Great Places To Work
Perks like flex-time and in-house gyms are increasingly popular at local firms. But at the nine companies we’ve profiled, it’s the overall work environment that keeps employees happy. PLUS: the hot new job sectors.
Great Places To Work
Ah, work. Too many of us dread Monday mornings. Is your boss a tyrant, your cubicle claustrophobic, your job mind-numbingly dull? Or has your soaring ambition run smack into a brick ceiling? Well, cheer up. The Hudson Valley is not only a great place to live; it’s also a terrific place to earn a paycheck and build a satisfying career. Here, we profile nine local organizations that get high marks from their workers (and, in some cases, the national media). Of course, determining what makes one employer better than another is totally subjective. And besides, we don’t have the space to list all the firms that probably deserve to be mentioned here. But whether they make computer chips or drug-testing kits, or help us primp, heal, or stay connected, these companies win kudos for making their employees happy.
By Valerie Havas
with additional reporting by Shannon Gallagher
Kiss My Face
Gardiner, Ulster County
It all began back in the early 1980s with a single bar of soap. Bob MacLeod and Steve Byckiewicz, two New York City refugees, were looking for a way to make a living in the country. Browsing in a Woodstock shop, they came upon a bar of olive-oil soap that had been made in Greece. After tracking down the importer, they began selling the half-pound bars, along with squash from their organic garden, out of the back of a Volkswagen. From those humble beginnings a thriving business was born. Today, Gardiner-based Kiss My Face sells more than 200 natural and organic products — everything from aloe-vera toothpaste to patchouli shower gel to organic shampoo — in 19 countries around the globe. The company uses no artificial colors, no animal ingredients, and no unnecessary chemical additives.
“We work with a lot of talented people who could probably have more lucrative jobs in Manhattan,” says MacLeod of the firm’s 45 employees. Early on, he recalls, the partners realized that their “secret weapon” was working mothers. “Mothers could juggle tasks,” he laughs. “They were better at multitasking than we were.” Today, the ratio of females to males on the staff is about 60/40, he says.
The company’s “world headquarters” is an unassuming building located on Gardiner’s Main Street, which — from the outside at least — still looks like the farmers’ co-op it used to be. Inside, staff are employed as sales reps and warehouse workers, as well as in marketing, finance, production, and shipping/receiving. “It’s a nice environment,” says MacLeod. “It’s cozy and comfortable, but at the same time very productive.”
Company perks, says MacLeod, include discounts on Kiss My Face products, early Friday-afternoon closings in summer, and “legendary Christmas parties.” Employees celebrating their 10th anniversary at the company receive a very special gift. “After people have worked here for 10 years,” he explains, “they get a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip for two to Greece.”
Comptroller Anna Bouchard started at Kiss My Face in 1987. Over the years, she worked her way up through various positions in the warehouse, the office, and the accounting department, despite leaving the company for a time to raise her children. “As the company grew, so did the staff, and I was asked to manage the office,” she recalls. Eventually, the firm became large enough to need a comptroller, and she stepped into the job.
In 1997, a fire tore through the warehouse and distribution center. “For me personally it was very devastating to see the ruins,” remembers Bouchard. She was impressed, though, that MacLeod and Byckiewicz managed to avoid layoffs while the company struggled to get back on its feet. “The staff all pitched in wherever they were asked to help out,” she explains. “It was a horrible time but also a time when we all came together, as any family would in a time of devastation.”
Indeed, Kiss My Face still maintains a family atmosphere, says Bouchard, despite having grown “in leaps and bounds.” Contributing to that family feeling is the fact that several Bouchards — Anna’s husband and one of her two children — also work there. “Kiss My Face has always gone overboard and accommodated all of us when it came to juggling our family and work lives,” she says. “We have all always been able to attend any of our children’s school functions, take them to the doctor, and stay home with them when they were sick.”
