Nominate a company, organization for Top Workplaces 2020

The Orange County Register has launched its 13th annual Top Workplaces program for 2020.

Last year, 1,780 companies and organizations participated and 191 were invited to join the survey to determine Top Workplaces. In the end, 140 were chosen as the best of the best in Orange County.

Last year’s top winners were Seven Gables Real Estate, Marque Medical and Sidepath. You can check out all of the 2019 honorees here.

So, what kind of company, nonprofit or organization is eligible to participate?

  • Any organization with 35 or more employees in Orange County is eligible to participate (can be public, private, non-profit, government)
  • Workplaces are evaluated by their employees using a short 24-question survey.
  • Companies will be surveyed from June through August.

Energage, the research partner for the project, conducts Top Workplaces surveys for 50 major metro newspapers and surveyed more than 2 million employees at more than 7,000 organizations in 2019.

Dates, numbers to remember:

  • The nomination deadline is July 17
  • A magazine will be printed in December
  • To nominate online, go to ocregister.com/nominate
  • To nominate by phone, call  714-442-2768

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Top Workplaces 2019: Opportunities attract, keep employees at Sukut Construction

Although cofounder and company namesake Myron Sukut is now retired, the Santa Ana-based construction and civil engineering business he helped start in 1968 is thriving, having branched into major solar installations and wildfire cleanup — projects the firm likely didn’t envision decades ago.


Mike Crawford is the CEO of Sukut Construction. Photographed in their offices in Santa Ana, CA on Monday, October 28, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

In the past 30 years, Sukut Construction has expanded to a staff of 650 from roughly 150 employees. Its revenues have swelled tenfold, to $300 million today from about $30 million in 1990. Presiding over much of that growth — and being named a Top Workplace five times — has been CEO Michael Crawford. He offers his employees opportunities to learn, grow and even become a part-owner of the business, all with the goal that they’ll work hard because they like where they work.

The Register talked with Crawford about what Sukut does, the company’s values and why people who come to work there don’t want to leave. His comments were edited for length and clarity.

Q: What makes a company a good place to work, and what can management do to promote that goal?

A: A good place to work is one where you want to come to work, right, and you like what you do, because I think if you like what you do you’re going to be good at it. And if you don’t like what you do, you’re not going to be good at it. So we try to create an atmosphere where people like what they do. People that work here have a lot of responsibility for their own work.

Q: With an improving economy and a competitive labor market, what is Sukut doing to attract new employees?

A: It’s a little easier to attract people are already in the industry because we have a reputation of treating our people right and everybody knows this — people don’t leave. We try to take care of them. A lot of them are owners. Once they get to a management position in the company — that could be a foreman out in the field or a project manager — then we offer them a small piece of ownership. So I think that’s a retention tool.

We give lots of learning opportunities; that’s one of my most important personal values and it’s one of our company values. So, our thought is, if we help make our employees better, they’re going to be better humans, they’re going to be better spouses, they’re going to be better employees. We give educational opportunities on emotional intelligence, communication skills, on having difficult conversations, and we try to offer everybody learning opportunities, as well as all the technical things they need for work. But we’re really invested in making people better — better employees.

Q: Sukut worked on cleanup after the 2017 Thomas fire. While it’s a job, it’s also the remains of peoples’ homes and lives you’re cleaning up. How does Sukut approach that with sensitivity?

A: We’ve been working for the state of California for a lot of years. We’ve cleaned up tire fires for the state of California, we’ve cleaned up illegal dumpsites. So about seven or eight years ago, the state started having significant fire events and we responded to those events.

The Thomas fire was a very large one in Ventura County. We actually just finished a joint venture with other companies to clean up the Paradise fire, which is really heartbreaking. It destroyed the whole town. It’s like a ghost town when you go up there. But there’s so many mixed emotions, and it’s so hard for the people up there who are working on those projects. Oftentimes the people haven’t had access to their home, and then when we are cleaning up the remnants of their home, sometimes they want to look for stuff. And so we have to be accommodating to them.

The people working in those areas have to be extra compassionate, and luckily we have employees who are compassionate. They care about people because they work in a place that cares about them, and they see that. It’s difficult, but it’s a necessary thing and it starts the rebuilding process.

