Denise Gredler built BestCompaniesAZ, a great places to work program in Arizona, from the ground up. After leaving her corporate job in Human Resources to give birth to her son Max, Denise knew she had the skills to be an entrepreneur and create a business of her own. For the past 16 years, she’s grown BestCompaniesAZ into an incredibly respected program in the state, honoring hundreds of Arizona’s best companies over the years. She was named one of AZ Business and AZRE Magazine’s Most Influential Women of 2017. It’s safe to say, Denise is doing amazing things in Arizona.
In this episode of the Benifit, Denise chats with podcast host and Beni.fit co-founder Kate King about what some of Arizona’s best companies are doing to attract and retain talent. She provides context and examples from her experiences working with these companies in a detailed, engaging way. Give this insightful episode a listen below!
[00:48] Denise talks about the purpose of Best Companies AZ and shares her motivation for starting it
[06:02] Denise explains how and why she made the jump from working in the corporate world to being an entrepreneur
[10:49] Denise talks about benefits and perks trends she’s seen in Arizona’s best companies
[14:56] Denise sheds light on the importance of Employee Resource Groups
[20:40] Denise shares the building blocks she believes build a great company culture
[28:34] Denise shares her insights about why people leave jobs
[30:36] Denise talks about the 3 rules she lives by
The Benifit Interview w/ Denise Gredler, BestCompaniesAZ President and Founder
[00:00:01] Kate: Good morning Denise, and thank you for joining the Benifit Podcast today.
[00:00:12] Denise Gredler: Well, thank you for having me.
[00:00:14] Kate: You’re welcome. Firstly, I’d like to truly congratulate you on being honored as AZ Business Magazine’s most influential woman in 2017 for Arizona. This was, to me, very exciting to be able to interview this, and I think it really is an honor that goes to the recognition of the great leadership of what you do at Best Company AZ.
[00:00:37] Denise: Well, thank you.
[00:00:37] Kate: To get us started today in that, can you spend a minute or two on the purpose of Best Company AZ and your motivation for starting it?
[00:00:48] Denise: Yes. Actually, this will take me back to my corporate days when I was the VP of HR for a company that I actually helped create the path to get on Fortune 100 best list. Looking back obviously at the time, I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. But I do see now that that actually built the foundation, my corporate career built the foundation for what I’ve really brought to Arizona over the past 15 years.
I can remember in my corporate job, my CEO walked into my office, tossed the Fortune magazine on my desk and he says to me, “We should be on this list. Why are we not in the list? We’re doing everything that these 100 best companies are doing.” At that time, we were only 150 employees. From that day, I was responsible for helping to grow the culture and the creating a lot of the different programs at the company that eventually were recognized number 12 on Fortune magazine’s 100 best list. I’m not going into a lot of details about I ended up going out on my own.
Right around 9/11, I’m dating myself, right around 9/11, I actually took a maternity sabbatical, and during that time period, our company had a big huge loan write off that actually put the company under. No sooner did we get our company on the Fortune list frenkie number 12, the first year number 16, the second year. The following year, the company was liquidated and my last assignment in my last job at my corporate position was to help everybody go through outplacement. Guess who was the first one to go through outplacement? Me. [laughs]
Obviously in a liquidating company, you don’t need somebody managing corporate culture, training development, organizational development programs. The CEO said to me, “Denise” he said, “You’re going to be one of the first ones to go through it, so find a really good outplacement firm.” We got together with an outplacement firm, and it was actually the coach I had at the outplacement firm that really helped give me the confidence to start thinking about going out in business on my own. That’s kind of how the Best Company model was created. I approached Fortune magazine at the time, the Great Place To Work Institute. I’m assuming you’re familiar with the Great Place To Work Institute, the research partner.
Denise: I approached them because I had a relationship with them because of being number 12 on the list.
