Accuchex Payroll Management Services

(Three-time winner)

NOVATO – The core business of this 20-year-old, family-owned operation is providing integrated payroll, human resources, benefits management and insurance services to employers throughout 50 states.

Yet owners Jim and Leslie Ruhland believe the company’s success is shaped by the staff as much as the products and services, if not more.

“We strive to be accessible to our staff and consistently provide our commitment to the health and welfare of our families by respecting and supporting individual needs.”

In addition to providing continuing education and skills training for employees, the company provides monthly staff appreciation lunches and shares client accolades companywide.

The company culture of respecting and valuing diversity while promoting personal and professional growth creates “the ability to be myself and to participate in making this a great company,” notes one employee. “We take great pride in what we do here and try to live everyday in an effort to provide 100 percent satisfaction to all of our clients.”

Audubon Canyon Ranch

(Two-time winner)

STINSON BEACH – This nonprofit has managed not only to sustain but even to expand its reach during a tough economy due to an active board of director, committed staff and hundreds of volunteers who are united in their dedication to the mission.

That mission is to preserve wild lands and open spaces such as Bolinas Lagoon Preserve in Marin County and Bouverie Preserve in Sonoma County through education and research.

More than 800 trained volunteers provide guided nature walks and educational programs to 7,000 schoolchildren each year, connecting future generations of Bay Area residents to the natural world.

The volunteers’ devotion and the hours they put into delivering programs, the history of land preservation, the continuing efforts to provide quality experiential education and lifelong learning, and the focused efforts in conservation science are all factors in a sustained employee longevity that averages 11 years and ranges up to 34 years.

ACR staff members enjoy other morale-boosting benefits such as mileage reimbursement for work-related bicycle use, a flexible telecommuting policy, work environments located in beautiful locations and the availability of on-site staff housing.

“Audubon Canyon Ranch is a great place to work,” notes one employee. “The staff and volunteers all work toward the same goals to ensure ACR's mission is accomplished!”

Bank of Napa

(First-time winner)

NAPA - Despite the duress caused by the economy to the overall banking industry, locally owned and operated Bank of Napa has continued to grow by staying focused on the community it serves.

"We are all working together to make Bank of Napa the best place to bank in the valley," says Frances Reyes, Bank of Napa's customer service manager. "Our clients can see that and they tell their friends. That is why we are growing while most of the banking industry is really struggling."

Founded in 2006 by local investors, Bank of Napa offers a menu of financial services on par with larger corporate banks yet fuels its growth through reinvestment in community businesses and families. The bank and its employees are heavily involved in the community, supporting the local high schools, Queen of the Valley Hospital and many youth oriented nonprofit organizations.

Bank of Napa's board of directors and senior management team attribute the bank's solid footing to smart, careful lending decisions and the hiring of talented and dedicated employees whose business decisions are respected and supported at every level.

Burr Pilger Mayer Inc.

(Five-time winner)

[caption id="attachment_25288" align="alignleft" width="310" caption="BPM closes for one full business day each year to enable staff to volunteer with Kid Street Learning Center in Santa Rosa and the Novato Youth Center"][/caption]

SANTA ROSA – Certified public accounting is an exacting and demanding service, never more so than during an economic recession. BPM has bolstered both its business and internal morale by creating a supportive and collegial company culture that optimizes employee performance while injecting a little fun into the workplace.

The company sponsors employee sports teams and hosts numerous theme parties and events for employees, clients and prospects. The entire firm also closes for one full business day each year to enable staff to volunteer with Kid Street Learning Center in Santa Rosa and the Novato Youth Center.

True to its internal motto “Because People Matter,” BPM invests in its employees. The company provides professional coaching services for individual employees, an in-house education program to support employee career advancement and makes promoting from within a priority.

“It isn’t surprising to see a partner work very closely with an entry level employee,” notes Beth Baldwin, director of human resources.

BPM has also instituted a staff advisory committee comprised of employees from all departments who provide feedback to the CEO.

When the company faced a painful work force reduction this past year for the first time in its history, “all management made personal contact with the employees and co-workers to address their concerns,” observed one employee. “BPM is a great company because it understands that its employees are its greatest assets and that client service is the firm's number one goal.”

