Issue Date: October 22, 2007
Workplaces That Work
A HAPPY AND HEALTHY employee is a productive employee. As cliché as that sounds, it's a sentiment shared by the three companies profiled in this annual survey of best companies to work for: DuPont, Inspire Pharmaceuticals, and Tec Laboratories.
C&EN's selection of one large, one medium-sized, and one small company is based on a review of chemical firms that made 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." What stood out about these top picks was each company's unwavering commitment to its employees, both every day and in times of tremendous need.
DuPont's caliber as an employer is exemplified by its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Its DeLisle, Miss., titanium dioxide plant was flooded with 7 feet of water. The facility's electronics and control systems were damaged, and the plant, whose white pigment products end up in paper, paint, and other products, had to be shut down for five months.
Patricia A. Nichols, then the plant manager, was out of town during the storm but remembers the drive back. "The closer I got to the plant site, the more destruction I saw," she says, noting that more than 80 houses had washed up on the site.
When it came time to check on her own house, she found she wasn't spared. The first level of her two-story home had been completely destroyed by mud and water, and her car was badly damaged in the garage. "Most of us didn't have anything left to go home to," she says.
For a week-and-a-half, Nichols stayed in the company's severe-weather shelter. After the DeLisle plant was restored, she moved into her office there and showered using naturally warm water from the company's artesian wells. She lived in her office for a month before temporarily moving into DuPont's on-site medical facility, which was equipped with beds and showers.
Shortly thereafter, DuPont offered Nichols a house, which the company had purchased prior to the storm from an employee who was moving. After the storm, a pending contract on the house fell through, so the company offered the house to Nichols, free of charge. "I can't imagine having worked for a better company during that time," says Nichols. "They went above and beyond what was necessary and what was expected."
Meanwhile, DuPont had brought in dozens of trailers and set up an on-site DuPont Employee Community for 95 employees and their families. DuPont also provided a free catering service where employees and their families could get three hot meals a day. A DuPont medical team provided first aid, prescription drugs, and vaccinations, and the employee assistance program helped answer many recovery-related questions.
Employees from other DuPont plants started a Katrina fund and raised more than $20,000 for the hurricane victims. Volunteers also donated canned goods, bedding, and other supplies. In addition, DuPont donated $20,000 to the local police department, $200,000 to the Salvation Army, $250,000 to the local school district, and $500,000 to the American Red Cross. All together, DuPont donated $1.5 million to aid recovery efforts.
"DuPont acted in the biggest way I could ever imagine a company acting during that time," says Nichols, who is now global operations director in the company's corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Del. "The devastation was huge, but so was their ability to wrap their arms around it and do the right thing." She says that DuPont never lost sight of the fact that their employees are their greatest asset.
AT INSPIRE PHARMACEUTICALS, in Durham, N.C., there's always a reason to celebrate—even when a project fails. "Just because a product didn't succeed or get to the level we wanted it to get, we don't want employees to think that we've taken for granted all the hard work they put into it," says Francisca Yanez, director of human resources.
When these "dock parties" begin, the doors of the loading docks are flung open, and employees socialize over food and drink. By maintaining a positive attitude and looking forward rather than looking back, the company can keep its failures in perspective, says Yanez.
These informal gatherings happen for a variety of other reasons as well. Sometimes, there really is a success or a milestone to celebrate. Other times, the dock doors open to welcome new hires or simply because people need a break. Any employee can organize a dock party, says Yanez.
Founded in 1995, Inspire Pharmaceuticals focuses on products based on purinergic receptor technology for mucosal hydration and lubrication licensed from nearby University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The firm's current product line includes Elestat (epinastine HCl ophthalmic solution) for ocular itch, Restasis (cyclosporine ophthalmic emulsion) for chronic dry eye, and AzaSite (azithromycin ophthalmic solution) for bacterial conjunctivitis, or pink eye. In addition, the company has several drug candidates in the pipeline to treat cystic fibrosis, allergic rhinitis, and glaucoma. The company brought in $35.8 million in revenues in 2006.
Ward Peterson, vice president of research and preclinical development, says that in the eight years he has been with the company, he has watched it grow from 30 people to approximately 230 people. This year alone, the company added 100 employees after launching AzaSite. Yet the small-company feel remains. In fact, says Peterson, the employees and the management at Inspire are very protective of the culture.
"Part of what creates that culture is the fact that we encourage community service, and we encourage involvement," says Yanez. For example, Paul Watson, senior director of chemistry, rides with the Inspire Cycling Team. The team recently completed the Seacoast Safari for Cystic Fibrosis and the MS 150 for multiple sclerosis rides.
At the company's building, massage therapists offer on-site massages once a month, and weekly yoga classes take place at noon. "One of the things that really resonates here is the fact that people don't just work together, they genuinely like to spend time together," says Yanez.
