Best of bosses at Everett company

  • Bryan Corliss / Herald Writer
  • Sunday, August 26, 2001 9:00pm
  • Business

By Bryan Corliss

Herald Writer

A lot of companies give lip service to the idea of treating their employees right. You know: People are our No. 1 asset. We’re all part of the team. Our people make the difference. Yeah, sure. Whatever.

Five years ago, Terra Resource Group had a problem, said Jenifer Lambert, the company’s vice president for business development. The temporary services company’s No. 1 client wasn’t treating the workers Terra sent over all that well. People were getting hurt on the job. Office staffers calling about complaints got blistered over the phone.

So Terra axed them, severing the relationship with its main customer, because its people weren’t nice to deal with.

"The values weren’t a match," Lambert said. "There are a lot of good quality companies to do business with. We’re not going to waste time and money and energy" on those that aren’t, she added.

The incident shows that Terra is serious about being "the kind of company that I like to come in to every day," said Betty Neighbors, the president and founder.

That’s probably why Terra was judged one of Washington’s best small companies to work for, in a recent survey done for Washington CEO magazine.

"Terra rocks!!!!" one employee wrote on an anonymous survey form.

"This is easily the best company for which I have worked," wrote another. "I love my job and trust my employers and would not consider leaving."

The surveys were distributed and compiled by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a human resources firm. Employees judged the companies they work for on a 1 to 5 scale over nine broad categories, including leadership and benefits.

Terra consistently scored almost a full point higher than the national average — a point-and-a-half in some categories. Workers gave the company an average score of 4.91 for career development and training, 4.90 for working environment, 4.87 for communication and 4.84 for decision-making.

In six of the nine categories, workers rated the company’s performance higher than Terra’s own managers did. Only one other small business — The Seneca Real Estate Group of Seattle — had higher average scores in the survey.

No other Snohomish County business finished in the top 10 in the survey, which also had separate categories for large and mid-size companies, and for non-profits.

Terra is very much a family business. Neighbors started it in her home in 1983, while she was home with her three children. Originally it was a typing service, which grew to add an answering service, and eventually became a temp agency when Neighbors’ clients began calling to ask if she could fill in at their offices.

She couldn’t, but she found others with office skills who could.

As the business grew, Neighbors’ husband, Steve, came on board as its chief executive. Lambert is their daughter. Her husband, Greg, is vice president of operations for their branches in Everett and Seattle.

Workers say they feel like part of the family, too. "The difference is that this family always supports and encourages each other to be the best they can be," one wrote in the survey.

Communication is good, they said in the survey, because workers have regular meetings with supervisors where they talk about life on the job — and outside it. The workers said managers listen to their suggestions, so they feel involved in decision-making.

The work environment is fun, others said. Managers haul out baskets of toys for staff meetings. Quarterly meetings feature food and entertainment. Exceptional performance is rewarded with prizes — skiing or shopping trips or cruises.

Workers also praised Terra’s "dual-track" career program, which allows them an alternative to traditional promotion through the ranks into management. Frontline workers who take on additional duties and get advanced training qualify for higher pay, Neighbors explained.

As a result, one employee wrote on the survey that the "work pace is fast, much gets done with healthy competition and a spirit of teamwork."

"The overall department and company culture are ones that encourage hard work, (and) playful attitudes, and reward significantly for performance," another added.

It’s a matter of finding and keeping good people, Lambert said. "There are other opportunities available to the best."

Keeping workers happy keeps the company profitable, she said. Terra is having one of its best-ever years, even in the midst of an economic slowdown that has led some national temporary service agencies to shut down local offices.

And research shows that companies that do keep workers happy end up being happy with their bottom line, said Jackie Armborst, a consultant with Watson Wyatt.

"We’re not even talking about (human resources) practices that require throwing money at people," Armborst said.

"There are some employers who have employees who are exceptionally happy," she said. "This is just the kind of thing we’re seeing in forward-thinking companies."

But it’s not just about the money, Lambert said. It’s about creating the kind of place where they like to work.

"If it’s just about generating income for us, we could get other jobs," she said.

Neighbors agreed. "We could just own a car wash."

You can call Herald Writer Bryan Corliss at 425-339-3454

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