From both an ethical and professional point of view, Bouchard is more than satisfied with her job choice. “It has been a pleasure for me to be a part of the birth and rebirth of a successful company that is both environmentally conscious and family-friendly.”
Avon Products, Inc.
Global Research and Development Center
Suffern, Rockland County
When you think of Avon, you probably think of Avon ladies, those door-to-door purveyors of lipsticks, lotions, and the like. Yes, Avon still sells beauty products, and still has a fleet of independent sales reps (an estimated five million across the globe), many of whom are women. But what you may not know is that Avon also has a state-of-the-art global research and development center right here in the Valley.
Located in Rockland County, the center is stunning: 225,000 square feet of gleaming glass and steel. The $100 million facility, which opened in 2005, was built on the same site in Suffern as the original wood-frame Avon lab, which opened its doors in 1897. Inside the new center are climate-controlled testing rooms, high-tech labs flooded with natural light, inviting meeting spaces (witness the lips-shaped couch stationed outside a conference room), and areas set aside for things like package development and product-delivery simulations.
Overseeing the center is Janice Teal, chief scientific officer and the head of global R & D. “Our Global Research and Development Center is truly a terrific place to work,” declares Teal, who has been with the company for 25 years. “Avon scientists create and evaluate 1,000 products every year, and the innovative efforts have resulted in numerous technology breakthroughs and patents.”
Teal is especially proud of the work the R & D team has done to build on recent discoveries related to sirtuins. “Medical researchers uncovered naturally occurring youth proteins, called sirtuins, which are scientifically proven to extend the healthy lifespan of certain living organisms,” she says. At Avon, scientists applied that research to skin cells and came up with a new antiaging product, ANEW night cream.
Teal firmly believes that she oversees the best research and development team in the industry. “More than 300 associates work at our center in Suffern — world-renowned Ph.D.s, scientists, and support people from more than 23 countries around the world,” she declares. “They are dynamic, energetic, collaborative, and cutting-edge.”
Avon has always been something of a trailblazer. Long before women’s lib, the company granted women a rare opportunity to build their own careers and become financially independent. American women began selling the company’s products in 1886, more than three decades before they earned the right to vote. In 1989, the firm announced it was permanently banning all animal testing on its products — the first major cosmetics company in the world to do so. Since then, it’s taken a leading role in developing alternatives to animal testing. The Avon Foundation, notes Teal, funds treatment and educational programs in the areas of breast cancer and domestic violence. And its recently launched Hello Tomorrow Fund provides seed money for endeavors that aim to empower women.
Teal raves about her physical working environment. The Suffern facility “is truly striking,” she says. “It was designed to bring together the cutting-edge technologies that are a foundation of our research with the beauty that is representative of our industry. The building is modern and sleek, but at the same time soft and quite beautiful.”
From an employment standpoint, the corporate honchos at Avon are obviously doing something right: in recent years, the firm has landed on several magazines’ “Best Companies” lists, including Working Mother, Computerworld, and Fortune. Avon associates enjoy a number of perks: use of an in-house gym, discounts on cosmetics, paid maternity and paternity/secondary caregiver leave, and reimbursement (up to $10,000) of adoption-related expenses. At the Suffern facility, the “flex Fridays” program lets workers adjust their weekly schedule so they can leave at noon every other Friday. And employees can even drop off and pick up their dry cleaning at work. So if you should hear the familiar “Ding, dong — Avon calling,” you might consider sending in your résumé.
Orangeburg, Rockland County
Telecommunications giant Verizon has been widely recognized for its commitment to diversity. Last year, DiversityBusiness.com rated the company among the top 50 corporations for multicultural business opportunities. For the past five years, Latina Style magazine has dubbed it one of the 50 best companies for Latinas. And the firm consistently shows up in the top 10 on DiversityInc magazine’s “Top 50 Companies for Diversity” list.
