Best Places to Work in Louisiana

Remember the glory days? When you didn’t wear out the keypad connecting to a real person? After a four-year stint as a restaurant review columnist and a customer-support/quality-control manager with IBM, I consider myself the Queen Bee in recognizing quality service and happy employees. After numerous boycotts and searching the highways and byways of our great state, nine top-notch companies meet my standards for some of the best places to work in Louisiana. (An announcement was also placed in the Summer issue of this magazine inviting readers to make nominations, subject to editorial review.)

Of course the list is not all-inclusive, and the companies are not ranked in any specific order. The names grew from years of covering stories and friendly banter from people praising products and services. Each company received high marks based on a survey sent out to a random sampling of employees. Dozens of responses show that employee morale is the key ingredient in a successful company. Employees want to make a difference influencing company decisions in a family or team atmosphere where management and employees work together.

Whether you’re making groceries, being wined and dined, trekking legal documents, admiring roadside artwork, wiggling a camel’s hump or being touched by healing hands, these companies have raised the bar on customer service. They found the cure for the Monday morning blues!

St. Tammany Clerk of Court Office

It begins at the top. Malise Prieto, in her fourth term as clerk of court, personally takes each new employee on a tour of the office inside the 54,700-square-foot St. Tammany Parish Justice Center. Located in downtown Covington, an office of 156 employees serves the parish with numerous official documents including land records and civil/criminal suits, as well as genealogy and local archives dating back to 1810. In one of the most finely tuned government offices in the state, employees delivered an emotional dissertation on how the job has completely changed their lives.

“When you genuinely feel good about your profession, it can only reflect positively in your personal life,” says Paul Melancon, bookbinder and 12-year veteran. “Working for the clerk’s office has given me a force of character. I have gained self-esteem, wisdom, respect and confidence.”

And pride, both as a team player and in serving the public, ranks high in a long list of accolades. The clerk’s office provides company-paid uniforms and name tags, something Prieto believes promotes pride, confidence, accountability and recognition from the public. Cathy Bergeron, chief deputy of human resources, administers employee seminars with emphases on motivation and customer service.

“Most customers come here and they don’t know what to ask for or how to get it,” says Prieto. “They’re greeted by employees who smile, have good eye contact and are trained to listen.” 

   To offset the fast pace and stressful environment, the office provides a full docket of benefits and a number of morale-boosting programs such as “dine-ins,” employee newsletters, an “employee of the month” program, annual charity drives and numerous awards dedicated to recognizing outstanding work.

 And sometimes motivation comes from just doing your job, as noted by an employee helping a Katrina victim replace copies of priceless family documents. “We gave encouragement to our customers that with time they could overcome obstacles,” says Pat Lincoln, an administrative assistant. “This natural disaster was very humbling, and I was grateful to be able to give back to the community.”

Global Wildlife Center
Christina Cooper never blinks an eye when employees say they’re late because a herd of deer leisurely strolled across the road. That’s because some mornings Cooper, Global Wildlife Center’s development director, spends an extra couple of minutes having coffee with her giraffe fan club. This is everyday life at Global Wildlife Center, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit foundation and home to 30 species of animals from all over the world living peacefully on a 900-acre free-roaming wildlife preserve that borders Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes. Safari wagon tours offer hands-on education with passengers feeding a wooly bison or wiggling a camel’s hump.

More than half of the staffers are college students from Southeastern Louisiana University. Recognizing the difficulty in juggling school and work, the company offers a scholarship toward school expenses that has helped increase retention and made scheduling easier for both student and Global managers.

Some credit their jobs for building character and communication skills. “I don’t think I would be the same person I am today if not for working at Global,” says college student Jesse Braud, who adds that giving tours has enhanced his public speaking skills and self-confidence. “As a communications major, the skills I’ve developed and the opportunities I’ve had working at Global are irreplaceable.”
In describing the overall atmosphere of the workplace, all nine companies enjoyed friendly co-workers and supervisors operating in a family-style environment. Many said that it was the reason why they bounced out of bed each morning. However, not many can beat Amber Whitfield.

“At what other job can you call a giraffe your co-worker?” asks Whitfield. “There is no other place like it. I love my job!”

