Employees vote company one of best places to work in Puget Sound
At a recent summer evening party, a company-wide group of Wood Stone Corp. employees staged a seven-act musical for its 120 visiting independent sales representatives.
For months, the employees-cum-actors, musicians and stagehands rehearsed the show, which was a takeoff on “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Alice’s Restaurant,” called “2007: A Restaurant Odyssey.” The musical was performed after a gourmet appreciation dinner served to the reps by Wood Stone employees — a spread prepared by professional chefs in the company’s demonstration kitchen.
After the festivities, the company’s presidents, Keith Carpenter and Harry Hegarty, gave their 72 employees a paid Monday off for the team effort, with just one catch — they had to spend it at the Northwest Washington Fair for an employee picnic, paid for by Carpenter and Hegarty.
“I don’t know where on earth you’d get paid to do that,” employee Merrill Bevan said of the dinner-theater event. While sales from Wood Stone ovens make up just a small portion of the representatives’ wages, Bevan said the company’s appreciation event made a big impression.
“We have a much larger slice of their mind share now,” he said. “We may not pay most of their wages, but they will want to talk about Wood Stone wherever they go now.”
This little slice of a few days in the Wood Stone pie of life is symbolic of a much larger recipe for how the company’s employee culture contributes to its success.
In August, the Puget Sound Business Journal included Wood Stone in its 2007 list of Washington’s Best Workplaces — the only Whatcom County business on the list. For the listing, businesses were nominated by employees who were then surveyed about the workplace’s benefits, environment, perks and wages. The surveys were compiled and ranked, and Wood Stone landed on the paper’s list of the top 20 medium-sized workplaces in the state.
With this year’s $10 million, 57,500-square-foot expansion of the company’s 60,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on W. Bakerview Road — where stone hearth ovens are built and shipped to the likes of food gurus Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck — and with the addition of 25 new employees, Wood Stone’s investment in its work family has paid off big time.
A high employee retention rate, a grab bag of perks and benefits, and a company structure that leaves the pyramid in the dark ages make Wood Stone’s employees think of their daily lives at the company as much more than a job — and that appears to be good for business.
‘If I were king …’
Like all employers, Carpenter spent his fair share of 20 years prior to founding Wood Stone in 1990 working for other people, and had pondered the ways a workplace could be more enjoyable.
“It’s normal for everybody to analyze where they work and think, boy if I were king or queen, I’d do it different,” he said. “And then all of a sudden you get that opportunity, which I have, and so I did want to try some different things.”
The stone hearth oven manufacturing business sold its first model in 1990 and has since sold more than 7,000 in 60 countries.
But from the beginning, Carpenter set his sights on running a medium-sized company with a small-business feel.
Carpenter and his co-founder and co-president, Hegarty, began by symbolically hammering down the corporate pyramid structure of supervisors and higher-ups. At Wood Stone, the structure is as flat as a thin crust pizza, with only a few toppings here and there.
Yes, there are two presidents, there are distinct teams (not departments) and a few loose titles, but the company has no real supervisors or managers, no official receptionist, and employees instead have dynamic, fluid duties within their spheres of influence.
“Anybody can talk to anybody about anything at anytime,” Carpenter said.
The structure, or lack thereof, allows for better communication between all parties and encourages the best person for a specific job to rise to the occasion, Carpenter said. It also demands agency and initiative from employees, and empowers individuals’ decision making.
For some employees, the flat structure takes some adjusting to, Bevan said. After all, not all 72-employee companies feature frequent casual conversations between a forklift driver and the president.
“We gravitate to what we know, and for some folks, until this becomes a new habit, it takes awhile to let go of the (pyramid structure),” Bevan said. “In our environment, we have to move quickly and make our own decisions, and those are like muscles we have to work. The flat structure really makes us use those muscles.”
For example, if Bevan was on a phone call with a client whose shipment was late because of freight reasons — an issue not technically Wood Stone’s fault — and if Bevan knew the right thing to do was to offer to split the extra freight cost with the client, he would make that decision right then and there without checking with a “superior.”
“We can make that decision and know the team will back us up,” he said. “It’s a feeling that we have control over our destiny.”
In fact, saying “yes” — to clients and employees — is a major element of the company’s culture.
In a traditional work setting, employees’ lives are divided into three distinct eight-hour chunks — sleep time, work time and free time. At Wood Stone, Carpenter encourages blending work and personal life by allowing flexibility to do so whenever possible, for things like PTA meetings or picking up kids from school.
“We use the words ‘work family’ a lot around here,” Carpenter said. “You spend a third of your life at work, and life doesn’t stop at 8 a.m. and start at 5 p.m. We sometimes have emergencies, sad days, happy days.”
Other perks at Wood Stone include a laundry list of benefits that seem to be vanishing from the landscape of many businesses and organizations grappling with increasing costs.
Wood Stone employees make an annual average salary of $50,317. The company pays for 100 percent of their health and dental insurance, and 50 percent for their families. They offer a 401(k), subsidized continuing education and alternative transportation programs, and continuously sponsor and organize company-wide parties and picnics as well as participation in events and races. The company also makes donations specifically to causes and charities important to its employees.
Every month, a Wood Stone employee receives a Silver Stone Award given by another employee, plus a $100 check from the presidents. The recipient must award someone else the next month and so on — a type of pass-it-on concept that fits well in the company’s flat structure.
Last but not least, Carpenter has worked to mold a place that not only has perks and a dynamic structure but is also simply a fun environment.
“You know, I have to work here, too,” Carpenter chuckled. “I enjoy spending every day here, and I enjoy every single person that works here.”
Bevan echoed the sentiment, saying Wood Stone employees, while having a range of diverse and interesting interests and talents, have one thing in common — they are all dynamic.
“Every day I get up and look forward to coming here. Sometimes people say that and it’s a cliché, but I really mean it,” he said. “People in the office, in the factory — everybody is truly dynamic and so much fun to work with and joke with. You’ll never see a group so likely to work and play together. You will tend to find us at the same parties and concerts together.”
Bevan has worked for Wood Stone for 11 years and started out as an intern. Now, as the international sales manager, Bevan is also one of the company’s 14 shareholders.
It’s not just the perks of the company that make his work at Wood Stone more than a job, although the health care, profit sharing and gourmet pizza sampling don’t hurt. For Bevan, it’s the work environment, the culture of a work family, that gets him excited about his days.
“The biggest perk for me is enjoying what I do. That’s what sells. That what works. And there is so much enthusiasm,” he said. “Sometimes there’s so much enthusiasm we don’t know what to do with it — we write plays."
Wood Stone Timeline
1989 — Keith Carpenter, a former restaurant equipment sales representative, and Harry Hegarty, a former manufacturer of incinerators, build their first stone hearth oven.
1990 — Carpenter and Hegarty found Wood Stone and sell their first oven to an Anthony’s Restaurant in Everett.
1993 — Wood Stone’s ovens are tested and approved by Underwriter’s Laboratory, which allowed consultants and dealers to purchase and install the ovens with confidence in its safety. Sales boomed and the company sells 88 ovens.
1994 — The company moves from its original 3,000-square-foot facility on E. Bakerview Road to a 20,000-square-foot facility in Sumas.
2000 — The company moves to a 60,000-square-foot facility on W. Bakerview Road — its current home
2007 — Wood Stone completes a $10 million, 57,500-square-foot expansion of its warehouse and is currently in the process of finishing installation of a fully automated robotic metal fabrication system, purchased from Finland. The company adds 25 new employees, bringing the total to 72.