Q: California will be expanding its use of solar power in 2020. Will Sukut get a piece of that market, and where else do you see growth for the company in coming years?

A: I think solar is becoming a mandate for our country. California’s a leader in that. First, I think it was Gov. Brown who said he wanted to be at 20 percent by 2020. Well, we didn’t make that but we’re gaining on it. So yes, we are a heavy civil contractor, and a big component of solar projects is the civil engineering part of it: the building of the roads, the leveling of the land, the trenching for all the electrical lines. We’ve partnered with big electrical companies that work on those solar projects. Sometimes we’ve worked directly for energy companies. But it’s a significant part of our business and it’s a growing part of our business.

I think that also helps with making it a great place to work because there are options if you want to travel. If you want to go work up in Paradise, if it makes your soul feel better to go get people started again, or if they want to learn a different area [of the company]. And we like our executives to be well-rounded, so we very purposely move people through our different markets as well as working out in the field on projects.

Because of Senate Bill 1 and the gas tax that’s been implemented, I think public works construction in California is going to be a growth area. There’s a lot of infrastructure throughout our state that is terribly inadequate and needs upgrading. So I think that’s going to be a big growth area certainly over the next five to 10 years. California has a lot of catching up to do.

5 Sukut Construction

Founded: 1968

Industry: Heavy construction and civil engineering

U.S. headquarters: Santa Ana

OC locations: 1

OC employees: 175

Website: sukut.com

Years named a Top Workplace: 5

Quote: “If management really honestly believes that their employees are their greatest assets, and behaves accordingly, I think you create a great place to work and somewhere where people want to work.” Michael Crawford, CEO of Sukut Construction

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Top Workplaces 2019: Panda Restaurant Group, where each employee matters

In the ultra-competitive world of fast-food chains, Panda Restaurant Group has emerged a winner.

The Rosemead-based company — which includes Panda Express, Panda Inn and Hibachi San — has grown to the nation’s largest Asian restaurant chain with 2,167 Panda Express, four Panda Inns and 18 Habachi San eateries for a combined 2,200 restaurants.

The company has faced challenges in the form of lawsuits alleging wage and hour discrimination, workplace safety and employment discrimination, but Panda says it places a strong emphasis on programs that promote and support employees.

This is the fifth consecutive year Panda has landed in the Top Workplaces program. Employees in the survey called the work fun and challenging, noting that “everyone is treated equally and it doesn’t have to be serious all the time. It feels like a family.”

The company answered the Register’s questions via email. They have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why do you think your company has done so well?

A: We are so grateful for the successes we’ve had, and we believe they are due to the strong values our founders, Andrew and Peggy Cherng, have built Panda Restaurant Group on. With a company that is purpose-led and values-driven, you create a culture that fosters a sense of belonging and family. We truly are vested in the growth of our associate, both personally and professionally, and strive to help them achieve their goals.

Additionally, we have a Panda Associate Assistance Fund that allows fellow associates to aid one another in times of need. For example, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Panda Express provided payroll advances along with other necessities to associates who were out of work due to the storm thanks to funds raised by our associates. This is just one of the many examples of kindness and togetherness we are fortunate enough to see at Panda every day. Our company succeeds when our people succeed.

Q: How do you stay ahead of the competition?

A: At PRG, we strive for an environment where continuous learning, a healthy lifestyle and respect for others are emphasized and acknowledged. To achieve this, we offer not only competitive benefits and compensation but also opportunities for our associates to grow. Whether employees participate in leadership and functional skill classes at University of Panda or take part in our Learning Benefit Program, which allows them up to $2,500 in college tuition assistance, we aim to provide our associates with the tools they need to achieve success.

Additionally, we believe in a “whole person” approach to health which entails physical, mental and emotional well-being and we provide associates access to competitive benefits that support all three. We are dedicated to constantly evolving our benefits program to best support our growing family of associates.


There are currently 2,167 Panda Express locations. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Q: What are some of the things the company does to benefit employees?

A: Aside from the competitive benefits such as pay and paid time off, PRG carries its philosophy of giving over to its associates. Panda Cares, Panda Express’ philanthropic arm that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, not only focuses on giving back to the communities in which it serves, but also giving back to its employees in times of need such as natural disasters or illness. Our strong commitment to our Panda family is an invaluable trait that differentiates PRG from other workplaces.