We were interviewed a lot and shared a lot of different stories, and I asked them, “Would you ever be interested in doing the best place to work list here in Arizona?” I see they were doing the list, I think in Pennsylvania and Idaho at the time. Not thinking they would say yes, I just threw it out there, “Would you want to do it?” They said yes. I kicked off in 2003, the very first best companies to work for, an Arizona program. We had to find a media partner to help us. At the time, I approached the business journal, the Phoenix Business Journal. They were the media partner for the very first program, and my goal in managing the best place to work program was really to help identify in Arizona, who were the companies that truly cared about culture. That was going to be my foundation to start building my practice. Companies that wanted to start going down the path of learning how to build an award-winning culture could participate in the program. For those companies that would win, we would help them with the branding and promotion of their award. For those companies who didn’t win, we would help them through consulting and coaching, survey analysis to help them get there.
From that point on, the business really took on a life of its own with the community. The program was so popular, it went from 20 winning companies the first year, up to I think 75 winning the second, up to a hundred. Now 15 years later, we have like three different award programs in town that many companies, hundreds of companies are benefiting from.
That’s a long answer to how did I get started. It really was my corporate Foundation which at the time, if you would have asked me then, if I would ever be an entrepreneur, I would have said heck no. That would be the last thing that I would think I would do, that it really set me up to be able to create these programs for Arizona and help other companies benefit from them.
[00:05:32] Kate: What was your — In making that jump to the entrepreneur, I loved how you said it like, “Who would have thought I would ever do that?” What was the two, three highlights, if you like, of making that leap to be an entrepreneur from corporate? Because there’s many people I think who are in corporate want to do it or an entrepreneur and look at corporate. Your perspective on that would be fantastic to hear.
[00:06:02] Denise: Let me take this in and answer this a couple of different ways. The one main reason I think is, when I look back at the company being liquidated — Any HR professional out there who has pride in helping to build a culture that is recognized as number 12. That is a great accomplishment and a lot of fun being able to create something like that for a company. To see that fall apart overnight — when 9/11 had to — you think that nothing would ever happen, that this company would go under.
People think that my company will never go under, they’re going to be around forever. That’s what we thought. I thought I was going to retire at this company. When that came apart overnight, it came apart at the exact same time I was on a maternity sabbatical starting a different phase in my life. I could remember, not going into a lot of details, but a lot of employees lost a lot of money through stock options. I’m at this period of time, I’m a new mom, my son was in the first year of his life. All of a sudden, I don’t have — despite of my corporate life that I had 15 years prior, and I was in a scary place. You lose your nest egg, you’re a new mom, you’re trying to figure out what to do, going back to another corporate environment in HR, I felt would have taken me away from wanting to be a parent. The work in HR, you typically don’t have work life balance. At least back in the 90s was the day of more face time. I would never have been able to have the autonomy or flexibility like you see today, companies offering so many flexible work arrangements. Back in those days, when you were in HR, you were in before the CEO and you left after the CEO.
I just didn’t want to do that, and it was really going through the outplacement and having that coach, that’s why I so much believe in coaching. It was that coach who really helped give me the confidence to show me I have the tools, I have what it takes, I have so much knowledge and information on building an award winning culture that I should be sharing it with others. Instead of going back to just one other company and sharing that knowledge with one other company, why not share it with the community. It was the coaching from my friend Kathy at the time, DBM. I don’t even think they’re around here in Arizona anymore. She really helped me create that path and then they helped me get started. Does that answer your question?
[00:08:43] Kate: It does, yes. I always think that having those uh huhs coming from a long and bustling corporate career and to the entrepreneur. You have your reasons, but it’s quite interesting the metamorphosis that happens. I did a similar thing in going from a corporate to being an entrepreneur, and for me, the big highlight was that I’d have many different colleagues and great team members who were the masters of their domains.
When you go and you luncheon to be an entrepreneur, you get to learn every single detail and do it yourself on that journey without that kind of support. It’s interesting the resilience you create and you sustain in making that leap, but also the incredible accomplishment you have from getting in at the minimal detail to the big stuff on a daily basis, which is the real beauty of making the leap.
[00:09:50] Denise: Yes, and it’s exciting because, like you said, you’re on your own and you’re able to build – it’s your vision, it’s your company, you can build what you want. But at the same time, you’re learning, oh no, my computer broke down.
