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Charleston Business

Top Workplaces: First-Time Honorees

May 01, 2024 10:44AM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

This year’s Top Workplaces survey features 76 companies, 22 of which are on the list for the first time.

We asked those first-time honorees to share their thoughts on what they do to keep employees happy and engaged and how they’re navigating the post-Covid world.

Eight of the 22 first-timers responded to our questions, and their emailed responses follow. They have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What does it mean to you to have made this list?

Jason Burbage, Home Brands: It's humbling to know that the commitment and effort our people have invested in the culture at Home Brands is being recognized. Our mission is to serve people and service homes. Our customers are a top priority; however, in order to best serve our customers, we must serve our people first. We still have a lot of work to do, and our goal now is to take the input we received from going through this process and ensuring that our people feel heard and that we continue to grow towards fulfilling our mission of service to our people.

Kevin Kunkel, Castle Keepers: Being named to South Carolina's Top Workplaces list is a significant achievement for Castle Keepers House Cleaning. It reflects not only the company's commitment to providing exceptional service to its clients but also its dedication to fostering a positive and supportive work environment for its employees. This recognition indicates that Castle Keepers House Cleaning prioritizes employee satisfaction, engagement, and well-being, which are essential elements for a successful and sustainable business. It's a testament to the company's leadership, culture, and values, and it reinforces its position as a desirable employer in South Carolina.

Erin Pearson, Family Dental Health: Making the list of top workplaces in South Carolina is a significant achievement for us. It validates our belief that we have an exceptional team, and it reflects our commitment to fostering a positive work environment. Being on this list reinforces that our efforts to create a culture where every team member feels valued and respected are paying off. It's a testament to our dedication to building a workplace where people thrive.

Katie Sens, Autobell Car Wash: We are honored to be recognized by our team members as a great place to work! We appreciate our team members’ hard work and dedication, and this award belongs to them. Being recognized as a Top Company demonstrates our team members love working at Autobell, and it validates our efforts to create a culture where our team members feel valued and inspired to do their best work every day.

Leigh Anna Compton, Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Community: Being recognized as a Top Workplace is a significant achievement for Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Community. It signifies that our organization has created a positive and supportive work environment where employees feel valued, appreciated, and engaged. Making the list reflects our commitment to fostering a culture of excellence, where employees are encouraged to focus on family, attitude, integrity, teamwork, and health.

Sally Wolf, Infrastructure Consulting & Engineering: Being recognized on the South Carolina Top Workplaces list signifies that ICE employees wholeheartedly acknowledge our firm for providing an exceptional work environment that prioritizes employee satisfaction, well-being, and professional growth. It indicates that ICE fosters a positive culture, values diversity and inclusion, and offers competitive benefits and opportunities for advancement for our workforce. Recognition by Top Workplaces affirms employees hold our firm in the same high regard as our industry partners who recognize us for our outstanding achievements. 

Wendell Furtick, Saluda Hill Landscapes: Being included on this list is quite an achievement for us. It's not just a recognition of our success, but it's also profoundly humbling. It marks a proud moment for our company because it signifies that we've been able to cultivate a workplace culture where people genuinely want to be a part of our team. It's a testament to the environment we've worked hard to create — one that supports and empowers our employees to thrive. 

Cameron Runyan, superintendent, Charter Institute at Erskine: Making this list and receiving this award means so much to the institute, especially as a young organization in only our sixth year of operation. It's our first time applying for an honor like this, so we feel immensely honored to have been recognized in such an impactful way. Being one of the only school districts in our state without PEBA, hiring can sometimes be a challenge for us. This recognition opens up more opportunities for hiring, as it shines a light on our innovative culture and the numerous benefits of joining our team. More importantly, receiving this award increases visibility for our organization, which can positively impact school choice for students and parents across our state. We hope that our success encourages others within our state and nation to take risks and be bold in educational endeavors for the sake of students. Finally, receiving this award helps to foster a more positive and vibrant staff culture within our organization, as it validates our intensive efforts thus far and reinforces our commitment to excellence.

What have you done in terms of employee satisfaction that you’re most proud of?

Burbage: We strive to make people feel heard. One of our team members wrote, "I'm told that I make a difference and that I'm valued." This is what it is all about!

