies fluttering around in your stomach, and the awkward stares and uneasiness that greeted you at your new office? Wouldn’t it have been a much smoother transition if someone had been there to coach you by providing an in-depth understanding of how the company operated and how best to fit in?

The Maryl Group thinks so, and that is one of the reasons it was selected as No. 1 on Hawaii Business’ Best Places to Work list of large companies for the second consecutive year. In order to make the cut, companies need to have all the major pieces in place necessary to satisfy and retain workers. Among these are effective leadership, communication and employee recognition.

Maryl prides itself on being a one-stop shop for cost-effective design and construction services, and generated $109 million in gross revenue in its last fiscal year thanks to the efforts of its 250 employees. According to CEO Mark Richards, new hires are assigned a coach for their first 30 days to answer questions, invite them to business or social events, explain the company lore and pass on any unofficial tidbits.

“Aside from showing them where the best place to eat lunch is, it’s kind of like the old buddy system,” he says. “It’s made that transitionary period so much easier.”

Richards believes that his new employees deserve extra care because they are the future of the company. Current workers benefit through an employee stock-option plan, which provides incentive to expend the maximum effort possible. In the near future, Richards also envisions the company being entirely employee owned — as it continues to grow, everybody wins.

With that in mind, Maryl revamped its hiring process to virtually ensure that anybody accepted into the company would be productive for many years to come. The practice, which incorporates an extensive list of criteria and multiple interviews, has led to an incredibly low voluntary turnover of 2 percent. It also saves the headache of hiring somebody only to see them leave soon after time and money have been invested.

“The hardest thing is bringing somebody in and, after getting to know them well, realizing that you made a bad decision,” Richards says. “Back in the old days, you interviewed a person for 10 minutes, and if you liked them, you hired them. I have done that so many times in my 40-year career; I knew there had to be a better way. So, when the person does come in the door [as a new hire], their co-workers immediately bond with them because they know that there’s a 99 percent chance that the person is going to be here for [the long haul]. It feeds on itself and it’s very helpful.”

All in the Family … Or Not

Many of the best places on the list pride themselves on encouraging a familylike approach to business. But for large company No. 8 Na Hoku, one of Hawaii’s premiere jewelry manufacturers and retailers for more than 80 years, results are more important than familial ties.

“The biggest issue that separates us from [other companies] is that we don’t talk about [ourselves] like being a family,” president and CEO Ed Sultan explains. “We say that we’re much more like a team then a family. On a [baseball] team, if for example a shortstop isn’t going to play their position, you find somebody that is going to play the position. There’s an edge to it.”

Don’t take this the wrong way, the company is not ruthless; if somebody at the organization isn’t working out, the managers try to find him another position internally where he will be successful. But, the company is firm in the notion that it doesn’t keep people around who are unproductive or aren’t the right fit.

Being No. 1 is not easy, but Grant Thornton secured the top spot among small to medium companies thanks in part to its bend-over-backwards approach to pleasing employees. The accounting firm allows employees flexible work arrangements, while still making sure other team members and clients are served. The initiative allows some an abbreviated schedule, putting more hours into fewer days, and others the chance to leave early for reasons such as picking up children from school. Flexible work arrangements are open to all employees who need to work around other commitments in life, not just working mothers.

While it sounds like the name of a new-age band, “The Grant Thornton Experience” also involves an emphasis on community service, and encourages participation in a healthy lifestyles program. The company sponsored eight members of the Hawaii office’s jogging club on an all-expenses-paid trip to Illinois to run in the Chicago Marathon last October. Not only did they all finish, the marathoners continue to run today. At Grant Thornton, and all other best places to work, employees are a company’s present and future. And a happy, healthy staff is a productive, long-lived one.

“We’re definitely results-oriented,” added Steven Bookatz, Na Hoku’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I know a lot of companies mention that ‘we’re family,’ but [Ed] mentioned the shortstop. In a family, if you have a brother that’s not quite with the rest of the group, he’s still you’re brother and you run him along. We definitely work well together as a team, but you have to contribute.”

Perking Up

While a healthy salary alone allows employees to make a comfortable living, it is the unique benefits offered by the best companies that make them attractive to employees in Hawaii’s tight labor market. As the state’s unemployment rate continually hovers at a national-best 2 percent to 3 percent, the best places to work are those that have creative perks to both entice and retain workers.

The Tony Group has grown into one of Hawaii’s largest automobile dealerships, thanks for the most part to its hard-working and passionate employees. The group, which ranks No. 4 on the BPTW list of large companies, employs nearly 400 full-timers to staff its Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen and Hyundai dealerships, as well as the on-site car wash and body shop located at its Waipio “Autoplex.” While they are pushed when it comes to performance expectations, employees are rewarded not only financially, but with a unique bonus package: In addition to a couple of yearly parties and employee-of-the-month awards to recognize their efforts, employees are given discounts on cars, parts and service and even receive a free car wash every month. They don’t have to worry about paying for parking because, after leaving their cars in a nearby lot, workers are shuttled to work in a company-provided van.

“It’s a good mix of people that have been here for many years as well as interesting new people,” says Tony Group president Stan Masamitsu of his much-appreciated employees. “We try to create a stimulating work dynamic. What could be seen as a negative, but something we try to spin positively, is that we work our people hard. But I think many people find it rewarding because there’s that feeling of accomplishment.”

It is this winning combination of recognition and pride in one’s company that entices laborers to not only stick around, but to strive to move up the company ladder to the management ranks.

“I’m sure that [the benefits] will help them stay because, along with the tangible financial perks, it shows that we take the time to think of what might be a win-win situation for everyone,” Masamitsu says.

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Kyle Galdeira