2009 Best Places To Work In Georgia

Readers tell us why their employers – including an electrical membership cooperative, a hospital, a hotel and a law firm – deserve a spot on our list.
Adam Komich
Creative Culture: Jabian partners|!!| from left|!!| Brian Betkowski|!!| Nigel Zelcer and Chris Reinking

Georgia is experiencing its highest jobless rate in decades and the line for unemployment benefits is only expected to get longer. Ask one of the 500,000 or so people who are out of work in Georgia about the best place to work and the likely answer is, “wherever I can find a job.”

So, putting together this year’s list of Best Places to Work in Georgia was a sobering enterprise. Several people interviewed allowed that they were just happy to still be working, and that in shaky economic times, the sense of family in the workplace really mattered.

For the fourth year, Georgia Trend asked readers to tell us why their place of employment was better than anyone else’s, and they posted their nominations online. We’ve limited this year’s list to 10 companies or organizations (profiled in alphabetical order). Three of them are repeat winners.

Editors based their selections only on the responses and letters written by employees, for whom smaller often seems to be better – a number of small companies made the list. And oddly enough in this economy, some of the most convincing arguments for workplace goodness came from the banking industry – two banks and one banking services company made this year’s list.

Bank of North Georgia


Kessel Stelling, President/CEO

News – even bad news, and there’s been plenty of that in banking – travels fast from person to person at this company of 670, and that’s the way the employees like it.

“We never have to guess what’s going on because the communication here is great,” says Cheryl Dougherty, assistant vice president of cash management services. “We feel like we know what’s going on, that our opinions matter and we’re all part of the decision making process.”

For starters, there’s the 30-minute conference call that CEO Kessel Stelling delivers for all team members, and his open-door policy that, roughly translated, says, “Let’s meet face to face.” There are the emails from the corporate office, notifying everyone every time anything happens to an employee or her family.

“It’s been a tough couple of years for banking in general, and it’s important to open all lines of communication,” Stelling says. “It’s about treating people honestly, with dignity and respect.”

Sometimes, as in any family, honesty hurts. There have been staff reductions and pay freezes, and it’s only served to bring the workforce closer, some BNG employees say.

The bank also offers flexible hours for working moms, regularly furnishes movie, concert or play tickets to employees and provides full benefits to part time workers.

“I call it a culture of the heart,” Dougherty says.

This marks the third year that BNG has been named to the “Best Places To Work” roster.

Flint Energies


Robert Ray, CEO

This company takes energy seriously. Sure, the 234 employees in this 72-year-old electrical membership co-op help bring power to 17 central Georgia counties. But each of those workers is given the opportunity to bring an added spark to the communities they serve.

“The leadership here encourages us to be a part of the community, they want us to make a difference,” says Anita Moreno, organizational development coordinator (i.e., human resources).

They find plenty of opportunities.

For example, there’s Habitat for Humanity. James Jackson (load management) heads up Flint’s volunteer effort there, and recruits volunteers throughout the company to build and repair homes on weekends.

And there’s the Linemen for Little Ones program. Flint’s linemen donate money to buy gifts for disadvantaged kids during the holiday season. The lucky guy who plays Santa delivers the goodies in a decorated utility truck. To help support the program, employees from other departments held a cake auction on the internet last year and raised almost $2,000.

The company looks after its own through the Employee Emergency Fund – each worker donates at least dollar a month. A few years ago, the fund helped one Flint family whose house had burned down buy Christmas gifts.

Flint also offers its staff a number of advancement opportunities, including 100 percent grants for college tuition and books and a mentoring program that partners longtime employees with younger workers.

City of Franklin

Brad Yates, Mayor

Sandi Allen says she feels like a piece in a puzzle, and she loves it.

“Combined with everyone else who works here, we make a statement of love and caring for each other and all the people of our great city,” says Allen, 61, who left the Heard County Sheriff’s Department to become a probation officer with the city government a little more than three years ago.

The tried and true family atmosphere manifested itself recently when the husband of one of Allen’s co-workers died tragically.

“Everyone came together to help her through this ordeal,” says Allen, who serves as a Heard County commissioner in her spare time. “We got up the money to feed about 300 people after the funeral.

“Also, she needed time off but didn’t have enough time built up so she could receive pay. So people who had time built up donated their hours, so she could take the time off she needed and receive a paycheck.”

