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Great Places to Work: The List
Comments () | Published November 1, 2005

There is no association between this article and the San Francisco consulting firm that uses the trademark GREAT PLACES TO WORK ® 

Advisory Board

What it does: "Best practices" research and analysis for the healthcare industry.

Number of employees: 700.

Interesting perks: Extra time off for employees who make a significant contribution to the community; fruit, muffins, and bagels daily; two-week paid paternity leave.

Ask Advisory Board employees what they like about their job, and most say "the people." On a recent company survey, 88 percent of employees rated "strength of relationships with colleagues" as a leading factor in job satisfaction.

One reason? The diverse backgrounds: law, public policy, health, consulting, nonprofit. One employee wrote for a sitcom; another taught history. Some are PhDs; many are recent college grads.

Employees are proud of their mission to help more than 2,500 hospitals operate more efficiently. Many top medical facilities, including Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Clinic, are members.

An Advisory Board analyst might interview industry leaders about new technologies for cancer treatment, while a researcher helps hospitals better use their workforce.

Employees get together for kickball games and parenting meetings. A "travelers committee"--about a third of employees travel regularly--sends out tips such as which airline seats to request. There's a happy hour every other Friday in the common room, where staffers also gather for informal meetings or midday breaks--Norma Dasig, the unofficial housemother, sets out cookies at 2.

Employees recently played blackjack with CEO Frank Williams, and the winner received a trip to Las Vegas. Williams, who's praised for his approachability, occasionally hands out a $100 bill to a staffer who's made an outstanding contribution.

Says a longtime employee, "We have aggressive deadlines, but we try to have fun along the way."

Advisory Board, 2445 M St., NW; 202-266-5600; advisory.com.

Akridge

What it does: Real-estate development.

Number of employees: 165.

Interesting perks: Fun Committee plans happy hours, bowling competitions, and other employee events. A large rooftop deck has umbrellas and tables.

If you think putting a kitchen addition onto your house involves a lot of decisions and coordination, try erecting a ten-story office building in downtown DC.

That's what Akridge does. From securing a site to working with architects and contractors to finding tenants and managing the building, Akridge has acquired or developed 10 million square feet of office space, including the Homer Building, which houses Akridge's offices.

Employees say that the complexity of each project fosters teamwork and creates energy. "The culture is unlike anywhere I've been," says marketing assistant Joshua Cancel. "Everyone wants to see the company succeed."

Akridge, founded in 1974 by Chip Akridge, wins awards for its work, which makes employees proud. In five of the past six years, it has won a national award for property management. In a winning year, employees are given extra days off, or four-day weekends, for Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.

President Matthew Klein and other managers are not shy with recognition. Most staffers receive some sort of award at the annual banquet.

"Matt has personally come to shake my hand when I've closed a particularly tough deal," says Will Pace, who started with the company a decade ago as an administrative assistant and is now vice president of leasing.

It's not all about deals. When senior property manager Sharon Perera, who is from Sri Lanka, wanted to help rebuild her country after the tsunami, Akridge allowed her to take off seven weeks, helped organize building drives for clothing, medical supplies, and dry rations, then paid to ship the 40 boxes.

Akridge, 601 13th St., NW, Suite 300 North; 202-638-3000; akridge.com.

American Enterprise Institute

What it is: Public-policy think tank.

Number of employees: 142.

Interesting perk: A top-floor dining room with waitstaff serves three-course gourmet lunches for $4, 50-cent breakfasts, and free muffins and cookies.

Perhaps it's no surprise that at a right-of-center think tank, the healthcare plan is structured with a good dose of personal responsibility. AEI employees can choose one of three coverage options--two of which provide incentive to monitor medical spending, as the employee gets money back if a certain deductible is not met.

AEI, founded in 1943, is one of the country's oldest think tanks. It researches everything from trade to social welfare to tax policy. Among its 55 scholars and fellows are such conservative icons as Lynne Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, and Richard Perle.

"AEI is a very stimulating intellectual environment," says research assistant Bryan O'Keefe. "This is an excellent atmosphere for somebody who cares about big ideas."

It's a policy wonk's dream. Employees can get free books written by its scholars, and there are frequent lectures and panels. People may spend the day thinking and reading.

There are less-scholarly pursuits: weekly happy hours, an annual black-tie dinner, a Fourth of July party on the roof, and a softball team whose name is decided each year by a contest. This past summer the name on players' T-shirts was the Nationalists; last year, the Preemptive Strikes.

Like most think tanks, AEI has a barbell-shaped workforce--scholars at one end and, at the other, young staffers who stay a few years and then move on or go back to school. It's rare for a research assistant to be promoted to scholar, but AEI offers a chance to meet big names and count them as references. "AEI is a great place to launch a career," says executive vice president David Gerson.

In another nod to personal responsibility, AEI rewards merit, not tenure, with raises of 0 to 30 percent.

American Enterprise Institute, 1150 17th St., NW; 202-862-5800; aei.org.

American Physical Therapy Association

What it does: Represents and serves member physical therapists.

Number of employees: 170.

Interesting perks: Every other Friday off in summer. Old Town offices with Potomac River views.

The physical-therapy profession, says APTA chief operating officer Chuck Martin, attracts "hands-on, touchy-feely type of people." So does APTA.

Staffers serve the association's members, who are physical therapists. They plan an annual conference, field queries, and sell books and APTA-logo products.

Employees report a caring, relaxed atmosphere. For example: Because there is no short-term disability coverage, staffers donate unused sick leave each year to a sick-leave bank, which can be used by colleagues facing a medical emergency.

The most appreciated benefit: APTA contributes up to 17 percent of an employee's salary to a retirement account, whether or not the employee contributes. Maybe that's one reason employees stay: More than a third have been there longer than ten years.

American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria; 703-684-2782; www.apta.org.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

What it does: Represents and serves speech, language, and hearing specialists.

Number of employees: 227.

Interesting perk: Each time a staffer carpools, uses mass transit, or bikes or walks to work, a point is rewarded; at 25 points, he or she receives a $25 gift certificate.

Some 40 million people in America have speech, language, or hearing problems. ASHA supports the therapists and scientists who work with them with online courses, publications, lobbying on Capitol Hill, conferences, and more.

"We are a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities," says human-resources director Janet McNichol. "That is a fantastic reason to go to work every day."

There's another: ASHA watches out for its own. Wellness fairs measure everything from bone density to blood pressure. Employees are given 21 or 24 vacation days after five years. Jobs well done are rewarded--maybe with a spa treatment, DVD player, or luggage for someone who travels. After ten years, employees receive long-term-care insurance.

In an organization that's three-quarters female, the atmosphere is cooperative, not competitive. Bosses are called "coaches." Cubicles are adorned with stuffed animals and family photos. Monthly "casual days" feature lots of free food.

ASHA looks out for others, too. More than 30 staffers are mentors at an elementary school. And they're planning to make the new headquarters, planned for 2007, a green building.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 10801 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-897-5700; asha.org.

APCO Worldwide

What it does: Public-affairs communications.

Number of employees: 150 in Washington, 400 worldwide.

Interesting perks: Flex Fridays in summer. Rooftop deck with computer ports. Fitness room with towel service. Fifteen-year anniversaries earn a trip or other big gift.

The Partnership for Prescription Assistance needed to get the word out about its program, which gives free or highly discounted medicine to those who cannot afford their prescriptions. It turned to APCO.

