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Alberta’s Best Workplaces 2008

From the greenest organizations to the most family-friendly, Alberta Venture surveyed businesses across the province to find the employers who put their employees first - and reap the rewards of attracting the best in the field

Mar 1, 2008

No employer can be all things to all prospective employees. Getting a half day off every other Friday is going to mean a lot to some workers, while others just appreciate the chance to make more cash. Some advantages are meaningless until you opt to use them, such as maternity benefits or training opportunities. Others, like dental coverage or a safe shop floor, are often taken for granted.

That’s why for our 2008 Best Workplaces survey we looked at things from the employee’s point of view. Which companies would appeal to a single person in her 20s looking to establish herself in her chosen field? To a working parent? To an immigrant? To somebody committed to environmental sustainability? The answers, in most cases, were different each time.

The one common theme running through all the workplaces profiled herein is a willingness to go beyond the industry standard in two or three key areas to ensure they are able to attract and retain the kind of people they need. Collectively, they present a catalogue of innovative human-resources practices that any employer who aims to compete in the scramble for talent should heed.



Industry: Professional services
Locations: Calgary, Edmonton
Number of employees in Alberta: 415

Leaving the office early is no problem for Aroon Sequeira, and not just because he’s the boss. When Sequeira heads home at 3:30 to help coach his son’s basketball team, his company encourages the practice. It’s one of the reasons that Ernst & Young has been chosen as Alberta’s Best Workplace for Working Parents. That kind of flexibility and the encouragement of young workers have also earned it a place as Best Workplace for Millennials.

“As long as you’re living up to the team’s expectations and the clients’ expectations, why should hours in the office matter?” says Sequeira, the company’s Edmonton managing partner. In fact, flexibility has been stressed by Ernst & Young’s CEO, Lou Pagnutti, and the whole culture of fitting the workplace to the individual worker — not the other way around – has pervaded the company’s culture. “In the olden days, if you came in late because of a personal commitment, you’d quickly walk to your office and hope no one would notice,” Sequeira says. “Now, it’s quite the opposite. The firm encourages you to take advantage of flexibility initiatives.”

That can mean working at home to make up for the hours missed at the office. The company supplies whatever is needed – laptop, fax machine, cellphone – to allow that kind of alternative. For Heidi Staub, working three days a week has been the perfect way to maintain her career as a tax group senior manager and to look after her three-year-old daughter Olivia. While her regular days have been Tuesdays through Thursdays, client demands can mean working other days, and conversely, being allowed to take days off when there is a sick child at home. “There has to be flexibility both ways,” says Staub, now on maternity leave with four-month-old daughter Isabella. And the company’s policy of topping up maternity leave benefits to full salary for four months is an added bonus.

Other benefits, such as allowing employees to take three personal days off every year for any purpose, are aimed at attracting and keeping top-notch people, Sequeira says. “It’s good for business, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Ernst & Young is a multinational that provides services in accounting, auditing, taxation matters and transactions such as mergers and financing. In total, it employs 114,000 people in 140 countries, most of them highly educated and skilled, so it’s not surprising the organization places a high priority on HR.
– Dennis Hryciuk

• Subsidized emergency or back-up child care, including services for children accompanying employees on business trips
• Free concierge service to help employees with everything from planning vacations to arranging birthday parties for children
• Global Exchange program allows employees to work abroad for 18 to 24 months
• Formal mentorship program linking newly hired employees with senior professionals
• Reimbursement of up to $1,000 a year for fitness activities
• Sabbaticals of up to one year; full benefits for sabbaticals of 90 days or less

(Working Parents)

ATB Financial, financial services, 244 locations throughout Alberta, 4,458 employees (alternative work arrangements including reduced or compressed work week, job sharing and working from home; cash and travel rewards for top performers; low- or no-fee staff banking benefits)
KPMG LLP, professional services, Calgary/Edmonton/Lethbridge, 615 employees (up to 80 hours/year back-up child and elder care; four weeks paid leave for new dads and adoptive parents; up to 50 hours/year paid time off to attend to personal matters)

