Working to a different beat: S.A. companies boast happy workers

Working to a different beat: S.A. companies boast happy workers

Credit: Freddy Hunt /

Rackspace, NuStar Energy and USAA are three San Antonio-based that have repeatedly made Fortune Magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work For. But besides excellent benefits, what else keeps their employees so happy?


by Freddy Hunt /

Posted on April 8, 2012 at 3:19 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 25 at 1:39 PM

 The department stores have been ripped from the once-popular Windsor Park Mall. In their place are thousands of cubicles for hard-working “Rackers,” their Nerf guns and trophies.

At Rackspace, a giant stuffed fish hovers above the desk of a worker who loves to grapple with catfish. At Rackspace, comfy recliners and bouncy balls have replaced many office chairs. At Rackspace, a man named SugarBear is not just the ambassador of culture, but also the Latin dance instructor.

“Tour Guide” also could be added to SugarBear’s job description as he showed off the 1.2 million square feet of workspace and tried to explain why Rackspace is one of the few San Antonio companies repeatedly listed among Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For -- along with NuStar and USAA.

Great benefits, yes. Excellent 401[k] plan, check. But what else are these companies doing that make them such great employers? There has to be something more than exceptional benefits. There has to be something going on behind those doors.

SugarBear, who later disclosed his name as Larry Reyes, led that way. He was Rackspace’s fourteenth hire back in 1999. The company now has nearly 4,000 employees at offices worldwide. About 2,500 of them work at the company headquarters in San Antonio, inside the old mall now known as “The Castle.” SugarBear has the keys.

Something different
During the tour, SugarBear was repeatedly interrupted by slaps on the back. A loud applause erupted down the hall and bounced off the walls -- someone hit their sales goal, he explained. A Racker zipped by on a scooter. Another shot down a spiral slide with her computer. The place was buzzing, hardly silent. Then the rippling sound of a gong announced a new client.

Did Dr. Suess design this place?

[No, Dr. Suess had nothing to do with Rackspace. The company was founded in 1998 by three students at Trinity University -- Richard Yoo, Dirk Elmendorf and Patrick Condon.]

It’s immediately apparent the Rackers are happy for more reasons than stock options, profit sharing checks and an awesome 401[k] plan, as listed in Fortune Magazine. The work environment is just different. Maybe even a little groovy.

For starters, nobody has an office in The Castle. Even CEO Lanham Napier has a cubicle, which like many Rackers, he protects with a Nerf gun. SugarBear explained that the open environment promotes collaboration. Ideas are not snuffed out inside stuffy offices or lost in a separate building across town.

Rackspace likes to think they are up to something new. With new technologies that change every couple of months, the company is always on its toes. So if the company is always thinking outside of the box, why not conduct business outside of the box?

“You go to different organizations, and everyone has to be dressed a certain way,” SugarBear explained. “Here we think 'take that away and focus on what is really important.' Which is really having that dialog and collaboration with those around you.”

With its lax dress code, eclectic facility and “fanatical” enthusiasm for web hosting and cloud computing, Rackspace has brought a touch of Silicon Valley to square-toed San Antonio.

Do a good job, have a good job

NuStar Energy boasts they have never laid off an employee. Ever. And that’s just one of the reasons the San Antonio-based company is climbing up Fortune Magazine’s list, jumping this year from 30 to 15.

And it’s not like NuStar is a small business, either. The company employs nearly 1,950 in the United States and abroad. The reason they retain all their employees probably has to do with something Chairman Bill Greehey likes to say:

“If you do a good job at NuStar, you will always have a good job at NuStar.”

And good jobs they are. The company pays 100 percent of its employees' health insurance premiums and also matches 401[k] contributions up to 6 percent. But most impressive is how the company is there for its employees in a time of crisis.

Bill Grimms, the vice president of human resources, explained that one of the company's employees had recently fallen ill while working at NuStar's terminal on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, where flights are few and far between. The company sent the private jet to pick him up. Several hours later, his supervisor met him at the airport in Louisiana and drove him to the doctor.

With many of its business assets on the Gulf, NuStar knows to prepare for disaster -- as was the case in 2008 when Hurricane Ike damaged the homes of nearly a dozen employees. Luckily for them, NuStar awards SAFE (Support Aid for Family Emergencies) Fund grants -- which don’t have to be repaid -- to help out in times of disaster.