Carlile Macy

(Four-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – Even a leading civil engineering firm with a stellar reputation established by numerous high profile North Bay residential and civic projects has had to do some belt-tightening and a bit of re-inventing itself to stay competitive in the current economic climate.

Carlile Macy is navigating this sea change by pursuing new kinds of projects, a strategy strongly supported from within due to the shared sense of family among the principals and staff. Ongoing, open communication and monthly staff meetings ensure that everyone stays well informed about projects, financials and company vision. The leadership has continued unabated with nurturing a close-knit company culture through employee potlucks, family picnics and an employee volunteer program with the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

As a result, staff members remain optimistic about the future and confident of the company’s continued success.

“The focus of our projects has changed in many ways. Sustainable design and green development are the key directions we are striving to lead in,” an employee notes. “The new designs are driven by ingenuity. We are looking at each and every project with a new sense of purpose. “

“Carlile Macy has a strong commitment to the community, the client's well-being and to each staff member,” another employee observes. “In a time of angst and stress, it's nice to be able to leave that behind and get back to working on interesting projects.”

Charter Oak Bank

(Five-time winner)

NAPA – While the recession has hit many smaller community banks hardest, the impact for Charter Oak Bank is mitigated by assets that don’t necessarily appear on its balance sheet: relationships.

“From the people who work here to the people who bank here, it’s all about the people,” declares Rod Wiessner, executive vice president and chief operating/financial officer. “We strive to build relationships rather than transactions, and it really makes a difference.”

Despite strong operating income growth, Charter Oak Bank has experienced unavoidable losses associated with real estate lending. But rather than cutting back in the face of tough times, the community bank has responded by beefing up its employee programs. More frequent team meetings help employees keep abreast of changes in the industry. Motivational, consultative and values-oriented training enables employees to better serve the needs of customers during challenging times.

In addition to maintaining many traditional benefits such as paid time off, health and educational reimbursements, an employee task force and company social gatherings, the bank is now offering small, interest-free loans to assist employees also.

“The company as a whole truly makes an effort to be better,” notes one of the bank’s 31 employees. “Management is always searching for ways to improve communication and employee satisfaction.”

The bank also hosts informational seminars on financial management for both customers and employees.

When it comes to corporate citizenship, “Our bank is forwarding thinking and is concerned about being a leader in the community,” says another employee.

The company devotes 3,500 volunteer hours annually to local causes and touts green business standards, which encompass adopting environmentally conscious internal business practices and establishing the Napa Valley Green Fund to incentivize business and individual customers to improve the environment.

Codding Enterprises

(First-time winner)

ROHNERT PARK – A long-time name in the North Bay as a residential and commercial development company, Codding has transformed into an investment holding company with interests spanning construction, green building, clean energy and mixed-use community development.

"We are bringing the future here now," declares one employee, chronicling the following: "Sonoma Mountain Village is a One Planet Community, the only one in the Western Hemisphere. Comcast, located here, just obtained a commercial LEED building award, one of only six in California. The Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster, a business incubator, was recently designated as one of only six 'iHubs' in California.

"Plus, we are continuing on with the integrity and tradition established by Hugh Codding as a reputable developer/landlord and benefactor of the community."

Employees appreciate the genuinely family-oriented environment of the third-generation family-run business. "As employees we know that Codding truly cares about each one of us."

The company provides the full spectrum of employee benefits, along with telecommuting, flextime and social events. “Wine and Worms” had the employees making composting worm bins, while enjoying local wines. Another event had them volunteering to plant native grasses along Cotati Creek. "Codding recently hosted a Bring Your Dog to Work Day. It was a fun way to learn more about my co-workers," cited one participant.

Although Codding has not been immune from layoffs and cost cutting, the company has met the challenging business environment by evaluating, processing and retooling, according to employees.

"Management is always seeking out new opportunities to expand and succeed in other markets with employee engagement and well-being at the forefront."

Coldwell Banker Brokers of the Valley

(Two-time winner)

NAPA – Coldwell Banker Brokers of the Valley has held steady during the most dire real estate market in decades by trimming expenses without cutting support services for its agents and staff.

