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Best Places to Work

Louisiana's A Teams

Illustrations by Michael Klein

While the rest of the country wrestles with gloomy forecasts, Louisiana’s unemployment rate, 8.1 percent, remains below the national average of 9.8 percent, and the mainstream media have taken notice. A national magazine cover story dubbed New Orleans as a “hive of entrepreneurial initiative,” a blueprint on how to recover from even the worst disaster. In a world dazed and confused, life’s priorities shift gears first in a struggle to survive and then with a renewed energy spawned by a fraternity of creative minds.

Nine companies have forged ahead past the rift of natural and economic disasters united in a common cause. A random sampling of this year’s best places to work reveals the same message, from top to bottom: These companies have the overwhelming desire to serve their customers and their communities. Another common element is that these are fun places to work – with a family atmosphere and a challenging environment. Whether it’s mentoring businesses, star-gazing with kids, dining on a bayou, pampering your pup, touring plantations, governing government, rocking your radio, landing the big ones or forging ahead with home care, they all sing the same tune, “We work hard, and we play hard!” 

The Idea Village. When Entrepreneur Magazine plasters your picture on the cover, you must be doing something right. An independent 501(c)(3), this “dream team” works to build and retain a vibrant entrepreneurial community in New Orleans, providing business resources to high-impact ventures. Twelve industrious employees feed on the company’s invigorating climate, following its mantra: “Trust your crazy ideas.” 

And the possibilities are endless. Miji Park, director of innovative spaces, says Idea Village has taught her how to deal with uncertain environments in an increasingly global and fast-paced society. “We are creating models that can be replicated in cities across the country … that can effect positive change nationwide,” she says.

Serving the community and working with passionate people in an open, energetic climate scored the highest points for motivation. “When you get to see someone who has an idea, business plan or dream and connect them with the resources it takes to make it a viable business, it not only helps the founder but helps the community at large by creating jobs, tax revenues and tapping into the talent of the area,” says Catherine Lenihan, director of finance.
All of the employees initially began as volunteers driven by an affection for New Orleans. “We have no boundaries for opportunity … and we get to do this in New Orleans,” says Tim Williamson, chief executive office and co-founder of The Idea Village.

“At the end of the day, I leave on a positive note and feel like the work we do at Idea Village is making a difference,” adds Nicky Henriquez, special projects manager.

Allen Bell, chief operating officer and co-founder of The Idea Village, is honored by the local, regional and national recognition but even more impressed with his staff. “They are an incredibly talented and committed group of people who see their individual roles more as a ‘calling’ than a job.”

Covington Animal Health Clinic. The employees at the Animal Health Clinic, or AHC, love to play a little Frisbee in the backyard and jump in the pool with their patients. And their biggest reward is sloppy canine kisses. AHC treats dogs and cats in two Acadian cottages along with a bone-shaped pool, a treadmill and a new “doggie dorm” (boarding facility) with shag rugs and artwork. Besides the usual checkups, dogs play tag on the playground and catch in the pool, and the puppies love to nap in their handlers’ laps. “When I see a dog get excited about being here, making a big splash in the pool or giving me puppy eyes for some cuddle time, that’s what makes my job rewarding,” says Erica Silva, boarding manager.

AHC provides employees with benefits packages, paid vacation days, bonuses and services for personal pets along with flexible schedules. Owner Dr. Roberta Beckers and all the employees strive to go beyond the norm in serving their customers, keeping up with new technology and taking courses on and off the premises.

Many cited the energy of the workplace as a big motivator, along with watching the pets’ enthusiasm in visiting their veterinarians and working toward a common goal.

The pets are happy because the employees are happy, and that makes the clients happy. Debbey Lemons, office manager, provides clients valuable information in caring for their pets. “Employees determine the morale and atmosphere of the workplace,” says Lemons, who believes a cohesive staff keeps morale high.

And the employees have fun doing it. “We get to know the animals on a more personal level,” says Mariq McDaniel. “Watching them jumping and swimming in the pool – who really gets to do that?!”

Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Natchitoches is the oldest European settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, resting on Cane River, which is lined with flared oaks and magnolia trees. There’s always a party going on somewhere in Natchitoches Parish, and the gang at Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, or NACVB, makes sure everyone is invited. Some travel the entire country bragging about picture-perfect plantations, national forests and their month-long Christmas celebration on the river.

 “Natchitoches is a special place, and I feel honored every day to have the most perfect job in the tourism industry,” says Iris Harper, NACVB executive director, who also enjoys entertaining and enlightening travel writers who visit the area. “Who wouldn’t want to work in such a great atmosphere and for such a great destination?”

Natchitoches is a college town, and employees have the opportunity to attend seminars and conferences at Northwestern University, and many continue to grow their hospitality careers. The office has grown to a staff of seven (four full-time, three part-time), with computers stationed throughout the building along with remote access. The staff takes advantage of flex time, which helps lessen stress and increase employee morale.

Even the part-time employees who are pursing other careers say that working at the NACVB provides invaluable experience. “Since I am a journalism major at Northwestern State University, everything in this job is helping me to get experience in my future career,” says Taylor Graves. “I help with press releases, newsletters and Web site updates, along with talking and meeting with visitors, so I am receiving the experience of advertising and communicating with people.”

And the office itself is a close-knit family, “We are all friends,” says Latisha McDaniel, media and public relations consultant, who says that even on bad days, you walk out of the office with a smile on your face. “If someone has a problem or just needs some advice, they can always turn to a co-worker. You don’t find that in every office.”

Regent Communications Inc. Regent owns and operates 75 radio stations clustered in 16 markets and 10 states with 68 employees (49 full-time and 28 part-time) in the Lafayette office. Although the company offers incentives such as admission to major concerts and sporting events, serving the public was the top motivating factor, being what they called the “lifeline of news and information,” with updates on hazardous weather and traffic conditions. “People listen to us; they depend on us in emergencies because we are always there for them,” says Shelley Kilburn, Regent promotions director. “We work hard, we play hard, and we like it.”

But more than just a radio station, Regent considers itself the “A-Team.” Employees help one another grow their careers and learn all the tricks of the trade, including programming, promotions, sales and management. It’s one big happy family: “mamas and dads along with brothers and sisters who keep you laughing … encourage you to keep up the good work and don’t give up,” says Dawn Richard, receptionist.

Employees welcome the fast-paced environment and say each day brings a new challenge and makes for a fun work environment. “[It’s] exciting and creative, never dull,” says Debbie Ray, KTDY on-air personality. “It’s fun every single day!”

And they do take their work seriously: The station and employees have been recognized for stellar performances, including Radio Station of the Year and back-to-back community awards. Mike Grimsley, general manager and regional vice president, was honored as the 2009 Louisiana Association of Broadcasters Broadcaster of the Year and makes a habit of greeting every employee in the building each day before setting foot in his office.

“I have never worked with such passionate and talented people,” says Pam Begnaud, sales manager. “Everyone has the same goals in mind, and [they are] to provide the best radio, get results for our clients and continue to be involved in our community!”

Waterfront Grill. Waterfront Grill has thrown out the frying pan and carved out a delectable menu with high-quality steaks and savory seafood that is grilled, baked or sautéed to perfection. Because it’s located on Bayou DeSiard, diners enjoy vistas of cypress forests and an occasional run by the University of Louisiana at Monroe water-skiing team. Owners Don and Sam Weems, along with Don’s son Clay, gained the state 2002 Restaurateurs of the Year award, and in 2009, Don received a culinary humanitarian award recognizing him for time he’s devoted to community organizations and helping employees advance their career skills.

Opened in 1997, the restaurant grew from 12 employees to 55 including students – part of management’s master plan with approximately 60 ULM graduates earning their degrees while employed at Waterfront. “What began as a family concept remains that way today,” Don says.