To date, NuStar has awarded $220,000 in grants to employees facing hardships, including recovering from a natural disaster to assisting family members who have major medical problems to covering funeral expenses for loved ones who’ve passed away. 

NuStar, it seems, genuinely cares about its employees. It also seems that those employees are willing to work hard for a company that has their back. It makes sense.

“We have a lot of good people who work here with us,” Grimms said. “And we have this philosophy that times are cyclical -- the economy is up and down. If you lay off people when the economy is down, you won’t have them when the economy picks back up.”

Celebrating hard work (and everything else)

Jaime Cantu’s desk is marked by a red flag with a white number 10, signifying that he has been with Rackspace for more than 10 years. He has actually been with the company for almost 12 years, and he has more than a dozen dusty sales trophies to prove it.

After graduating from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Cantu nabbed a job at Automatic Data Processing. Then he visited Rackspace to sell them a payroll system. It was one of his last assignments with ADP.

“I completely forgot about what I was selling and said, ‘Hey, how do I get a job here?”

Now it’s something Cantu’s friends and family ask him. They also want to jump ship and get in on Food Truck Fridays and all the other fun going on during “work” hours.

“They see all the fun that we have and postings on Facebook on the award ceremonies that we do and celebrations that we have,” Cantu said. “We celebrate pretty much anything and everything that we can, and you know they see that. They want to be a part of it.”

Going up the escalator to what used to be the Mervyn’s department store, Rackers can quickly try to pick out any of the 3,000 words in the world’s largest word search. And when the word search was officially certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, Rackspace threw a party. And what did they serve at the party? Guinness beer, of course.

Whistle while you work

USAA's corporate headquarters is massive. Complete with a state-of-the-art gym, a walking path, medical clinic, basketball and volleyball courts, two Starbucks and several fast-food restaurants, the San Antonio campus is the largest private office building in the country.

Although the workplace has everything an employee could possibly ask for, company spokesman Paul Berry said that's not the main reason USAA is being highlighted as a great company to work for.

"Yes, we have great facilities and we have great benefits -- some of the best in the country -- but it is the culture of the company, the culture of serving our members, that make USAA such a great place to work," he said.

USAA serves nearly 8.8 million of its members worldwide. A total 23,000 employees -- 17,000 in San Antonio alone -- work to help military members and their families meet their financial goals. It's a big task, Berry said -- one that requires happy workers.

"It's all about taking care of our employees so we can make sure they are taking care of our members," he said.

So at the end of the day, USAA workers can reward themselves with a relaxing walk, a foamy latte or a quick game of shooting hoops with their coworkers. But it's really a day's work that is most rewarding. Berry stressed that serving those who serve their country is the ultimate payoff.

Community of co-workers

Two years ago, Rackspace outgrew the old Datapoint Corporation building and moved into The Castle. SugarBear said he remembers touring the empty mall and thinking, “There’s no way we will fill this building.”

But they did. University flags from all over the country and flags from all over the world decorate the ceilings. SugarBear explained that so many new hires move to San Antonio to start a new job and a new life that they’re also, maybe unknowingly, starting a new culture.

“In most cities, you have what?” he asked. “You have a financial district, a medical community, an art district. The new thing is obviously a technology town.”

Thanks to Rackspace, Military Town USA is getting a little more, well, geeky. SugarBear said the company hopes to put San Antonio on the map with other tech cities like Austin, Seattle and San Francisco.

It’s the sense of belonging to a group of like-minded individuals sharing a common goal, all while having fun, that makes Rackspace such a rewarding place to work, SugarBear explained at the end of his tour. His point was made perhaps even more eloquently on a banner hanging near The Castle gates:

"What we all want is to be valued members of a winning team on an inspiring mission." -Graham Weston, Rackspace chairman.

But in order for that inspiring mission to take flight, there needs to be a team of determined employees. As shown by Rackspace, NuStar and USAA, employees respond to a sense that their employer is genuinely interested in not just their work, but their well-being and happiness, too.

Besides, who would want to embark on a mission with a bunch of grumbling coworkers?