Q: Can you talk about how leadership plays a role in keeping staff engaged and part of the overall process?

A: We look to our leaders to set the tone in creating an environment where associates’ voices are heard, and they are inspired to create a better life for themselves and to inspire others to do the same. They are able to do this as our leaders have had the chance to move through the ranks themselves and experience all aspects of the job.

Panda Express continuously promotes from within, with the internal promotion rate from hourly to management positions being 70 percent while multi-unit managers and above are 100 percent internally promoted, including operation leaders. It is because of these opportunities that our leaders are able to set the tone and keep associates engaged and excited about their futures.

Q: How have rising minimum wage requirements in various states and cities affected your company?

A: We are committed to the personal development of our associates and it is our priority is to take care of our people. PRG offers a great career path, so we feel it’s important to invest in our employees and because of this, we offer above minimum wage in most of our regions.

2 Panda Restaurant Group

Founded: 1973

Industry: Restaurant chain

Headquarters: Rosemead

OC locations: 57

OC employees: 764

Years named a Top Workplace: 5

Website: pandarg.com

Quote: “Our strong commitment to our Panda family is an invaluable trait that differentiates PRG from other workplaces.” — The executive team at Panda Restaurant Group

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Top Workplaces 2019: Optima Tax Relief finds ways to ease dealing with the IRS – for clients and staff

What better way to celebrate the end of the tax season than to heave a bowling ball and knock over as many pins as possible?

That’s how employees of Optima Tax Relief in Santa Ana, on a company-sponsored trip to a bowling alley, shed some of their stress from dealing with the Internal Revenue Service and the California Franchise Tax Board this year.

But the work Optima does on behalf of individuals and businesses that owe significant money to the government — anywhere from $10,000 to more than $1 million — goes on year-round.

Optima specializes in tax debt resolution, a complicated and contentious process that typically involves a three-year commitment to a client. And they are good at it: This year the company exceeded the $1 billion mark in tax debt resolution since its start in 2011.

Optima continued to see growth in demand for its services, thanks in part to the sweeping Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that took effect in 2018.

“What we had found was record numbers of folks who extended and didn’t file on time,” said Optima CEO David King. “At the high level, more and more people are moving to non-compliance and choosing not to participate in the tax administration.”

More demand for services meant more people had to be hired at both the Orange County headquarters and a satellite office in Arizona. King estimated Optima added about 120 employees in Santa Ana since last year and projected another 100 local hires over the next 12 months. Most of staff churn, he said, involves entry-level employees.

Optima nurtures staff with company-wide events — such as festive offsite meetings at a movie theater and annual company picnic and visit to Knott’s Berry Farm — and a budget for department heads to treat their teams to a quarterly outing. Charitable giving is encouraged with paid time off to volunteer and fundraisers for causes each department chooses to support.

“We find it’s therapeutic for them to give relief to others,” King said. “It really translates well when they’re on the phone and somebody is extremely stressed out with their tax case.”

King told The Register more about how Optima goes about doing its business.

Q: This is Optima’s fifth year in a row as an Orange County Register Top Workplace. What’s your secret?

A: We’re in a difficult space. We stay with the client, unlike other financial services, for a period of three years almost because the IRS is extremely slow and somewhat archaic in their processing of files. They’re not very innovative or technology forward.

So we really need to instill a culture of care here. That resonates right through to the clients. It’s really out of necessity. But more importantly, it’s just who we are. The people we hire generally have that backbone of caring and wanting to provide relief to others and really helping out.

Q: How did you get your employees up to speed on the new tax law?

A: We really doubled down on training.

We have two specific training wings. One is on the career development side, to invest in our people and encourage them to grow. It helps with retention, of course, but also we think it really helps create new leadership from within. That’s a must in this job climate.

Also, we have department-level training. We provide certifications and an iterative process to help our team grow and become more efficient on the phone and better prepared to handle any client’s needs.

We need more licensed staff to handle the amount of clients that are coming our way and the growth. So we promoted becoming what’s called an enrolled agent – a licensed tax professional. We’ve been able to create more enrolled agents from within.

The beauty of this is that (someone) can be hired at the $16 an hour mark and quickly ascend through our org chart and be earning over $100,000 in essentially months.

Even better, we pay for all that education.