Graycon Group Ltd.,
information technology, Calgary, 125 employees (Individual Career Plan for each employee; in-office shower, yoga, massage, foosball table; buddy program for new hires)
Epcor Utilities Inc., utilities, locations across Alberta, 2,400 Alberta employees (Engineers in Training rotational program; 100% of employees took part in training in 2007; 12 scheduled days off/year in addition to vacation and personal days off)


Industry: Energy services
Location: Calgary
Number of employees in Alberta: 127

For all its importance in the oil and gas universe, Calgary can be insular – “Canadianized,” in the words of Pat Hare, manager of the engineering department for Aker Kvaerner Process Systems (Canada) Inc. One of the things Hare appreciates about his employer, a leader in oil, gas, water and sand processing technologies, is its global outlook. Hare worked for other divisions of the Norway-based oilfield services giant, in South America for 15 years and several in Houston, before coming to Calgary three years ago. Now he’s headed to Australia to broaden his global experience. “One of the most important things you learn working in this company is working international,” Hare says. Aker Kvaerner goes far beyond the tight-knit local market in every aspect of its business. Its International Trainee Program, for example, is open to all employees and allows participants to receive training across the table from people from 30 different countries.

“You can’t separate the international component from the domestic component within our business,” says Michael Hambly, president of Aker Kvaerner Process Systems. “For [workers] to come into an organization that is truly global and understands how to bring various backgrounds together to work as a team provides an overall sense of comfort.”

In addition to the foreign opportunities for career development, Hare says the company retains a certain European sensibility from its parent organization. He’s met with management in Norway and seen first-hand how the company’s top leaders insist on putting people first. “Their attitude is that if we can’t keep our people . . . the money’s not going to matter.”

One way Aker Kvaerner expresses this emphasis on a strong team focus is through its myPAD system, which stands for Performance, Alignment and Development. Everybody from the CEO to entry-level employees make commitments and set goals to the company while outlining their own expectations of the firm. That information is widely open and communicated to every employee in the organization and strongly adhered to, providing a mechanism to measure performance on all levels. “As you drill it down into the system, you make sure you have complete alignment,” says Hambly.

The employee lounge, which had masseurs on hand for the recent opening, didn’t hurt either. “We’re just trying to do little things that make it a great place for our people to work,” says Hambly.
– Derek Sankey

• Staff turnover of just 4% in 2007
• Wide range of performance incentives, rewards and profit-sharing
• Bi-weekly RRSP contributions, without employee matching requirement
• Three weeks vacation after one year, every second Friday off, 10 four-day weekends per year and Christmas week shut-down
• Biannual People Survey where employees rate how the company is living up to its core values
• Company went three years, from 2003 to 2006, without a lost-time incident

Graycon Group Ltd., information technology, Calgary, 125 employees (BlackBerries for all staff; employee assistance plan provides counseling, legal advice, diet planning; buddy program for new hires; “karma benefit” rewards for volunteer activity)


Industry: Oil and gas
Location: Calgary
Number of employees in Alberta: 231

The staff at Crescent Point Energy Trust has a hectic schedule. In March, there’s a ski trip; in May, a wine tasting; in June, a company golf tournament. Then there’s the monthly volunteer commitment to serve lunch at the Calgary drop-in centre, and the occasional afternoon appointment with a Nintendo Wii.

Somehow the staff also finds time to manage one of the fastest-growing oil and gas companies in the province (Crescent Point ranked #12 among companies with revenues greater than $20 million in Alberta Venture’s 2008 Fast 50 list). In this high-stress sector, half-day Fridays in the summer months help employees keep their calm – and helps the company maintain a staff turnover rate of just 5%.

Michelle Kotylak, the company’s manager of human resources, says it developed its standout benefits, perks and incentives policies after they heard repeatedly that employees didn’t want bigger paycheques. “They weren’t interested in higher compensation. They wanted health and wellness, to feel connected to the company and to the community,” Kotylak says.