Kunkel: At Castle Keepers House Cleaning, fostering a positive work environment, empowering employees to make decisions, and prioritizing employee satisfaction is paramount. One initiative that we're particularly proud of is our comprehensive employee career ladder. We invest in ongoing training and skill development for our team members, providing opportunities for advancement within the company. By offering competitive wages, benefits, and recognition programs, we ensure that our employees feel valued and motivated to excel in their roles. Additionally, we prioritize open communication and feedback channels, enabling our staff to voice their concerns, ideas, and suggestions, thereby creating a collaborative and supportive workplace culture. Our commitment to employee satisfaction not only enhances morale but also translates into better service delivery and ultimately, happier customers.

Pearson: One of the accomplishments we are most proud of at FDH in terms of employee satisfaction is our revamped approach to paid time off (PTO). We now offer a total of six weeks of PTO, with four weeks designated as company closures and two weeks accrued. These company closure weeks, branded as "Lucky 13," are promoted internally as intentional breaks to spend with family, complete home projects, or simply recharge. This level of time off is quite uncommon in the healthcare field, but we view it as a vital investment in our team's well-being, ensuring they have the opportunity to truly relax and rejuvenate.

Sens: Each year, we gather feedback from our team members via anonymous surveys. The feedback we receive provides us with ideas that we can put into action to improve the employee experience while working at Autobell.  (The ideas ranged) from suggestions such as types of hats and shirts to flexible work schedules to improved training and advancement opportunities. The survey often reveals themes that provide us with a path to making improvements for all our team members. Last year, we had many comments about team members' scheduling – good and bad. Based on those comments, we reached out for suggestions on how to improve the team members' scheduling experience. We have taken action and upgraded our scheduling system to allow team members to provide us with times they are available and the ability to request time off and swap shifts. It also offers an easier way for the store manager to communicate quickly with all team members on schedules and important information.

Compton: At Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Community, we prioritize employee satisfaction through various initiatives. One aspect we're particularly proud of is our emphasis on professional development and growth opportunities. We offer ongoing training, tuition reimbursement to aid in career advancement, as well as employee loan and paid time off assistance for those with diverse needs, all aimed at ensuring our employees feel supported in their journey with us. Additionally, we foster a culture of open communication and recognition, where employees' contributions are acknowledged and celebrated.

Wolf: Our commitment to a comprehensive benefits package supports our employees' diverse needs, fostering a culture that allows our employees to focus on innovation, productivity, and collaboration. We prioritize work-life balance, value employee feedback for improvement, and offer professional development opportunities at all levels. Demonstrating our dedication to our employee’s well-being, is the commitment our Health and Wellness Manager has in organizing regular wellness challenges, providing dietary advice, personalized fitness sessions, ICE Bath Therapy, ergonomic assessments, and more.

We prefer to let our employees speak for themselves: “Employees are respected and not treated simply as numbers. Teamwork is encouraged and expected throughout the company.”

“Everyone is treated as an equal member of the team. There has never been a scenario where I was told I could not leave early or take days off at a moment's notice because of a family emergency. We are treated like family members and individuals here, not like numbers.”

Furtick: One of the aspects of which we're most proud is our intentional focus on the well-being of every member of our team. We make it a priority to genuinely care about our employees, and we're committed to doing whatever it takes to support them. Whether it's through providing resources for personal and professional growth, fostering open communication channels, or simply being there to listen, our dedication to our team members' satisfaction is unwavering. 

Vamshi Rudrapati, chief operating officer, Charter Institute at Erskine: In terms of employee satisfaction, one of our biggest accomplishments has been our organization-wide commitment to prioritizing work/life balance. We understand the importance of ensuring that our staff can maintain a healthy balance between their professional responsibilities and personal lives, which leads to greater job satisfaction and productivity. Though we know that the work we do is important, ultimately, we want to be sure that our staff is taken care of and feels empowered professionally, personally, and financially.

 Additionally, we take great pride in protecting our organizational culture through what we call the "Erskine Philosophy." By putting culture first and actively preserving the values and principles that define us, we create a supportive and inclusive environment where employees feel valued and connected. Our philosophy is on our website and is displayed in the hallways of our office, so that our employees have a constant answer to the question “Why Erskine?” Another aspect we're proud of is our approach to providing constant feedback through our performance review process. This ongoing feedback loop not only helps individuals improve and grow but also fosters a culture of transparency and continuous learning, contributing to overall employee satisfaction and development.

Finally, our "Breakfast Club" initiative has been a source of pride for us. This informal gathering allows growing leaders within our office to come together to network, share ideas, and build camaraderie outside of formal work settings, further strengthening our sense of community. Our Breakfast Club has met with local dignitaries, been on an out-of-state professional development trip with senior leadership, and visited our schools to experience what it is like “boots on the ground” within the schools that we serve.