“Diversity is part of Verizon’s DNA — from human resources and supplier relations to marketing and philanthropy,” declares Christopher Luis, director for diversity at Verizon Communications. “Maybe because we have traditionally operated in some of the most diverse markets in the country, we’ve always understood the need to find top talent from a diverse pool of candidates and made significant investments in all our employees. At Verizon, we believe diversity helps drive our success.”
The firm — which is composed of Verizon Telecom, Verizon Wireless, and Verizon Business — prides itself on helping employees strike a balance between their professional and family lives. In the past year, Working Mother magazine pegged it as one of the 100 best companies for working mothers. Family-friendly policies include child-care discounts, adoption benefits, and a backup care program that employees can use when their regular caregiver is unavailable, a family member is sick, or a loved one is recovering from a medical procedure.
The Verizon Wireless office in Orangeburg employs over 800 people. Manager Patricia Breyer appreciates the office’s on-site day-care facility, La Petite Academy. When she has time during the day, she checks up on her four-year-old son, Reece. “I can just take a peek or I can sit in with the kids, for example during circle time.” Sometimes, she plans a breakfast or lunch “date” with Reece in the company cafeteria. “He loves the attention from my colleagues and the special ‘Mom time.’ It’s a nice break in my day, too,” she admits.
After Reece was born, Breyer wound up extending her three months of paid maternity leave when he was diagnosed with a heart defect that required surgery, follow-up care, and regular therapy. “My boss allowed me to take an additional two months off,” she recalls. “And when I returned to work, she was flexible and allowed me to use vacation time two days a week for a month so I could be home when the therapists were scheduled.” Not once, she says, did she worry about losing her job.
When her father was sick, Breyer took advantage of Verizon’s Employee Assistance Program. “I was able to get free legal advice from an elder-care attorney to protect my aging parents’ finances,” she remembers.
Other company perks mentioned by Breyer include “break” rooms stocked with free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate; a gym that’s open until 7 p.m.; and a tuition-reimbursement program that enabled her to get an MBA in marketing. Plus, she says, “I have taken CPR classes here, and they offer yoga and chair massages for a nominal charge.” In fact, former colleagues who have moved on to other firms have told her that “it’s tough to match the benefits that Verizon Wireless provides to its employees.”
Garrison, Putnam County
Wanted: Outdoor adventure and education organization seeks inspirational visionaries to lead people on personal journeys of epic proportions. Okay, that’s not exactly an official job description, but it pretty much sums up the work of many Outward Bound employees. “Our mission is to inspire character development and self-discovery in people of all ages, with the intent to make the world a better place,” says Angie Gossett, vice president of human resources.
Sounds good to us.
The first incarnation of Outward Bound was born in Great Britain during World War II. Founder Kurt Hahn sought to instill confidence in young British seamen — who were being torpedoed by German U-boats — by leading them on experiential wilderness treks. Today, more than 60,000 people around the globe participate in Outward Bound programs each year. Their legendary wilderness courses encompass everything from trekking to dog sledding. The company also runs six urban centers, provides team-building programs for more than 400 businesses each year, and since 1992 has set up more than 140 Expeditionary Learning Schools nationwide, among other things. And all these businesses are run out of the national headquarters in Garrison — which translates into a plethora of employment opportunities, from administrative positions to burly backwoods leadership.
There are “hundreds of different job titles,” says Gossett: from instructors/facilitators to program managers to customer-service reps, safety managers to sales staff. The full-time staff of almost 300 is supplemented by approximately 900 seasonal employees. Many of these jobs are located throughout the U.S.; only the core management, financial, and administrative team — about 15 people — is based in Garrison.
