Four years ago, medical tests revealed L'Tanya King had tumors on her liver. She needed surgery, so she took an eight-week leave from her job as a technical services manager at Oil-Dri Corp. of America.
It was then she felt the full embrace of her co-workers.
They threw her a party before she left. They brought her soup and flowers. While recovering at home, King tried and failed to log in to the computer system at work. Her co-workers had refused to reset her password.
"They would not let me work," King said. "I was hot! But it was like, 'Nope, you're off. Worry about getting better.'"
And when she recovered and returned to work, they threw another party.
That kind of camaraderie — that focus on people and their well-being — coupled with benefits that speak to those values — such as fully paid short-term disability leave, pension plans, a 401(k) match and partial reimbursements for health club memberships and athletic races, as well as a companywide bowling day — are reasons that Oil-Dri Corp. of America was named No. 14 among small companies on the Tribune's Top Workplaces list, as surveyed by WorkplaceDynamics, an Exton, Pa.-based consulting firm.
The company also scored highest of those surveyed for its ethical operation.
Daniel Jaffee, president and CEO of Oil-Dri, which was started in 1941 by his grandfather and went public in the 1970s, said the employee benefits do not fluctuate with market pressures.
"Because we do all these things, we perform," Jaffee said. "Meaning, it isn't, we perform, and then we do these things. … You can buy people's wallet, meaning, you can just get them to come in, and you can get so much performance. But you get their heart, and you're going to get a multiplier way bigger than their wallet."
Oil-Dri started out distributing a product to soak up oil from garage floors, and has expanded into a range of not only industrial and agricultural products, but also Cat's Pride litter and the material used in baseball diamonds.
Oil-Dri's products are used at Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field, as well as in 24 other major league parks.
The company, headquartered in the Wrigley Building, has a laboratory campus in Vernon Hills, plants across North America, and sites in England and Switzerland. Kevin Breese, Oil-Dri's vice president of human resources, said the company plans to open an office next year in China.
To explain Oil-Dri's high marks for ethical behavior, Jim Peyton, a logistics associate, and other employees cited an incident four years ago in which the company lost a large chunk of business. A client, Jaffee said, made a strategic decision to "throw us out." Oil-Dri lost 15 percent of its business, and its earnings cratered.
Instead of laying off 15 percent of its workforce — about 120 people worldwide — Jaffee went to each location and explained that he was freezing wages so that nobody would have to be laid off.
"It was the most powerful thing," Jaffee said. "I started to joke, 'Boy, if I knew that not giving an increase would get this kind of reaction — I was getting standing ovations."
Every fall, the company holds a bonus luncheon in which managers write a paragraph about how teammates contributed that year. Virginia Viert, corporate receptionist, recalled how stunned she was to see Jaffee reading aloud each write-up.
"That wowed me," she said. "That the CEO would take the time to do that. That it wasn't just like, 'Here's your check, eat your dinner and go.' I've never seen anything like it."