What a Recycling Firm Did to Become One of the Nations Top Workplaces

What a Recycling Firm Did to Become One of the Nations Top Workplaces

While the founders of Northstar Recycling were busy fostering a fun, team-driven, dog-friendly corporate culture, they simultaneously created one of the 100 Best Workplaces for Women.

The Massachusetts-based company’s superstar status became public last week when it was ranked No. 21 on Fortune’s inaugural list, shining alongside companies such as Texas Health Resources and Build-A-Bear Workshop, and besting national outfits such as The Container Store, Edward Jones, Hyatt Hotels and Quicken Loans.

Northstar was also the sole representative from the waste and recycling industry which got us thinking: How has this fast-growing company been able to become a standout in such a male-dominated industry?

Seth Goodman, CEO and co-owner of Northstar, and Emily Wilson, marketing manager, were more than happy to share with Waste360 the company’s guiding principles and the behind-the-scenes efforts Goodman credits with earning this recognition.

Waste360: How did you come to be involved with the Fortune magazine award?

Seth Goodman: Our marketing team here found out that Fortune puts out a survey for the best places to work. We decided that we would participate in it. About six months ago they surveyed all of our employees. They asked us a lot of different questions about our workplace, both from a culture point of view also to how our company operates on a day-to-day basis. Based on our responses, plus the survey responses they got, they were really impressed and we made the list.

Emily Wilson: It was by chance that one day I was looking through my news feed on the computer and saw Fortune's “Best Companies to Work For” ranking for the year. I thought, "That would be an interesting competition to participate in. I know our employees here have communicated frequently how we have great respect for our company culture." I looked into it a little bit further and we went through this lengthy process, which is handled by a third-party organization called Great Place to Work.

All of our employees had to take an anonymous survey. The results were then evaluated by Great Place to Work. Part of how we were chosen for this inaugural award, I guess, is that when they looked through our results, we were one of the top companies to have survey results from our female employees, especially, across the board, ranking us as a very welcoming environment for them to work and also, having equal opportunities for them across the board.

When we originally were participating in this, we didn't even know that they had a category for specifically looking at places focused for women. This came about this year. They released it as a surprise after we went through their survey process and they got back to us and said, "Congratulations, we think you would be a great fit for this."

Waste360: So you didn’t even technically apply for this distinction? Wow. What was your reaction when you found out?

Seth Goodman: We were very surprised, because, number one, we are a 32-person company. We did not think that Fortune was going to recognize us with the other thousands of companies that were competing. In addition, we're in an industry that had the reputation of being a male-dominated industry with lots of stereotypes about who works in the waste and recycling industry.

We're really excited because we look for the best people and it doesn't matter whether it's men or women or by race or ethnicity. We're not necessarily building a company that is focused on making it a great place to work for women. We're focused on building a great company that's a great place to work for everybody.

Waste360: According to the company profile created by Great Place to Work, 17 of your 32 employees are women and women make up 45 percent of your managerial team across Northstar’s five offices. Do you have any intentional hiring and human resources strategies targeted to attracting women?

Seth Goodman: The short answer is no. We've experienced some really rapid growth. In the beginning of 2012, we had 12 employees. Here we are three-and-a-half years later with 32 people. We've done a lot of hiring. We're looking for good people. It just so happens that the majority of the people that we were hiring have been women.

We've got a really good maternity and paternity policy, but it's the same policy for both women and men--eight weeks off and two of the eight weeks are fully paid. We want to try to give the equal benefits to everybody.

When my brother, Noah, and I started the company we founded the company on six core values. We said to ourselves, "We are only going to build our company with people that represent and that live the core values that are most important to us." We firmly believe that our success and our growth are directly correlated to our adherence to our core values. Every decision we make on a day to day basis ultimately comes back to ... "Does it violate any of our core values? Is it congruent with our core values?"

We have a very ethical environment where all six core values that we have are really based on integrity. When we're hiring, we're hiring for culture first and then aptitude second.

That, I think, is the foundation of our success. Everything is built from there.

Waste360: What are those core values?

Seth Goodman: One is that we like to have fun. We make it an atmosphere here where people enjoy being here. We have special events all the time. We have free lunches once a week for every employee at a local diner. We have a dog-friendly office. We have a kitchen that is overflowing with free beverages and free snacks. We have a masseuse come in once a month for massages for everybody. We do contests for fantasy football and college basketball. We have an on-site barber shop. We have a lounge with a TV. We have satellite radio for all the offices so everybody can pick what kind of music they want to listen to while they're working, a patio with a grill outside. Everybody gets company apparel.

My brother and I are family-based people. Our philosophy is that, if the people within our family and our company are happy and feel like they're valued, they're going to produce great results for us. We believe that that's the case. I'm a little biased, because I'm one of the owners, but I think the results of this survey that our employees feel the same way that my brother and I do, that this is a great place to work and that we've provided an environment where people can feel safe. They feel like their voice is heard. They feel like they can come to me or my brother or any other supervisors and they're heard and valued.

Waste360: Sounds like it really is a great place to work. You mentioned team-building earlier, can you give me some examples how that plays out in the workplace?

Seth Goodman: Every day at 11 a.m., we have an all-company, 15- to 20-minute meeting. Everybody in the company, all 32 of us, we go around and everybody talks about what their main priority is for the day. We talk about where we feel stuck. What's really great about that all-company meeting is that it focuses everyone's attention on what to be working on, what their main priority should be for the day.

The real value is that people are very comfortable talking about where they're stuck. That causes issues that, in other companies, tend to stay under the surface and don't get drawn out. They come out on a daily basis here and then we're able to deal with them and move on.

We have several different offices around the country. We bring everybody here every quarter for a half-day business meeting, followed by an evening of fun. We've done a scavenger hunt, painting party and we've had a professional square dance caller come in and run a square dance party.

In addition to that, we do an annual trip for everybody in the company. Everyone doesn't go on the same trip, but we have two trips a year and we split the company by department. This past year, one group went on a three-day white water rafting trip. The other group went to a spa resort in upstate New York. In the past we’ve gone to a dude ranch, taken a ski trip out to Jackson Hole and an R&R excursion down to South Beach. We try to do high-end trips that we do once a year that every employee gets to participate in.

Waste360: Any advice for other companies looking to improve their corporate culture and become more welcoming to women?

Seth Goodman: What my advice would be is start with culture first, strategy second. As Peter Drucker, the famous management guru, said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." I refer to that a lot and I firmly believe it's true. If you have the right culture, the same strategy that you implement is going to be a lot easier because you're going to have buy-in from your people. My advice is create a culture where people feel safe, where they feel valued, where they feel heard and where they have fun.

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