Wiggle room is part of the culture at the Lake Forest-based industrial supplier W.W. Grainger.
There's Pilsen branch manager Roger Lubert, who had a number of jobs before he found his niche interacting with customers.
Then there is supply chain architect Derek Hamilton, who has had four jobs in the five years he has been with the company.
All three say Grainger encouraged them to poke around in various parts of the business, each role giving them an opportunity to grow. The company also hooked them up with bosses and mentors who helped them map out their careers.
It's one of the reasons the publicly traded company ranks as the No. 2 large company on the Chicago Tribune's Top Workplaces survey, conducted by WorkplaceDynamics, an Exton, Pa.-based consultancy.
Being one of 18,500 employees around the globe could easily make Lubert feel like a mere cog. Instead, he feels like he has directly contributed to Grainger's success.
Lubert said he has seen his ideas put into action — from small tweaks at the retail branch he runs to more significant changes in the way inventory is managed.
"Grainger utilizes our strengths," Lubert said. "They put people in the position to succeed."
For Hamilton, it's all about career development. The 27-year-old is working his dream job, with ambitions to go far. Literally. After a business trip earlier this year to China, he was hooked on gaining more experience in foreign markets.
"Grainger is expanding so quickly, it's easy for me to get diverse experience," he said. "I can see a pure progression in my career."
Happy employees are crucial to Grainger's bottom line, according to Joseph High, senior vice president of human resources. "At Grainger, there's a culture of long-term respect," High said.
"I can see how the vision and strategy trickle down to my goals," added Mollye Oler, a territory sales operation manager.
And when Grainger does well, so do the employees. Last year, workers with five or more years of service pocketed about 21 percent of their earnings through the company's popular profit-sharing plan, which doesn't require an employee contribution.
Hamilton loves the retirement stability. But these days, what really helps this father of two small children is the company's time-off program. Instead of sick days or vacation days, Grainger allocates time-off periods, which can be claimed in hourly chunks, if necessary. That way, Hamilton doesn't have to worry about losing an entire day to take his children to the doctor.
"Because the company is so big, you're never stuck in one place," Kolbe said. "You can find out what you're interested in."
Kolbe credited Grainger's mentoring programs with helping her rise from an administrator to a manager. Her weekly meet-ups with her mentor include practicing presentations, help plotting her next career move and sometimes plain-old venting sessions.
Kolbe is also a member of a Grainger-sponsored networking group designed to help guide female employees into leadership roles within the company. Hers is one of the company-sponsored networking groups aimed at providing employees with support and opportunities to boost their careers. There are others, including groups designed to recruit and retain underrepresented minorities, to promote cultural awareness and to bridge the generation gap between older and younger employees.
"It's invaluable to me," Kolbe said of her membership in the Women's Business Resource Group. "You get out of it what you put into it."
Grainger gives employees room to grow
Industrial supplier encourages workers to seek opportunities elsewhere in company
Grainger employees enjoy an long well-lit atrium in the corporate headquarters in Lake Forest. (Stacey Wescott/ Chicago Tribune)