APCO designed a plan that included a Web site, an orange bus that toured the country to sign up those eligible for free drugs, and ads and articles in major media. The result: Since April, 900,000 people have been signed up.

"We get to run a great program and change lives," says managing director Robert Schooling.

Employees say they like the interesting work, which includes public relations, lobbying, and strategic communications for such companies as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Dow Corning, and UPS. The DC office has a long wall lined with industry awards.

The staff includes ambassadors, former journalists and White House personnel, veterans of political campaigns, and 25-year-olds in their first job. In a business that relies on ideas, everyone is listened to.

A meritocracy, APCO gives bonuses and awards for performance. Everyone is eligible to get stock. Three development officers guide employees' career paths. The firm is open about salary ranges at each level, so all workers know where they stand.

APCO has offices around the world, and some staffers travel. The cheery DC headquarters--built with ecofriendly wood and other materials--has a bright kitchen that hosts weekly pizza-and-beer gatherings.

APCO Worldwide, 700 12th St., NW, Suite 800; 202-778-1000; apcoworldwide.com.

Axiom Resource Management

What it does: Government consulting.

Number of employees: 500.

Interesting perk: End-of-year bonuses for everyone--even if an employee has been there a week.

Axiom helps the government do its job. That may mean studying the systems in place for airports to withstand earthquakes or helping to disseminate information to wounded soldiers about assisted technologies.

To help the government do its job, Axiom pays attention to its own. "If we take care of our folks, they can focus on their job and do it well," says president and CEO Benjamin Hankins Jr.

No employee is more than two levels removed from the three principals--Hankins, chief operating officer Douglas Peardon, and chief financial officer Kevin Riley. Employees like the way management listens--and the mutual respect.

"The senior management is the reason I come to work every day," says assistant program manager Jeffrey Adam Keen. "They are great people to work for."

Most employees work at client sites; when a contract ends, Axiom does everything it can to find another contract for those staffers. In an industry where turnover hovers around 25 percent, Axiom's is under 10.

Hankins, named one of 50 Influential Minorities in American Business by the Minority Business Professionals Network, started Axiom in 1996. Last year it earned $54 million in revenues, a growth of 25 percent over the previous year.

Axiom gives some of that back. Employees read to children at an Alexandria school, and the company organizes a charity golf tournament for local Fisher Houses, which help the families of woundedsoldiers.

Axiom Resource Management, 5203 Leesburg Pike, Suite 300, Falls Church; 703-998-0327 ext. 222; axiom-rm.com.

Booz Allen Hamilton

What it does: Management and technology consulting.

Number of employees: 10,647 in Washington, 16,533 worldwide.

Interesting perks: A technology "petting zoo" where employees can try gadgets that might be useful in their jobs; a $5,000 annual allowance for education or training.

Whether it's the on-site childcare center--where one mother watched her son take his first steps during her lunch break--to its training center, Booz Allen's facilities are second to none.

In the evenings, the training center morphs into a branch of Johns Hopkins University, where master's-degree programs in business and information technology are offered. Booz Allen is all about employee training and was named second only to IBM by Training Magazine. During the summer, employees' teenage children can enroll in an executive coaching class.

Good work might be rewarded with gift checks or even all-expense-paid vacations. Senior-level staff can earn bonuses of 20 to 30 percent.

The company is generous to the community, too. One team-building event puts employees in a room with boxes of bicycle parts. "The thrill of working as a team to be the first to finish their bike is nothing compared to the feeling staff have when we surprise them by opening the doors and having underprivileged children who will receive those bikes rush in," says George Farrar, manager of media relations.

Farrar says that the company celebrates diversity--be it ethnic-minority, disabled, or openly gay employees--and builds its work teams to be diverse so client problems can be approached from different points of view.

The work is stimulating. Consultants might help a corporation determine new lines of business, develop a system for tracking adverse effects of prescription drugs, or lead a war game to understand and reduce the risks of terrorist attacks.

Employees praise the company's flexibility. People like it so much, almost half of last year's hires were referred by employees.

Booz Allen Hamilton, 8283 Greensboro Dr., McLean; 703-902-5000; boozallen.com.

Burness Communications

What it does: Public relations for nonprofits that work for social change.

Number of employees: 30.

Interesting perks: Five days a year of paid volunteer leave. Three to four weeks' vacation, plus the week off between Christmas and New Year's. Paid vacation for employee's ten-year anniversary.

"If you stand for nothing but making money," says Andy Burness, "it's just a job."

At the public-relations firm he started almost 20 years ago, Burness and his staff take on clients who tackle big causes--from developing a malaria vaccine to raising awareness of such issues as obesity, binge drinking, lack of health insurance, and end-of-life care.

"We work only on issues that we believe in and feel good about, issues that might lead to social change," says Teri Larson.

Employees like the trust they're given to make decisions and the flexibility--eight of the 30 staffers are working moms who set their schedules. One staffer took a three-month sabbatical to write a mystery novel.

"It's a place where one can really find balance," says vice president Linda Loranger.

There's an annual retreat, and company anniversaries are celebrated by doing a volunteer project together.

"We tend to do social activities such as bowling, biking, swimming, and football games," says Carol Schadelbauer, a senior associate for health policy. "We do so much health work that gatherings include healthful food and outdoor activities."

Burness Communications, 7910 Woodmont Ave., Suite 700, Bethesda; 301-652-1558; burnesscommunications.com.

Calvert Group

What it does: Offers socially and environmentally responsible mutual funds.

Number of employees: 170.

Interesting perks: $1,000 baby bonus to be invested in fund of the parents' choice. Free 15-minute massages twice a week.

As a mutual-fund firm best known for investing in companies it believes act responsibly toward customers, employees, communities, and the environment, Calvert needs to hold itself to this standard.

Calvert allows every staffer to take one paid day a month for volunteering. To encourage alternate modes of commuting, Calvert offers $350 to buy a bicycle, $120 a year for walking shoes, reimbursement for public transportation, and shower facilities. There are recycling bins for batteries and toner cartridges as well as paper, and monthly lunch-and-learn sessions focus on such subjects as personal safety and healthy cooking.

Calvert is a subsidiary of Ameritas Acacia Financial, but Calvert maintains its own culture. The CEO is female, and the company has published "The Calvert Women's Principles," guidelines for multinational companies to aspire to that promote advancement of women. Among Calvert's benefits: 16 weeks' maternity leave.

The Calvert workspace, in fact, looks like a home, with lots of natural light and living-room-style chairs and sofas in relaxation lounges.

Calvert Group, 4550 Montgomery Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-4800; calvert.com.

CapitalSource

What it does: Makes loans to small and midsize companies.

Number of employees: 286 in Washington, 486 nationwide.

Interesting perks: Free breakfast, lunch, and snacks daily. Four weeks' vacation for all.

Perhaps no workplace feeds its employees more than CapitalSource.

Breakfast and lunch are free every day for employees and guests. Lunch is catered; favorite restaurants include Meiwah, Rocklands, and Balducci's. The four kitchens have snacks. Thank goodness there is a gym with showers.

Fern Mullins, director of human resources, says she has never had an employee come to her with a complaint about the company or coworkers. She thinks it is because of the type of people hired: happy, appreciative, positive. She also thinks it has to do with the CEO, John Delaney, who had a following of lawyers from Hogan & Hartson come to work with him. Senior executives, she says, ask for and listen to suggestions from all employees.