Crescent Point answered the call. Benefits include 100% reimbursement of expenses such as semi-private hospital rooms and gym memberships. The educational assistance program will cover $3,000 a year if, for example, an employee wants to study geology or accounting. And in June, the company opened The Bistro, which serves healthy breakfasts free of charge. The cost to Crescent Point is about $2.50 a person per day, but a worthy expense if it facilitates interaction among 231 employees who might otherwise rarely see each other.

“We want to ensure that people are happy and feeling satisfied with their career,” Kotylak says. And if the occasional lunchtime Wii tennis battle improves morale and camaraderie, that’s good value for the money.
– Lindsey Norris

100% coverage for life insurance, dependent life insurance and AD&D
• All employees receive restricted units that vest over three years
• Company contributes 6% of salary to RRSPs
• Up to $3,000/year for qualifying education expenses

Tarpon Energy Services, oil & gas services, Calgary/26 field locations, 1,200 employees (President’s Award worth $5,000 awarded quarterly, annual $10,000 award; benefits kick in on first day of work; Green Hand policy matches employees new to a job – identified by a green hard hat or sticker – to a mentor)


Industry: Agri-foods
Location: Edmonton
Number of employees in Alberta: 65

Two years ago, Ashoka Kahandawala was working in an Ontario meat processing plant in a position that didn’t utilize his skills in agriculture and genetics. It’s a widespread problem for new Canadians: language and accreditation barriers are only the start of difficulties in landing a job in their field.

The Sri Lankan emigrant then took a job as a quality control assistant at the Little Potato Company. Two years later, he’s now the regional field co-ordinator. As the company’s expert in potato varieties, he works with growers to determine how to get the most from soil types and growing conditions to produce the best possible gourmet potato.

Kahandawala attributes his spectacular rise in the company to his managers’ ability to help employees act on their potential. “The people at Little Potato Company realized my capabilities. They were able to see my hidden qualities,” Kahandawala says.
If you take a tour of Little Potato at noon, you can start to see how the company does this. You may see employees studying English in the lunchroom, ribbing each other over last night’s bowling scores or playing Nintendo Wii in their pyjamas. Little Potato fosters an accepting environment that minimizes any cultural misunderstandings that might occur in a workplace composed of people who have come from 29 countries and five continents, and where 72% are members of a visible minority.

At the fully automated, 30,000-square-foot facility in Edmonton’s west end, more than 15,000 pounds of golf ball-sized red, yellow and blue potatoes are washed, dried, sorted, packaged and shipped each year (too-large potatoes are sent to the food bank). CEO Angela Santiago founded the food processing and marketing company with her father, Jacob van der Schaaf, 10 years ago. Van der Schaaf emigrated from Holland when he was 21. Years later, he wondered why little potatoes weren’t available in Canada and the company was born.

Santiago says it was the modus operandi in their household to be inclusive of every culture, an attitude that permeates the company today. In a tight labour market, you may think finding 65 employees who all embody that ideal is easier said than done. Not really, says Santiago. “It starts with how the plant leader treats people, and how his supervisor treats him, and so on,” says Santiago. “Leadership is free. It doesn’t cost any thing extra to hire for personality, and in the long run, it saves money on employee retention.”

It saves between $10,000 to $14,000 a year, estimates Jared Tabler, director of human resources. Employee turnover at Little Potato averaged 15% over the last three years, well under the industry average. A referral incentive – $200 after three months and $400 after six – helps attract skilled workers. What the firm doesn’t spend on recruitment it funnels back into programs such as the free English as a second language course that is offered on-site; over 30 employees study at lunch or after work.

