By Katharine Carlon
katharine@corridorbusiness.com

When CIVCO Medical Solutions chose a “Brady Bunch” theme for its slice-of-life video presentation at the CBJ’s Coolest Places to Work event, it wasn’t just to be funny. The ‘70s-era sitcom about a group that comes together and somehow forms a family is a fitting reflection of the unique atmosphere that landed the medical device manufacturer this year’s title as “Coolest of the Cool.”

Feeling part of a family “was the number-one theme” in an employee survey conducted by the company several years ago, said Marketing Manager Erin Dougherty. “The majority of them said things like ‘I think of my colleagues as my second family,’ or ‘I have a real accountability to CIVCO because I want to do right by my team or my colleagues.’ I have never seen that consistent of a cultural message, and it’s so much deeper than the buzzwords organizations put forth.”

Whether it’s regular “huddles” and companywide meetings that encourage inter-departmental collaboration and innovation, communal Christmas dinners, karaoke parties or onsite massage therapy, the Coralville-based company that employs about 400 people across locations in Coralville, Kalona and Juarez, Mexico, prides itself on working hard, playing hard and understanding that the work they do together matters.

It’s an attitude that starts at the top. When she took over two years ago after 28 years with the company, President Robin Therme made it her mission to listen more, dictate less and empower her team to make solid decisions. She also set to work re-starting a visioning and mission process that had been squashed before her tenure, demoralizing employees.

“We asked them, why do you come to work, why do you want to get out of bed in the morning, what motivates you, and what inspires you to be here?” Ms. Therme said, adding that while the company got a multitude of responses, one in particular came up repeatedly. “If you dig deep enough, a lot of our products have been used on either an associate or a family member. There’s not one person in the world who doesn’t know somebody that’s been touched by cancer or who has had an ultrasound. … Every day we save a life and that’s what our associates can be proud of and give 150 percent to.”

Refocused around a vision of “making image-guided procedures safer,” CIVCO purposefully established a culture where every voice counts and where there is transparency at the top. Ms. Therme has instituted open-door policies and sends regular emails to keep employees informed on business decisions; she also holds “Round Robins,” small lunches in which people are encouraged to question decisions and directions.

“I haven’t come across a question I wouldn’t answer yet,” Ms. Therme said, adding that she is always more than willing to get the ball rolling herself with her own list of questions to get employees talking. “I watch to make sure that everyone’s participating because I want to hear, and then I try to make it a point that I follow up personally or I’ll take action on things so that people see that. It’s not just about going through the motions.”

The flip side of that openness is giving employees the opportunity to be the change they seek. An “innovation board,” spearheaded by Vice President of Business Development Brad Dunlap, gives employees the opportunity to submit new product ideas, with a chance for random monthly prizes and $250 bonuses if the idea makes it to the R&D stage.

“We have six products actively moving through the development phase,” Mr. Dunlap said, adding that those bright ideas aren’t just coming from CIVCO engineers.

Ms. Therme said she also favors a ground-up approach when dealing with employee problems and concerns, giving staffers the space and freedom to solve issues they’ve identified.

“Sometimes, I’ll say, ‘OK, what are you going to do about it?’ and as a result of that, we have people leading some pretty big strategic movements, people that thought, ‘I could never do that,’” she said, “so it’s provided opportunities for advancement and responsibility and growth.”

Employees at CIVCO have taken notice of the atmosphere the company has worked hard to create with 98 of them weighing in to support the company’s first-ever claim to “Coolest of the Cool.” Chair massages, a breakroom with amenities from an espresso machine to shuffleboard, and parties and shared activities like the Corridor Games made plenty of appearances in the company’s survey results. But an overwhelming number raved about the feeling of togetherness, engagement at the top and opportunities to not only be heard, but to make a difference.

Macey Greiner, manager of human relations, said one of the most pleasant surprises of her more than four-year tenure at CIVCO was employees’ willingness to embrace and bring about change, instead of fearing it.

“And once they speak up, the company provides the resources,” Ms. Grenier said, attributing CIVCO’s impressive 7 percent turnover rate, in part, to its supportive atmosphere. “It’s so inspiring and amazing how far our associates have taken things.”

One recent example came in response to a companywide United Way fundraising campaign Ms. Grenier said was “probably one of the best things we ever did.” A week of activities, including a food drive and various competitions, culminated in a pinewood derby – but not just any derby, thanks to CIVCO’s slew of highly-skilled, mechanically-minded workers.

“These were pretty elaborate, just crazy creative,” Ms. Grenier recalled. “And all of our employees enjoyed just the camaraderie, the very simple events we did that were not a huge expense at all.”

“I think we exceeded our goal by six times in terms of engagement, but then also in terms of dollars per person,” Ms. Dougherty agreed. “And people that had never come up to me to say anything specific to the culture at CIVCO were commenting that this was ‘my favorite week I’ve ever had at CIVCO.’”

The company, which offers generous benefits, tuition reimbursement and flexible scheduling and leave policies, makes sure fun is always in the mix. Themed company parties have included a casino night, a game show night, karaoke and Hawkeye football games, complete with pre-game tailgating. Smaller monthly events might include a food truck day, and the company hosts an annual Christmas dinner with all of the fixings at a venue near its Kalona facility.

“I’ll do a program and we’ll talk about how we did this year on our initiatives and explain what we’re going to focus on for the next year,” Ms. Therme said. “Then we have some prizes we give out and gifts for everybody, and we do some fun stuff like we’ll let your table go first if you stand up and sing a Christmas carol. These are all ways to get people to interact with people they don’t interact with on a daily basis.”

Though a box of CIVCO products did once make a cameo on an episode of “ER,” the company’s needle guidance, infection control and high-level disinfection systems product lines aren’t necessarily high profile.

“But every day is a new challenge, as you’re constantly learning, you’re constantly growing, whether you know it or not,” she said. “We’re a medical device company and that might not be exciting or sexy, but we’re having a good time and we’re doing something good.”