Extracurricular activities such as after-hours dinners, crawfish boils and pool parties help promote teamwork. “We really are like a family for the students away from home,” Cooper says. “The staff members are very close and often develop lasting friendships outside of work.”

“What’s old is new again”: This is a catchphrase echoed by many who are returning to their roots; conserving carbon dollars; and, with the help of family grocers such as Rouses, patronizing local farmers and suppliers. Rouses began in 1923 as the City Produce Co. in Thibodaux, and in the past 85 years, the family has grown to 4,500 sons and daughters working in 34 locations across Louisiana and Mississippi.  
The largest independent grocer in the state maintains a below-average turnover ratio with a comprehensive benefit package, bonus programs and discounted memberships to health clubs. The company has mastered a multigenerational mix of employees capitalizing on different levels of talent and energy, such as Joe Watson, who grew his 25-year career from the produce department to director of produce/floral for the entire company.   

Many young adults work their way through college, gain their degree and return years later to Rouses for a second career. “I think they get acclimated to the business and become comfortable with it,” says Steven Galtier, Rouses’ human resource director. “We’re a family, and maybe they feel like they’re leaving their families when they go.”

Throughout the responses, employees focused on their customers. “These customers are part of your family,” says Elizabeth Kreamer, cold cuts and sushi specialist, adding that the Rouses make you feel like part of their family, as well. “Mr. A. Rouse Sr. is like everyone’s father. Even though his kids run the stores, he is still there as a father to this company.”

In a region devastated by Hurricane Gustav, team members left their homes without power and returned to work to serve their community. “We’re the last ones here and the first ones back” is a mantra Galtier says has been repeated since the company began. “I think that mentality has developed this company into what it is today.”

Dickie Brennan & Co.
Employees of Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Palace Café and Bourbon House restaurants thrive on the freedom of creativity, serving and working with a diverse mix of people, and building an in-depth dining and cocktail expertise. For most employees, there’s a blurred line between work and personal life. Co-workers become best friends and volunteer together at several company-sponsored community events.

Jason Ameen, a line cook with Palace Café, says everyone is focused, driven and professional. “Finding the Palace was a godsend,” Ameen says. “It has helped me to find my place in this world as a chef. And I am eternally grateful.”

Dickie Brennan; his sister, Lauren Brennan Brower; and his partner, Steve Pettus, have created a family environment where employees are treated with the utmost respect, which is a philosophy embraced by the management teams in both the dining room and kitchen.

“We know and care about our staff,” Brennan says. “Our employees are our best advertisement for recruiting. We go to great measures to offer competitive salaries; great benefits; flexibility; and, also of high importance, a fun environment.”

Employees can maximize their potential with in-house training, college tuition programs, free memberships to fitness centers and a stipend toward local home ownership. And the most tempting benefits may be the “family dinners” (less than $1) that are served twice a day. These dinners are an opportunity for employees to enjoy a meal with their co-workers and a chance for the chefs to practice their creativity outside of the menu format. Employees and their guests also enjoy dining discounts at an array of Brennan family restaurants.

Commuting from Destrehan to downtown New Orleans, easily an hour’s drive each way, Barbara Krieger found a place she calls home. “You know the people you work with, their kids, friends, et cetera,” says Krieger, Brennan and Pettus’ administrative assistant. “We celebrate each other’s successes, grieve together for our losses and lend a helping hand whenever needed.”

P&S Surgical Hospital    
The tagline, “Small Hospital –– Big Impact,” strikes a familiar chord. Located in Monroe and serving residents of Northeast Louisiana and Southern Arkansas, P&S Surgical Hospital combines small-town service with today’s technology. Open communication from top to bottom scores big points in employee responses.

Managers work alongside subordinates to guide patients’ families or walk around the waiting room offering drinks, snacks and blankets to patients’ family members. They work and play together, volunteering for community activities and fundraisers. Full-time employees select from a full line of benefits and in bad times will come together to help one another.

“In the event that our insurance can’t cover the costs of a mishap, employees have an informal donation pool to help colleagues,” says Kymberli Morris, P&S human resource director. “Donations of vacation time are also allowed as management’s way of making giving to our fellow team members easy.”