In fact, management has enhanced in-service education for sales associates “to enable them to continue to be the best in this challenging market.”

As a result, the 16-year-old company continues to service a high volume of buyers and sellers relative to its competitors, with more than 70 percent of the company’s business coming from repeat customers.

“Management is proactive in developing our skills and takes pride in our contribution to the success of the company,” says one employee. “In these hard times, the management and the owners are offering assistance instead of pressuring us to achieve unrealistic goals. They continually offer us tools, training, mentoring and coaching to enable us to succeed in our business.”

In addition to providing a full benefits package, the company hosts staff events and outings. It has a 27-member staff serving 100 agents. The company also co-hosts an annual benefit golf tournament, participates in annul food bank fundraising events and volunteers in support of local schools.

Dal Poggetto & Company LLP

(Four-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – The staff of Dal Poggetto & Company takes pride in the high level of client-focused professionalism coupled with a family- like work atmosphere that the accounting firm has created.

Dal Poggetto strives to provide its core client base of privately held businesses – primarily wineries, vineyards, construction, manufacturing and distributors – with CPA services of the caliber of the “Big Four” national accounting firms. In fact, managing partner Jon Dal Poggetto headed up the Santa Rosa office of Deloitte & Touche before splitting off to form the local firm in 1992.

“We are focusing on our client service, which has become more important in our industry,” writes a staff member. “Each client is important and every concern of the client is considered in respect to the current business environment.”

A tough economy has made recruiting and retaining top-notch CPAs and staff at Dal Poggetto & Company even more of a priority. Since July 2009, the firm has added five Sonoma State University graduates as staff accountants. Competitive salaries and bonuses, a generous benefits package and educational assistance for staff are regarded as essential elements.

Investing in technology and staff training enables Dal Poggetto & Company to increase efficiencies while maintaining a competitive fee structure and employee benefit package.

“The company has a strong commitment to its employees, their needs and growth,” notes one staff member.

Environmental Resolutions Inc.

(Three-time winner)

PETALUMA – ERI staff members are pleased with the company’s recent merger with the larger international firm Cardno Limited because of the expanded opportunities this represents for them.

“The leaders of our company have made extensive efforts to bring in new clients and open doors to new fields of work in order to keep our jobs secure,” says a staff member. “The merger gives employees a great deal of potential career growth and development.”

The environmental remediation firm, founded in 1989, services the U.S. petro-chemical industry. The 35-person Petaluma office is one of nine locations nationwide. With the merger, ERI’s staff of 160 is now part of a 3,700-member global work force operating in more than 70 countries.

“This merger is already providing our associates with career growth opportunities in fields related to our core business as well as development of new marketable skills sets,” notes Jerrin McHale of ERI’s human resources.

Ramped up marketing efforts in response to the economic downturn led to the addition of a major utility company client along with several new federal projects.

On top of health and retirement benefits, the company pays year-end performance bonuses along with quarterly safety and spot bonuses and offers flex spending accounts, educational benefits and flexible work arrangements.

“ERI has always provided great benefits and has been able to maintain them even throughout the ups and downs of the economy,” notes one staff member. “ERI's leaders have their employees' best interests in mind and work hard to maintain that.”

Effective Oct. 1, ERI will change its name to Cardno ERI.

Frank Howard Allen Realtors

(First-time winner)

NOVATO – As a 100-year-old real estate brokerage, Frank Howard Allen Realtors knows a bit about market cycles. By planning ahead for the inevitable downturn and containing expenses, the company has weathered the current economy without any layoffs while maintaining employee benefits and perks.

“Considering our industry, that is amazing,” says one staff member.  “There is always great fiscal leadership here and that shows in the way we have survived and thrived in this economy.”

Owner Larry Brackett places high value on open communication for creating a positive work environment and building a strong team.

“In my 21 years of ownership, one of my goals was to have a company where the management team was available for staff/agents to contact; we were not hidden away and unreachable,” he says.

In addition to competitive compensation, the family-owned brokerage builds morale and camaraderie with company picnics, parties, lunches and community service. Between the company and its agents, the brokerage has donated more than $1 million to local charities over the past decade.