So what about those wilderness instructors? Positions are available seasonally, but there’s plenty of incentive to work full-time. A credit-based wage system means the more you work, the more you make. Not that you’ll make oodles of money at Outward Bound, but many employees think the richness of their daily work life is worth it. (For the record, instructors usually earn somewhere between $80 and $125 a day) At Outward Bound Discovery, which focuses on programs for at-risk populations, full-time instructors typically teach up to nine courses over an 18-month period. Some teaching experience is required for almost all field positions, and wilderness instructors must have technical experience and a variety of certifications. If you don’t have any experience, you can start as an unpaid intern and let Outward Bound train you. “It takes about two seasons to move up to instructor,” says Gossett.
Outward Bound attracts a large percentage of staff fresh out of college, says Gossett, who notes they recruit from schools with experimental education majors, as well as from groups like AmeriCorps. But plenty of refugees from the corporate world also turn to Outward Bound in search of a more meaningful work life. “The average age range of our instructors is probably from the late-20s to the mid-30s,” says President and CEO John Read. “But we get all types. We get people who went on a course, became instructors, and then went off to have another career. Then, they return to us in retirement. We have one instructor who just led his last course at age 70.”
The relaxed attitude extends to every corner of Outward Bound. Telecommuting and generous flex time is all part of the company’s mission to foster healthy and happy employees. Another one-of-a-kind perk: full-time staff are allowed — even encouraged — to take a free course every two years (employees are paid and don’t need to use any vacation time). “We feel that staff are most effective when they really understand what we’re doing,” says Read, who took his first Outward Bound trip 15 years ago, almost a decade before joining the organization. “I was scared witless,” says Read about the rock climbing portion of his trip. “But as the course was coming to a conclusion, I discovered I was much more capable than I thought, and that I had a lot of potential in the rest of my life. This is really what we aspire to at Outward Bound.
“A lot of people who come to work for us end up staying. It’s not that everybody walks around happy all the time without a care in the world. The difference is, at the the end of the day, the work is fulfilling, and that makes all the tension worthwhile. It is easily the most challenging and rewarding job I’ve ever had,” says Read, who holds an MBA from Harvard and spent more than 26 years in top positions in both the public and private sectors before joining the organization in 2002. “The experience of transforming young lives — priceless.”
Poughkeepsie and Fishkill, Dutchess County
IBM has come a long way since 1941, when it began manufacturing operations in a converted Poughkeepsie canning factory. By 1985, the computer giant was a major source of jobs in the region, boasting 31,042 employees at its plants in Poughkeepsie, East Fishkill, and Kingston. The closing of the Kingston campus and the large-scale layoffs in the mid-1990s — the first ever for the company, which kept all its employees working even through the Depression — created a wave of local economic woes. Although the notion of lifelong job security is a thing of the past, IBM today remains a major economic force in the region, employing about 11,500 people in Dutchess County.
Among them is Peter Kelly, manager of Thermal Engineering and Technologies. For Kelly, a resident of Stone Ridge, one of the things he likes best about working for Big Blue is the other employees. “There are great people at IBM — it’s a smart, dedicated, fun group of people who come from many different backgrounds, all incredibly hard-working,” he declares. He also appreciates the fact that IBM encourages employees to be active in the local community. “My coworkers and I participate in many volunteer efforts,” he notes. “For several years now I have led local efforts on National Engineers Week to encourage the study of math and science in our schools.” Under the auspices of IBM, he’s also donated his time to the Astor Home for Children in Wingdale, Camp Seewackamano in Ulster County, and the Poughkeepsie Soup Kitchen. “These are always great experiences,” he says.
The job itself is equally rewarding. “I enjoy what I do,” Kelly comments. “Thermal engineering, or the cooling of electronics, is a wonderful technical challenge. We are constantly trying new things and evolving our technology. I find this very important, relevant, and interesting work. As an engineer, I also enjoy being part of an innovative company. IBM is the world’s leader in patents and very encouraging of innovation.”
Kelly’s team includes 18 engineers and technicians in three locations: Poughkeepsie; Rochester, Minnesota; and Tucson, Arizona. “I have a laboratory in each location set up to do extensive thermal analysis and testing,” he says. Responsible for creating the cooling systems for IBM’s hardware business, the team develops air-, water-, and refrigerator-based cooling systems for large computers called servers.
