As Costco's Jim Sinegal once put it, "Culture is not the most important thing -- it's the only thing" -- likely because he understands the advantages of creating a work environment with high employee satisfaction. I recently had the opportunity to engage over email with Renee Conklin, Proto Labs' (NYSE:PRLB) vice president of human resources, about the company's culture, employee morale, how it cultivates talent, and more. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for style.
Steve Heller: With only a handful of reviews of Proto Labs on anonymous employee review site Glassdoor, it's obviously not a representative sample size of employee morale or satisfaction. How does Proto Labs internally measure employee satisfaction? Can you provide supporting data around employee retention rates, turnover, and average tenure? How does this data compare to the industry?
Renee Conklin: Proto Labs has been voted a Top 100 Minnesota Workplace by the Minneapolis Star Tribune for the past four years (2011 through 2014). The independent survey consisted of 22 questions focused on the work environment and was completed by our employees. We've also been recognized as one of Forbes' Best Small Companies for the past two years (2013 and 2014). Forbes ranked companies on their earnings and sales growth as well as return on equity in the past 12 months and over five years.
We currently employ 700 employees in Minnesota and 73% of these employees have been hired within the past three years. Our voluntary turnover in 2014 was about 6%, and we're growing [headcount] at a rate of 25% each year.
Heller: If employees are unsatisfied, how does Proto Labs work to improve employee morale?
Conklin: Proto Labs holds monthly shift meetings where all employees participate. During the meetings, managers share important information and ask each employee, by name, for process improvement suggestions and any concerns they want to voice. It's the central idea that more minds are better than one. We respect one another's opinions, and share our successes and failures as a team to learn from them. Constant collaboration with colleagues breeds creativity and helps us refine a great idea into something tangible.
Our core values are teamwork, trust, and achievement and we make a concerted effort to hold employees accountable to these values. As a result, there's an employee appreciation for a company that places trust in its employees to do the job for which they were hired.
Heller: What is Proto Labs doing to cultivate talent? What programs does Proto Labs have in place today, or plans to put in place in the future to build its next generation of leaders?
Conklin: Internally, we have a generous tuition reimbursement program in place for employees who want to pursue advanced education. We are also working on developing Proto Labs University -- a program designed to help new supervisors and managers learn the basic concepts of effective management and to develop skills. Proto Labs University will be a comfortable, hands-on learning environment where our experienced leaders will share best practices and give new leaders the opportunity to practice what they learn and receive immediate feedback. We are continually building and modifying training content for our sales and customer support teams to further their knowledge of our shifting services. It allows them to really bring a consultative sales role so customers ultimately use the best manufacturing process possible -- whether 3D printing, machining or molding -- for the production of their parts.
Externally, we provide a number of free injection molding design aids and an 80-page injection molding book that we published to educators and entire classrooms at the high school and collegiate level. It helps educate future product designers and engineers, who may one day work at Proto Labs, about the sometimes complicated field of injection molding. We also partner with schools on projects and team competitions as well as sponsor internships in many of the departments throughout the organization.
Lastly, we run a Cool Idea! Award program that grants thousands of dollars in manufacturing services annually to entrepreneurs with innovative product concepts.
Heller: What qualities does Proto Labs look for when promoting talent from within and hiring outside the company?
Conklin: We focus our recruiting efforts on those who have the ability and desire to learn quickly and work efficiently in a team-oriented environment. They must be adaptable to change and comfortable working in an extremely fast-paced, growing environment. We look for people who are passionate, results-oriented individuals who take accountability for their work.
Proto Labs works to bring in not only talented individuals, but also ones who are going to help create a culture where people want to remain. Of our current 50-plus job openings, many fall within STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. Software engineering and manufacturing process engineers are roles that we are continually recruiting for. Pair that with machine and press operators, and you have a manufacturing company that runs the gamut of available careers and opportunity for career growth.
Heller: From a culture perspective, what's the biggest characteristic that differentiates Proto Labs from its peers?
Conklin: Total trust in our employees. At all levels of the organization, employees are empowered to be creative, do what it takes to complete the task at hand, and provide additional assistance where needed. Everyone understands that manufacturing speed is important to our customers and is, therefore, important to our success. Every employee contributes; every employee is critical in maintaining a system that runs smoothly.
Steve Heller owns shares of Proto Labs. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple, Costco Wholesale, and Proto Labs. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.