“Frank Howard Allen is family-owned as well as operated and all employees and independent contractor agents are treated like family members. It is a supportive environment for all,” observes one employee. “Management has been generous with sharing the wealth through bonus payments in profitable years and frequently acknowledges employees and agents for their contributions and successes.  A high percentage of staff and agents have been with the company for many years and decades, which speaks volumes.”

Ghirardo CPA

(Five-time winner)

[caption id="attachment_25293" align="alignright" width="265" caption="Partners Jerry and Steve Ghirardo"][/caption]

NOVATO – This marks the fifth consecutive year that Ghirardo CPA has landed in the Best Places to Work winners’ circle. The reason most frequently given by employees – who consistently refer to themselves as a team – is the partners’ leadership style and handling of both clients and team members.

Owners Jerry Ghirardo, Steve Ghirardo and Greta Hoversten set the tone by working harder than anyone else in the firm, observes one employee. “They always go the extra mile for clients and expect the team to do the same.”

The 20-year-old company provides accounting, audit, tax and consulting services to a variety of business and individual clients.

Ghirardo CPA has responded to the economic climate by expanding training opportunities for its 42-member team, which includes 16 CPAs, while adding new services to assist clients with financing issues, cash flow problems and other competitive challenges.

On top of health and retirement benefits, the company offers in-house continuing education classes and a tuition reimbursement program for employees to encourage and support their individual advancement goals.

The company also gives back to the community by participating in Rotary clubs, donating to the Marin Community Clinic and serving on the board of the Marin Community Foundation.

“Our caring approach to serving clients and the broader community as well as supporting our team members personally and professionally helps set us apart,” says Jerry Ghirardo. “This approach leads to long-term relationships that are very rewarding.”

Inn Marin

(Three-time winner)

NOVATO – Inn Marin is one of two hospitality companies in the roster of 2010 Best Places to Work winners.

The challenging economy of the past few years has prompted the 10-year-old hotel to take some of the usual cost-cutting measures, such as imposing a hiring freeze and cross training employees to increase retention and improve service. But owners Robert and John Marshall have also pursued some very creative new ventures that employees take great pride in.

The company has stepped up marketing efforts to attract more group meetings and events with special combined incentive packages for the hotel and the onsite dining establishment, Rickey’s Restaurant & Bar.  Inn Marin held a special conference in partnership with local wineries and other tourist-oriented businesses, targeting corporate, government and nonprofit event planners.

Inn Marin has also embraced corporate social responsibility, incorporating green practices and products, which led to achieving leadership recognition with California's Green Hotel Certification program. This summer, the company launched its “Hotels That Help” initiative, inviting guests to contribute $1 per night to the Marin County Food Bank.

“What makes the Inn Marin a special place to work is the fact that the Marshall family has allowed the employees to take 'emotional ownership’ of the hotel,” writes one employee. “We are involved in the decision-making processes to insure the success of this business.  We all have a voice in the way this business is run.”

Innovative Business Solutions

(First-time winner)

ROHNERT PARK – Since opening its doors in 1991, Innovative Business Solutions Inc. has become the largest payroll services company in Sonoma County with more than 1,000 customers added primarily by word of mouth.

“Innovative Business Solutions is a great company because of our extreme commitment to accuracy and superior customer service,” states one employee. “I personally get to interact with our clients on a daily basis, and I get to hear from them on what a good job our company does and how much they love us. For me, that is more rewarding than management telling me that I'm doing a good job.”

Owners David Tieken and Bob Reynolds attribute the company’s success to a strong team committed to outstanding service. Half of the 28 employees have been with the company 10 years or more.

By scaling back on expenses and focusing on business development, the company has remained stable in the midst of economic turmoil, preventing both layoffs and reduced hours.

“Everyone here is a team player and willing to do what it takes to create a winning environment for our company and our payroll customers,” says another employee.

Linkenheimer LLP CPAs & Advisors

(Two-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – Founded in 1932, Linkenheimer has built a well-established business through long-term relationships, both with its clients and its staff of 20. The average longevity of staff members is 15 years.

Linkenheimer provides accounting, tax and financial consulting services to clients representing a wide variety of local industries including construction, hospitality, health care, legal, technology, wine and manufacturing.