CapitalSource hires attorneys, accountants, and IT and administrative staff. Employees report being given a long leash in determining the course of their work. When senior counsel Shaila Lakhani Ohri moved from a big law firm to CapitalSource, she was glad to be given responsibility right away. For a young lawyer, that meant a lot.

The atmosphere is high energy. Only five years old, the company has grown to 486 employees; it hired 170 this year alone.

Delaney reinvests profit back into his people. He says when he thinks about the return on investment from sponsoring some sporting event like a golf tournament versus giving the money back to employees, it is an easy decision.

CapitalSource Finance, 4445 Willard Ave., 12th Floor, Chevy Chase; 301-841-2700; capitalsource.com.

Carfax

What it does: Provides vehicle-history information on used cars.

Number of employees: 165 in Washington, 270 nationwide.

Interesting perk: Free lunch on Fridays.

The work at Carfax is deadly serious, and most employees cite it as the reason they are proud to work there.

The company helps the public (and used-car dealers) buy safe, reliable cars and reduce the risk of being ripped off. Its vehicle-history reports--which reveal any odometer fraud, flood or accident damage, and more--have changed the way people buy used cars. "We save money, and we save lives," says communications director Larry Gamache.

The casual atmosphere at Carfax is a throwback to the '90s dot-com era. On the wall to the right of the flip-flop-attired receptionist is a set of basketball hoops. Dartboards, soccer balls, a putting green, and toys are scattered around. Nameplates are styled like vanity license plates from each employee's home state or country. In this laid-back environment, it is not uncommon for someone who started in the mailroom to now be running a department.

Dick Raines, president of Carfax, meets with every team in the company to hear ideas; everyone has a chance for input. Because year-end bonuses are tied to the company's profits, the opportunity is taken.

Carfax, 10304 Eaton Pl., Suite 500, Fairfax; 703-934-2664; carfax.com.

Center for aNew American Dream

What it does: Helps protect the environment by encouraging responsible consumerism and working with businesses to conserve natural resources.

Number of employees: 22.

Interesting perks: Four weeks of vacation for all; $500 for self-improvement activities such as gym membership or massages.

The screensaver on marketing associate Sat Jiwan Khalsa's computer reads, "Fridays are for not being in the office." That's how he reminds himself: Everyone has Fridays off.

Although employees make less than they might at a similar nonprofit, a four-day week of 35 hours or less is one of the benefits of working for an organization that promotes a work-life balance. "Life is better if everybody's nourished," says president Betsy Taylor, who begins Monday staff meetings with 15 minutes of silence. In October 2003, the Center cosponsored Take Back Your Time Day to "encourage Americans to examine their obsession with work."

Employees are proud of their mission to advocate healthier living. Staffers work with auto manufacturers on creating more hybrid vehicles. They're increasing awareness about nontoxic cleaning products. Their Conscious Consumer Web site receives 20,000 hits a month, and center surveys and tips appear in the national media. Still, says one employee, "you don't have to be a tree hugger."

Employees use both sides of paper and drink fair-trade, organic coffee. Carpet is made of recycled materials. Last year, staffers got together at someone's house and made soap to give as holiday gifts.

A few employees job-share. New moms enjoy ten weeks of paid maternity leave; dads get two. "Everyone understands that people have a life," says Khalsa, who offers weekly massages during lunch. "There's room to say, 'My family needs me--I have to go.' "

Center for a New American Dream, 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 900, Takoma Park; 301-891-3683; newdream.org.

Choice Hotels

What it does: Franchises hotels.

Number of employees: 325 in Washington, 1,870 worldwide.

Interesting perks: A sleek fitness center with a massage therapist and classes in yoga, Pilates, and aerobics. Rate of $25 a day at hotels. Subsidized childcare.

Choice Hotels includes chains you find on the roadsides of Middle America: Quality Inn, EconoLodge, Comfort Inn, Clarion.

"Our customers and brands are reflective of who we are," says executive vice president Wayne Wielgus, referring to employees at the Silver Spring headquarters. "We're unpretentious, warm people. Everyone on every level is approachable."

From quarterly all-associate meetings and informal "table talks" to employee surveys, senior management is said to listen to suggestions. They keep employees apprised of company goals and try to stoke a passion for success.

To serve franchisees well, CEO Chuck Ledsinger says that service must start with his own staff. Choice offers an attractive headquarters with a nice gym and cafeteria and a learning center that offers a host of classes, from languages to computer science to negotiation skills.

It's not hard to work for a company that is doing well. High-level employees get stock options, and the stock has risen from less than $8 a share to $61 in the past five years.

Choice Hotels International, 10750 Columbia Pike, Silver Spring; 301-592-5000; choicehotels.com.

CustomInk.com

What it is: Online retailer of custom T-shirts, caps, and other products.

Number of employees: 90.

Interesting perks: Free breakfast on Mondays, lunch on Fridays, and midweek snacks--Wednesday might mean root-beer floats or s'mores--during busy seasons.

In a little over five years, CustomInk.com has grown from a staff of two--president Marc Katz often slept on an old green sofa still in his office--to 90 employees. Revenues grew 86 percent last year.

CustomInk.com designs and prints custom sweatshirts, cups, bags, and more, mostly for schools, fraternities, and sororities. Orders are delivered within two weeks, and a customer can order as few as six shirts. The company pays attention to detail: Customer-service employees are rewarded with $100 gift certificates for error-free months.

It pays attention to staff, too. The company awards equity options. There are contests and games to relieve stress: Riddle Tuesdays, Theme Thursdays (where teams dress in costumes), and raffles. Dress is very casual, and after a year everyone gets 25 days off.

Walls are decorated with employee artwork done during "art night." At a company that employs artists as well as salespeople, some of it is quite good.

CustomInk.com, 7799 Leesburg Pike, Suite 501-N, Falls Church; 800-293-4232; customink.com.

Datatel

What it does: Provides technology for colleges to manage everything from student financial aid to dormitory assignments.

Number of employees: 503.

Interesting perks: Annual $75 reimbursement for a night on the town, whether dinner or a play or a concert. Annual $130 reimbursement for any health-related purchase. Five weeks of vacation after eight years. Five extra days off, starting at ten years, in each anniversary year ending in a zero or a five; plus $1,000.

Good deeds do not go unrewarded at Datatel.

Employees of the month don't get just a plaque; they receive a $1,000 bonus, a parking space, and a congratulatory visit by the executive team. Extraordinary performance might mean a trip for an employee and a guest to St. John in the US Virgin Islands.

A staffer celebrating a 20th anniversary is picked up in a limo by tuxedo-clad CEO Russ Griffith, feted by colleagues at a breakfast, and presented $5,000. It's not a rare event: More than two dozen employees at this 37-year-old firm have stayed at least 20 years.

The work is reward enough for many. Datatel provides technology for more than 650 universities and colleges to run vital functions such as enrollment and payroll. Employees so believe in education that the Datatel Scholars Foundation, which raises money through payroll deductions and fundraisers, has given out $4 million in scholarships.

There's an emphasis in house on learning, too, with generous tuition reimbursement, well-defined career paths, and corporate training weeks. Employees love the opportunities to move within the firm and its tradition of promoting from within.

They also appreciate the attention Datatel pays to family. Lydia Ketkar likes the computer system that fairly allocates company seats to Wolf Trap, the Redskins, the Nationals, and other events because it allows her to bring her sons to a ball game. "They know Mommy works for Datatel," she says.