Q: In a way, the new tax law was fortunate for your company?

A: You could say that. If they’re collecting and enforcing the tax laws, then more and more people are moved to call Optima. We see a quick uptick in business if the IRS sends out a big wave of collection letters.

One thing they did in 2018, for the first time in Optima’s existence, they actually increased in their overall revenue collection through enforcement. It had been on a downward spiral. They set a record of revenue collection.

Q: Do you have any worries right now about the economy slowing or possible recession?

A: You’ve heard the saying about death and taxes. When there is a recession, it doesn’t really impact this business because there are still going to be taxes owed and the IRS is still going to try to collect them.

One thing that will happen is that more and more people will qualify for hardship programs that the IRS offers. It’s actually a good thing for us in a lot of ways because we are able to help more people if they are struggling to pay.

5 Optima Tax Relief

Founded: 2011

Industry: Tax resolution

U.S. headquarters: Santa Ana

OC locations: 1

OC employees: 598

Website: optimataxrelief.com/

Years named a Top Workplace: 5

Quote: “One thing we’ve done really well is create that culture of care. We really doubled down on our charitable giving efforts and making our presence felt in the community as well. We’ve found that our staff loves to give back.”  David King, CEO of Optima Tax Relief

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Top Workplaces 2019: Where employees are a company’s most valuable resource

When you own a business, employees are your most valuable resource.

Whether you’re selling auto parts, insurance or providing web design services, your employees’ expertise, work ethic and ability to function as a team will largely determine the success of your company.

But finding the right people isn’t easy. A 2018 report from Goldman Sachs reveals that 70 percent of small businesses struggle to find and retain skilled talent. Job seekers can afford to be choosier as a result since they have a wider range of career options to choose from.

One of the attributes of job seeker looks for in a top workplace is flexibility, according to Cynthia Shapiro, a career strategist based in Los Angeles.

“I’ve had several clients walk away from lucrative job offers because the company was too rigid,” she said. “Flexibility is where everything is going. It used to be ‘our way or the highway,’ but more and more companies have been loosening up with relaxed dress codes, bring your dog to work … all of that. But that does mean you’ll be working more hours because the line between work and home has been blurred.”

Bosses tend to pile on additional duties for employees who work from home because they see an empty chair, Shapiro said. But most work-at-home employees get more done, anyway.

“Even though the workload ramps up a bit they are more productive because they don’t have to sit through long-winded meetings or hour-long discussions about ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” she said.

So what kinds of perks can a CEO or HR manager offer to attract the kind of people they need? Crowdspring, an online marketplace for outsourced creative services, and ProStaff, a staffing and employment agency, offer some tips:

Flexible work schedules: Let’s face it, employees in today’s workplace often value their time as much as the compensation they receive. Flex hours, flex days and remote work give them the ability to balance their work and personal lives. So that top manager will have time to make it to her daughter’s dance recital, while another worker will be freed up to spend more time with an ailing parent. It’s a quality-of-life difference.

Opportunities for advancement: This is another biggie. No one wants to remain stagnant in one job forever. The promise of career advancement is a compelling enticement for both new hires and current employees. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 87% of millennials feel career growth opportunities are important in a job.

A positive corporate culture: The average American spends most of their day at work, so having a welcoming work environment makes a difference. A workplace fueled by long hours, harsh criticism and manipulative tactics won’t help any business retain employees. It won’t lure in many new workers either, as negative feedback tends to get around.

Companies should encourage their workers to treat each other as teammates, and bosses can make the workplace more desirable by creating opportunities to socialize. Group lunches, happy hours and “anything goes” meetings where employees can talk — about anything but work — will help.

Competitive wages: Businesses should start by determining the median wage for each job opening their company has. That will provide a clear picture of what people will expect to make. PayScale and Glassdoor are great resources for this. But keep in mind, it’s pricier to live in Southern California than in Peoria, Ill., so the compensation a business offer to out-of-state applicants should reflect California’s higher housing costs as well as higher prices for everything from gasoline and clothing to food and entertainment.

Crowdsourcing: Sometimes, employers aren’t in search of another full-time employee. They might be looking for part-time help to complete a project or list of tasks — someone who can scale their hours to match the company’s needs. That’s where crowdsourcing comes in. With so much gig work going on these days, there’s a deep pool of talent out there to choose from. Finding someone who will work part-time saves money and also allows a company to “audition” a worker for a permanent position that may crop up in the future.