Ultimately, the company recognizes that what is good for employees – new Canadians and otherwise – is best for the company. Kahandawala is able to use his skills and the Little Potato Company has a committed, dedicated employee. And that is no small potatoes.
– Lindsey Norris

• Company works with a third party to help new arrivals find housing, explore their neighbourhood and make links to local cultural organizations
• Company policies and orientation materials available in multiple languages
• Follow-up check points one week, one month and 90 days after hiring to ensure new Canadians are comfortable in the workplace and in their community
• Between four and nine personal time off days per year
• Workers can add an hour to each shift in exchange for every second Friday off

Nexen Inc., oil & gas, Calgary/multiple field locations, 2,343 Alberta employees (internship program and coaching for unemployed, foreign-educated immigrants; staff turnover just 6.2% in 2007; matching contributions for company share purchases up to 6% of salary)

Suncor Energy Inc., oil & gas, locations around Alberta, 6,533 employees (works with three employment agencies to place immigrants in work experience and permanent posts at the company; partners with Keyano College to help immigrants adapt to life in the north; manager and employee training includes cultural awareness and cross-cultural communication)



Industry: Construction
Locations: Around Alberta
Number of employees in Alberta: 3,200

For an example of how the PCL family of companies is a leader in workplace training and development, look no further than CEO Ross Grieve. He’s been with the company 39 years and never worked for another construction firm. Grieve, like other high-achieving PCL employees, was singled out, recognized and groomed for leadership from day one.

That’s the “PCL way,” company brass will tell you. The employee-owned firm behind such iconic structures as Pearson International Airport and West Edmonton Mall has more than 100 years of history. Many of the practices in “Poole’s Rules,” the handwritten set of guiding principles that founder Ernest Poole laid out for his two sons when they took over in 1948, still apply. Among them, “Encourage loyalty and efficiencies” and “Give encouragement and show appreciation” were the impetus for PCL’s Centennial Learning Centre. Tucked away in a modest south Edmonton business park, this spectacular building is a marvel of architecture and environmental sustainability. It is also the PCL’s hub of professional development. Walls lined in historic pictures of company figureheads like John Poole and Bob Stollery give way to photos of young, emerging leaders.

Through a grand hall flanked by a metal art installation at one end and a presidential-sized fireplace at the other, you’ll find the PCL College of Construction where, in small groups, most of the staff is currently taking a refresher course in all aspects of construction from estimating to completion. The same is happening across PCL branches from Yellowknife to Honolulu. Outside the classroom doors, more pictures: 20 years of leadership summits, mentor-mentee partnerships and innovation award winners. It’s through these initiatives that people get noticed, recognized and, who knows, maybe become the next CEO.
–Natasha Mekhail

• Universal Share Purchase Program allows junior employees to buy shares in the company aided by interest-free loans
• Lost-time frequency rate of 0.24, compared to North American industry average of 3.1 (incidents per 100,000 man hours)
• Comprehensive internal training plus up to $1,000 a year for outside instruction and reimbursement of professional association fees
• Matching program for employee donations resulted in more than $2 million raised for the United Way in 2006
• Recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in the United States in 2006 and 2007

(Training & Development)
Epcor Utilities Inc.
(average 70 hours per employee spent in a learning environment in 2005; $4.37 million annual training budget covers 100% of internal and external course costs; in-house apprenticeship program for electrical trades and power system engineers)
KPMG LLP (cash awards for completion of accredited courses; online in-house training systems including real-time interactive sessions; financial assistance for employees studying part-time)

(Overall, Over 500 Employees)
KPMG LLP (flexible benefits program; 17 weeks fully paid mat leave and four weeks for dads/adoptive parents; reimbursement for home gym equipment)
Suncor Energy Inc., oil & gas, around Alberta, 6,355 employees (all employees eligible for annual cash bonuses, stock options and restricted share units; multiple pension and savings plans; up to $4,500/year reimbursement for education expenses; three to six weeks vacation plus 17 personal time off days per year)


Industry: Professional Services
Location: Calgary
Number of employees in Alberta: 124

A birthday is a time to receive, not give back. But when Stikeman Elliott LLP popped the cork on 15 years in Calgary last year, the international business law firm decided it was time to put in writing how it could change that. “Over half of the people in the office do some type of volunteer work,” says Michelle Isaacson, business development manager with the nationwide firm’s Calgary branch. “We’d like to see that be 75% in the next few years.”

