Best Places to Work 2009

These are troubled times for Hawaii. Unemployment is at a 10-year high. Bankruptcies are up more than 100 percent from last year. Iconic local companies like Aloha Airlines and Molokai Ranch have vanished. Many others, struggling to survive, are laying people off, cutting benefits and reducing pay. Therefore, now may seem a frivolous or unrealistic moment to ask: Which companies are The Best Places to Work in Hawaii?

We don’t think so. In fact, we believe the economic crisis may be the ideal time for employers and employees to ask, “What are the most important qualities of the workplace?” Is it job security? Certainly one of a company’s greatest responsibilities to its employees is to stay in business. Is it a comprehensive roster of benefits? This year’s winners clearly provide excellent healthcare, vacation and education benefits.

It appears to be something more than that. Do these winners succeed because of a workplace climate that offers a sense of belonging, an atmosphere of trust and respect, a healthy balance of responsibility and reward? In this period of economic troubles, does success come back to that sometimes overused Hawaiian word, ohana?

We didn’t know the answers to these questions, so we decided to ask this year’s winners: “What does it mean to be a Best Place to Work in hard times?”

#1 Large Company: Maryl Group

Owner of Maryl Group
Mark Richards, owner of Maryl Group

Funny you should ask,” says Maryl Group president Mark Richards when we ask what it means to be a Best Place to Work in today’s battered economy. For him and his wife and cofounder, Cheryl, it’s not an idle question. “We just went through a companywide round of discussions,” he says, “and we wrestled with this very concept for a couple of weeks.” The conversations were both painful and heartening.

One school of thought, Richards says, was to focus on trimming Maryl’s extensive benefits. Others thought the company might have to look at salaries and other personnel costs. “There was quite a debate about this,” he notes, “some of it heated at times.” In the end, the company decided on a mixed approach, but mostly focused on finding savings elsewhere.

The most important decision was to include everyone in the conversations.

That kind of open dialog is not unusual, according to Kevin Kaohi, cost manager and longtime employee of Maryl. “The doors are almost always open here,” he says. “I think anyone here would feel comfortable going into Mark’s or Cheryl’s office and talking about anything.” Because of that level of communication, he says, employees identify closely with the company: “You don’t work for the company; you are the company.”

So, it’s not surprising, Kaohi says, that the company would turn to its employees for help. “Mark asked everyone, ‘Give me suggestions where we can cut and save, but still be Maryl, still be efficient.’ ” The employees and management have worked together closely to find solutions.

Some of their recommendations are simple. “One of the big things here,” Kaohi says, “is we like to have company shirts, jackets, bags and stuff like that. Well, that’s a wonderful perk, but it wasn’t something that was necessary at the time.” Other savings are more substantive: leaving a company car at Neighbor Island airports instead of renting, selling off unused assets, renegotiating with suppliers and sub-contractors. “The key was trying to stay away from having to lay off anybody, and I think we’ve been pretty successful at that,” Kaohi says.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether these kinds of changes will be enough. “You can only save so much,” Kaohi says. “At some point, there’s nothing left to save.”

Even so, the loyalty of employees will probably be what carries Maryl through hard times. Richards points out: “We’ve had people unilaterally raise their hands and say, ‘I’m willing to contribute. What else can I do?’ They’ve said, ‘If we need furloughs, unpaid holidays – whatever it’s going to take.’ ” That’s the heartening part, Richard says, “and it also gives you a sense of solidarity.”

#1 Medium Company: Bowers & Kubota

Sometimes, the best places to work in hard times are those that have made it through hard times before. They tend to have learned how to deal with the ups and downs of the business cycle.

Founders of Bowers and Kubota
Brian Bowers and Dexter Kubota

That’s the case at Bowers + Kubota, this year’s Best Place to Work among medium companies. “We experienced that in the late 1990s,” says principal Brian Bowers. “We were up to 20 or 30 people, and then we had to get down to 10 or 12. That was not a fun time.” Since then, Bowers and his partner, Dexter Kubota, have been more circumspect about growth. “Sustainability is kind of our watchword now,” says Bowers. “We want to grow, but grow smart.”

It’s a caution that’s not lost on employees of the design and construction management services company. “We went through a long period when they didn’t hire,” says project administrator Pat Begonia, who’s been with the company 17 years. “That’s because they didn’t want to hire people and then lay them off.” She knows that means more work for existing employees, but it also means job security in troubled times.

Of course, the best companies don’t wait for hard times to learn. Bowers + Kubota is always looking for ways to become better. For example, Begonia says, the company makes it a point to learn from its employees. “We do peer reviews every year. And they actually look at the comments,” she says. What’s more, according to Bowers, these anonymous reviews figure prominently in promotions and pay raises. Even the principals get reviewed. “Having the support of your peers is an important leadership issue,” Bowers says.

He adds that the company has learned from the Best Places to Work surveys. “Last year, the employees pretty much told us, ‘Hey, we like the way you guys run the company, but it’s a pretty flat organization. We don’t see a lot of room here for advancement.’ ” Since then, Bowers + Kubota has begun creating a whole new echelon of positions for young managers. “So, now there’s a more defined method of promotion,” Bowers says.

Ultimately, what Bowers + Kubota has learned is that the best places to work treat employees like professionals. “No. 1, everyone is on salary here,” Bowers says. “Everybody from the president to the receptionist.” Everyone also gets the same benefits, a costly philosophy, as healthcare costs continually outpace inflation. “That’s more expensive for us than rent,” he says.

Even so, the formula seems to work. Bowers notes that, as the economy has worsened, employees have come to him with concerns about the company. “I guess the bottom line was: Are we sustainable? And the answer was, from our perspective, yes.”

#1 Small Company: Commercial Data Systems

Founder of CDS
Mark Wong, founder of CDS

It’s not about the benefits.

Oh sure, Commercial Data Systems, like all great places to work, offers lots of juicy benefits: the company condo on the beach, the occasional masseur, the free theater tickets. But Keith Griffin, a senior account executive, points out, “If you just look at the benefits, you’re not really getting an accurate picture of why this is a great place to work.”

That’s because the company places a lot more emphasis on atmosphere than on perks. “First of all,” says chief executive officer Mark Wong, “we’re in a business where all the competition have awesome benefits. So that’s just a baseline for us. But we have to go further. It really has to be an incredible place to work.”

That means reaching out beyond work. Many of the company’s employees (and the principals), for example, are talented artists. Wong is a pianist; Griffin plays the saxophone; others are actors, musicians and designers. CDS gives them all the flexibility to pursue their passions, including time for rehearsals. And because CDS and many of its employees are major funders of the arts, sometimes that support reaches right into the theaters and museums and orchestras that are a second home to its employees.

One of the closest bonds among the people of CDS is a passion for community work. The company contributes money and technological assistance to Kids Vote Hawaii, the Hawaii Heart Ball, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and other organizations. But the key, according to Wong, is that the company encourages employees to get involved. “Our employees take charge of these events,” he says. And the company gives them the leeway to be leaders in the community groups that are important to them. Griffin points out: “My wife and I have gotten ourselves on the board of the Hawaii Repertory Theatre.”

All this coming and going among the arts, the community and work is woven into the CDS experience. “If this company is important to an employee, it becomes part of their lifestyle,” Wong says. “It’s not unusual for me to leave here at eight o’clock and there are still people here. It’s just a nice place to be.” Griffin puts it another way: “I feel like I’ve been stumbling around in a dark forest for a long time, and I didn’t realize it until I came out into the light.”

CDS, Griffin says, is that light.

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