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Top workplaces 2018: Sidepath’s commitment to staff keeps it a step ahead

  • Sidepath office in Lake Forest, CA on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Sidepath President Jim Andronaco, left, and company Vice President Patrick Mulvee at their Laguna Hills office. They try to keep employees happy with bonuses and benefits. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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  • Sidepath President Jim Andronaco shows off his ping-pong skills while his employees watch. He makes sure the Laguna Hills office is a fun place to work. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Patrick Mulvee and Jim Andronaco, from left, with Sidepath, stand next to a solutions center at their office in Lake Forest, CA on Monday, October 29, 2018. The center shows different data center technology available to their clients. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Ask the founder of telecom IT company Sidepath in Laguna Hills what sets it apart from other firms and you get a pretty astonishing point of pride: The company has not lost a single employee to a competitor in its 12-year history.

Jim Andronaco, who owns the company with Patrick Mulvee, said the firm’s commitment to excellence keeps it a step ahead of the pack. Employees from the top down get ownership benefits, training and direct communication with the bosses. These strategies and workplace tools help Sidepath’s staff adapt to the industry and keep their customers front and center, he says.

Employees in the annual Top Workplaces survey said they feel like they’re “part of something great,” and are “excited to be part of a growing and successful company — and to work with owners that care for everyone’s well being.”

“There aren’t enough words,” said another. “I just love, love, love my job.”

Andronaco shared more about how Sidepath, which has landed in the Top Workplaces program for four consecutive years, continues to rank highly among the best companies in Orange County:

Q: Describe the things you do to retain and attract employees.

A: I believe our focus on autonomy and mastery are main reasons we can attract top talent. Most high-achieving individuals want to believe in what they represent and have the opportunity to be the best at it. We are able to retain top talent by giving them a purpose. All of our employees have direct access to ownership. Quarterly one-on-ones encourage input and ideas for change, which are seriously considered and implemented regularly. Our employee recognition events, such as our recent company trips to Alaska and Mexico, also help.

Q: How does your company stand out within its industry as a top workplace?

A: Sidepath is known throughout the industry for its commitment to excellence. Our entire team is focused on customer satisfaction and delivering the best experience possible. This has enabled Sidepath to attract top talent from our competitors. We have not lost a single employee to a competitor in our 12-year history.

Q: How does leadership play a role in keeping staff engaged and part of the overall process?

A: Leadership continuously meets with all employees to discuss the direction of the business and what changes to expect. Input from all employees is encouraged and implemented.

Q: How do you incorporate training to ensure workers are up to date with the latest technologies?

A: Based on interest and job responsibility, employees work with leadership to determine a training path, which is reviewed quarterly. Employees are given the time and resources to participate in training to expand their expertise and stay up to date as technologies change. For example, one of our employees recently received a full scholarship to participate in a 12-week Cybersecurity Leadership Program, a rapidly growing and changing segment in the industry, and will be able to share this skill set with the team.

Q: Are employees encouraged to share ideas, as well as workplace concerns, with management?

A: Absolutely. In addition to ad hoc discussions and quarterly one-on-ones, a year-end review takes place. At that time, we request feedback regarding the three things that worked the best at Sidepath and the three areas they would like to see change.

Q: Are workers encouraged to be involved in community or charitable causes?

A: We encourage but don’t require. In 2015, Sidepath was named Dell’s “Philanthropic Partner of the Year.” Sidepath has been very philanthropic in the local community, committing time and resources to causes like the Orange County Childhood Language Center and The Boys & Girls Club, as well as many other national organizations including Susan G. Komen, the American Diabetes Association, Autism Speaks, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Rank: 2

Sidepath

Headquarters: Laguna Hills

Founded: 2002

Industry: Information technology

Local employees: 40

Website: sidepath.com

Quote: “We are able to retain top talent by giving them a purpose. All of our employees have direct access to ownership,” Jim Andronaco, co-owner of Sidepath

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Top Workplaces 2018: Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning

  • Leland Smith, owner of Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Leland Smith, center, owner of Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning, with some of his employees in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

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  • Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018 has been selected as one of the Top Workplaces. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • One of the many inspirational messages painted on the walls at Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Sandra Leocadio works at her desk at Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Leland Smith, center, owner of Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning, with some of his employees in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Austin Smith works in his office at Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

  • Samantha Becker works at her desk at Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning in Brea on Monday, October 29, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

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Leland Smith had the best of reasons for choosing Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning as the name for the company he started in Brea on March 1, 2000, with just himself in the office and six guys in the field.