To foster the sense of camaraderie, Mayor Yates started monthly potluck dinners for the city’s 15 or so employees and their families. That, in turn, has helped nourish the city staff’s dedication to service.

“In all my working years I have never worked in a place [like this] where no one is out for their personal benefit,” Allen says. “Everyone is working for the good of the city.”

Jabian Consulting


Brian Betkowski, partner

Chris Reinking, partner

Nigel Zelcer, partner

Employees at this management and IT consulting firm say they are challenged to be creative, innovative and immersed in the community. That’s not an accident.

“We’ve worked hard on creating that culture since day one,” says Nigel Zelcer, partner in the four-year-old firm, which has a staff of 35. “Our people are our number one asset.”

Zelcer and the Jabian senior executive team came from large consulting groups, and it left an impression.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How do we make people feel like part of the firm, and not just a number within a large organization?’” Zelcer says. “We tell our people during the interview process, this isn’t about a job, it’s about a career, professional growth. We’re out to grow people’s careers, our company and our place in the community.”

Innovation, passion and leveraging personal talents are core values of the company, writes Andy Bryant, one of Jabian’s “solution architects,” who adds, “I’ve never worked with a group of more capable and inspired colleagues.”

The company has added employees through the recession, and leadership virtually de-mands a balanced work-life environment.

Says manager Dan Noyd, “At a recent dinner where we were celebrating the winning of a new client, the partners challenged me to ensure that I wasn’t overworking myself.”

The partners also stress commitment to the community, so Jabian’s workforce is actively involved in the work of more than a dozen charity organizations, according to Reinking.

Omni Hotel at CNN Center


Jon Hunter, General Manager

Robert “Sarge” Lunsford has worked as a doorman at the 1,070-room luxury hotel for 34 years, meeting and greeting governors, movie stars, moguls, Ted Turner and leaders of the free world.

“I’ve met them all,” says Lunsford, who donned his doorman’s uniform following a 21-year hitch in the Marines, including two tours in Vietnam. “Everyone from the president on down. The night Jimmy Carter got elected, he stayed here.”

Lunsford drives to work five days a week from his home on Lake Oconee, and at 74 feels he has plenty of gas to go for 40 years. Fact is, he’s just not ready to leave. He loves his job.

In an industry known for mobility and turnover, 89 of the hotel’s 542 associates have been working at the Omni for five years or more, 72 for 10 years or more.

Beyond the norms, such as dental plans and flexible hours, the company offers its employees the LID program – Leadership in Development, which allows cross-training opportunities for workers who want to move to a higher or different position within the company.

When it comes to community involvement, like the mentoring program at a local elementary school, employees are allowed to incorporate that time into their workday.

“Every decision we make is based not only on the needs of ownership and the satisfaction of our guests, but on empowering our workforce,” says General Manager Jon Hunter.

Owen, Gleaton, Egan, Jones & Sweeney, LLP


Amy Kolczak, Managing Partner

This is a law firm that expects every one of its associates to become a partner eventually.

“We do not have an expected attrition rate here,” says Managing Partner Amy Kolczak. “That’s why no one wants to leave.”

Kolczak is a perfect example – she began her career at this firm, which claims to value its people more than the dollar.

“We have a very reasonable billable goal for our associates,” Kolczak says. “Whereas most firms put that figure at 2,000 hours, our billable goal is 1,750 hours. We all have outside interests and we have the time to devote to them.

“We think it’s good to have happy attorneys and a happy staff.”

And the 41 employees (27 are lawyers) seem pretty happy with the fact that all of their benefits are entirely paid for by the firm. The twice-a-year company picnic at Pied-mont Park is always well attended, as are the rafting trips, Shakespeare Festival and “Martinis and IMAX” outings. They also take time to serve dinner several times a year at a nearby homeless shelter.

“A lot of firms talk about the work-life balance during the recruitment process,” says associate attorney Mark Meliski. “At this firm, everybody lives it. We have the talent and resources of a large firm, but we’re small enough to develop individual client relationships, and we have plenty of time to get involved in pro bono work.”

This is the second year the firm has been on the “Best Places” roster.