High employee morale and a friendly, patient-focused environment have garnered regional and national recognition. P&S is listed as one of the Top 10 hospitals in the state in quality care and ranked nationally in the 99th percentile for inpatient satisfaction and the 93rd percentile in outpatient satisfaction. Another “best of” indication is the high tenure – 40 percent with five or more years and a waiting list for future employees.

“Everyone loves being here and not just for the pay; they love the patients,” says Keala Hall, a certified nursing assistant.

“The doctors are great, the nurses are the best, and even the orderlies and housekeepers have a great attitude,” adds Brandi Farrell, a registered nurse.
“There is a lot of teamwork in every department,” says Alane Madden, health information management manager. “Everyone here makes it their responsibility to do the very best for our patients, which builds a culture of caring throughout the organization.”

Jim Bowie Relay Station
Near the Historic Duty Ferry in Enterprise on the Ouachita River, owners Ed and Shirley Bartmess built Jim Bowie’s Relay Station, a historical playground with restored and reproduced structures including a restaurant, a covered bridge, a country church, a working gristmill and a pole barn filled with antique tractors. It is only open two days a week (Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and closed in December, so patrons arrive early and stroll the grounds while waiting for a table.

The Station offers generous servings of steaks, burgers, fried or grilled seafood and homemade cobbler a la mode. In 2007, it served more than 28,200 customers, almost 2,000 more than the previous year. Ed says there’s no need to advertise because the atmosphere brings you in and the good food keeps you coming back.

Family-owned and -operated, the restaurant has 18 employees, all talented, dedicated people who have other jobs. Some make more money working eight hours here than at their white-collar jobs. Waitresses include daughters, granddaughters and friends of the Bartmesses, and their grandsons are busy busboys while their sons-in-law operate the cash register. The ones who aren’t family feel like family, and the customers feel the vibe.

“The tip money is nice, and it’s fun, like a social visit,” says granddaughter Diana Wade, a favorite among the patrons, who credits her grandpa for instilling in her the family work ethic. “He’s a hard worker, works harder than any of us. That’s where we got it from.”  

Nell Crawford, a 76-year-old cook, starts her day by cooking up turnip greens and snap beans before moving on to the coleslaw, catfish and hush puppies. People never go home hungry, something Crawford says Ms. Shirley always preaches.

Crawford’s daughter prepares the plates, piling them high with food. Crawford has been here since Day 1, and though it’s hard work, she likes the family atmosphere and enjoys talking with the customers. 

“I think it keeps me going, a widow, just have my puppy dog,” Crawford says. “People ask for your recipes, and you don’t mind telling them.”

Brennan’s Restaurant
Royalty, Hollywood starlets and political legends have graced the tables of Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans for more than 60 years. Owen Edward Brennan and his infectious personality built a culinary icon known worldwide as “Breakfast at Brennan’s.” Today the same traditions live on in the hearts of his three sons, Pip, Ted and Jimmy, joined by 200 employees who remain faithful to the Brennan family. The majority of the staff has worked at Brennan’s for more than 10 years.

Lazone Randolph began working at the restaurant when he was 18 years old. He moved through the ranks patiently, waiting 40 years to become Brennan’s executive chef. “I have always been grateful for the freedom I have had at Brennan’s to grow as a chef,” Randolph says. “I have always been encouraged to try new things, and I appreciate having the control of hiring my own staff.”

Loyalty and respect from all levels of management earn high marks from employees. Busboy Mario Alvardo, a native of Ecuador who has been serving Brennan’s customers for 37 years, began his career working part-time while in high school and credits Brennan’s for giving him a good life. He enjoys the diversity and always looks forward to coming into work to see what the day will bring.

 “Brennan’s is like my family,” Alvardo says. “I love working here. I have always been treated with respect and felt that I was an important part of the restaurant. I feel very loyal to Brennan’s, and I know after 37 years of work that Brennan’s is loyal to me.”

A 20-year veteran, maitre d’ Jorge Blanco greets guests with vivacious charm. He believes Brennan’s has opened up a new way of life by giving him the opportunity to grow from a waiter to a maitre d’.