“It’s like working with a second family; we work together to make sure that the food we prepare keeps our customers coming back,” adds Sarah Stewart, a member of the kitchen staff.

Management’s commitment to growing the individual and accommodating schedules works seamlessly with the employees’ dedication to customer service. “Our guests know and expect the best when they walk in the front door,” says Brandi Bayless, a proud server. “The owners encourage all of us who are students by scheduling our work hours around school. Coming to work each day is more like a visit with friends than a day at work.”

 The restaurant also provides cocktail and dining boat tours on the bayou, a treat for both the customers and the employees. “Employees look forward to annual celebrations of Halloween, Christmas and after the Mother’s Day lunch, when they receive a ride on the company party barge,” says Brad Boutwell, manager. “Ownership has taken the role of ‘lead by example’ in day-to-day operations and instilling great work ethics in each individual that comes to them.”

Lewis Inc. This Baton Rouge business develops and maintains software and Web-delivered services for home-health and hospice industries across 39 states. Jeff Lewis, president, owner and one of the company’s premier data analysts, joins his staff of 100 employees who create and maintain products that allow providers to devote more time to their patients and focus on quality care.

Lewis delegates much of the daily operations to his vice president, Yolanda Rabalais. “She’s worked hard at making this a comfortable place to work so we can hold on to our good people,” Lewis says. “Long-term, holding on to your good people is just as important as the vision.”

When Rabalais began in 1993, she moved the company from three buildings to one new location, establishing a company culture and a central break room stocked with free food, a move she believes helps reduce stress because employees can relax and chat with co-workers. “[It’s] a place considerate of employee needs and their diverse values,” she says. “Some of our best ideas come to us across the kitchen table.” 

Employees take pride in developing innovative data-management systems that are recognized nationwide and set the industry standard for back-office-operation systems. Ben Icles, quality assurance, looks at the challenge as a healthy motivator.

“[It’s good] to discuss new ideas and challenge my peers to make our products more efficient and useful to our clients,” he says. “My job description and goals are flexible, allowing me to contribute to projects in different ways and develop new skills.”

Lewis Inc. also does its part in preventing the “brain drain” by offering a technological breeding ground for professionals to grow their careers. “As a South Louisiana native, I’m thankful that I can pursue my career near my family and friends,” says Mary Schwartzenburg, who works in documentation. “Lewis offers competitive salaries, so I can stay close to home while others leave for Houston, Dallas or Atlanta to find work.”

And Jeff Brown with research and development adds, “I’ve never been able to say that a job improved my quality of life until I started working here.” 

St. Martin Parish Government. Dedicated to the mission of improving the quality of life for its citizens, St. Martin Parish workers bring a unique solidarity governed by a time when loyalty was a true virtue. Lovers of life with a strong Cajun heritage, a staff of 70 from age 19 to 85 serves more than 52,000 residents under the guidance of Parish President Guy Cormier. Together they manage the parish infrastructure; building, planning and zoning issues; and community and tourism initiatives. Employees credit Cormier with maintaining a very congenial, familial atmosphere, and many have developed long-term friendships outside of work.

“We have settled into a close-knit family of workers,” says Fabian Tucker, director of administration, who adds that his parish president strongly encourages all employees to excel in their assigned duties. “He empowers employees by giving them the tools they need to help develop their careers.”

Although parish workers enjoy a long list of benefits and incentives, including employer-paid uniforms and group insurance, serving the community is their biggest reward.

“From fixing a pothole and cleaning roadside ditches to cleaning up after storms, just knowing that what we do helps people in their everyday lives and hopefully makes their lives a little better,” says Nanette Theriot, public works technician, of where her work satisfaction comes from.

Dona Richard, tourism director, travels the country to introduce her parish to many who make multiple return trips. One of the greatest compliments came from John Kelly, a television travel show host. “He commented that he had been all over the road and this was the first time he had ever felt that he was home,” she says. “I don’t think we can do better than that!”