“I really wanted to be the champions of service,” Smith, a native of Kentucky, says in a voice as smooth and warm as a bourbon hot toddy.  “I really wanted to be the best at what we did. I spent a lot of time looking for some of the best people.”

He paid his first employee, Jim Dotson, to stay home for three months and not take another job while Smith got Service Champions up and running. Dotson remains on staff, arguably the top industry salesperson in the country, Smith says.

With 188 employees and 15 to be trained before year’s end, Service Champions has grown exactly to the expectations of Smith, who has 36 years in the HVAC business. And not by accident.

Smith, 64, nurtures a workplace culture that revolves around making sure every customer is completely satisfied and every employee is well-trained, well-paid and well-versed in how to be a champion — for the customers, for each other, and for the community.

The company encourages all its staff to do good deeds, like the annual Thanksgiving turkey drive that fed 500 families in 2017. The tradition was started by an employee grateful for a $25 gift card from the company that paid for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner his first year there. In 2018, Service Champions was named Outstanding Corporation or Business, Mid-Size, for National Philanthropy Day Orange County.

Smith didn’t want to reveal company wages, but said technicians that work for Service Champions are paid while going through 12 weeks of training — in-house only for the past nine years or so — and start at higher than typical entry-level salaries. He’s looking into bumping up the folks in the call center because “they may be a little bit underpaid for our expectations.”

A 401(k) match is guaranteed, and the company picks up much of healthcare costs.

“We do great work and those installers make really good money — more than anybody out there that does the same job. Our salespeople make more than most. Everybody here really does,” Smith says. “I try to make sure they’re paid above because I want to keep them.

“I pay on the top end of everything, but I expect the top end from them on everything.”

Asked why they love their jobs, employees said things like: “I feel appreciated for the work I do.” “I have opportunity for growth, and it is a fantastic work environment.” “My opinions matter to management.” “This is more than just a job. It’s a family.”

OK, so there was this response too: “THE CRAZY MONEY I MAKE.”

Here’s more of what Smith had to say about Service Champions, condensed and edited for clarity.

Q:  How do you attract and retain employees, especially in a tight job market?

A. First, we don’t hire any of our competitor’s employees. We don’t look for them. We recruit every week. We have a class every 12 weeks of 15 to 20 techs. We have a full-time trainer. I think we just hired a second trainer. All they do is train these new guys.

What I look for is personality. Would my wife and my daughters feel comfortable with this man in the house alone with him? Is he communicating: Does he talk well, does he explain things well? We can teach them the technical. But we can’t teach a personality.

Q. What other things do you do for your employees?

A. We have our annual picnic. We encourage our employees to bring their kids and their grandkids. We had 360 people at it and every kid got a toy. Our Kickoff Party (in March) is just for adults. We celebrate employees a lot with recognition.

We have a once-a-month, all-company meeting. We introduce all the new employees. We play trivia and we give out some cash.

Q. What role does community service play in your workplace?

A. We started about 13 years ago with a thing called Memorable Moments. Had a guy named James Navarro, he was the first one who did this. He’s still here today. I encouraged him to go out and create a memorable moment for a customer — do something they didn’t expect.

It turned into Good Deeds for Free (celebrated on a company blog). We encourage them to do, from your heart, what you think that a customer might need while you’re there. It’s as simple as bringing the garbage cans in. Or change light bulbs.

We’ve had a burglar stopped in progress. We’ve had guys change tires.

3

Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning

Headquarters: Brea

Founded: 2000

Industry: Residential HVAC

Local employees: 188

Website: ServiceChampions.com

Quote: “What I look for is personality. Would my wife and my daughters feel comfortable with this man in the house alone with him? Is he communicating: Does he talk well, does he explain things well? We can teach them the technical. But we can’t teach a personality.” Leland Smith, owner of Service Champions Heating & Air Conditioning

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Pay or perks: What defines a ‘best workplace’ in 2018?