Employees say the staff is family. When an employee returned from serving in Iraq, he was welcomed with a limo ride and catered breakfast. "For that moment there were no Republicans or Democrats," says Pat Abbott, "just those of us who work for a company that truly values its people."

Datatel, 4375 Fair Lakes Ct., Fairfax; 703-968-9000; datatel.com.

Edelman Financial Services

What it does: Financial planning.

Number of employees: 80.

Interesting perks: Monthlong sabbaticals after six years, a Rolex watch after ten. Half-day Fridays in summer.

In May, Ric and Jean Edelman began selling their financial-planning firm, Edelman Financial Services. Ric still wanted to manage the 18-year-old firm, but he wanted to grow it.

What's interesting is how the Edelmans chose a buyer from the two best offers. One firm dangled more money but would have let many employees go. The second, Sanders Morris Harris Group, offered less money but agreed to let employees keep their jobs. The Edelmans accepted the lower bid.

"How many business owners would have selected firm B?" says employee Jerry Mason. "Ric and Jean deserve high marks for caring so much about their employees."

The Edelmans were upfront about the sale at every step. "The company has no secrets from the staff," says office manager John McCoy.

After the sale, Ric and Jean gave out bonuses, $1,000 for each year a staffer had been there. The Edelmans are selling their stake over time--51 percent this year, the rest over the next four years--and any employee still there in July 2009 will get another bonus, from 50 to 200 percent of his or her year 2004 pay. In the end, the Edelmans will give away one-third of the sale proceeds.

"Ric and Jean treat employees like family," Mason says. This family plays together. Staff events have included Play-Doh Day, a plane-making competition using uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows, "stress-down" board-game day, and a drive-to-work-free month where everyone received a $50 gas card.

Edelman Financial Services, 12450 Fair Lakes Cir., Suite 200, Fairfax; 703-818-0800, ricedelman.com.

EZGSA

What it does: Helps small businesses market and sell products and services to the federal government.

Number of employees: 18.

Interesting perks: Everyone gets 25 days off; employees select their own holidays. Three weeks' paternity leave, six for new moms. Fully paid health premiums for individuals.

Every few months, EZGSA brings in pizza and popcorn and hosts "kids movie night" for the children of employees. Kids are always welcome in the office, and toys are kept on hand. The firm's last holiday card was designed by the kids.

Evie Altman and Scott Orbach founded EZGSA in 1999. "We met working for a jerk," Altman says. "We had two goals. One, to be successful. Second, to make sure people never felt the way we felt about our old boss."

The work may sound tedious: Part of it involves filling out a 200-page solicitation to get a business--be it a security firm or a carpet company--on the General Services Administration's list of approved government vendors. But for that carpet or security firm, which could reap big sales, writing the right proposal is important.

The atmosphere is so relaxed that it's not unusual to see people in bare feet and T-shirts. Every Friday, the staff heads to McCormick & Schmick's for happy hour.

EZGSA, 6931 Arlington Rd., Suite 450, Bethesda; 301-913-5000; ezgsa.com.

FGM

What it does: Information technology.

Number of employees: 250.

Interesting perk: Time-off pool lumps together vacation, sick leave, and holidays; everyone gets 25 to 35 days off.

The F in FGM might as well stand for flexible, because that's one thing employees value about the firm.

Besides a leave pool that lets them pick their own holidays, employees set their hours. A few work 5:30 AM to 2 PM. One couple staggers their schedules--he works mornings, she afternoons and evenings so one of them is home with the kids.

The 18-year-old IT firm is such a stable, pleasant place, employees have no qualms recommending it to family and friends. A half dozen couples work there as well as a mother and her two sons, two brothers, and a father-in-law and son-in-law. Half of last year's hires were from employee referrals. Staffers sometimes vacation together.

An employee-owned firm, FGM gives people authority to make decisions on projects, which have included developing a program to track imports and exports and a system to map land mines. Everyone gets stock--and the value has increased more than 40 percent in the past three years.

A casual place, FGM has conference rooms named after old Atari games (Space Invaders, Pac-Man) and nameplates personalized with photos of kids or dogs or heroes (Tiger Woods, Kermit the Frog). There are sports teams, happy hours, and lunch seminars where employees can share with colleagues their knowledge of landscaping or magic. An incentive program will be giving away a Harley built by the firm's founders.

FGM, 12021 Sunset Hills Rd., Suite 400, Reston; 703-885-1000; www.fgm.com.

Great American Restaurants

What it does: Operates restaurants.

Number of employees: 1,400.

Interesting perk: Managing partners get an Acura MDX.

Restaurant work can mean long hours and lean benefits. The management at GAR understands that; many started as servers or kitchen help. They treat staff at their nine restaurants--including Carlyle and Sweetwater Tavern--how they'd want to be treated.

Employees get health insurance and vacations. Quarterly all-staff meetings keep everyone informed, and paintball and bowling outings keep them connected. Waiters are empowered to do anything it takes to make a customer happy. A very good shift or a compliment from a patron might earn a waiter an extra day off or other reward.

Employees are proud of the good food at Great American Restaurants. The happy atmosphere at the eateries says something about how happy employees are.

Great American Restaurants, greatamericanrestaurants.com.

HireStrategy

What it does: Professional staffing.

Number of employees: 105.

Interesting perk: An energizing office that was recognized for "design excellence" by the American Institute of Architects.

Employees at HireStrategy know the Washington job market better than most--after all, they hear about openings and find candidates for those positions.

Yet, people at HireStrategy aren't lured away. Turnover is less than 4 percent.

HireStrategy, founded in January 2000 by Paul Villella, Hector Velez, and Chris Owen, provides job placement in finance and accounting, sales, administration, and technology.

It's not the benefits that keep employees, although they do get three weeks of vacation and such prizes as iPods and TiVo for outstanding work. What the twenty- and thirtysomethings like is the "vision" of their bosses and helping clients with their careers.

Villella says his staff doesn't just find warm bodies for open slots; it offers career counseling. "We focus on the person looking, not the open job," he says. "We may not get them a job tomorrow. It may take a year."

The firm ranked first in revenue among contingency firms last year in the Washington Business Journal. Since then, revenue is up 105 percent. Clients include Freddie Mac, XM Satellite Radio, and Marriott.

"I have never met three founders so invested in creating a place that is rewarding and fun to work at," says Nicole Hardin. "Their passion breeds excitement about what we do."

HireStrategy, 11730 Plaza America Dr., Suite 340, Reston; 703-547-6700; hirestrategy.com.

Hitt Contracting

What it is: General contractor.

Number of employees: 570.

Interesting perk: Hitt Institute offers on-site courses on construction, leadership, safety, computers, and more.

In 1937, Warren Hitt, a painter and craftsman, started W.A. Hitt Painting & Decorating in his home with his wife, Myrtle.

These days, Hitt is the 58th-largest general contractor in the nation and the third largest in Washington. It posted $600 million in revenue last year.

It's still family run, headed by Russell Hitt, Warren and Myrtle's son; Brett Hitt, their grandson; and James Millar, Russell's son-in-law. And the firm--responsible for projects as varied as AOL's six-building campus in Virginia and Alan Greenspan's Federal Reserve Board office, has built a reputation as one big family.

"It is a family-owned and -operated company and it really does feel like family here," says J. Cabell Fooshé, manager of human-resources development.

