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If there is a single company this year that exemplifies what Best Places to Work in the North Bay is all about, it is W. Bradley Electric.

The Novato electrical contractor had won the award for three consecutive years -- 2007, 2008 and 2009. Then came 2010. It was nominated and went through the employee and company survey process, but was not selected as one of that year's 55 winners.

In 2011, WBE is back as a winner. What went into making that happen?

First, one has to go back to 2010. While the broad economy was very weak, electricians, carpenters and builders of almost every kind were in what has become known as the "Construction Depression."

At that time, W. Bradley Electric fought back against the shrinking pool of work by expanding outward geographically. The company even started keeping residential work that it normally passed along to other companies.

The stress came through clearly from employees who took the Best Places to Work online survey. Not only was there an edginess evident, but the participation rate among employees -- for which there are minimums set according to a range of company sizes -- was low.

Not being selected that year was "a wake-up call," said W. Bradley Electric CEO Leslie Murphy. "We were in the middle of a recession. We said let's get more  communication going, get back engaged and figure out what’s going on."

Also over the last year, WBE has positioned itself to be a leader in telecom installations, one of the few areas of growth. WBE created the National Telecommunications Integrators group, carefully selecting the best companies to partner with across the U.S. Today, if a customer in the Bay Area needs work done in New York, WBE can help get it done.

Now, fast-forward to this year's competition with a record 67 winners. In the 2011 employee survey, 73 percent of W. Bradley Electric's employees participated, far exceeding the minimum of 40 percent and the highest for companies in the 101-to-250 size category.

It was also clear in employee comments that WBE had worked hard to diversify and adjust to the economic realities while maintaining its family friendly culture.

"WBE is special in its ability to develop and adapt to modern standards," one employee wrote in the survey.  "The company upholds this by a willingness to utilize new influences. I've also felt a type of open door policy with all of the management here which I have never had anywhere else."

Were there things WBE employees and nearly 5,000 other respondents to the online survey thought could be better? Of course. People are weary of the three-year-old downturn. They would like things to get better -- soon. But one also gets a sense from the comments that having gone through this economic crucible can also make people stronger. Many expressed pride in how they and their company adapted -- even leading the way forward.

One other winner this year -- a first-time honoree of which there are 15 -- brought that last thought home.  TLCD Architecture had wanted to participate for years but waited until it felt the time was right. "TLCD weathered the same severe economic downturn as the rest of the country, and has emerged a much stronger firm," the company said. "We wanted to celebrate that success."

That's what Best Places to Work is all about. Congratulations to the winners. They have earned it....Brad  Bollinger is editor and associate publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.