[00:10:02] Kate: Exactly.
[00:10:03] Denise: I can’t pick up the phone and call IT to come and help me. Or I need a payroll check. I can’t call payroll. You’ve got to go into Quick Books, and as you’re getting started, figuring out how to be the accountant, how to be the salesperson, how to be the IT person, how to be the administrator. It was quite the learning curve and I don’t think you ever stop learning as a business owner always trying to juggle all the different hats you have to wear.
[00:10:29] Kate: Yes, absolutely. Denise, thank you. My second question for you is really talking more about companies in Arizona. What are some of the things that Best Companies in Arizona are doing when it comes to creating benefits and parks for employees?
[00:10:49] Denise: I actually manage a couple different programs. One program, I’m the consulting partner for the Republic media AZ central stop companies to work for in Arizona. I have an opportunity to see benchmark data coming from that group, as well as managing Arizona most admired company, where we look at the company a little more holistically. I’d say if I look at both of those audiences, I see — some of the common things that I see this year – It’s actually interesting, because way back in my corporate days, I did a lot of these things. We introduced a lot of these benefits that I’m seeing that it’s even more important today. A lot of companies are focusing on wellness, creating all different types of wellness, creating a wellness environment that looks at the employee as a whole.
From when you enter the door, if you’re a college student having debt to pay from a college loan, to moving into wanting to have a family where you might need some wellness programs to eat healthy through your maternity to baby boomers. If they’re starting to retire, what you could do to help prepare people for financial wellness. It’s the big picture, looking at not only health-wise, the mental wellness as well as financial wellness. I see a lot of companies offer a lot of variety in the different things that they provide.
The second thing I would say is flexibility. Obviously flexible work arrangements have been around for years. Not back in my day. Like I said, I used to have to work face time. It was called face time. If you came in after the CEO, you came in late, if you left before the CEO, you were leaving early, and he used to work 6:00 to 6:00. Today, you see just a lot of flexibility. You see companies and managers allowing people all different types of flextime arrangements, and they’re really accommodating people for each individual person’s needs, whether it be job sharing, coming in late, working remote.
I know some companies offer sabbaticals. We have a lot of clients that offer three month sabbaticals. Companies are offering — three of our clients; Vanguard, USAA and Direct energy, offer 12 weeks of maternity and paternity leave. You see just a whole variety of flexibility in the workplace trying to help employees have that work life balance.
The third thing, actually might be a fourth, but the third thing. You do see a lot of companies creating fun work places. I always tell everybody, that some people when I approach them to participate in competitions, they feel they’re not going to be able to make it because they don’t have maybe all the bells and whistles like a GoDaddy would. If anybody has been to the GoDaddy office, they have an incredible work environment where they have a slide to go from one floor to the next, they have bikes, they have basketball, they have full blown cafeteria. They have a lot of fun things like that. I think Infusionsoft has the football field, the cereal bar.
But you don’t need to have all those things in order to compete to be a best company. Some people might even just have a meditation room, a conference room set up for either yoga or meditation. You’re seeing companies trying to create fun workplaces, but again, customize it to fit your demographics obviously. What did I say? Wellness, work life, creating fun, work places.
The other thing — I don’t know if you would call this a perk, that I’m seeing a lot of different types of employee resource group. Do you know what I mean by Employee Resource Group?
[00:14:54] Kate: Yes, absolutely. But why don’t you explain that for our listeners?
[00:14:56] Denise: Okay. They’re usually like groups of employees that have commonalities. For example, if I look at Charles Schwab for example, because they have a whole variety. They have an Asian Pacific Islander Network of Black Professionals Association. Almost all the companies we work with have some military veterans group. They have an LGBT group.
Those are some of the common things that you see. They are just groups of employees. When you’re hiring people or want to retain people, you’re creating a community for like-minded people to come together and filling part of the culture and part of the group. Some interesting things I’m seeing that — For example, Schwab has a parents group which — that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of anybody creating an employee group for parents.