There are picnics and golf tournaments and a weekly Friday happy hour, a 25-year tradition. But what employees like most is the way they feel supported and challenged.

"I am given every chance to succeed," says Jon Mollerup. "If I want more responsibility, they give it to me. The sky is the limit with regards to your advancement."

Hitt Contracting, 2704 Dorr Ave., Fairfax; 703-846-9000; hitt-gc.com.

Home Builders Institute

What it does: This nonprofit trains at-risk youth and others in the building trades and promotes careers in construction.

Number of employees: 40 in Washington, 254 nationwide.

Interesting perks: Compressed workweeks. Leadership training. A sum equal to 8 percent of employee's salary is put in a retirement account, whether or not the employee contributes.

When Faye Nock interviewed in 2001 for a job at Home Builders Institute, she asked those at the conference table how long they'd been at HBI. Senior vice president Alden Kamikawa had been there 31 years at the time. Three others said they'd each been there 20 years or more. As they continued around the table, Nock was amazed.

"It was an average of about 19 years. One person had been there three," she says. "I thought, this has to be a great place to work."

What keeps people at HBI, an affiliate of the National Association of Home Builders, is the mission: Instructors across the country provide training in crafts such as carpentry, wiring, and plumbing. Staff in the DC office manage the instructors and think of ways to recruit young people and improve the image of working in construction. As the industry faces a boom in business but a shortage of skilled labor, HBI staffers are excited by the challenge to develop new programs.

"Every time you think you're getting bored," says president Frederick Humphreys, who has been there 35 years, "we change and grow."

One of the populations they teach, through Job Corps, is at-risk youth trying to turn their lives around. Employees are proud when a young man they've trained ends up running a $4-million business.

It's not the only way HBI staffers help. Every Monday, volunteers deliver meals to homebound individuals through Food & Friends.

Food and friendship is a common theme: Several times a year, the staff enjoys a potluck lunch. With employees from India, Kenya, Chile, St. Lucia, and other parts of the country, Humphreys says, "It's like having lunch at the United Nations."

Home Builders Institute, 1201 15th St., NW, Sixth Fl.; 202-371-0600; hbi.org.

Institute for Justice

What it is: Nonprofit public-interest law firm.

Number of employees: 33 in DC, 46 nationwide.

Interesting perk: Paid six-week sabbaticals after ten years.

Many law firms have scheduled happy hours to get everyone together. Not the Institute for Justice.

In keeping with its libertarian spirit--libertarians tend to be strong individualists--"there are no forced happy hours," says managing director Deborah Simpson.

That doesn't mean coworkers don't get together socially--attendance optional, of course. The firm that columnist George Will deemed a "merry band of libertarian litigators" does have a sense of humor.

IJ represents clients who cannot represent themselves in cases involving libertarian pillars--property rights, school choice, economic liberty, and free speech. They have represented homeowners fighting eminent-domain seizure for private developers. IJ litigated a case before the Supreme Court that allowed New York residents to have wine shipped to them directly by wineries.

IJ successfully represented a discount casket store that had been ordered shut by Tennessee's Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. A tombstone in the lobby reads TENNESSEE'S CASKET MONOPOLY PUT TO REST AUGUST 21, 2000.

People are passionate about causes and respect each other's opinions. They don't take on social issues like abortion.

"Libertarians might describe themselves as 'not happy warriors,' " says senior attorney Scott Bullock. "But we have a positive attitude and try to change things for the better. We do it in the spirit of 'happy warrior.' "

Institute for Justice, 901 N. Glebe Rd., Suite 900, Arlington; 703-682-9320; ij.org.

Integrity Applications

What it does: Systems engineering and software development for space, intelligence, security, and defenseprograms.

Number of employees: 155.

Interesting perks: Pays 100 percent of health-insurance premiums and gives every employee $300 a quarter to cover any unreimbursed medical expenses.

Last year, Integrity Applications hired 58 people. Of those, 48 were referred by employees, though IAI does not pay referral bonuses. Staffers simply like the place so much, they think their friends will too.

IAI doesn't hire just anyone; 60 percent of employees have master's degrees, mostly in electrical engineering, software engineering, and systems engineering. Almost everyone has a security clearance.

Let's say the government wants to build a satellite. IAI can put together the proposal stating what the government needs--because, among other things, its engineers understand satellite technology--and then put it out to contractors who build satellites, to get bids. IAI evaluates the proposals and oversees building.

"We act as a trusted agent," says president and CEO Joe Brickey. Clients of the six-year-old firm include the military, the National Security Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Employees love the technical challenges and the chance to work with smart colleagues. "You have to be exceptional to get an interview," says senior financial adviser Millie Bayne, "and then once you get in you're an average joe."

The pay is above average and the benefits generous. The company puts an amount equal to 6 to 10 percent of a staffer's salary in his or her 401(k). For its fifth anniversary, IAI took each employee and a guest on a four-day trip to Cancun.

Perhaps because so many employees started as friends, the firm has a family feel. Birthdays are posted on a calendar that's affixed to the office refrigerators and online.

Integrity Applications, 5180 Parkstone Dr., Suite 260, Chantilly; 703-378-8672; integrity-apps.com.

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

What it does: Tackles problems of national significance through engineering, research, and development.

Number of employees: 3,800.

Interesting perks: On-site part-time study program offering classes toward a master's; compressed workweeks; 25 clubs including volleyball, Hispanic awareness, and parenting.

Look closely at the bottom of the TV screen during a NASA launch and you may see the words DESIGNED, DEVELOPED, AND BUILT BY THE APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY.

Over the past 46 years, the nonprofit laboratory has built 61 spacecraft. It's working on New Horizons, set to launch in January and arrive at Pluto in 2015.

"It's like a science fair for adults," says one staffer.

APL's work expands to land and sea: It supplies defense technology to the military. Employees manage a disease-surveillance center. Top-secret security issues are discussed in APL's Warfare Analysis Lab.

Two-thirds of employees are engineers and scientists, but APL also employs graphic designers, Web developers, technical writers, librarians, carpenters, and more.

One staffer calls APL "its own little city." The 360-acre complex has a fire station, tennis courts, and shuttle buses. The fitness club offers Pilates and Middle Eastern dance. Bikes are parked around campus for anyone to use.

The challenging work encourages employees to stay; turnover is less than 4 percent. "The man I replaced said he thought he'd work here a year," says Helen Worth, chief of public affairs. "He retired after 45 years."

Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, 11100 Johns Hopkins Rd., Laurel; 240-228-5000; jhuapl.edu.

LMI

What it does: Government consulting.

Employees: 600 in Washington, 700 nationwide.

Interesting perks: LMI contributes 9 to 12 percent of an employee's income to the retirement plan. Puts $500 in each employee's flexible spending account for health or dependent care.

This nonprofit was founded more than 40 years ago, at the suggestion of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to help solve many of the military's logistics problems. Since then, it has expanded its role.

"We have the capability of helping the federal government with every function it does," says president and retired admiral Donald L. Pilling. For example, LMI was tasked with deploying emergency hospital beds for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Employees like the collegiality, the lack of competitiveness, and the challenge of trying to solve big problems.

"I get to help government agencies manage their work better. As a not-for-profit, we can give the best advice without the pressure to sell the government something it does not need," says research fellow Jack Oliva.

Pilling personally involves himself in hiring and in the mentoring program: "We don't want them to fail. We give them the tools to be successful." That includes paying for up to two college courses a semester.

