businessTop 100

Cheryl Hall: Why I love the Top 100 Places to Work

Seven reasons the winners make her smile after 13 lucky years.

In many ways, this year’s competition was an extension of last year’s. The pandemic, political polarization, racial tensions and natural disasters continued to eat into our collective well-being.

But there was another constant.

Our winners did whatever it took to show their employees how much they mean to them. And in return, their teams surpassed all expectations.

New York Life took steps to help its agents through the pandemic, said Mike Scovel, managing partner of the company’s Dallas-Fort Worth general office. “It covered health care premiums, waived office rent charges, provided a stipend for new agents and access to low-interest loans for others.”

And what was the response from their agents? “They had the best year in their history,” he said.

Resilience was the word of the year.

“I learned a lot about the character and integrity of our teammates,” said André Moore, who owns Uptown Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram and Fiat. “Most employees will take easy paths, but our team has consistently done what’s right and what is hard.”

I asked leaders of our Top 100 Places to Work to share something wondrous that their employees pulled off, what they learned from them and something they hope they never see repeated.

Our company leaders had plenty to share. Their answers gave me seven reasons why I love The Dallas Morning News’ Top 100 — and consider Year No. 13 the luckiest ever.

Kathleen LaValle, president and CEO of Dallas CASA, oversees volunteer advocates for abused...
Kathleen LaValle, president and CEO of Dallas CASA, oversees volunteer advocates for abused and neglected children in the court system.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

Our winners do wonderful things in awful times.

Take Dallas CASA, for example, which assigned 1,527 volunteers to step up for children in foster care this past year — an agency record, said CEO Kathleen LaValle. That included 472 people who completed training to become new volunteer advocates.

“We learned that no limit exists to what our team is willing and able to do to be sure child victims of abuse and neglect do not feel lost or forgotten,” she said.

Publishing Concepts of Dallas successfully launched its Oral History Project, collecting stories for its college and university clients from their alumni about the impact of their collegiate experience on their lives. “We’ve collected more than 500,000 stories so far,” said CEO Drew Clancy.

Commercial Metals Co. broke ground on its third technologically advanced steelmaking operation using an environmentally friendly power supply system that allowed the company to hook up directly to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, CEO Barbara Smith said. When completed, it will be one of the most efficient steel producers in the world.

Brian McKinney, CEO of Benchmark Mortgage, said his company’s culture thrived in what he calls probably the most difficult operating environment in the last 100 years.

“Record-low interest rates and an unprecedented demand for housing allowed us to double our business over 2019,” he said. “I feel like a head coach who just won the Super Bowl!”

Clinic supervisor Eddie Peña, right, spoke with Dr. Christina Nguyen before she consulted...
Clinic supervisor Eddie Peña, right, spoke with Dr. Christina Nguyen before she consulted with a patient at the Spine Team Texas-Alliance location in Fort Worth in 2020.(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)

Mark Hood, CEO of Spine Team Texas, said the pandemic taught him that telemedicine was not only a viable reality but a service that holds many benefits for the patient and the provider.

“We celebrate this past year as an event that has reshaped us as a team and as individuals,” he said.

Dallas-based Match realized that love-seeking members of the dating service wanted to be able to say that they’d been vaccinated against COVID-19 on their profiles.

“Our teams pulled together to launch this feature,” CEO Hesam Hosseini said. “Locally, we partnered with the Concilio and Project Unity to fund their important efforts to ensure we were helping Dallasites get vaccinated.”

They always find time to give back.

Premier Trailer Leasing supported Feeding America by providing 40 refrigerated trailers free of charge in major cities across the county to aid food shelters. “Much of our equipment was used to transport vaccines, medical equipment and food to support those dealing with the pandemic,” said CEO Jim AuBuchon.

K2 Construction joined forces with architectural firm Corgan to build a backyard gazebo for a Make-A-Wish family. Because of the pandemic, they needed an outdoor place to host friends and family members who wanted to visit the family’s youngest son, who has a life-threatening medical condition. They pulled it off over the course of a weekend, said David Danielson, partner of the Dallas-based construction company.

“To be able to meet the family and witness the positive impact of service was just extremely rewarding for our entire team,” Danielson said.

Fidelity Investments' workers have a history of volunteering at Thomas Jefferson High School.
Fidelity Investments' workers have a history of volunteering at Thomas Jefferson High School.

Fidelity Investments volunteers in Westlake helped transform Thomas Jefferson High School in northwest Dallas by creating art to hang in the school hallways and butcher block benches for the outdoor courtyard, said Kirsten Kuykendoll, head of talent acquisition at Fidelity.

Fidelity’s troops also provided 3,000-plus meals in partnership with Community Storehouse for those experiencing food insecurity.