I think GoDaddy has a fitness group, fitness and technology, where they have a group of employees to get together, to be active and get fit. You’re just seeing, again, a variety of these employee resource groups surfacing. Again, I believe that it’s all to accommodate the demographics for the workforce and what employees are asking for. That would be — let me think. You have said benefits and perks? Did I cover those?
[00:16:22] Kate: You did. Yes, the fullest. We have wellness, flexibility, making the workplace more fun, and these great groups that are emerging around employee resources. I think they are –
[00:16:33] Denise: Yes. That’s –
[00:16:34] Kate: – great examples.
[00:16:36] Denise: Yes. I think that the employee resource groups really what’s driving that is diversity and inclusion. Everybody is looking and all the companies look at creating an inclusive work environment.
[00:16:50] Kate: Fantastic. Now, that was actually going into my next question I had for you, which is not so much talking about benefits or perks, but the changes you’re seeing and the kinds of things companies are doing in AZ to support the employees. I think that the employee groups or support groups is definitely — No, I think the diversity inclusions have been there for many years. People are getting much more focused on either lifestyle choices, special interests, and I think that is propelling the change.
I love the example you gave of fitness and technology. There’s so much data now that can help aid your fitness. These days, having a group around that then being able to share the autocracy organization, I think it’s a great way that we’re seeing companies change. Is there anything else that you’ve seen in terms of changes around the employees support?
[00:17:51] Denise: Let me think here. A couple of things. It relates to the diversity and inclusion group. I think some of the changes or the shift maybe in this direction is to create more of an inclusive environment. I know several of our clients here in Arizona have high volume hiring. They do a lot of hiring. I think these types of groups even help with recruiting.
For example, the military veterans group or the Black Professionals Association group or the Schwab parent group, they can be utilized as a team of employees who are out there trying to generate employee referrals to help recruit like-minded individuals who will fit the culture at these companies.
And then in terms of retention, I think you’re seeing a lot of these groups, because it also helps to retain people because you do feel you’re part of the family. Not only part of the family as a whole with the company, but with your department or with some of the employee resource groups or the community outreach groups. Almost every company does something, giving back to the community and they have teams of employees who get together for that as well.
In terms of change, the one thing I do notice is just, because I’ve been managing over the years award competitions, I am seeing more and more companies wanting to participate in a top company to work for program. Whether it’s a state program, an industry program or national program like the Fortune Program, whether it’s best places to work in IT that I think computer world runs.
I think The Great Place to Work Institute has all different types and best place to work programs for millennials and all the different demographics. I think that’s what you’re seeing. Companies are now seeing — CEOs, CFOs, the ones who usually manage the numbers, they are seeing the ROI. They know that there is ROI that these companies are building this great culture and then they are being branded and recognized as the best place to work, that really does impact your bottom line in terms of obviously low turnover hypertension, and in just in recruiting, just recruiting alone. They’re able to hire and attract high-quality people.
[00:20:19] Kate: To that point where are we getting into culture and really attracting talent, and in your experience, being both an entrepreneur and helping companies and really consulting with companies as well as your corporate experience, what would you say are the key building blocks of the great culture?
[00:20:40] Denise: I actually have a model that we use, but I think big picture the core building block really I think is trust building. Building trust in a work environment. I think if you look at how Fortune evaluates and ranks their winners, it’s all about trust and they break that down into three areas. I’m going back to a model they used to use years ago, that trust has to do with credibility, respect, and fairness. That’s all again about how you treat your employees, how managers treat employees, how employees treat one another.
A lot of companies will say to me, why don’t I want to participate? We don’t have enough money to pay for the perks and the compensation that these other companies are doing. I tell them that really the main driving force behind building the best place to work is creating an environment of trust. Where your employees are respected, and there’s fairness, there’s camaraderie, and people enjoy working together. That’s what it’s all about.
When you look at some of the competitions, I know in just things that I’ve been involved in, pay and benefits, yes, they’re important, but are they what is driving in the rating so to speak of how you’re selected as a best company? Probably not. It’s more that relationship. It’s more the relationship with managers and employees and with the team environment.
[00:20:24] Kate: Great.