Turnover is very low. The atmosphere is academic; most everyone has an office. There are 13 weeks of sick leave, movement among jobs inside LMI is common, and the research staff telecommutes on snow days.

LMI, 2000 Corporate Ridge, McLean; 703-917-9800; lmi.org.

Marriott International

What it does: Hotel management.

Number of employees: 12,000 in Washington, 128,000 worldwide.

Interesting perks: On-site childcare, nurse, post office, and gas station. Discounted hotel stays; employees with 25 years or more stay at Marriott properties for free.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, it displaced 2,800 Marriott employees. To help its people, the company hung banners outside its hotels and handed out T-shirts at shelters to advertise a toll-free number employees could call to report in. Marriott gave each affected employee $500 in cash, housed and fed many in hotels, and paid everyone through September.

"My dad was a very compassionate man and treated his people very well. I've tried to follow in his footsteps," says J.W. Marriott Jr., whose parents, J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott, began the company 78 years ago. "The corporate philosophy is take good care of the associates, and they'll take care of the customer."

Many employees stay a long time. One reason: They're proud of the company.

The lodging giant--it manages or franchises 16 brands, including Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, and Fairfield Inn--does a lot for charity. During its annual Employee Appreciation Week, one day is devoted to volunteering in the community.

Other ways it shows it cares: While other companies have asked employees to pay a greater share of rising healthcare costs, Marriott lowered the copay for some prescriptions. An on-site childcare center offers everything from gymnastics to Spanish.

Employees get stock options, and the day's opening price is posted on a board at the employee entrance. A believer in employee growth and opportunity, Marriott gives each associate an average of 87 hours of training a year.

Marriott, 10400 Fernwood Rd., Bethesda; 301-380-3000; marriott.com.

Merritt Group

What it does: Public relations for technology companies.

Number of employees: 30.

Interesting perks: A telecommuting policy allows all staff to work from home one day a week; everyone gets a paid week off between Christmas and New Year's, and one day off each quarter to volunteer in the community.

All companies say they value employees. Few schedule an entire employee-appreciation week, complete with pancake breakfast, dinner at Sequoia in Georgetown, and an air-hockey tournament in the chill-out room.

"Any CEO worth his salt knows he works for his employees; they don't work for him," says CEO Ben Merritt. "The burden's on us to keep them happy."

Other ways Merritt keeps them happy: paying 100 percent of health-insurance premiums; holding quarterly events like bowling and Potomac River cruises; and offering an airy office with a state-of-the-art fitness center. A time-off pool lumps together sick and vacation days; everyone gets 20 to 30 days a year, plus the week after Christmas and one paid day a quarter to do volunteer work.

Employees get to work with companies developing innovative technologies, including Hewlett-Packard, MCI, and Microsoft. Almost everyone is under 35; unlike at big PR firms, young people are meeting with clients and having a say in a project.

"We have a philosophy here that if you give people a challenge, they'll rise to the occasion," says Megan Lamb, one of Ben Merritt's two partners in the firm.

Employees meet quarterly with their manager to discuss their career. "I've never worked with someone as open to ideas and supportive of my professional growth," says account manager Duyen Truong.

Mistakes are tolerated. "If you don't make mistakes, you're not learning," Merritt says.

They must be doing something right: The firm has grown annually more than 25 percent in revenue in the past two years.

Merritt Group, 11600 Sunrise Valley Dr., Suite 320, Reston; merrittgrp.com.

Mind & Media

What it does: Multimedia production and strategy.

Number of employees: 35.

Interesting perk: Quarterly activity such as paintball, a barbecue, or a visit to a comedy club.

After September 11, 2001, Mind & Media saw much of its revenue--contracts for producing training videos for the National Guard, for example--dry up as the government diverted funds. Owners Aldo Bello and his wife, Marilyn Finnemore, cut their pay, but the company was still running out of money. They had 20 employees at the time and didn't want to lay off anyone.

Bello and Finnemore were up-front with their staff; their honesty is one reason employees like working here. The staff came back with a proposal: They'd cut their hours to 35 a week, to save everyone's job.

"That cemented the idea that people care about this place," Bello says. "It was a very hard time. But when we emerged, I could look back on it as something incredible."

Four years later, this 11-year-old firm is growing and has opened a second office in Winchester. Mind & Media wins awards for the TV programs, Web sites, CDs, and other media it produces, mainly in the fields of health, environment, and education.

It's not just a production company. Mind & Media's writers, graphic artists, and production experts don't just produce media to a client's specs but help clients craft a message and steer them to the appropriate media: Maybe it's a Web site that's called for, maybe a video. The company, which produced the 1999 PBS series Frontiers of Medicine, hopes to branch into original programming.

The freedom to be creative keeps people happy: Turnover is less than 5 percent, and 67 percent of last year's hires came from employee referrals. The work gets done in a casual but efficient environment; working more than 40 hours a week is discouraged.

Mind & Media, 2016 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-837-0121; mindandmedia.com.

Mitre Corporation

What it is: Nonprofit systems-engineering firm that helps solve technical problems for the federal government.

Number of employees: 2,539 in Washington, 5,635 worldwide.

Interesting perks: Sabbaticals; up to 40 hours' paid annual leave for civic and chariable activity.

To showcase its staff's research and development skills, Mitre holds technology symposia open to employees, customers, and even competitors. "We work in the public interest," says Bill Albright, director of quality of work life and benefits. "We don't have any reason not to share our knowledge."

Mitre operates research-and-development centers that assist government agencies with technical challenges. Employees might help the Coast Guard with a plan to modernize and replace its ships and command-and-control systems. Or improve the information-technology infrastructures of agencies involved in homeland security, to speed the exchange of information.

Albright likens what Mitre does to what architects do: Others bang nails and pour concrete, but the architect designs and guides the project.

The average age of a Mitre employee is 47. Half of hires are employee referrals. Nine out of ten senior positions are filled from within. Turnover is under 5 percent.

Other reasons people stay: a generously matched retirement program; an on-site fitness center and wellness offerings from chiropractic to smoking cessation; 23 days of paid time off to start, increasing to 28 days after ten years; and a Mitre Institute that sponsors more than 550 employee courses a year.

"There are people here who are experts in just about any field you can think of," Albright says. Smart people do other smart things. When we visited, employee Edward Hahn's photography was being exhibited in the same rooms that previously showcased employees' pottery and poetry.

Mitre Corporation, 7515 Colshire Dr., McLean; 703-983-6000; www.mitre.org.

Mitretek Systems

What it is: Nonprofit scientific research and engineering corporation.

Number of employees: 800.

Interesting perks: Company pays for long-term-care insurance for employees, and the same group rates are available to employees' parents. Compressed workweeks.

In 1996 Mitre spun off Mitretek; they are separate nonprofit organizations. Mitretek's emphasis is scientific research on nondefense issues, including biotechnology, criminal justice, the environment, healthcare, telecommunications, and transportation.

Mitretek hires engineers and scientists, generally with advanced degrees and experience in the fields it researches. Employees might analyze traffic patterns or evaluate face-recognition technology. "It is a great place to work because when you finish, something is better, and your work matters," says Lydia Thomas, president and CEO.

Mitretek is in a nice building in the same office park that houses the very good restaurant 2941. The firm has an on-site childcare center, gym, cafeteria, and nurse.

