Playtime makes for great business

By Colin Shively

In a culture that is growing rapidly with small companies, it can be difficult to determine which ones are being loyal and ethical to their employees and the community.

This year, Winning Workplaces and its partner, The Wall Street Journal, announced their annual Top Small Workplaces award for 2009. On the list of 15 winners nationwide, Winning Workplaces looked into Chicago’s artistic culture and toy-making industry and chose Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N.  Halsted St., and the toy-maker Radio Flyer as two of the winners.

“It is really cool,” said David Schmitz, general manager at Steppenwolf. “We applied back in 2008 and made the top 35 small businesses and now we got the award this year. We were really excited to see that we were being recognized for everything we do.”

People like to do business with companies they know won’t be treating them unfairly, which is where organizations such as Winning Workplaces come in and inform the public just who is doing a good job.

Winning Workplaces has a mission to inspire and educate businesses that want to create a better environment that will lead to a more successful company overall.

“We look at a couple things when we decide who gets the award,” said Gaye van den Hombergh, president of Winning Workplaces. “We talk to employees and we talk to customers to see how well the business treats the community. From there we decide what the best work places are.”

The process is a lengthy one, Schmitz said. With more than 15 pages to fill out, complete with references, revenue information and employee stats, applying is no easy feat.

“It was like filling out a grant application,” Schmitz said. “But it was well worth it because now people can see how much effort Steppenwolf takes in being a good business, not only to patrons, but also to our employees. Without them, [Steppenwolf] wouldn’t exist.”

Steppenwolf firmly believes in quality relationships between upper management and staff, Schmitz said.

“We had full-time staff telling us that they were worried about the part-time staff because they didn’t have any health coverage,” Schmitz said. “But [management] listened and now we do offer the part-time staff a healthcare plan through Steppenwolf. We want to take care of our employees.”

Schmitz said despite the weakened economy, it is clear that Steppenwolf did not abandon its principles and ideals for having a workplace that allows the employees to feel comfortable around each other.

“It is through the tough times when a business can really show how great it is,” Schmitz said. “Steppenwolf isn’t perfect, nor the best, but we do everything we can to make this a great place to work and I think it shows.”

Steppenwolf is also making constant efforts to connect to the community, which Winning Workplaces looks for in giving out the award,  Schmitz said.

Throughout this year and previous years, Steppenwolf has been working on connecting to the younger generation by getting young theater groups to perform at Steppenwolf through out the coming year.

In the case of Radio Flyer, a toy company that has been in business since 1917, the attitude towards the award was nothing less than exuberant among the staff and management.

“It was great to have recognition in the industry,” said Blessly Thomas, marketing coordinator for Radio Flyer. “Everyone here was excited and delighted to get it.”

In 2008, Radio Flyer applied for the award, and like Steppenwolf, made it into the top 35 small workplaces nationwide, which led them to apply in 2009.

“The key thing here is that our workers’ personalities match well and that they want to have fun,” Thomas said. “The fact that we like to have fun here, I think helped us get that award.”

Although Steppenwolf and Radio Flyer will not receive any type of monetary grant from winning the Top Small Workplaces award, both businesses state that receiving the award gives the companies a spotlight that creates new opportunities for new customers and employees.

“We are out to change the world and workplace,” Hombergh said. “And I am happy to honor these two companies that are doing something right not only for the business, but also for the people.”