BAXTER - Flexibility and employee engagement are key ingredients in a new high-tech company in Baxter.
Gullview Technologies, a company with an emphasis on a work-life balance and providing good-paying jobs outside the metro area, recently opened in the Johnson Centre in Baxter.
Ross Graba, president, and Bill Wolff, CEO, are the partners behind Gullview Technologies.
Wolff has been running technology companies, public and startup, for the past 30 years in the Twin Cities area. A majority of the companies were software based.
The two men have a vision of combining the ability to earning good wages in a software or technology job and living in a rural area where the commute time actually resembles the distance in miles from the workplace. In doing so, Graba said they are solving a problem for businesses looking for stability and reduced turnover.
Location: Johnson Centre, Baxter.
Employees: About a dozen.
Fun fact: The company has a vision to fill their two-story office building with employees and are waiting to fully renovate the space until they can get employee input on what it should look like.
"The problem we are solving for those businesses is people are here because they want to be here, they have an appreciation for what the Brainerd lakes area has to offer here," Graba said. "What is lacking in some cases is that technical job they've chosen, like myself, to pursue. What we are doing with Gullview is bringing those jobs here instead of taking the people to the work. ... We have the philosophy - let's bring that work back here."
The company offers an outsource of information technology in the Midwest. Call it rural outsourcing.
"The idea is to keep jobs in America and, better yet, to bring those jobs to rural America, where people really enjoy the lifestyle, enjoy what we have to offer as a community," Wolff said. "And to bring the higher paying jobs to the community as well."
It's a model the partnership has done before. The Brainerd lakes area, they said, has even more to offer to make this venture successful, including options for jobs for a spouse, outdoor activities, a non-metro lifestyle with plenty of shopping variety and yet close proximity to the Twin Cities for other events.
This summer, Bill Wolff and his wife, Denise Wolff, office manager, set up the offices with everything from paper clips to coffeemakers and kitchen appliances for the breakroom. They painted walls themselves, bringing their two dogs, Cooper and Bo, with them.
Recently, Wolff sat in his office with 11-year-old Cooper at his side and took a break to give a tour of the facility and an inside view of the plan going forward. A statue of a seagull was stationed near one of his office windows, a gift from his wife. The business name actually came from the association where they live and captured an iconic image of the lakes area summer with the gull.
Outside the corner office, the second floor space, energized with bold colors in lime green and purple, was taking shape to serve as the company's startup in the lakes area. The two-story office building was constructed in the mid 1990s. The office building has been empty for several years.
Wolff envisions expanding into the entire two-story building space in the future and gutting areas to create a more welcoming work space.
Consideration of a work-life balance for employees is a mainstay of Gullview Technologies. The mantra is faith and family first.
Wolff said they plan to wait to renovate the rest of the second floor until they can engage employees in the planning. Do they want high-walled cubes, short walls, or more open areas for work stations. A lounge area was left open until the staff could decide if a ping pong or pool table was wanted, to give them a place to take a real break from the work.
"I want to get everyone here and working and then let's decide as a group and get everything organized," Wolff said. "It's a younger generation we are bringing on board. It's important we hear them and what they want in a work environment."
Getting the work atmosphere right is a priority. And it's something Wolff has extensive experience in both from his own companies and as a consultant to others for about three decades. He said employees are looking for the healthy balance between their job and home life. Not surprising after the turbulent economy of the recession, they are looking for stability in a company so they can focus on the job and not worry about whether they'll be employed next week. Wolff said what people are looking for does vary from generation to generation but people are looking for a de-stressed lifestyle.
The first 11 employees were not yet onsite as they were undergoing training in the Twin Cities.
Most are from the lakes area. Wolff said that was expected with the first hires and in the future they expect to draw people from outside the area to relocate here.
A trend with the first hires came with people who spent a decade at one business but wanted to be part of starting something new.
"We offer an opportunity for growth and for something different," Wolff said. "They really want to experience something from the bottom up, to be part of the excitement of growing a company and we want to share all of this with employees."
One of the reasons to locate here, Wolff said, was a lack of competition for the high-tech jobs they are offering. For employees at an established company with many years of service, Wolff said they can feel as though the company sees them as just another worker instead of being part of something greater.
The goal is to bring in a diversified client base. The first customer is a manufacturing company. Wolff sees potential in both the medical industry and software industry. Plans are to hire 30 people in the early go-around. But both Graba and Wolff believe the job potential is much greater than that once they get started.
"Our goal is to fill this building up whether that's 70, 80 to 100 people," Wolff said. "That's what we are dreaming of and that's what we are striving for."
He added they truly believe in the motto to work hard and play hard and this community provides a lot of options for recreation.
So what sets them apart from competitors nationally?
"What sets us apart is our culture and what we focus on in faith, family and job - in that order," Wolff said.
Explaining the lakes area to attract those outside the region is easy, Wolff said. He pointed to the video and information on the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. website as presenting the community well.
Wolff said the area is appealing across the country. Imagine living in Denver, he said, and the lakes area offers a lot of what people want in their lifestyle and a high-tech job with growth opportunities.
"Our goal is to be the destination IT company and the company people want to strive to work for and the way to do that is to be the best at what we do and to be known as a company that offers the most to its employees and is a place of fun and a place people look at and admire and want to be part of."
He said the company also wants to present itself as a place where employee growth is encouraged.
"I think that's a different flavor than what others have to offer," Wolff said.
Denise Wolff said they are excited for the opportunity and found great people already for the early hires with talented people already in the community who wanted to be part of the startup.
Employee engagement isn't just a current buzz word, but paves the way to even double productivity, Wolff said. He noted a Gallup poll, which showed Minnesota as having one of the lowest rankings for employee engagement. The poll, done in 2013 and 2014, found the District of Columbia, New York, Minnesota and Connecticut had the lowest employee engagement in the nation. The highest? Montana.
Engaging employees means getting them involved in decisions, listening to input and acting on it so they look forward to coming to work, so they want to do a good job and productivity soars, Wolff said.
The recession took a toll on that employee relationship and now employers have to build trust again, Wolff said.
Ready for growth
With a customer already in place, Gullview Technologies will provide software program development and a technical help desk. Wolff said the ability to have fiber optics was extremely important in locating in the lakes area and in the offices. With clients needing security and assurance for backup systems, fiber provided just what was needed. A generator provides additional security for power outages.
Wolff said Consolidated Telecommunications Company, Riverwood Bank and Suite Spaces went above and beyond expectations to help them get off the ground. He expected a small community to welcome the jobs and the business as a client, but the effort by the community and other businesses went beyond that to the point where he really felt they were invested in seeing Gullview succeed. He said it made it a delight to get up and running.
"I guess it's the level of care that is surprising to me," Wolff said. "People just really care and they want to go above and beyond to make sure we are really happy. That was not expected. I knew - because I've done this in smaller communities and everyone is hungry to have you up and running - I know that, but the level of service has been the surprise."
"It's all come together so well," Wolff said. "Coming from the Cities where I've had to kind of plow through this stuff and to vendors I'm just another customer. Here I'm treated really special. I think that makes a difference and one of the reasons I bring this up, I want other businesses to recognize what it's like to open a business here. It's great. You get the service. You get the people who care. It's been really wonderful to work with them. ...
"I highly encourage anyone who is looking in the area to come here. You have everything you need, you really do. A great community."