Employee input about benefits and work conditions is expected; for example, the employees voted on the office furniture. And the firm was named one of the best places to work for those over 50 by AARP.

Mitretek Systems, 3150 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-610-2000; www.mitretek.org.

New Media

Strategies

What it does: Online marketing.

Number of employees: 60.

Interesting perk: One "mental-health day" each quarter.

The staff at New Media Strategies is up on the latest movies, TV, music, video games, and consumer products--it's their job to troll the Internet for the latest buzz and to generate some of that buzz by providing client information to bloggers.

"It's 21st-century PR," says CEO Pete Snyder, whose firm counts HBO, ABC, McDonald's, and Dodge among its clients.

Snyder says that NMS, a pioneer in online marketing and communications, developed a technology to scour the Net and spot trends. His young staff is on the ground floor of the industry.

A former pollster, Snyder likes feedback internally, too: Employees are polled quarterly about the firm's benefits and direction.

The staff sits newsroom-style, with few offices and no cubicles. Staffers say their ideas are listened to, their growth encouraged.

NMS, which does pro bono work for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, does its part for charity. To boost DC after September 11, 2001, NMS reimbursed employees $100 for every $150 spent in local restaurants, bars, and hotels.

New Media Strategies, 1100 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1400, Arlington; 703-253-0050; newmediastrategies.net.

RedPeg Marketing

What it does: "Experiential" marketing.

Number of employees: 65.

Interesting perks: Rainmaker of the month drives the boss's Mercedes the next month. Four-bedroom house in Dewey Beach for employee use.

At RedPeg's holiday party, employees were finishing dinner when the Jeopardy! theme song cued up. Suddenly, CEO Brad Nierenberg appeared in a powder-blue leisure suit and a fake wig.

Nierenberg led his staff through a game of trivia with questions about the firm. As people shouted out answers, the pot of prize money grew, until Nierenberg handed out bonuses--$1,000 in cash to each person.

It's no surprise that a company that creates zany promotional events for clients would use the same creativity in-house.

When the city of Baltimore wanted to boost tourism, RedPeg hired people to dress in crab costumes and walk the streets of other US cities singing songs about Baltimore. For a Holiday Inn promotion, RedPeg came up with Towel Amnesty Day. At six beaches, people handed out Holiday Inn-logo towels. Beachgoers could trade in old towels--including ones they were "forgiven" for taking from the hotel. Holiday Inn got e-mail addresses--and plugs in the local news.

RedPeg employees are young or at least energetic. The average age is 28, and the hours can be long. When work is done, the staff often hangs out together. To keep up energy, there's a video game in the kitchen; trips to Cancun or Jamaica if goals are met; and monthly outings that have included rock climbing and go-cart racing.

RedPeg Marketing, 727 N. Washington Blvd., Alexandria; 703-519-9000; www.redpegmarketing.com.

Sallie Mae

What it does: Student loans.

Number of employees: 763 in Washington, 9,420 nationwide.

Interesting perks: Basketball and tennis courts and a 6,000-square-foot fitness center. A $1,000 match to employee's flexible spending account for dependent care.

SLM Corporation, commonly known as Sallie Mae, issues one of every four college loans in the country. It also produces books and other materials to guide families through the process of preparing and paying for college.

"Working for a company that makes it possible for millions of students to go to college is very rewarding," says Nina Vellayan.

Created in 1972 as a government-sponsored entity, Sallie Mae recently cut all federal ties. That has allowed it to acquire several related businesses, offering more opportunities to employees.

Not that there wasn't opportunity before. "This is a company with a lot of what we call 'lifers,' " says Anju Kettish, a director of educational marketing who recently received her third promotion in 5H years. "You can grow and reinvent yourself. You don't need to leave for a new opportunity."

As the cost of higher education rises, there's more competition to be a lender of choice at colleges. Employees--who have seen the company stock triple in seven years--seem to thrive on challenge. That's a tone set by senior management, particularly CEO Tim Fitzpatrick.

"They're go-getters," says Terry Holloway, in human resources, describing the senior executives. "They want this company to be on the move. But it's also a company that's down to earth. We put an emphasis on having fun with employees."

Fitzpatrick tries to get to know every employee. A fitness fanatic, he sees many of them in the gym or on the basketball court.

In its light-filled headquarters near Reston Town Center, employees cite another reason they're proud: Sallie Mae is one of the area's top philanthropists, giving away $31 million last year to improve educational opportunities for low-income and minority children. Every employee gets four hours of paid leave a month for volunteering.

Sallie Mae, 12061 Bluemont Way, Reston; 703-810-3000; salliemae.com.

SRA International

What it does: Information technology and consulting.

Number of employees: 3,500 in Washington, 4,600 nationwide.

Interesting perk: A nurse advocacy program and on-site medical facility.

In the information-technology industry, it's not uncommon for an IT professional to be laid off when a project ends or for the staffer to stay at the customer site working for the new firm that won the contract.

SRA is different. It has staffing managers whose only job is to help SRA people find their next assignment. "And not just any job," says David Kriegman, chief operating officer. "People are entitled to feel fulfilled."

SRA has a long list of government contracts, with agencies including the Army, Treasury, and Environmental Protection Agency. For example, SRA provides IT management for the Federal Parent Locator Service, which tracks parents who are delinquent in child support. According to SRA, the system helped collect more than $20 billion last year in overdue payments.

Employees play a role in shaping SRA's decisions too. An employee task force suggested changes to the benefits package. A community-service committee guides charitable activities. Employees choose colleagues to be recognized at the annual black-tie banquet.

Hundreds of employees have taken part in competitive fitness programs; teams compete over a 16-week period to become more physically aware and active. A nurse advocacy program is a model for other companies: Three nurses provide shots and routine medical care and also take on the role of case manager for ill employees.

SRA has doubled its staff in the past three years. "That growth provides opportunity," says Kriegman.

SRA International, 4300 Fair Lakes Ct., Fairfax; 703-803-1500; sra.com.

Sunrise Senior Living

What it does: Provides senior living services to more than 53,000 residents.

Number of employees: 4,458 in Washington, more than 40,000 worldwide.

Interesting perks: On-site childcare; employees contribute to a "Good Samaritan fund" that helps staffers facing financial hardships.

Employees in the McLean headquarters didn't mind their "homework"--to spend a half day volunteering in a Sunrise residential community. One staffer took seniors shopping in Leesburg; another hosted a wine-and-cheese party with games.

It's one way employees stay connected to the seniors they're serving. Sunrise operates 424 communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. To keep corporate staff informed of what's happening in the field, managers read thank-you letters from residents' families and share inspirational stories.

The headquarters is designed to reflect elements of Sunrise communities--hardwood floors, French doors, floor-to-ceiling windows, soft lighting. Offices have architectural themes such as Southwestern and Victorian. Staffers enjoy cookies and milk on Wednesdays; an old-fashioned popcorn machine runs in the afternoon. Women's rooms are stocked with lotions and hair products.

Employees send "bright ideas" to the Team Council, which plans ice-cream socials, wellness seminars, softball games, and chili cook-offs. Last year's team-member-appreciation week included a Cinco de Mayo party, hot-dog roast on the deck, and vacation raffles.

Schedules are flexible: One employee commutes to McLean from Colorado Springs once a month and stays in Sunrise communities while she's here.

CEO Paul Klaassen, who helped develop the first Sunrise community in 1981, leaves voice-mails to thank employees--a recent message reminded people to "take care of yourself as you take care of others."