Despite its size, IBM is a “very family-friendly company,” insists Kelly; he points to the firm’s generous maternity, paternity, and adoption benefits. The range of work options — which include flex-time, part-time, job sharing, compressed work weeks, and working from home — is another big plus. “Workload and pressure are high, but we have great flexibility about when and where we get our work done,” he says. “Most people who don’t work at the plant work from home at least one day a week, which helps them keep up with family and personal responsibilities. You don’t have to call in sick when the plumber comes or your child stays home from school.”
Kelly isn’t the only one touting Big Blue as a great place to work. Working Mother ranked it as one of the top-10 employers for working women, based in part on the number of women in top positions, as well as on company policies regarding child-care and leave time for new parents. New mothers receive up to eight weeks of paid leave; employees can also opt for an unpaid parenting leave, which can last up to three years. The firm also offers paid adoption assistance, which includes free counseling, referrals with adoption specialists, and two weeks off (for both mothers and fathers) to bond with their child.
By allowing more than 32,000 employees to work from their homes in 2006, IBM also won a place on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of best workplaces for commuters. (The policy saved eight million gallons of gasoline, and kept 68,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere.) Company perks include a free recreation center at the East Fishkill facility, and IBM MoneySmart, a financial education and planning program that teaches employees about investing and personal finance. The IBM Club gives members discounts to sporting events, amusement parks, and retailers, and organizes special outings to Yankees games and other activities.
For Kelly, the ability to use his engineering know-how while staying close to his boyhood home is a significant part of IBM’s allure. The Dutchess County native enjoys taking full advantage of the company’s Valley location. “I love the outdoors and often hike, backpack, ski, canoe, and kayak,” he says. “This is a beautiful area, with endless natural resources.”
Highland, Ulster County
“There is a German, or European, mentality here. That’s one of the reasons why the company works so hard to provide such excellent health-care benefits at an affordable rate,” says Karen Biddiscombe, human resources administrator at Selux Corporation in Highland. Never mind that Selux, which designs and manufactures high-end interior and exterior lighting fixtures, doesn’t offer the four weeks of vacation that is standard throughout Europe. The creative atmosphere and ever-growing roster of pleasing perks are sure to light up the eyes of any employee.
A subsidiary of Semperlux (a German firm with facilities in several European countries), Selux has been based in the Valley since 1983. By landing some major U.S. projects — including lighting everything from museums and airports to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Kingston’s Benedictine Hospital — the firm has grown more than 20 percent each year for the last seven. “We’re growing phenomenally,” confirms Biddiscombe. “So we’re a fast-paced company, we work very hard. But it’s a creative environment — it’s project-oriented, we don’t mass-produce things.”
Currently, there are close to 120 employees at the Highland office, including about 75 union members who work in the factory. “We’re very entrepreneurial here, and that extends to our employees,” says Biddiscombe. “First, we have low turnover and promote from within. And it’s very important to [CEO and President] Veit Mueller to treat all the employees the same way, when at all possible. For instance, the health-insurance deductions are the same whether you work in the factory or you are an executive. The union gets built-in pay increases, but we also reward union people throughout the year based on merit. We have a great relationship with our union. They know we need to be able to manage our employees, move people around and cross-train them. We don’t want an assembler to say, ‘That’s not my job.’ That’s not the kind of place this is.”
But it is the kind of place that gives part-time employees full-time benefits. For medical, dental, vision, long-term disability, life insurance, and a new employee assistance program, an single employee working at least 21 hours a week pays a whopping $2.08 a week. For a family of two or more, it rises to $5.11 a week — unheard-of rates for a small company.
Selux is justifiably proud of its profit-sharing plan. “It’s based on your personal performance review,” explains Biddiscombe. “So you can mak