“I like the way the owners treat me,” Blanco says. “And I especially enjoy the challenge of making everything run smoothly when we have a full house for breakfast on a Saturday or Sunday.”

Kleinpeter Farms Dairy
When you’re driving along the Interstate, this billboard says it all: a picture of a cow beaming with pride and the tagline “Employee of the Month.” A 300-year-old legacy along with a dedicated team of employees, managers and “happy cows” have mastered a premier line of dairy products and earned a host of national awards in business ethics, animal welfare and conservation.

Here you get healthy food made with local products created from a sustainable cycle driven by ecological growing practices. That means no hormones, pesticides or fertilizers, as well as low-impact agriculture and the humane and respectful treatment of animals and workers.

Kleinpeter is home to 1,400 cows (700 milk cows and 700 “teenagers”) on a 1,600-acre farm in Montpelier, La. The main office is in Baton Rouge (plant, dock and shop), and there are depots in LaPlace, Albany and Lafayette. Customers are invited to tour the latest in dairy science and follow raw milk from the cows to the store.

In addition to a generous benefit package, some employees get a little lagniappe, as in the case of Farm Manager Tim Hastings.  

“The cows literally surround my house,” says Hastings, who lives on the farm and believes Kleinpeter is more than some fancy slogan. “They stand behind their employees like a family, even in the toughest times. Kleinpeter is about wanting to be the best, not just for financial reasons but for keeping our customers and our cows happy.”

One major advantage in working with the dairy is the end product. Everyone can take credit for the thousands of satisfied customers. Sal Brocato, route supervisor, enjoys the freedom to make decisions, “I also like when people tell me our milk is the best-tasting ever,” Brocato adds.

The Kleinpeter team was severely tested when Hurricane Gustav virtually closed down Southeastern Louisiana and prompted a major increase in production. Every department joined forces, pulling and restocking inventory. Management worked to reduce stress levels by providing daily meals and fuel for vehicles with an on-site gasoline tanker.

“Employees are what make it work,” says Kim Cox, Kleinpeter human resource director. “They strive to provide superior service to their customers. They pull together to address anything thrown at them, including hurricanes.”

Lamar Advertising Co.
A Louisiana-based, homegrown business, Lamar is one of the largest owners and operators of out-of-home advertising structures in the U.S. and operates more than 150 companies in 40 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Canada. With corporate headquarters in Baton Rouge and a family of 440 workers in Louisiana, Lamar holds the distinction of being the largest company on the “best of” list.

Employees are rewarded with an outstanding benefit program, discounted YMCA memberships and discounts on designated computer hardware and software. Their intern program recruits aspiring students year-round from local universities. In Baton Rouge Lamar joins forces with Louisiana State University and its mass comminications and management schools.

“We maintain a family environment no matter where we are,” says Tammy Duncan, vice president of human resources. “Investing in our human capital is of utmost importance to Lamar because employees are our No. 1 priority. What better way to give back to the community than taking an active role in a young person’s professional development?”

Shannon Perry, executive assistant and five-year veteran, began her Lamar career as a LSU mass communications intern. “I have had the opportunity to make career changes horizontally and vertically within the company, gained invaluable knowledge and experience of the advertising industry,” Perry says. “Lamar treats its employees with great respect and always has great incentives and activities that show us how much we are appreciated.”

Together from top to bottom they are heavily involved in humanitarian programs all over the nation as well as in Louisiana. Kristy Day, a national sales coordinator, was drawn to Lamar’s reputation for taking care of its people balanced by its expectations for accountability and performance.

“I am grateful each day that I work for a company in which the leaders, through their own example, naturally perpetuate a family culture,” says Day, who offers her own set of Lamar adjectives: “fun, smart, innovative, fair, loyal, passionate, balanced, steadfast, service-oriented, loving, forgiving, accountable and results-driven.”

In Closing
Amidst the national gloom and doom, these companies remain focused and united in their causes, proof positive that with the right leadership and teamwork a company can reach new heights of success. Cheerleaders for democracy, these companies and many more like them are America’s soldiers for change and a future that includes getting back to the basics: quality service, products and teamwork.