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Posted: November 01, 2008

Staying on top in a topsy-turvy world

This year's Top Company winners made the grade despite a rocky economy

Mike Cote
It’s been a tough year to be in business. That long, dark slog of an economy we thought we’d be wading through became a giant lake of quicksand, sucking Wall Street down into the muck and sending markets reeling worldwide. The subprime mortgage mess begat the credit crunch, and once-mighty banks surrendered to a federal bailout or a takeover by one of the survivors. Prices are rising. Layoffs are looming. So where’s that silver lining? How about seven companies and a nonprofit that still managed to pull off a good year, from their financial performance to their connections to the communities in which they do business. We’d be remiss to celebrate this year’s crop of Top Company winners without placing their achievements in that context — which makes their No. 1 rankings all the more remarkable. It’s hardly a popularity contest. The ColoradoBiz Top Company competition requires candidates to undergo an examination of their financial performance by sponsor Deloitte. From there, judges made up of business and community leaders assess each company’s community involvement and one or more operational aspects of the entrant’s choice. This year, Deloitte delivered a list of 22 finalists in eight categories to the judges, who made the final selections. All the finalists were honored at an award ceremony Sept. 16 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. We present the winners we announced that day, including a hospital that celebrates a century in business by expanding its reach; a restaurant chain that continues to achieve rapid growth without compromising quality; and a community bank that aims to outgun bigger players by offering old-fashioned customer service. _--Mike Cote, ColoradoBiz editor _ *Top Company: Services* *Alpine Waste & Recyling* In the past year, Alpine Waste & Recycling has grown from a client base of 2,000 to 3,000, largely on the strength of a program dubbed Altogether Recycling, launched in September 2007. John Griffith, a University of Colorado graduate with a background in retail and waste-industry sales, started the company as a one-man operation out of his Washington Park bungalow in 1999. With 38 trucks now running and four more soon to be added, Alpine is now the largest privately held waste and recycling collection company in the Denver area. The firm started out focusing on waste collection for homeowners’ associations, but much of the company’s recent growth has come from new commercial and industrial business accounts. The Altogether Recycling program has taken the company to new heights. It is a single-source recycling operation, meaning that unsorted waste is collected from client sites and brought back to Alpine’s 31,000-square-foot recycling center, where it is sorted both manually and by high-tech separation systems: aluminum, cardboard, clear-plastic bottles, colored bottles. A baler compacts the recyclable materials into neat rectangles to be loaded on railcars within a few feet of the recycling center. The Altogether Recycling plant off 53rd Avenue and Interstate 25 is an old Montgomery Ward warehouse that Griffith purchased in December 2006. Alpine now collects more than 10,000 tons of trash and more than 1,000 tons of recyclable material per month. By comparison, before opening the Altogether Recycling facility, the company collected 50 tons per month of recyclable material and trucked it to a third-party collector. "Building this facility and emphasizing this segment of our industry has really accelerated our growth," Griffith says. "And it really dovetailed nicely with the whole sustainability initiative. I can’t think of a better time to build this. We kind of hit the lottery in that respect." About a year ago, Alpine also launched a compost-pickup program and currently is the only waste hauler in the Denver area that offers a compost service, although other entities have pilot programs in the works. Clients of Alpine’s compost service include Whole Foods, Corporate Express and the restaurant group Wynkoop Holdings Inc. Alpine’s collected compost (also known as green waste), ranging from yard waste to wax-lined cardboard to food scraps, is hauled to A-1 Organics in Platteville. "We started it on a very limited scope," Griffith says. "It became very evident that that was going to be a big initiative in our industry. I believe very strongly green waste will be the next big trend." _--Mike Taylor _ *Top Company: Nonprofit* *Junior Achievement* Robin Wise spends her days making sure kids understand the difference between wants and needs. The CEO and president of Junior Achievement, Rocky Mountain Inc., will assure you: It’s no easy task. Even trying to teach her own son, a freshman in college, has its ups and downs. "But Mom, I