The Peoples Bank


Christopher Maddox, President/CEO

Orlease Hosin had been working at the bank for five years when she passed her exam for citizenship in the United States. So, a surprise breakfast, complete with red, white and blue banners, took her by surprise. Sort of.

“I did not expect that, but even before the surprise of a lifetime, this place made me feel like the most important person in the room,” says Hosin, who comes from Jamaica. “I’ve felt a special connection here since the interview process.”

Even in trying times for the industry – or especially in trying times – this bank makes it easy for employees to walk in the door each day. While insurance rates have shot through the roof, the bank has absorbed all the increases, which in turn stimulates the pay-it-forward mentality at the company.

The recently unveiled HEROES program (for Helping Everyone Reach Out Everyday and Serve) actually gave $100 each to its 128 employees, who are allowed to give to the individual, family or organization of their choice. The only rule is, they can’t spend it on themselves.

And employees have been creative, joining forces to leverage their dollars. One group gathered $2,000 to buy school supplies for 50 local students – all of whom also received $10 with the requirement that they pay it forward.

“The economy is down, our bank is struggling like all the others, but we’re gonna survive because of the commitment of our employees,” says President/CEO Christopher Maddox. The Peoples Bank was also a “Best Places” winner last year.

Safe Systems, Inc.


Darren Bridges, President

Ralph is one of the reasons Jennifer Ficke thinks Safe Systems is the best place to work in Georgia. He’s the office chaplain.

“He comes in every two weeks just to hang out with us and bring us donuts,” says Ficke, networking operations center coordinator for a company that helps the ailing financial industry implement technology solutions.

Salary and benefits, she says, are merely icing on the cake for the 45-person firm.

“The atmosphere is laid back but professional. I can meet my deadlines wearing flip flops.”

This is a place that has a pull, like north on the compass – people may leave, but they come back.

“I left after two years to take a job with a Fortune 500 company, but after three years of that I realized the best place for me was Safe Systems,” says Michael Walker, regional sales manager.

Another RSM, Brent Amyette, was a Safe Systems customer when he was working IT for a startup bank, which gives him a two-way vantage point.

“You can imagine what the sales trend has been like in such a down year,” he says. “But our company does a fantastic job of watching my back, rolling out new, evolving products. It shows me that this company is running a marathon, not a sprint.”

St. Francis Hospital


Robert Granger, CEO

Granger calls it “a holistic family approach to not only caring for our patients, but for one another and the community outside these walls.”

He’s talking about the CHEERS program – Caring Hospital Employees Envision Real Success. Since it was launched in 1994, about 95 percent of the 1,800 employees at St. Francis have contributed more than $1.3 million to help people in the greater Columbus area.

The money supports a fund to provide medicine for patients who can’t pay for it themselves; financial aid for employees in crisis – someone who can’t afford a flight out of town for a family funeral, for example; college scholarships for associates interested in furthering their healthcare careers; and about 20 percent of the total for the United Way.

“I’d love to take credit for the environment here, but it’s been here a long, long time,” Gran-ger says.

The hospital does the usual, recognizing nursing caregivers with a Daisy Award. But the hospital foundation also honors an “Unsung Hero” every other month. One recent winner happened to be at Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport when she met someone, a complete stranger, who had flown in to visit a patient down in Columbus. So she gave him a ride.

“We have a lot of stories like that, it’s part of a 60-year tradition here,” says Monika Sanders, administrative director of human resources.

Southeast Regional Research Group


Joe Surber and Jeff Kingsley, co-founders

“This is not a dictatorship,” says Dr. Joe Surber, who started this small company (17 employees) that manages clinical research studies. “We designed this company as a level playing field, everyone has a say. If there’s a better way or different way to do something, we want to know about it.”

His partner, Dr. Jeff Kingsley adds, “We designed the business and our expansion strategy around our people.”

They even created a company holiday – SERRG Day – because there wasn’t enough time to just chill in the spring. Everybody gets the day off with pay. The doctor partners also host an annual Halloween party for the staff, and throw a formal awards dinner every year (bringing the entire crew to a different city each time), and cover 80 percent of the staff’s health insurance premiums.

And like every other company on our list, the employees at this one, the smallest of the bunch, feel compelled to involve themselves in community service. Targets of their affection have included outreach in the Magdalene Project, an emergency shelter in the Savannah area that serves single, underprivileged women with children.

Categories: Business Industry, Features