Last year Stikeman employees raised over $80,000 for the United Way, participated in the Bell Walk for Kids Help Phone and the CIBC Run for the Cure, and were the only law firm to take part in the Calgary Corporate Challenge, a week-long, Olympic-style sporting event that raises money for charitable organizations like the Mustard Seed Street Ministry and the Calgary Food Bank.
Yet that type of grassroots initiative on its own doesn’t unleash the participation levels that are possible, Isaacson says. So last year Stikeman put together a formal sponsorship and community involvement program to tap into the firm’s untouched potential.The program matches out-of-office employee volunteer work with monetary contributions and every month sends six to eight employees out in the middle of the day (fully paid) to lend a hand in the community, an initiative called Seeing is Believing.
“It’s important to give back to the community,” Isaacson says.
– Jesse Semko

• Donations of $10 per hour, up to $300 a year per person, for volunteer time completed by staff, associates and students with a registered charity. Stikeman also matches donations up to $5,000 a year for firm members who make charitable contributions
• SEeing is Believing program whereby staff perform volunteer work with pay through the United Way’s Day of Caring initiatives and other approved charities
• Pro bono legal advice for charitable and non-profit organizations
•The firm encourages staff members to join non-profit boards
• Hot breakfast served in the staff lounge on Fridays to encourage mingling

ARC Resources Ltd., oil & gas, Calgary, 413 employees (each division holds an annual Day of Caring to provide volunteer help in the community, with pay; partnerships with non-profits including Calgary Children’s Hospital, Canadian Sport Centre Calgary and Calgary Stampede Foundation; formal mentoring and career development programs)
ATB Financial (in 2007 employees and the company, through 50% matching gifts, donated $583,801 to the United Way; cash and travel rewards for outstanding employee volunteers; fundraising from customers for charities such as children’s hospitals and STARS air ambulance)


Industry: Professional Services
Locations: Calgary, Edmonton
Number of employees in Alberta: 33

When the editor of this magazine called to congratulate Maxim Group CEO Craig Nadeau on the company’s Best Workplaces win, the reply came as an e-mail sent from the Caribbean. Nadeau along with 14 of his sales staff and their spouses were on the annual company cruise. The nine-day, all-expenses-paid affair was a reward for employees who’d reached their 2007 sales targets. Obviously, we’d made the right choice.

Maxim Group is a staffing and recruitment company with offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto. Being privy to a cross-section of human resources styles, Maxim’s own approach became a holistic one. From the day of the job interview, candidates are encouraged to get a feel for the company by shadowing an employee. The staffing business involves interviewing and screening professionals, but it also has a large sales component. And sales, as everyone knows, is a high-stress, high-turnover trade. To help take the pressure off, Maxim employees get gym passes to foster good health, lunch ‘n’ learns to refine their skills and company contributions to their RRSPs to help plan for the future.

There are also treats for jobs well done ranging from movie passes to helicopter rides over the Rockies. Nadeau says these rewards are a good fit for his staff’s demographic. “It’s a bit of a younger group,” he says. “Maxim is about trying to help them find out who they are and to learn about themselves.” The company does that by giving staff both the tools they need to grow as employees and as individuals. And what better way to ponder your goals than from the bow of an ocean liner?
–Natasha Mekhail

• Three- to four-week training program for all incoming employees; semi-annual training for managers
• 100% of employees accessed training, inside or outside the office, in 2007
• Company contributes between 3% and 5% of employee’s salary to the employee’s RRSP, depending on tenure, from their first day
• Charitable participation with Habitat for Humanity, Canadian Blood Services and Calgary Food Banks

The Little Potato Company Ltd. (annual bonus for all employees based on company and individual performance; tuition reimbursement program for outside courses plus in-house ESL program; onboarding plan and learning coach for all new hires)


Industry: Professional Services
Location: Calgary
Number of employees in Alberta: 362

Midwest Surveys Inc. has always been concerned about workplace safety. It has to be. The Calgary-based company has 100 two-member survey crews that operate across Alberta, often four hours away from other employees and in dangerous conditions. But when misfortune hit three years ago Midwest realized that more had to be done. “One of our competitors was unfortunate enough to have a fatality,” says Dode Berry, Midwest’s Calgary office manager. “Let me tell you, that certainly brought things about.”