The nutrition staff at Grapevine-Colleyville ISD has provided more than 741,000 curbside meals. “This service was a lifesaver to families in our community who were struggling,” said Superintendent Robin Ryan. “That’s heroic!”

They know how to show respect and appreciation.

Hill & Wilkinson General Contractors signed up with AwardCo, which helps the Richardson-based company recognize employees every day, CEO Paul Driscoll said. “Employees are given points for staying proactive about safety, in recognition of birthdays, anniversaries and many other ways throughout the year,” he said. “It offers millions of options for employees to spend their points on Amazon, tickets to shows, hotels, travel and more.”

They listen to their troops.

Diversity, equity and inclusion have been a big deal at Credera for several years, but employees of the Addison-based technology strategy company told their boss, Justin Bell, they wanted more — a dedicated chief diversity officer to drive more progress and connection.

“After understanding this perspective, we hired Nickoria Johnson for the role,” Bell said. “I’m thankful our team spoke up and can’t wait to see the impact Nickoria makes.”

They know the importance of fun.

Premier Nationwide Lending moved into new corporate headquarters in Plano just off the Dallas North Tollway and Park Boulevard. “The state-of-the-art office is equipped with an on-site workout facility, including lockers and towel service, event/meeting space and a mini-market, providing all-around convenience for our team,” CEO Murdock Richard said.

Premier Nationwide Lending workers each brought an ornament to decorate the office tree for...
Premier Nationwide Lending workers each brought an ornament to decorate the office tree for Christmas in 2019.(Premier Nationwide Lending)

More than anything, they care for each other.

Saurajit Kanungo, president of Cyber Group Inc., was facing letting people go until four of his direct reports came to him unsolicited to say they’d go without pay for six months to keep everyone on staff. The rest of the executives told him to cut their salaries 30% and forget about their bonuses.

He was able to keep the staff and their pay intact at the Dallas technology consulting company. “Our revenues have kept growing every month since,” Kanungo said. “All the executive pay was restored within 90 days. We resumed all merit increases and promotions within 90 days.

“If you are able to connect with your troop’s spirit, they elevate their performance without being asked to.”

Ray Huffines, founder of Huffines Auto Group, told a similar story.

“When the pandemic hit, there was tremendous fear of the illness and the loss of income. However, our team members did not panic or complain,” he said.

“We have tremendous trust in each other, so we had faith we would persevere through the challenges together. Layoffs were not a consideration because our team members are too valuable to us.”

The Loomis Agency didn’t lay off anyone or reduce compensation. And at the end of the year, it actually gave everyone a performance bonus.

“In an ordinary year, this would be nice,” said Mike Sullivan, CEO. “In 2020, it was wonderful.”

Sticking together in this time of challenges was the highlight of the year for Brad Bierman, senior vice president of insurance broker Holmes Murphy & Associates. “Through all ups and downs that both our clients and employees experienced, we heard story after story of people reaching out and caring for each other. We’ve started capturing those stories to share and show who we are and why what we do matters.”

And they never, ever say die.

Craig Lashley thought growing up in Wisconsin would have prepared him to lead the team through Texas’ epic winter storm in February.

“But wow, this was hopefully one for the ages!” said the president of Valiant Residential, a Dallas-based property maintenance company.

“I witnessed many maintenance team members working incredibly long hours to repair frozen pipe after frozen pipe. Our office teams banded together with food drives for our residents who couldn’t travel to the grocery stores.

“It was amazing to think of all of the great stories but also something we are all happy to see in the rearview mirror.”

Ditto, said Shawn Black, managing partner of Black, Mann & Graham LLP, a document preparation and loan fulfillment services firm.

“We’re thankful to see the February 2021 Texas arctic freeze and statewide power crisis in our rearview mirror,” he said. “Our team and their families, along with our customers and people throughout the state, experienced shortages of water, food and heat, impacting their well-being.

“Our IT team scrambled to find new solutions to keep us working through the hardship, while team members outside of Texas pitched in to ensure seamless customer service.”

A reserved spot for the employee of the month is shown on Aug. 12 at the Black, Mann &...
A reserved spot for the employee of the month is shown on Aug. 12 at the Black, Mann & Graham office in Flower Mound. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Brian Erickson, Dallas managing vice president of Pariveda, said that at the height of the pandemic, he felt like a hamster in a cage. “I had one corner that I slept in, one corner where I would eat and my exercise wheel where I worked on Zoom all day every day,” Erickson said.

“I was literally wearing little paths in the carpet walking back and forth between my stations. It felt like Groundhog Day.”

He’s happy to be back at the management consulting firm’s office. “My house now feels like a house and not a cage.”

Read all about the 2021 Top 100 Places to Work here.

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