Issue Date: October 18, 2010
Strong ties among employees make for strong companies, according to three standout workplaces profiled in C&EN’s annual survey of the best places to work in chemistry: Sigma-Aldrich, DynPort Vaccine Co., and McCormick & Co. The report is based on annual reviews of the best places to work from Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” Working Mother’s “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers,” and The Scientist’s “Best Places to Work in Industry.”
Sigma-Aldrich, one of the world’s largest suppliers of research chemicals, is number 28 on The Scientist’s list this year, the firm’s third appearance. With its headquarters in St. Louis, the company employs about 500 chemists and biochemists.
Haydn Boehm, global marketing manager at the Sigma-Aldrich facility in Milwaukee, says employees at his firm connect through a sense of common purpose: serving their customers. “We support the scientific community,” he says. “Everybody understands where we’re going and why we’re going there. And everybody feels very strongly a part of that.”
Douglas W. Rau, vice president of human resources, says what makes Sigma-Aldrich such a great place to work is a strong workplace culture that is open and egalitarian. Chief Executive Officer Jai Nagarkatti regularly communicates with employees, often sitting down with them in the cafeteria. He takes ideas and questions from these informal meetings and then highlights them in a biweekly video available to the entire company.
Sigma-Aldrich is not a hierarchical organization, Boehm adds. Open sharing of ideas is strongly encouraged, and any worker can communicate with upper management at any time. Often, this occurs through the company’s Process Improvement Initiative, which provides an open forum that allows employees to have their ideas tested and implemented on a daily basis. Results of tests are broadcast globally to the staff.
Speaking up can be a productive career strategy. “If you’ve got the ideas, then the opportunities for advancement are pretty much there for anybody,” Boehm says. “The company is looking to take good people and put them in the right places where they can have the biggest impact on the business.”
Boehm has been with Sigma-Aldrich for four-and-a-half years, and in that time, he’s worked in three countries on two continents. Sigma-Aldrich was supportive of the moves and job changes, he says. In the most recent move—from Europe to the U.S.—the company provided legal assistance with visas and helped find him a house in Milwaukee. The firm also sprang for business-class tickets on the flight from Europe so that Boehm’s wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, would be more comfortable during the 12-hour trip.
Sigma-Aldrich recognizes that its employees are its greatest asset and has tried to retain them despite the recent economic downturn. That strategy might not have been the best thing for the company at the time, Rau says, but “we don’t want to lose that great talent that we have. They are the company; they are the service that we provide. So we fight to hang on to them.”
The firm currently employs about 7,600 workers, down from about 7,900 in the middle of 2008, mostly as a result of attrition. The company says it laid off fewer than 15 people worldwide in the past year.
Sigma-Aldrich succeeded in keeping its talented people committed to the work and to each other, and now it’s in a position to grow, Rau says. In fact, he believes that Sigma-Aldrich can benefit from the ongoing bleed-out of pharmaceutical company chemists. “We have a home for those professionals and have hired quite a few, opportunistically adding to our organization’s capabilities,” he says.
Another company that is considered one of the best places to work by The Scientist is DynPort Vaccine Co., in Frederick, Md. This year’s ranking at number 13 marks DVC’s third appearance on the list.
As a subsidiary of Computer Sciences Corp., DVC derives some personnel benefits—such as the educational perks of tuition reimbursement and in-house training—from being part of a larger company, DVC President Robert V. House says. But at the same time, he says, the firm has only about 100 people on-site.
House reasons that the company’s small size allows employees to form family-like relationships with each other. “What we try to foster here is that family spirit,” he says. “We all enjoy working together. One of the things that people routinely cite as being so great about working at DVC is the people that work here.”
And what really brings this small group of employees together, House says, is the job they do. Created in 1997, DVC develops measures against potential biochemical warfare agents, in the form of vaccines and therapeutics. To date, staffers have helped develop vaccines against smallpox and anthrax, and they are currently working on botulinum toxin and plague vaccines for the Department of Defense.
“Everyone at DVC believes that what they’re doing is not only a good job but also an important job,” House says. “We hope that the things we’re working on here never have to be used, but if they do, it will be one of the most important things that we could have ever done.”
Even in a small company such as DVC, communication is important. Along with his “Bugs and Drugs” blog, House sends out a “weekend update” to the company’s employees every Friday. In it, he discusses important happenings from the past week, including research setbacks or successes.
“It’s one of the most popular things I’ve done in my tenure as president because people recognize that it’s a chance to get at my thoughts and to get the straight dope on what’s going on within the company,” House says.
DVC doesn’t have a lot of open positions at any one time. But if an employee wants to leave, DVC will help that person find a job at another company. “It’s important to me that the employees are happy,” House says, “whether it’s here or whether it’s not.”
Those employees who move elsewhere remain “part of the family,” as House puts it—and sometimes those prodigal members return. “We’ve had a number of employees who’ve left and found that the grass is not greener, and they came back and are still working with us now,” he says.
DVC currently employs six chemists. House thinks the company is in a good position despite the poor economy because it recently acquired some new clients and is branching out into new types of products. “I see us staying at a steady size, then rebounding and growing,” he says.
Like DVC, spice maker McCormick doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a company that typically hires chemists. Nevertheless, it employs 340 chemists globally, including about 200 in the U.S.
“We are all about food—from molecule to menu,” says Marianne Gillette, McCormick’s vice president of technical competencies and platforms. “We do a great deal of research at the molecular level to find what contributes to the flavor of food and to analyze the health benefits of spices and herbs.”
McCormick, number 72 on Fortune’s top 100 list this year, is a 120-year-old company that manufactures and distributes spices, flavors, extracts, and specialty foods. It has 12 technical sites around the world and 8,000 employees. Although it’s no longer family owned, many McCormick family members still work at the firm.
Paul Ford, a principal scientist who’s been there for nearly 20 years, believes that McCormick is a great place to work because it encourages collaboration among people with varied areas of expertise. “As a chemist, it’s rewarding to have your opinions and ideas taken into consideration early on in a project,” he says.
“The foundation of our company is that everybody can contribute, everybody can be part of the decision-making process, and they all feel like they’re part of the business,” says Jim Lynn, director of corporate communications. “They don’t just come to work, punch a card, and then leave. They really have a vested interest because their opinion is always heard and often implemented.”
One way McCormick employees do this is through a “Voice of the Employee” survey. Every two years, a consultant evaluates communication and teamwork topics, such as how well employees feel connected to the organization and whether they have the resources they need to do their jobs. In addition, the company organizes meetings throughout the year so that employees from different locations can discuss business in person.
“It helps us feel like we are a family unit, rather than just running our business operations,” says Laura McGrath, vice president of human relations.
And even when some of those operations have to shut down, McCormick still aims to treat its employees like family. One instance arose in 2006, when the company decided to close one of its three condiment facilities, which employed nearly 100 people. McCormick transferred operations from the Hunt Valley, Md., plant to an existing facility in South Bend, Ind., that was closer to a major customer. The firm found jobs for some of the Hunt Valley plant’s former staffers at other local McCormick facilities and helped others land jobs with local firms.
“The announcement was made on Jan. 15, and we were given until the end of the year to be successful,” recalls Joy Yeager, manager of McCormick’s employment center. “It was a huge effort because a lot of the folks in that facility had been there 33 years, and they hadn’t interviewed in 33 years.”
By the end of the year, McCormick had found new positions for all of the displaced employees. Of those, 40% landed higher level jobs than the ones they lost. “The entire research park and human resources department just wrapped their arms around this project to make sure that each person was dealt with individually and got a job that they were satisfied with,” Yeager says.
At present, McCormick is actively hiring, with more than 50 positions open. The firm is always in need of food scientists, Gillette says, because people always need to eat. And once they join the company, they’re likely to want to stay.
“It’s such an enjoyable place to work,” Ford says, “that I don’t see myself going anywhere else.”
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society