Although business has remained steady, the firm is responding to a difficult economy by encouraging its staff of 20 to watch expenses, “go the extra mile” with existing clients and pursue new business opportunities more proactively.

The company’s close-knit family environment “makes you feel good about being at work and strive to do the best you can for one another and our clients,” says an employee.

Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Sonoma County

(Three-time winner)

Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Sonoma County has created the kind of collegial environment that makes employees eager to come to work and highly motivated to contribute to the company’s success.

“Every team member has personal goals and strives to achieve these, as well as company goals,” notes an employee. “All management started at the bottom and worked up the ranks to earn their positions.”

The 10-year-old local franchise is part of a full-service, residential and commercial plumbing and drain cleaning company with 300 franchises worldwide.

The Sonoma County franchise, lead by owners Saunda and Paul Kitchen, is weathering the recession by “getting back to the basics and focusing on outstanding customer experiences,” writes an employee. Weekly meetings, education and good communication keep employee morale and confidence high.

By cutting back on expenses, the company has not only avoided layoffs but added three new team members while remaining more committed than ever to donating time, expertise and goods to local nonprofits.

The Kitchens “are the most amazing people to work for,” says an employee. “They are great mentors and leaders. I am so honored to know these wonderful owners.”

Napa Community Bank, now Rabobank

(First-time winner)

NAPA – The sense of ownership is so strong among Napa Community Bank employees that they regard the bank’s change of ownership earlier this year as their own collective success.

Founded in 2002, Napa Community Bank’s sustained growth and profitability lead to the acquisition by Rabobank N.A. The new parent company retained all local staff members, making former president and CEO Dennis Pedisich a regional president for Rabobank.

“Even through this transition, Dennis and our board have led us with a commitment to continuing the wonderful sense of community within the bank and between the bank and the community,” says Nancy Stetler, marketing coordinator.

Employees credit Napa Community Bank’s ability to weather the economic storm to strong community loyalty the bank has engendered, both by supporting numerous events, organizations and charitable causes and by working hard to meet individual and business customers’ needs.

“Dennis sets a good example of fairness and extra effort, so it is easy for the staff to follow suit,” says a bank employee. “That in turn creates an atmosphere that our clients appreciate, even when they or their business is struggling.  They feel we are their partner.”

O’Brien Watters & Davis LLP

(Two-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – The law firm of O’Brien Watters & Davis LLP has had the good fortune to remain busy during the downturn, serving large and small companies and individual clients in the areas of business, corporate, real estate, tax, estate planning, probate, employment law, family law and civil litigation.

The demanding pace and the firm’s commitment to high ethical standards produce a strong sense of teamwork among the staff.

“What makes O'Brien Watters & Davis LLP the best place to work is a combination of the loyalty and dedication we share for our clients and their well-being,” says an employee. “In addition to feeling like you are part of something greater than yourself, our clients truly receive a team effort.”

The partners and associates also value the contributions of staff members.

“They have confidence that the staff can handle complicated tasks. We're always encouraged to learn more and do more,” says another staff member. “That, combined with a great work environment where we all respect one another, makes this a great place to work.”

Optio Solutions LLC

(First-time winner)

ROHNERT PARK – In a time when many other businesses and industries are downsizing, Optio Solutions has grown to 23 employees since opening its doors in 2008. The company’s business is collections, and the struggling economy has translated into major opportunities for the startup and its employees.

“We are constantly developing new products and services to be even more responsive to our clients,” says CEO Chris Schumacher.

“The willingness to be innovative, try new things and distinguish ourselves from the rest of the collection industry makes this a great place to come to work every day,” says an employee.

Optio Solutions shares its success with the community by raising funds for charitable causes such as the Redwood Empire Food Bank and Breast Cancer Awareness. Employees regard the company’s core business as a community service also.

“What we do really matters. We help companies stay in business, and we help them keep their employees employed. Company bankruptcies are at an all time high. We are doing our part to ensure that doesn't happen to our clients.”

Quattrocchi Kwok Architects

(Three-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – Started in 1986, Quattrocchi Kwok Architects has performed more than $1 billion in design services for public and private projects, including schools, community agencies and commercial facilities.