President and Chief Executive Officer Christy L. Shaffer meets with employees in small groups on a quarterly basis just to touch base. Employees who have demonstrated outstanding achievement receive a Wheaties cereal box, and on the front is their name and face.
Recognition can come from fellow employees as well. Many employees have received movie tickets, gift cards, or even a simple e-mail, as an expression of thanks from fellow coworkers. JoAnne Zellner, manager of human resources, says that these random acts of kindness go a long way in keeping morale high and turnover low at the company. She says turnover at Inspire is 6%, compared with the industry average of 18%.
Employee satisfaction also comes from the fact that people see how they fit into the company as a whole. The sales associate program pairs up a sales rep with someone in the main office. This "buddy system" allows each person to understand what the other person's job is like.
Inspire prides itself on being a family-friendly workplace. Employees who are feeling sick can rest in the company's family room. Or, if they need to bring a child to work, the room is equipped with toys, movies, and books, as well as a workstation where the employee can watch over their child as they work. Nursing moms also frequently use the room to get some privacy. "It's a small cost for Inspire to set that up, but it means a lot when someone needs it," says Zellner.
Often, employees will pull together to help a fellow employee, even if they don't know them personally. Last year, the company began a program where employees could donate vacation time to a fellow employee. For example, when one employee had a personal crisis and had to take time off work but didn't have additional vacation time to take, other employees donated more than 100 vacation days for this individual.
Team spirit runs high at Inspire. For its last holiday party, the entire company went bowling, and everyone got a bowling shirt embroidered with a nickname given by their coworkers. Peterson's nickname was "Stirrer of Pots" because of his enjoyment of cooking and love of chemistry. The previous year, the company had a casino night.
Inspire is hiring, and there are currently several research and preclinical development openings, including senior research scientist positions in pharmaceutical sciences, mass spectrometry, and microbiology (www.inspirepharm.com/careers.html).
At Inspire, the employees really feel inspired. The company's mission statement sums it up: "We are empowered to get the job done, and we have fun doing it. We know that what we do each day makes a difference."
AT TEC LABORATORIES, in Albany, Ore., there are no supervisors. Instead, there are coaches. "A supervisor tells you what to do. A coach gives you what you need to do your job and then encourages you to do it," says Vern Smith, one of the coaches. "It's a whole attitude change."
Tec Labs is a family-held company with about 30 employees. The company got its start in the early 1960s after Smith's father, chemical engineer Robert Smith, developed a product in the family garage to remove radioactive fallout dust from the skin. He developed the product during the Cold War, figuring that every home would have a bomb shelter, and each shelter would need such a product. Smith named the product Tecnu for "technically new."
The need for bomb shelters in every home never transpired, but that didn't dash the family's hopes for Tecnu. After the family moved from Iowa to Oregon, Smith's wife, Evelyn, discovered that Tecnu could remove rash-causing plant oils from the skin. Today, Tec Labs specializes in over-the-counter products to treat poison oak, poison ivy, and other skin irritants.
The decision to replace the title of "supervisor" with "coach" came in 1997, when the company switched from the traditional top-down management approach to self-directed work teams. Each team is led by a coach and consists of employees from different areas of the company who share responsibilities for producing a product. For example, the R&D team includes employees in operations, sales and marketing, regulatory control, quality assurance, and research. This encourages communication during every step of a project.
One reason many Tec employees cite for their high job satisfaction is that they feel appreciated for the work that they do. Each month, Tec shuts down for three hours to give employees an opportunity to compliment or express appreciation for a fellow coworker. Maria Steckley, who is in quality assurance, says that it's not unusual for tears to flow during these meetings. She says that she is often caught by surprise by the things people notice.
After the compliments conclude, employees hear team reports and are updated on the company's finances. Nikki Frum, a quality control chemist who has been with the company for four years, says that this open-book financing approach lets her feel that the company trusts her to be part of the decision-making process. "This is the first place I've worked where I honestly felt that people cared about me and not just the bottom line," she says.
Smith says this atmosphere of trust comes from hiring one good person at a time. "When we hire, one thing we look for that's very important is fit," says Smith. "If I had to choose between fit and hard skills, I would choose fit over hard skills every time," because skills can always be learned.
Another plus at Tec, Smith points out, is that the company pays for employees to take classes or to work toward another degree and encourages movement within the company. For example, Steckley joined Tec Labs 14 years ago as a part-time receptionist. She took some chemistry classes at the local college, and now she heads the quality assurance team.
Many of the employees say their best friends are their coworkers. Steckley says that several times a year, the women will have a "girls' weekend" when they take a trip to the coast, and the men will have a "boys' weekend" when they go sturgeon fishing. "It's fun to be with people that you enjoy being with not only at work but away from work," says Steckley.
Because Tec is such a small company, and turnover is low, job openings are few. But don't be discouraged, says Steckley, once you get into Tec, you may never leave. "I'm definitely a lifer," she says.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
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