[00:20:24] Denise: Did that answer your question?
[00:27:26] Kate: It does, absolutely. I think that for the most part people going back to the four things that you mentioned earlier on perks and benefits, I feel that some people, some companies get confused in that. That as we start looking at perks and benefits that’s really building that environment, but that not necessarily is then your culture statement. I think having the purpose of your company really be foundational to their annual culture. Then the building block on top of the culture then becomes, what are you doing to keep, to retain, attract and really grow your ROI in executing a great culture? I think that’s very distinct steps there, that some companies may have trouble along across the landscape on. I think [crosstalk] now very well in those three things and trust. I completely agree with that. To me is fundamental in any relationship regardless of work or my boss, my employees etc.
[00:28:34] Denise: It’s like you hear everybody say people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. That’s so true. When you really get in and you research turnover and why people are leaving, the majority of the time, that’s just from my own personal experience, is that, number one, there was no path for development or no opportunity for growth. Or they just did not have a good working relationship with the boss, or they had conflicting values or their values weren’t in line with the company values.
Even like looking at the AZ central top companies benchmark data, there’s eight different criteria that we’ll look at, and the ones that are rated the highest is in the categories of corporate culture, communications, leadership planning, role satisfaction, and relationship with supervisors. They’re usually in the 90% to 92% favorable range. Then when you look at training the development and paying and benefits, their average score is like around 87%.
You see that there’s a difference, that there’s more emphasis even though that’s not a big gap. There’s typically more emphasis and that you have higher favorable ratings as it relates to culture, communication, satisfied in what they’re doing with their job satisfaction.
That’s what really drives the company to get on these best place to work with. That encouraged anyone whoever– if you ever work with anyone who feels they don’t have a robust benefit package or comp package, that that should not discourage them. If they have a good culture, good people, and a good vision and employees engaged, they would do very well in the competition.
[00:25:27] Kate: Okay, great, that’s good to know. Denise, I’m going to switch gears, if that is okay with you. Because I’d really appreciate it. I think we’ve got a tremendous amount of great information that our listeners can actually go and put into practice whether they reach out to you directly or they’re just kind of getting started in this arena. I’m going to switch gears, if that’s okay to you. We heard a bit about you at the beginning and you are making strides from corporate into being an entrepreneur. And there’s two questions that I feel that are always great to really get underneath, what powers people through the day. The first one is, what does your morning routine look like?
[00:25:14] Denise: My morning routine. As I mentioned a little bit earlier when we were talking, my morning routine — I have good intention, so let’s put it that way. I have good intentions to get up early, and early for me would be probably like 6:00 AM. I know some of my colleagues get up at 3:30 to get to the gym. I am not a morning person.
[00:26:36] Kate: Wow. 3:30, that’s impressive.
[00:26:40] Denise: Yes. I have one colleague who he gets up at 3:30. That’s his productivity time, I think for a couple of hours, and then he goes off to the gym and then he goes to work. I’m usually up at 6:00. I try to get up early, but I’m usually up at 6:00 and I usually try to work out in the morning. Like, try to at least get 30 minutes in with an elliptic or 30 minutes walking. But do I do that every day? No. That typically could be dependent as a working mother. It all depends on what’s going on with my son that morning. You think when your children get older, it will be easier, but sometimes it’s just as challenging trying to deal with a teenager getting them out the door.
If I could describe what my perfect day would look like, it would be working out in the morning. After I workout, I typically will do my e-mails, and usually from home, I’ll be responding to e-mails before I get to the office. Then once I get into the office, I work with one of my colleagues, Lindsey, who helps me run the operations side of the business. She is really good at setting up our goals for the week. We use the system that she introduced me to called trello. We’ll set up what our priorities are for the day, and she has really helped me.
Prior to that, I’d be on my own, as I said as an entrepreneur trying to figure out where to focus your time, whether it’s sales, or service, or accounting, she’s really good at coming in and kind of setting the tone for the day of what the team needs to focus on. We typically will follow her lead. I always tell her, “You’re my boss, you tell me what you want me to focus on today and then we’ll get it done.”
