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In Depth: Human Resources Quarterly
} From the August 11, 2000 print edition

Finding fame in Fortune

Three Austin companies tapped to join 'Top 100 Best Companies to Work For'

Cindy Royal   Special To The Austin Business Journal

Austin continues to grow by leaps and bounds because people find it a great place to live. It's also a great place to work, according to Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" ranking. This year, three Austin area companies made the list: Whole Foods Market (No. 72), National Instruments (No. 77) and Dell Computer Corp. (No. 81).

For the third year, Fortune has derived its "100 Best Companies to Work For" list by first soliciting nominations, receiving 236 for this year's list selection, up from 206 for 1999. Companies and employees provided the nominations, and companies were scored on employee-driven and independent evaluation standards, with the rankings most heavily weighted toward employee input.

Evaluations addressed all aspects of work life and company culture including compensation, benefits, training opportunities, turnover, employee attitudes and perks.

Like a family: Whole Foods, No. 72

Whole Foods has made Fortune's "100 Best" for each of the past three years. Joan Hillsten, national human resources coordinator for Whole Foods, is proud of what her company has accomplished.

"It feels good to be on the list," Hillsten says. "It reaffirms to us that we have a really good place for team members to work."

Whole Foods is known for its employee-focused style. "Teamwork" becomes almost a corporate mantra, evident in the vernacular of the culture. Employees are "team members" and titles are functionally-based rather than hierarchical.

Amy Archinal, associate store team leader at the Sixth and Lamar Streets location, has been with Whole Foods for 12 years. To her, the culture goes a step beyond that of a team.

"Whole Foods is unique as a workplace. There is a strong sense of family and a definite sense of purpose, which is rare in this industry," Archinal says. "I definitely would not be working in the grocery industry if I were not at Whole Foods."

Becky Ellis, specialty team leader at the same location, emphasizes the sense of family and closeness.

"It's the people that you meet that make this a great place to work," Ellis says. "They seem to be more like your family, not just your co-workers."

Whole Foods rewards those who perform well through unlimited career growth potential, filling most positions internally regardless of specific education or experience. Aly Winningham, store system coordinator, is one employee who has benefited from this approach. She has been with Whole Foods for seven years in several different positions.

"I haven't gotten jobs in this company because of experience. Any time I have applied, I have gotten the job because I wanted it, even when I have been up against people from the outside with specific experience," Winningham says. "It makes me feel that the company believes in me and wants to see me grow."

Like many companies, Whole Foods offers a comprehensive set of benefits, but employees cite some unique options that reflect the company's commitment to the individual and the community. Whole Foods offers insurance coverage for domestic partners, an emergency fund to which team members can donate benefit hours to assist another employee in need, and a community service program that pays an employee's hourly wage for up to 40 hours of community service per year.

It's the people: National Instruments, No. 77

National Instruments, a supplier of computer-based measurement and automation products since 1976, made the Fortune "100 Best" for the first time this year. Founder and chief executive officer Dr. James Truchard, or as he is affectionately called by employees, Dr. T, feels that the ranking recognizes the values instilled in the company since its outset.

"I founded National Instruments because I wanted to work at a fun place that fosters innovation," Truchard says. "I'm proud to be on the Fortune `Best 100' because our employees voted to put us there. It is gratifying to know that we've maintained an entrepreneurial spirit among our employees while growing our business. Not many companies can say that."

With over 1,700 employees, National Instruments boasts a commitment to professional training and an open environment. Truchard often practices management by walking around and talking to employees, or what he calls "sneaker management." The company sponsors events and happy hours to foster cooperation, to keep morale high and to encourage open communication.

Alison Ferguson, corporate marketing manager, has been with National Instruments for four years. She says that her interactions with coworkers are the best part of her working environment.

"The people are really cool. We hire the best and brightest people in the industry among a pool of many engineers in the country," Ferguson says. "Everyone is really fun and easy going to work with."

Visitors to the National Instruments campus are greeted by a banner that proudly displays the Fortune "100 Best" ranking. The headquarters on north Mopac Expressway is nestled in a wooded environment.

"We have a trail that goes all the way through the campus," Ferguson says. "Dr. T was really good about making sure we kept a lot of the wildlife and terrain around the building preserved, so if you just need to think about things or if you want to brainstorm a bit, it's nice to go out there and walk the trail and get close to nature."

It is an important part of the culture of National Instruments to maintain the natural landscape in the face of corporate expansion.

"We have a big deck off of our building," Ferguson continues. "As we build the campus, we are building another building right next to it and it will also have a deck with a place in between with a garden where we will have parties and be able to hang out."

Success is their key: Dell Computer, No. 81

Dell Computer, based in Round Rock, has grown to over 36,000 employees since Michael Dell started the company in a dorm room at The University of Texas in 1984. Dell now holds the title of No. 1 supplier of personal computers in the United States.

Paul McKinnon, senior vice president of human resources at Dell, is quick to point out that his company made the list for the first time this year because it was the first time they had applied for it. He feels that his company's ranking in the "100 Best" comes as a direct result of being a successful business.

"One of the critical elements to being a great place to work is to have a great business," McKinnon says. "If you don't have a great business, then it is hard to get a sense of being a winner."

Product marketing manager Jonathon Guttell agrees that he gets satisfaction in taking part in the company's success. "I work with the Dimension product line, the consumer desktop, so our products get the most press in the computer magazines," Guttell says. "One of my favorite things to do is to read in a magazine about a project that I have worked on and how good it is. It is praise beyond work. It's from third parties."

Dell's success has driven the company to more than double the size of its workforce in the past two years. That growth dramatically increased the number and type of career opportunities for Dell employees.

"As the company grows it allows people to advance into different areas, as well as to broaden their scope," McKinnon says. "The main thing I think a good business does is that it spins off opportunities."

The company continues on its rapid growth pace, receiving more than 92,000 resumes per year. Those at Dell know, too, that rapid growth provides challenge as well as opportunity.

"In any growing business, oftentimes the challenge is to make sure that coaching and mentoring are provided, to make sure that managers are able to focus on the people side of the business," McKinnon says. "One of the easy things is to get caught up in the business itself and to not pay attention to what is perhaps most important, spending time having development discussions and coaching sessions with your people." Dell is addressing the question of development by instituting regular development planning for employees, McKinnon says.

Dell was also ranked No. 3 on Fortune's "America's Most Admired Companies" list in 1999.

The Austin influence: One of the best reasons

As a city, much of the culture of Austin permeates corporate attitudes and practices. At Whole Foods, the city has influenced the company from its outset. "Our current CEO John Mackey opened our first store here in Austin, and so much of our culture comes from John starting that first store: people working in teams, taking initiative, being responsible," Hillsten says. "That has continued throughout the company over the last 20 years. Those core values have been here since the beginning."

Austin also offers a strong talent pool due to the presence of the university and high tech concentration and the ability to attract qualified candidates because of the good quality of life here.

But Austin isn't the only Texas city with "Best Company" bragging rights. Fifteen Texas cities made the list. Dallas alone boasts not only the No. 1 "Best Company to Work For" in the Container Store, but three of the top four companies, with Southwest Airlines at No. 2 and TDIndustries, a construction and service company, at No. 4. Adding Irving and Fort Worth, the Dallas area had a total of eight companies on the list and Houston had four.

With numbers like that, and employees who support the reasons for those numbers, Texas -- especially Austin -- turns out to be not just a great place, but a great state, to work.

Cindy Royal is an Austin-based freelance writer.

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