need water," he recently told her, when she was attempting a mini-lesson. "So he goes out and buys a $2 bottle of water," Wise said. "What happened to using the tap?" Despite the challenges of a younger generation, her job is both crucial and rewarding, which keeps her focused after 17 years, she said. During that time, the nonprofit organization that teaches kids financial sense has gone from 8,000 students served per year to more than 90,000. Wise doesn’t take the credit for JA’s success, instead citing a giving Colorado nature and a staff that believes in the cause. "Colorado is just a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of community. People want to get involved," Wise said. More than 3,200 business community members volunteer their time, hitting the classrooms from Denver to Wyoming to teach kids how to eventually compete in a global economy. Another 6,000 volunteers raise money for the nonprofit. And the nation’s recent economic downturn has garnered JA even more attention, Wise said. "Given the housing crisis and the lower savings rates, people are finally coming to the realization that something’s got to be done," she said. "You can’t wait until kids start to make the serious mistakes that they can’t recover from." JA graduates gain financial literacy, an entrepreneurial spirit and a readiness to participate in a global environment, Wise said. And they learn how education translates to their future. "We call it the fourth ‘R’ for relevance," Wise said, citing a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to illustrate its importance. "The study found that 80 percent of the kids who dropped out dropped out because they didn’t see a link between their learning and their living," she said. "That’s what we do. I really think we can play a role in motivating kids to stay in school." Wise, who came from the for-profit realm, said leading a nonprofit can be more challenging and, in fact, should be a requirement for all Fortune 500 CEOs. In the for-profit world, employees do what their bosses say, because they want money, Wise said: Boost the stock prices; pad the wallet. "In the nonprofit world, you get people to do things because they believe in what they do." It’s a harder reward for CEOs to motivate with than money, but in the end, if they succeed, the result is better employees, she said. "They believe that they’re going to change something. They believe in the big picture." _--Debra Melani _ *Top Company: Energy & Natural Resources* *Xcel Energy* In Colorado’s "New Energy" economy, a utility like Xcel Energy faces monumental changes as the state aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and increase the use of renewable resources. Thus far, the natural gas and electricity provider has met those challenges head on, getting permission from Colorado regulators this year to phase out two coal-fired power plants as well as build a 200-megawatt solar plant as Xcel works to meet a state-mandated goal to generate 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. Along the way, the company has generated acclaim from Wall Street for both its financial performance and its renewable energy initiatives. In September, Minneapolis-based Xcel learned it would be named to the 2008-2009 Dow Jones Sustainability Index for North America, its third consecutive year in an index that selects companies based on economic, environmental and social responsibility factors. "Over the past year, we’ve done very well," CEO Dick Kelly said during an interview at Xcel’s Denver offices. "We’ve come out with our goals and guidelines that we grow earnings per share in the 5 to 7 percent range, and we’ve hit that target every year for the past three years. We’ve also said we’re going to increase our dividends 2 to 4 percent, and we’ve beaten that target." Kelly also touted the milestones Xcel has reached as a national provider of renewable energy. "We’re the No. 1 provider of wind in the United States; we’re the No. 5 provider of solar in the United States," he said. "We have a whole host of other ways we provide power, too. But we’ve taken it on from the environmental standpoint and made changes, including plans to shut down coal plants, converting coal plants to natural gas and supplementing that power with renewable energy." On the charitable front, Kelly is most proud of the honor Xcel received in 2007 from the United Way of America, which awarded Xcel with its 20th annual Spirit of America Award, recognizing the company’s commitment to community involvement, including its dollar-for-dollar match of employee contributions. "We were the first utility to ever win it, and we’re extremely proud of that," said Kelly, adding that Xcel allows employees to volunteer in the community for up to 40 hours with pay every year. "We’re literally connected to the community with our pipes and wires so we’re not going anywhere," Kelly said. "Fortunately, our employees are out in the community all the time." _--Mike Cote _ *Top Company: Technology/Media/Telecommunications* *Spectranetics Corp.