The thesis that most workers prefer a quality workplace environment over pay raises is getting a major test.

Workers and modern-thinking bosses made a subtle pact during the past decade or so: Perks such as job flexibility and camaraderie — not to mention an occasional ping-pong table in the middle of the office — were deftly balanced against the traditional and unnerving give-and-take over salary.

This new arrangement was a something of a peace treaty between worker and boss. Nobody really expected a return to the days when a career was seen as a lifetime commitment by both sides. But novel thinking made on-the-job harmony a highly coveted workplace trait.

Numerous studies of workplace dynamics — including findings from the annual Best Workplaces Awards — reinforce a widespread feeling that pay had become a secondary driver of a worker bee’s satisfaction.

That comfort-over-cash sentiment may be changing. Let’s ponder some job-market data:

Inflation’s up: Southern California’s official inflation rate — up 4 percent in a year — is rising at the fastest pace in a decade. And housing costs remain a painful burden to many local households.

Opportunities are rising: The number of job openings in 13 Western states has risen 20 percent in a year and is double what was available mid-recession.

Improvements sought: A Federal Reserve study found 18 percent of U.S. workers asked for a raise or promotion last year while 29 percent sought a new job. In 2016, 15.7 percent sought a raise and 24.3 percent were filling out job applications.

Pay is up: Southern California workers are costing employers 3.6 percent more in salary and benefits this year vs. an average 2.7 percent annual hike in the previous four years.

More are quitting:  So far this year, twice as many workers in 13 Western states quit their jobs than those who left a position voluntarily in 2010 as the recession was ending.

And quitting pays: The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found wages for “job stayers” rose at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the first quarter vs. 4.1 percent for those who switched employers — the biggest difference in 18 years.

Look, we’re in new territory as 2018’s competition for talent is at an intensity many workers can’t remember. So, is it back to “show me the money” days?

Don’t forget that macroeconomic factors have been in play since the touchy-feely workplace was popularized.

The Great Recession was an economic shock to workers and bosses alike. Employees got firsthand experience of how unstable a career could be. Bosses realized profits and productivity — and even their own jobs — could vanish in a flash. So more “worker-friendly” workspaces and job rules felt like a win-win: Workers got some freedom; bossed saved some cash.

The downturn also tempered inflation for an extended period. Consumers and corporations were left skittish and bought less while demanding more discounts when they were in a buying mood.

For many bosses, raising prices was out of the question. That translated to less money for significant pay hikes. For many workers, pay hikes weren’t as badly needed for “cost of living” maintenance.

In 2018, that has all changed. Bosses pitching only a kinder, gentler workplace likely will be unable to staff up. Well, unless they pay up.

But the worker-centric changes to on-the-job life won’t go away any year soon. I can’t see flexible schedules or telecommuting or extra on-the-job training or increased worker input going away to any huge degree. How these kinds of amenities evolve as workers demand pay hikes will be fascinating to watch.

Will best-workplace practices still rule? Or will workers simple go where pay is highest?

DID YOU SEE?

California ranked as nation’s 5th fastest-growing economy

Southern California pay hits record highs as workers get more hours

California’s record low unemployment is far from perfect

Southern California homeownership on the rise, but still lags nation

California critic’s ultimate critique: He moved to Pennsylvania!

Southern California auto sales drop! Dip from peak or warning signal?

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Nominations open for 2018 Top Workplaces honors

Are you hiring, raising wages and saluting hard work?

The Orange County Register has launched its 11th annual Top Workplaces program and wants to hear from companies that create standout workplaces. The paper again has partnered with research firm Energage, which surveys companies in more than 40 major metro areas in the United States.

Last year, the Register’s program invited 1,325 local organizations to participate with 203 surveyed. The annual gala held in Anaheim recognized a record 140 local companies and organizations with more than 700 people attending.

If you think your company is a top workplace, here’s how you can get it nominated:

  • Who can be nominated: Any organization with 35 or more employees in the county is eligible to participate (can be public, private, non-profit, government).
  • Workplaces are evaluated by their employees using a short 24-question survey.
  • Companies will be surveyed during June through August.
  • Deadline to nominate: July 13
  • To nominate your firm online, go to ocregister.com/nominate
  • Nominate by phone: 714-442-2768

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