“Our strength and reputation is inextricably linked to our staff,” says principal Mark Quattrocchi. “These professionals not only represent the firm, they are the firm. The culture created by QKA staff fosters collaboration and excellence in a spirited, lively office. No company executive can impose this.”

Employees appreciate the highly creative, collaborative environment that extends beyond the projects to the firm’s business. Monthly staff meetings keep employees abreast of workload and projections.

Due to a slowdown in business, the firm had to furlough several employees late last year but all of them were back to work within six weeks, with a few new additions.

“Mark and Steve [Kwok] had the great foresight to see the downturn coming well before it happened and took the steps prior to the downturn that have carried us through these tough times,” notes another employee.

Schurter Inc.

(Four-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – Schurter Inc.’s 20 local employees are part of a family-owned global enterprise based in Lucerne, Switzerland, with more than 1,400 employees worldwide. The company develops electronic components for the information technology, telecommunications, aerospace and medical industries.

A decline in sales during 2009 hit Schurter hard, including the local distribution facility.

“Initially we had pay reduction but we all kept our jobs,” notes one local employee. “As the economy strengthened salaries went back to 100 percent, and all lost wages were repaid. The president and management maintained a course that brought us through some pretty harsh times.”

The company’s practice of distributing the burden of the recession among stockholders, management and employees alike and keeping employees well informed has enabled Schurter to weather the storm without layoffs.

“Our culture involves all the employees at just about every level of decision making,” notes Brian Cilley, vice president of finance. “We are open and forthcoming with the business of the company.”

For employees, it’s also the sense that the company genuinely cares about them as individuals.

As one employee put it, “This company is run like all companies should be run: with openness, fairness, pride and lots of respect.”

Scott Technology Group

(First-time winner)

ROHNERT PARK – Employees of Scott Technology Group are unified in crediting the office automation company’s success to founder and owner Giles Scott.

Mr. Scott started the local company in 1995, drawing on his career experiences as a former office machine service professional. Mr. Scott has shifted the company’s core business from office equipment sales to electronic document management, providing systems technology and services to other businesses.

“Over the years, Giles Scott has demonstrated an extraordinary mix of pragmatism and idealism,” observes an employee. “He is constantly monitoring the direction of our business environment and preparing for it by informing the employees and providing training so we are ahead of the competition.”

In addition to good business acumen and a strong benefits package, employees appreciate the family-like culture of the 22-person company.

“I think the single most important ingredient in Scott Technology Group's success is respect,” says another employee. “Giles has sought to recruit people of integrity and then has had the wisdom to find ways to invest in them and reward them for their labor. His eyes have always been on long-term goals, and this is reflected in the stability and low turnover rate among employees."

Smith Dollar PC

(First-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – As one of the only law firms in the North Bay providing legal services to the mortgage banking and financial services industry, Smith Dollar PC is in growth mode. The firm handles mortgage fraud cases nationwide.

What makes Smith Dollar a great place to work is the “professional work ethic, support and true embodiment of team work” that partner-shareholders Rachel Dollar, Glenn Smith and John Jordan have created.

“As owners, we feel fortunate to work with such an outstanding group of people,” says Ms. Dollar, the firm’s president. “Every person at Smith Dollar PC cares deeply for every other person who works here and has a vested interest in providing services of the highest quality to our clients.”

Employees describe a family-like, respectful atmosphere. “Everyone is treated fairly from the receptionist to the shareholders,” says an employee. ”We have monthly staff meetings, and everyone is always kept in the loop about changes that are being made.”

The firm has had virtually no turnover among its staff of 25 since opening its doors in 2006. It could be because of the competitive salary and benefits packages, paid parking, paid professional dues and educational costs, and holiday/birthday bonuses. But what really sets Smith Dollar apart in the perks department are the complimentary snacks and meals for employees – on a daily basis.

“I feel this really increases productivity,” comments one employee.

In addition to the mortgage and financial services industries, Smith Dollar also offers real estate services with clients including loan servicers, secondary market investors, investment bankers, home builders and contractors.

Summit Engineering

(Four-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – Even though 2010 may go down as one of the more difficult periods in Summit Engineering’s 35-year history, employees has voted the firm one of the Best Places to Work for the fourth time.