* It has made Fortune magazine’s list of the nation’s fastest-growing small businesses three years in a row, boasting a 33 percent annual growth rate from 2004 to 2007 and reporting an impressive $26.7 million in revenues amid an economically challenging 2008 second quarter. But as CEO John Schulte points out, Spectranetics Corp. was no overnight sensation: Its success has been decades in the making, with a few bumps in the road along the way, as it has strived to find the best application for a laser its founders discovered a quarter-century ago. "We have always tried to understand customer needs as we built our business," Schulte says. "That philosophy has enabled us to develop products which provide meaningful benefits." The Colorado Springs company was founded in 1984, after founders Robert Golobic, a U.S. Air Force physicist, and Johan Sverdrup, a Hewlett-Packard engineer, discovered a "cool" ultraviolet laser that could remove blockages inside a blood vessel without heating the arterial wall. At first, the technology seemed an ideal answer to treating coronary disease, and it earned Food and Drug Administration approval in 1993. But just one year later, wire mesh tubes called stents earned FDA approval, and quickly became the standard of care for coronary blockages. "The company hit an early wall because of the impact of stents," Schulte says. "We had to switch our strategy." Further research revealed that the laser was better suited to assist in the removal of pacemakers and defibrillators (removing the scar tissue that often forms around the leads), and to treat arterial blockages in the leg, where stents alone don’t work well. (The laser is also still used in select cardiovascular cases.) "It took us 12 years to sell the first 400 lasers, and less than three years to sell the next 400. Now we’re selling them at a tremendous clip," Schulte says. "It’s very rewarding to know that the technology we make and design every day is changing lives." Today, the company has 850 lasers in place, has treated roughly 300,000 people, and employs 450. In 2008, it paid $10 million to buy up Kensey Nash, another company that specializes in endovascular technology. Spectranetics expects revenue for 2008 to be $104 million to $110 million. This year has not been all roses, however. In September, the FDA and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency served the company with a search warrant requesting information relating to "the promotion, use, testing, marketing and sales" of certain products and "compensation packages for certain of the company’s personnel." Several securities class action lawsuits were also filed against Spectranetics this fall, alleging that "the defendants made false and misleading statements and omissions in violation of the federal securities laws." "We are trying to communicate with everyone exactly what is happening. We aren’t hiding from it," said Schulte, who issued press releases about the investigation and held an all-hands meeting with employees to discuss it. "We are cooperating fully with all regulatory authorities. What is important to note is that this information being sought by the FDA has nothing to do with the safety or efficacy of our marketing products for existing indications, and we are operating our business as normally as possible." _--Lisa Marshall_ *Top Company: Financial Services* *New Frontier Bank* Pull up the website for New Frontier Bank, and one item on the busy home page pops out: E-mail the president. Those who do might be surprised when the president and CEO of the 250-employee, billion-dollar-plus company picks up the phone and calls back. But he will: He wants to be accessible to customers. "I think it’s a key thing," Larry Seastrom said. "My office is still on the lobby level, and I don’t screen my phone calls. If there’s a problem, I want to be aware of it." Seastrom credits a small-town attitude in a big-time market for the success of the Greeley bank, which opened its doors in 1998 in a 1,000-square-foot trailer with seven employees and $6 million in capital. Today, the bank competes as a major lender, with a particular hold in the agricultural business - no small niche in Weld County. It has branches in Windsor and Longmont. "We can handle the little larger agricultural customer that cannot be helped at the community banks, so we really compete with the Wells Fargos and the U.S. Banks," Seastrom said. "And we just feel like we can out-service them customer-service-wise." And these days, with almost as many banks as Starbucks on city corners, New Frontier’s customer-service focus is vital in a highly competitive market. Some of the bank’s tactics: * Greeters, whose task it is to smile and remember customers by name, staff the front doors. * An army of receptionists cover the phone each day, so that all customers always reach a person, not a machine, when they call. * A club for members 50 and older offers activities, such as golf outings. * The bank routinely commits money and employee hours to community service projects, such as Habitat for Humanity. * Employees are over-staffed, preventing long waits for customers and assuring personal service. If it all sounds trivial, it’s not, Seastrom said. And his bank’s community-minded philosophy has never been more important than it is now. "This is a very difficult time in our economy," he said. Confidence in the U.S. economic system has eroded, and customers fearful of their money’s safety keep coming through his doors, he said. "I tell individuals that we pay an insurance premium to have the privilege, and I stress privilege, for the FDIC assurance." Seastrom advises his customers to make sure every account is protected, and his employees help them do that, he said. It’s that personal assurance in these tumultuous times that makes his customers stay, Seastrom said. And the coffee and small talk in the lobby doesn’t hurt. "We’re truly a community bank and not just another bank on the corner." _--Debra Melani _ *Top Company: Tourism/Hospitality* *Noodles & Company* It’s 7 p.m. on a Friday at a Noodles & Company in Highlands Ranch. Customers, made up largely of families, wait in line in front of the order counter, spying the menu while trying to spot some empty tables. They’re not finding many tonight. Meanwhile, workers in the kitchen race to adhere to "quick serve" timing during a busy dinner rush, cooking up plates of Japanese pan noodles or Wisconsin mac and cheese. During a time when the restaurant industry has been hammered by rising commodity prices and a slowdown in consumer spending, Noodles & Company continues to thrive, staying on target to open 35 to 40 new restaurants by the end of the year. The Broomfield-based pasta chain has grown to nearly 200 company-owned and franchised locations in 17 states since its founding in Boulder in 1995. CEO Kevin Reddy, who joined the company in 2005 after executive-level stints at Chipotle and McDonald’s, attributes much of the company’s success to a menu that features Asian-, Mediterranean- and American-inspired dishes, offering enough variety to attract a varied clientele. "As a restaurant company, it’s important for us to be delivering a globally inspired dining experience that we’re proud of," Reddy said during an interview at the company’s headquarters. "There’s something for everybody at Noodles & Company" The company continues to run strong mid-single-digit same store sales, and more impressively, Reddy says, mid-single-digit real customer growth. "And we’re doing that without the benefit of big price increases," he said. "In fact, over the last three years, same-store sales are up over 20 percent. And we’ve doubled our sales in the last four years total companywide." Reddy doesn’t take for granted the company’s success in a very tough economic climate. "We recognize that going to a restaurant is discretionary," he said. "So we really have to earn the guest visiting each and every time. We think we can deliver the quality of food and experience better than casual dining and in some cases at almost half the price." Noodles and & Company doesn’t spend a lot of money on traditional advertising, treating each location like a neighborhood restaurant, Reddy said. That philosophy also fuels its philanthropic work, which includes food donations, fundraisers and volunteer work for schools and churches. "I think in the last year we’ve given several hundred thousand dollars back into the neighborhoods where we do business," he said. "It’s fundamental to our belief. We don’t spend a lot on media. We have to earn that trust guest-by-guest in each neighborhood." _--Mike Cote_ *Top Company: Real estate/construction* *LEI Companies* Brandon Berumen and Lenee Koch launched LEI Cos. Inc. in 2002, and their first major project was to enlarge the fire-alarm system for the expanded Colorado Convention Center. The Denver-based electrical contractor has since completed countless projects, including the renovation of the Denver correctional facility on Smith Road and installation of the fire-alarm system of the Denver Newspaper Agency building on Broadway and Colfax Avenue. But the convention-center project provided an unusual measure of family pride, and not only because Berumen, 30, and Koch, 34, are siblings. Starting in the mid-1980s, their parents operated Laser Electric Inc. in Denver for more than 20 years. That company had installed the original fire-alarm system in the convention center years earlier. "We retrofitted and replaced the system he had put in 10 years before and then expanded that system to more than double to accommodate the new facility," Berumen says. "There were just so many emotional ties to that project. The stars truly aligned for us to be able to get that work. "He was pretty proud of that project," Brandon says of his father, Jose. "They did such a good job to begin with." Brandon then jokes, "But we, of course, left it better than it was." Berumen says that growing up, he and his sister always planned to join the family electrical-contracting business. They decided to stick with what they knew even after Jose opted to shift from contracting and focus on a business with fewer employees — fire-alarm-product distribution. "Lenee and I had our education and training in the contracting business and thought our best strengths were in that arena," Brandon says. "That’s why we started LEI." Commercial contracting is LEI’s biggest business segment. That includes new construction, alteration, repair, renovation and retrofit projects. The company also handles some light construction and a few residential jobs. "When people come in and meet us and see a small, minority-owned firm, they might have a certain perception," says Brandon, LEI’s president and CEO. "Then when they’re done dealing with us, they realize, ‘Boy, this is like dealing with one of the biggest volume contractors in the state.’" LEI Cos. Inc. now employs 32 and plans to expand to 40-45 employees by July 2009 because of upcoming contracts. Although LEI is an acronym for their parents’ Laser Electric Inc., the companies aren’t related. "They’re two totally different entities," Brandon says. "But the name was just kind of a throwback and honor to them to say, ‘Hey, we’ll always work for you in one way, shape or form.’" _--Mike Taylor _ *Top Company: Health care* *The Children’s Hospital* From its humble beginnings in a cluster of canvas tents in 1908, to its 90-year-history at its downtown location, to its recent move to a 1.5-million-square-foot facility in Aurora, the Children’s Hospital has maintained a reputation as the place to go when a child is seriously ill, ranking among the nation’s top five pediatric hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in 2007. So how does a private, not-for-profit hospital operating on a razor-thin margin not only survive but thrive for so long? "It’s been true to its mission since the very beginning," CEO Jim Shmerling says. "While a for-profit hospital often has the end goal of returning equity back to its investors, our end goal has always been caring for children. A means to that end is fiscal preservation and being a good steward of the limited resources we have." In September, the hospital celebrated a century of operation and one year in its new $560 million, 270-bed facility on the Fitzsimons medical campus. It also celebrated a banner year in which emergency department visits were up 21 percent, patient days were up 13 percent, and outpatient visits were up 7 percent. Shmerling credits the growth to a larger facility that has enabled the formerly space-crunched hospital to help more patients faster and has served as an attractive draw for recruiting talented specialists. The new hospital also boasts the nation’s first Electronic Medical Records system at a freestanding pediatric facility - a huge step forward in ensuring children’s safety. "When a patient is seen in multiple locations, sometimes information can get lost in the hand-off," Shmerling says. "Having one electronic record that follows them everywhere reduces the potential for mistakes." The new facility is just the latest step in a concerted multi-year effort to make Children’s more accessible across the Rocky Mountain West. In the ’90s, the hospital began opening satellite Network of Care offices. It now has 13 across Colorado, as well as clinics in Wyoming and Montana. In total, the clinics saw business increase 50 percent in 2007. Shmerling notes that the hospital "turns no patient away," regardless of whether they have private insurance, Medicaid or no insurance at all. Covering the difference between what Medicaid pays and what care costs amounts to a roughly $60 million shortfall annually — a loss that could be enough to prompt some hospitals to cut programming. But due to a dedicated donor base — which pitches in $40 million annually — and a philosophy of emphasizing efficiency, Children’s is not only surviving, but serving as a model. "Because of our ability to be efficient, we can keep the doors open and provide state of the art technology in an environment that is conducive to healing," Shmerling said. That environment has also served to retain staff, with Children’s boasting a 6 percent turnover rate, while the national average hovers around 12 percent. With a new building and a host of new talent in place, the hospital now hopes to increase its focus on research, spending as much as $100 million over the next five years to study childhood medical problems and how to prevent them. _--Lisa Marshall_ {pagebreak:"Page 1"}

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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