The company thereafter made health and safety an ongoing priority. All new field staff go through an extensive, 10-day training program that covers first aid, CPR and vehicle and equipment usage. Plus, regular safety reviews ensure the use of the most appropriate procedures, equipment and training. The company’s record now speaks for itself. Midwest experienced no lost time last year due to injuries and has received awards and rebates from the Workers Compensation Board a number years running for its safety performance. Alberta Human Resources and Employment’s Partnerships in Health and Safety has also honoured Midwest with a certificate of recognition for achievements made by its safety program.

But that’s not all. To support employee wellness outside of the field, the company boasts one of the top benefit packages in Canada. It includes an Employee Health Spending Account to be used on health-related expenditures not covered by insurance such as orthodontics and eye care. Moreover, it takes a proactive approach to wellness, reimbursing employees for fitness club memberships, instituting an ergonomic program in the workplace and distributing a monthly newsletter on health and wellness at work and at home.
– Jesse Semko

• Benefits include life insurance, short- and long-term disability and an employee and family assistance program
• Safety alerts for both work and at home
• New office staff receive two days orientation; field staff, 10 days
• Just four medical aid incidents in 2007 and no lost time incidents

Aker Kvaerner Process Systems (web-based health and safety training program; regular audits of lagging and leading health and safety indicators; just four lost-time incidents over past five years)
Elk Valley Coal Corporation, mining, Calgary, 449 Alberta employees (industry-leading safety record: 13 lost-time incidents over 5.5 million man-hours worked in 2007; annual Family Day includes wellness seminars and medical testing for employees and family members; incentives for Step-Out walking program and achievement of wellness goals such as smoking cessation and weight loss)


Industry: Professional Services
Locations: Calgary, Edmonton,
Number of employees in Alberta: 615

One weekday morning last July, 400 employees trickled into work at KPMG’s Calgary office to find an energy-efficient fluorescent light bulb on their desk. Another day, they found this note: “a computer monitor left on for one year will generate the same amount of carbon dioxide as a car travelling from Sydney to Perth, Australia.”

Last year, KPMG launched the Environmental Performance Initiative to co-ordinate the green efforts of more than 5,000 employees in 34 offices across Canada. Each office has designated “environmental champions.” Some have gone paperless. The company instituted a policy to reduce travel by relying more on videoconferences. The Vancouver office has bike lockers, shower rooms and discounted transit passes. KPMG’s Toronto office is being built to a minimum standard of LEED Silver.

Calgary’s green committee embarked on an education campaign, since “over and over what we kept hearing was that influence at home was of great importance,” says Dan Adams, the head of the environmental committee and partner in charge of enterprise. And since they were limited in what they could implement (you can’t plant a garden on the roof of a rental property) they created a column that runs in the weekly company newsletter to serve as a regular reminder – and inspiration – to employees to be green at work and at home.
– Lindsey Norris

• Designated environmental champion in every office
• Paperless work flow initiative, whereby training materials binders converted to electronic delivery and inbound faxes converted to e-mail
• Procurement and event management groups focused on reducing consumption, using recycled materials and FSC-certified paper
• Travel policy designed to eliminate unnecessary business travel
• Personal assistant/concierge program offers assessments of energy efficiency in employees’ homes

Nexen Inc. (divisional and line managers empowered to improve environmental performance; eco-efficiency initiative introduced to Canadian operations in 2006, resulting in vent gas collection, inventory of heaters/burners, etc.; participation in broader programs including Environment Week, national Commuter Challenge, Earth Day and World Water Day)
Suncor Energy Inc. (employee Environmental Summit in 2006 to contribute to company environmental strategy; $16-million Environmental Excellence Fund provides seed money to employees’ projects, studies and trials to reduce the company’s environmental impact; up to 17 personal time off days per year to manage work and personal obligations)


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