Summit Engineering provides consulting engineering services primarily for wine industry clients throughout California.

In the aftermath of staffing reductions and pay cuts, employees express nothing but appreciation and support for the firm’s leadership and decisions.

“My company has dealt with the downturn in the economy with quick and level-headed decisions,” notes one employee.  “Their focus has been on the welfare of all the employees and on our ability to provide future success.”

Summit Engineering has met challenging times head on and openly, holding bi-weekly staff meetings to keep employees well informed, says Greg Swaffar, the firm’s president.

“We explained our reasoning and our strategy for surviving the challenges ahead,” Mr. Swaffar says.

The firm has maintained a few extras that employees particularly enjoy, such as weekly staff breakfasts, project team bonus incentives and the popular monthly “wine down” gatherings.

“The people here are friendly and hard-working, the management team is cohesive and respectful, and we have impressive clients,” says another employee. “The company is much smaller but stronger.”

Valley Tire & Brake

(Five-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – Employees at Valley Tire & Brake fully appreciate the direct implications of delivering high quality automotive service to keep customers coming back.

“We’ve had no layoffs, so they must be doing something right,” comments one employee. “Everyone here works to do their very best for each customer.”

“At first we thought we were recession proof because people were taking ‘car vacations’ and taking even better care of their cars. But in this prolonged recession, even though sales have been down, the company is holding the course by not raising prices and not laying off employees.”

Third-generation Sonoma County native John McGill Jr. decided to start his own business in 1968 after working for a major tire company. Mr. McGill Jr. passed away earlier this year, but the service-oriented company culture he established lives on, according to his son, John McGill III, owner and general manager.

“We focus every day on each customer and make sure we have the highest levels of service and quality,” says Mr. McGill. “This starts with our employees, who are happy and well trained.”

The business now employs 28 people. Besides tire, brake and front-end services, the company also provides engine maintenance, repair and smog services. A second nearby facility specializes in RV and truck services, mufflers and exhaust, and oil changes. “What I think makes this company great is the family atmosphere,” says another employee.  “We have an open and honest environment that is family oriented and flows through to the relationships with customers.”

Vantreo Insurance Brokerage

(Three-time winner)

SANTA ROSA – Vantreo Insurance Brokerage provides full-service property and casualty insurance to both commercial and personal insurance clients in the North Bay with national and even global risk exposures. The brokerage specializes in risk-management services including strategic planning for workers' compensation and employee benefits.

Lynne Wallace and Tim Chanter are career insurance professionals who established Vantreo in 2007 and built a team that now includes 27 agents.

“There is a lot of depth and experience between the owners that helps provide a balance for the various aspects of running a company,” observes a staff member. “They care about their clients and work hard to do what is best for them.”

The brokerage has gone through its share of belt-tightening in the current business environment with reorganization and streamlining of processes.

“We speak the ‘kind truth’ to keep the team informed,” says President Lynne Wallace, who describes the company culture as dynamic, supportive and focused on constant improvement.

“Vantreo has the courage to meet the demands of reality,” an employee says. “They have focused on having the right team, the best use of automation and use innovation, efficiencies and personal accountability as important tools.”

Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

(Two-time winner)

NOVATO – As a company with an employee stock ownership plan, staff participation is built in to Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.’s company culture.

Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. is a 90-year-old independent insurance brokerage firm headquartered in San Francisco with offices throughout California and in Portland, Ore. The company provides insurance services for clients with worldwide locations.

The Novato office, opened in 2007, employs 21 people.

“We have a wonderful culture of teamwork, from the executives to the newly hired trainees,” says one employee. “It’s truly a fun place to work.”

The company regularly holds all-hands meetings to discuss corporate strategy and financials.

"Woodruff-Sawyer is dedicated to sustaining a work environment built on integrity, respect, innovation and collaboration, both in our relationships with clients and within the company itself,” says Jim Settles, a senior vice president.

Turnover at the Novato office to date is virtually nonexistent. Along with profit sharing, the company provides the full range of employee benefits as well as flexible scheduling.

Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. has remained strong through the economic downturn, according to another employee, “by providing us with the tools necessary to remain competitive and continue to provide good service to our clients.”