It’s interesting, when my son was younger, my mornings were always off. I never was able to do anything in the morning. I thought once he became a teenager, I’d get into my routine where I could get up at 3:30 and do the early morning workout. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m never going to be a morning person. I do what I can to at least get some sort of exercise in. I do daily reading. I have daily reading or daily prayer, daily meditation. I look at every single day to kind of set the tone for the day and then take it from there.
[00:29:08] Kate: That’s great. It’s interesting you say you’re not a morning person. I think some people say 6:00 AM, that’s definitely morning. [laughs]
[00:29:16] Denise: Yes.
[00:29:17] Kate: In the middle of the night person at 3:30 AM.
[00:29:22] Denise: Actually I know my one friend who gets up at 3:30. I said to him half the time I’m going to bed. I used to go to bed at like 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning because I couldn’t sleep. At least now I’m getting to bed by 11:00. If that I used to stay up all hours of the night working, that’s when I would have my peak productivity. But again as a mother, you work around your family schedule, on when you can have that quiet time.
[00:29:46] Kate: Absolutely. Denise, to close out the podcast, and thank you for all the insights, especially for businesses and your experience in that cross between corporate and being an entrepreneur. What are the three rules you live by?
[00:30:06] Denise: The three rules I live by. I would say, looking at the three rules I live by, just overall, not just in business, just in life, is I try to be true to who I am. I guess authenticity, be authentic, be real. I think I learned this early, early in my 20s when I first started my career in HR. I had a CEO who told me to never be afraid of asking questions. Never try to pretend you know something you don’t. If you don’t understand, ask the question. I think within my career, that helped me always just be real and just true to who I am, I can’t pretend to be somebody I’m not.
The second thing is I do try to operate always with high integrity. Sometimes I’m so honest, even I tell my son, I can’t even tell little white lies sometimes. I just always I’m trying to teach high integrity operating with the highest level of ethics. I know over the years, being an entrepreneur, I actually– there are some people that I have not worked with because maybe conflicting values. I really try to stay true to that, to always operate with high integrity.
I think the other thing I’ve always operated by is I always try to put people first. When I look at in business, putting people first, people are driving your business, people are what you need to run your business. I think sometimes as a business owner, it’s hard you know being an entrepreneur that you have to make business decisions that I try to always balance managing by the heart and the mind. A lot of times I’m managing more by the heart, and as an entrepreneur, you can do that, but there’s pros and cons to doing that. I think that I will always put people before any financial conflict, or any type of conflict. I’m always focusing at before I go to bed at night, how can I resolve this conflict with anybody? Again, I think that stems back to my early teenage days or childhood days, with my parents training me to never go to sleep mad or angry at anyone.
[00:32:40] Kate: Thank you.
[00:32:42] Denise: Those are three, right?
[00:32:43] Kate: Yes, they’re three.
[00:32:43] Denise: Authenticity, integrity, and always put people first.
[00:32:48] Kate: I love your first one. I love them all. But your first one on being authentic. I think people come into an environment and think they have to know everything. That somehow creates anxiety with people and that creates a challenging environment. Having the freedom and the permission to ask questions and be inquisitive and curious, I think absolutely makes not only for a great person to live their truths, but also great companies in which have that real open and honest transparency in it. So I love authenticity.
[00:33:25] Denise: Exactly. Even when I think about making mistakes, or if you screw up, or an employee makes a mistake, don’t ever be afraid to just admit. I’ve never had a problem, even with clients, if I dropped the ball or something. I’m always going to make it up to them. I may have slipped on — missed a deadline, but I’m going to go above and beyond and make it up for you in another way. I never try to pretend that or wipe mistakes under the carpet. I’m always just very transparent.
[00:34:02] Kate: Fantastic. Denise, my sincere thanks for joining us today on the Benefit podcast, it’s been a real pleasure getting to know you a bit and really understand your journey as well as the really useful insights you’ve given to our community. Thank you.
[00:34:19] Denise: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it and I am looking forward to learning more about your organization and things that we could possibly be doing together.
[00:34:30] Kate: Wonderful.