The parish enjoys a faithful following, including Yvette Greig, clerk of the council, with more than 33 years of service. “I’ve only had one job (11 months) before working with the parish, and now after 33 years, I plan on retiring,” she says proudly. “I love my work here. Learning from my parish council members and parish president has been very rewarding.”

Sci-Port: Louisiana’s Science Center. Gorge your senses with fiery planets and an orchestra of laser lights in a star-studded planetarium with more than 290 math, science and technology exhibits at Sci-Port: Louisiana’s Science Center in Shreveport. You won’t find employees floating in space suits, but they are flying high with the latest recognition by Parents magazine, ranking Sci-Port as one of the Top 10 science centers in the U.S.

The company is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), and the dedicated staff ranges in age from 17 to 75 with backgrounds from customer service to physics and psychology. They all enjoy engaging people of all ages in lifelong learning. “Sci-Port employees have ‘nerd-itude,’” says an emphatic Rebecca Prosino, director of marketing and strategic projects.

“Knowledge and curiosity are highly esteemed.”

Meeting and talking with people from all over the country is an added benefit, according to Ken Latin, vice president of visitor experience, but sometimes it can be just one moment when you see that spark. “I can’t express the joy I feel when a light goes off, when they learn or see something that they find intriguing.”

And the employees practice what they preach by staying current with the latest technology. “For almost eight years now, Sci-Port has kept me on my toes creatively,” says Elisabeth Browning, graphic and Web design manager. “I have to learn and understand the science and math behind the graphics to produce the designs accurately.”

Mike Asher, technology adviser, has come out of retirement because he found a new forum for his 31 years of electronic, robotic and information-system skills. “This job is a constant learning opportunity with lots of training, mentoring, team interaction and technical challenges and has all the ingredients of becoming a second career for me,” he says. 

Although working for a nonprofit can offer its challenges, making a difference in the community is priceless. “People do not work at the science center for the paycheck; they work because of passion for kids, education, science and what they are doing for their community,” says Ann Fumarolo, Sci-Port president and chief executive officer. “Kids from inner-city schools were not doing well on their testing, and through an after-school program, we were able to increase each one of their test scores.” 

Cypress Bend Resort. From students to retirees seeking a new career, employees of Cypress Bend Resort work in the heartland of fishing, golfing and good old-fashioned exploring. Located on the eastern shores of the Toledo Bend Reservoir, the resort offers first-class amenities surrounded by a shimmering lake and glowing bluffs. And employees not only enjoy the friendly, scenic atmosphere but also receive insurance benefits, as well as complimentary use of the pool, golf course and fitness center and discounted room rates.

The attentive nature of management scored big points due to their eagerness to listen and recognize a job well done. Sonya Rogers, director of housekeeping, appreciates the opportunity to grow her career: “to travel to other hotels and work with others and learn new programs and techniques.”

Gwen McCormic, who has worked at Cypress Bend for four years, adds, “I’ve advanced through two positions – hired as a front desk clerk, then promoted to reservations supervisor – and currently hold the position of administrative sales assistant.”

Interacting with customers and ensuring customer satisfaction is a big morale booster. “I want all our guests to leave with a great experience,” says Barbra Ezernack, director of catering and conference planning, who believes teamwork is another big plus. “It’s a wonderful feeling when a guest rebooks because of something I have helped them with. My co-workers are always looking out for each other by crossing different departments in times of need.”

Ken Rams, a 11-plus-year veteran and golf operations manager, moved up the ranks from a volunteer position and enjoys the friendships he has forged with customers and the groups who play the course. Another huge benefit is that he gets to drive his boat to work. “I love the outdoors, and just being outdoors in this setting with all the wildlife around is great.” 

Closing. While some companies engage in a competitive battle for the almighty dollar, these companies develop a culture of trust, a climate that encourages employees to work together toward a common goal. Driven by pride and intense commitment, they are models for economic and social change, a benchmark for small and medium-size businesses, embracing new ideas and making their communities better places to live.
 

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