"I get regular 'thank yous,' " says Gregg Colon, vice president of quality and compliance. "This company is focused on making sure the recognition is there."

Sunrise Senior Living, 7902 Westpark Dr., McLean; 703-273-7500; sunriseseniorliving.com.

Terrapin Systems

What it does: Information technology.

Number of employees: 145.

Interesting perks: Terrapin, or turtle, booties given to new parents. Four-year "degree" program through Outward Bound to develop physical, mental, and leadership skills.

Ed Woods is a towering figure who was a walk-on basketball player at the University of Maryland when Lefty Driesell was coach. Woods no doubt learned about inspiring teamwork. At his five-year-old IT company, the camaraderie is one of the things employees like most.

The work can be challenging. "You will be pushed out of your comfort zone quickly," says Mike Montgomery, a Terrapin Systems employee since the firm's inception.

But they support one another. "We have a sense of family, not just team," says computer analyst Bill Nguyen.

Terrapin Systems is a relatively small company, but its 145 staffers do many things together. For instance, 125 employees and family members participated in the Race for the Cure. At company softball games it isn't uncommon for 50 people to cheer on players with thunder sticks.

"Terrapin's customers do serious work," Woods says. The largest customer is the National Cancer Institute. "So we try to do things for our employees to keep it light."

Every month there are two company events, such as a family trip to the National Zoo. Pizza nights allow employees to teach one another new technologies they've learned.

Community service is at the core of the company. Besides giving employees eight hours a year of paid leave for community service, the company supports four charities.

Terrapin Systems, 6905 Rockledge Dr., Suite 200, Bethesda; 301-530-9106; terpsys.com.

UCG

What it does: Publish business newsletters, electronic magazines, and directories.

Number of employees: 370 in Washington, 1,000 nationwide.

Interesting perk: Afternoon fruit cart pushed by people from different departments--often with a surprise nonfruit treat; recent examples include root-beer floats, mini margaritas, and ice cream.

UCG is a company that doesn't believe in rules. Its leave policy, for instance: There is no set number of days off.

"If you want a vacation or need sick days, you take them. It's a matter of common sense," says Jerry Purcell, director of human resources. "We are the poster child of openness."

UCG promotes a fun, open environment. That's evident in its workspace, which looks like a city newspaper's newsroom. All six owners, including founders Ed Peskowitz and Bruce Levenson, sit there. There are no offices, only low-walled cubicles.

While some employees have a journalism education, others are experts in the industries UCG covers: health, energy, finance, telecommunications, computers, automobiles, online education, and taxes. It has 2 million clients worldwide for such publications as Funeral Service Insider and Radiology Coder's Pink Sheet.

The company was the first in America to sponsor an "I Have a Dream" class, offering college scholarships to 62 inner-city sixth-graders in the 1980s. An employee-managed foundation supports other charities.

The lobby flat-screen TV replays scenes from company trips and events. The biggest happens once every five years when every employee and a guest is taken to a mystery destination for the weekend. The most recent gathering happened just after September 11, 2001; the company shifted its plans and took 900 people to functions in Washington and New York City, the cities most affected by the terrorist attacks.

UCG, 11300 Rockville Pike, Suite 1100, Rockville; 301-287-2700; ucg.com.

Weinberg Group

What it does: Scientific consulting.

Number of employees: 50.

Interesting perk: Staff votes on which federal holidays they want off.

Suppose that the maker of a pain reliever is under scrutiny. Newspaper articles cite cases where the drug may have caused harm. Patients are suing. The Food and Drug Administration is considering taking the drug off the market.

In a case like this, a call often goes out to the Weinberg Group.

For more than 20 years, Weinberg's consultants have worked for pharmaceutical, chemical, cosmetic, and other companies that need to get products through regulatory hurdles or to defend products in the courts or media. Although CEO Matthew Weinberg says the firm has worked for most major pharmaceutical companies, work is done behind the scenes.

"Nobody ever wants to admit they've used us," he says.

Weinberg says that scientists can read data different ways, and it's the job of his toxicologists, chemists, epidemiologists, and others to analyze data on a client's behalf. That doesn't mean they always make a client happy.

"We're advocates for our clients, but we won't go where the data won't take us," he says.

The staff enjoys the complexity and variety of the research--from pesticides to frozen pizza. "We work on cutting-edge scientific issues. I'm never bored and I'm always learning," says senior consultant Kerry Roche.

High pay doesn't hurt. And employees bring the same scrutiny to the company itself. Matthew Weinberg holds monthly brown-bag lunches where he talks about issues facing the firm, answers questions, and recognizes achievements. Each quarter, the staff reviews the firm's benefits.

The Weinberg Group, 1220 19th St., NW, Suite 300; 202-833-8077; weinberggroup.com.

Wild Bird Centers of America

What it is: Nature-store franchiser.

Number of employees: 20.

Interesting perks: Staff nature walks. Two paid days a year for volunteering.

At the Wild Bird Centers of America, a meeting can grind to a halt if owner George Petrides Sr. or his son, George Jr., spot a woodpecker out the window.

The business Petrides Sr. started in 1985 has grown from one store in Cabin John to 100 franchises selling birdhouses, seed, and books. He expects to have 200 in five years.

Not every employee is a birder; many simply like nature. Staffers sometimes walk along the nearby C&O Canal; the company considers it work time.

"We're a group that would prefer not to be in a high-rise office building. We'd prefer to be surrounded by trees," Petrides says.

The staff of 14 full-timers and six part-timers hails from such countries as Bulgaria, Jamaica, Colombia, and China. Perhaps that explains the un-American way the office is run. "Europeans work to live; Americans live to work," says COO Henrik Lehmann Weng, who is from Denmark. "We really try to keep a nine-to-five atmosphere."

Wild Bird Centers of America, 7370 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo; 301-229-9585; wildbird.com.

Wolf Trap

What it does: Creates and presents concerts, music festivals, children's educational activities, and other performing arts.

Number of employees: 75 plus some 500 in summer.

Interesting perks: Fully-paid healthcare plan; a week off between Christmas and New Year's; monthly "learning lunches."

Employees at Wolf Trap see the impact of their work all around them. Activities they've organized take place in their building, the Center for Education, where kids come together for art and drama classes and teachers learn to integrate the arts into classrooms. Concerts and shows are held at the nearby Filene Center or the Barns next door.

"It's exciting to know there's a master class in the Lecture Hall and an opera rehearsal downstairs," says special assistant Angela Cioletti. "It's nice to know I had a small part in making it happen."

The two-year-old headquarters was designed to bring the outdoors in, with skylights, oak trim, natural stone, and walls of windows. Staffers eating lunch on the stone patio sometimes spot deer in the woods.

A favorite perk? Employees get two free lawn seats for most shows. "I'll see 15 of our staff all together on the lawn with a picnic," says CEO Terrence Jones. "It feels good because you know they like each other--they're not there because they have to be."

Many employees are artists, musicians, or dancers in their spare time. One designs greeting cards; another cares for the center's garden. A payroll administrator works in community theater. "The whole place shows up if someone's in a play," says director of foundation events Ted Davis.

When Davis, a 17-year-employee, left Wolf Trap for another job, he was asked to come back. "They missed me, and I missed them," says Davis. "Once it gets in your blood, it's hard to leave."

Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, 1645 Trap Rd., Vienna; 703-255-1900; wolftrap.org.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2005 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles