One September day three years ago, Drew Lepple picked up Seven Days at a gas station. The thirtysomething carpenter was considering a career change, but hadn’t yet chosen a field.
Lepple, a Hinesburg resident with a degree in Natural Resources from Colorado State University, saw an employment ad for NRG Systems. He’d heard it was hard to score a job at the Hinesburg-based wind-measurement equipment manufacturer. But a few months earlier, Lepple had noticed NRG was constructing a shiny new eco-headquarters just off Route 116. That seems like a pretty cool place to work, he thought.
One year and three interviews later, Lepple is a “towers and electronics technician” in charge of building the wind-assessment towers and instruments that NRG ships to prospective utilities, manufacturers and wind-energy developers in more than 120 countries. He still likes his daily tasks and the notion of working for a corporation with a social conscience. But, truth be told, Lepple seems equally wooed by the perks.
“It’s like a country club over here!” Lepple says on a recent Friday morning after a crêpe breakfast in NRG’s cozy cafeteria. In addition to tasty meals prepared by a former chef at EatingWell magazine, NRG offers health insurance, an on-site workout room, an indoor swimming pool and more than $1000 per employee — per year — towards green investments such as hybrid cars, wood-pellet stoves and scooters.
Last year, these and other enviro-bennies inspired awards from both Vermont Business Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. “When it comes to benefits and office environment,” said the Journal, which named the Vermont company one of its “15 Top Small Workplaces,” “NRG Systems, Inc. blows away most of the competition.”
Jan Blittersdorf became CEO of NRG Systems in 2004 when her husband, David, left to start the residential-wind-turbine manufacturing firm Earth Turbines. But shortly after her company’s founding in 1982, she created its first benefits package. A former nurse, she started with health care. Then Blittersdorf added “variable pay” — a.k.a. “profit sharing” — paid sabbaticals for longtime employees, and yearly credits for purchases of energy-efficient appliances, hybrids and rides on mass-transit systems. Such incentives, she says, help employees “go one step further in their own lives” toward environmental sustainability. From a marketing standpoint, of course, they’re ambassadors of the brand.
On a recent Friday, Blittersdorf gazes at the Green Mountains from a homey second-floor office. In a nearby manufacturing space, healthy-looking engineers assemble widgets next to a giant, south-facing window. Over by the ground-floor fireplace, a handyman is stocking a fridge with complimentary juice — an energy-efficient substitute for soda machines. Outside, there are plenty of Priuses in the parking lot, beside an employee-run vegetable garden, a pond with cattails, a deck and a barbecue grill.
“All summer, we cook burgers, chicken and stuff,” Drew Lepple boasts. “It’s all organized. People sign up to bring rolls.”
An average nine-to-fiver might think NRG’s corporate culture was a slice of paradise — or Scandinavia — but to Blittersdorf, it’s a logical extension of company philosophy. Ditto for this 46,000-square-foot, solar-powered palace. The LEED-certified building came online in 2004, just before NRG’s sales growth rate increased from 30 to 50 percent. (More than half of NRG’s staffers started within the last two years, and not because of attrition.) To accommodate that surge, the Blittersdorfs commissioned a slightly smaller facility next door, which David’s Earth Turbines startup occupied before moving to Williston last week.
Explosive growth, while good for NRG’s bottom line, makes it tough to sustain a tight-knit corporate environment. To compensate, Blittersdorf hired the former EatingWell chef in March 2007 to prepare healthful, locally sourced meals. In addition to saving the time it would take to drive into downtown Hinesburg for sandwiches, she says, an in-house salad bar fosters interdepartmental camaraderie. Shared lunches, staff meetings and other team-building events, she claims, help NRG workers avoid typical office conflicts.
The lunch initiative, as it turns out, relates to a broader push to keep employees local. Blittersdorf says NRG has always tried to hire Vermonters, particularly Chittenden County residents. About 20 of the company’s hundred-plus employees now hail from Hinesburg. Earlier this year, NRG doubled its property holdings by purchasing 10 acres across Route 116. The plan, according to a company spokesperson, is to build “smart growth” housing that will be sold to employees and other local residents. A modern version of the company town?
Drew Lepple and his colleague Laura Goodfellow, who lives in New Haven, say they wouldn’t be interested in company housing. It’s also worth noting that only 30 percent of NRG’s employees take advantage of the annual $1000 “Clean NRG” benefit. That said, both employees laud NRG’s efforts to maintain a family-like workplace. “You’re happy to come to work every day, and you’re more productive while you’re here,” attests Goodfellow, a sales account manager who came from a Fortune 500 company in Illinois. Life at NRG, she adds, “carries over to your personal life.”
Indeed, despite those 100-some employees, the company’s primary Hinesburg headquarters still feels like a giant house. Jan Blittersdorf suggests it’s not uncommon for employees to organize, via company email, hiking trips up Mount Mansfield. It’s a welcome tradition, to her mind, because it means workers are getting to know each other in casual settings.
Things haven’t always been so cushy at NRG. Early hiring mistakes caused problems on the “back end,” Blittersdorf recalls, forcing her to reconfigure the company’s hiring process, and she still struggles to hire qualified engineers. What’s more, NRG supervisors have trouble re-training experienced workers who are too “entrenched” in the operating systems of other local employers — think émigrés from the now-shuttered Digital Equipment Corporation of South Burlington.
However, contrary to the so-called “brain drain” theory embraced by the Douglas administration, NRG isn’t lacking for qualified young applicants. Recent Vermont Technical College grads, for instance, often ask Blittersdorf, “I don’t care what I do, I just want to work for you — what do you have for me?” To help groom prospective employees, NRG runs an informal summer internship program for more than a dozen college and high school students.
According to Blittersdorf, NRG Systems’ biggest challenge isn’t finding new workers; it’s introducing them to a successful business model without stifling creativity or free expression. Recent hires don’t immediately grasp NRG’s “culture” or “story,” she explains: “How do you figure out how to bring them into this culture and support them, but also let them bring in who they are and create their own story?”
That question comes up whenever Vermont politicians, eager to brand themselves as wind-power-friendly, ask to visit NRG headquarters. Jan Blittersdorf and her husband David — a co-founder of the Montpelier-based trade association Renewable Energy Vermont — are unabashed alternative-energy advocates. But, while Jan did allow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gaye Symington to stage a recent press conference down the hall from her office, she won’t permit politicos to shoot on-site campaign advertisements.
“People ask me sometimes, ‘Do we hire people based on what they think?’ and my answer is clearly no,” Blittersdorf says. “I don’t really care what someone’s political views are when they arrive here, and I think you really limit yourself if you try to gather a group of people together who all think the same.”