What's the best advice you've received from a mentor about working with your employees?

Burbage: The only way you will earn trust and respect is by rolling up your sleeves and (doing) the hard work with them. Work yourself out of a job. Believe that there are people in your organization who have the potential to do your job better than you and equip them to succeed you. Great leaders are empowered by a love for their people not by a sense of duty or obligation, or by a (desire) to build an image.

Kunkel: The best advice I've received from a mentor about working with employees is learning to let employees lead. My mentor stressed the importance of truly listening to my team members, understanding their perspectives, and allowing them to come up with solutions and be a part of the decision-making process. This builds trust through open and honest communication and creates a positive work environment where everyone feels valued, included, and supported. Additionally, my mentor emphasized the significance of providing constructive feedback and recognizing achievements to foster growth and motivation within the team. Overall, this guidance has been invaluable in helping me cultivate strong relationships with my employees and create a collaborative and productive workplace culture.

Pearson: The best advice I've received from a mentor about working with employees is the power of showing appreciation in simple ways. Expressing gratitude through small gestures like a sincere "thank you" or recognizing their efforts goes a long way in making team members feel valued and cared for. I've learned that culture naturally develops within a team, but to cultivate the culture you desire, you must lead with intentionality.

Cory Goldsmith, District Manager, Autobell, Greenville, South Carolina: Leadership is not about rank, but rather a choice. Every day, choose to create an environment that inspires others to follow. Together, you and your team can achieve remarkable things.

Compton: One of the most valuable pieces of advice I've received from a mentor is to always lead with empathy and understanding. Building strong relationships with employees requires genuine care and consideration for their well-being, both personally and professionally. By actively listening to their needs, providing support, and fostering a collaborative environment, we can create a positive workplace culture where everyone feels valued and respected.

Wolf: Our senior leadership expects managers at all levels to treat employees with the dignity, respect, and regard that professionals deserve. We encourage personal and professional learning and continuous improvement. Our managers prioritize open communication, active listening, and empathy, ensuring we understand our employees' needs, challenges, and aspirations, which is key to creating a supportive and inclusive atmosphere that motivates everyone to contribute their best. From our successful internship program, which sets SMART goals for interns to align with their career aspirations, to our belief in the pivotal role of engineers-in-training for our future success, and our commitment to aiding them in finding their dream jobs. Additionally, our passionate professional engineers actively mentor interns and EITs, supporting their professional development and growth.

Furtick: The most valuable advice I've received from mentors is the importance of authenticity when interacting with employees. It's crucial to genuinely care about people because authenticity shines through. People can discern whether your intentions are sincere or merely a box to check off. By prioritizing genuine care and concern for our team members, we not only build trust and rapport but also create a supportive and fulfilling work environment. 

Rudrapati: The best advice I've received from a mentor about working with employees is to prioritize taking care of their personal needs. My mentor emphasized that when employees feel valued, supported, and their personal well-being is considered, they are more likely to reciprocate by being committed and engaged in their work. This simple yet profound principle underscores the importance of empathy, understanding, and genuine concern for the individuals who contribute to the organization's success. By fostering a culture of care and support, we not only create a more positive work environment but also build stronger relationships and enhance overall organizational performance.

How have you navigated the post-Covid world in terms of in-person vs. remote work? 

Kunkel: Initially, in response to the pandemic, we implemented strict safety protocols to protect our cleaners and clients alike. This included providing personal protective equipment, emphasizing hygiene practices, and limiting in-person interactions wherever possible. As the situation improved and guidelines evolved, we began to cautiously reintroduce in-person work while maintaining a strong emphasis on safety measures. Our priority has been to strike a balance between in-person cleaning services, which are often essential for thorough and efficient home cleaning, and remote work options where feasible.

Compton: Being a healthcare provider, navigating the post-Covid world has been a dynamic process for our community. We've adapted our approach to accommodate the changing landscape while prioritizing the safety and well-being of our employees and residents. We've implemented flexible work arrangements when possible and reasonable, so as to not negatively impact the quality of care we provide to our residents.

Wolf: In response to Covid-19, ICE adopted a flexible work model supporting both in-person and remote arrangements, investing in technology for seamless remote collaboration. Prioritizing employee health and safety, we emphasize maintaining community and connection, regardless of location. Our IT team has ensured robust remote work capabilities, removing productivity barriers. ICE’s engineering design and corporate support departments has increasingly adopted hybrid work models supporting both in-person and remote arrangements to the extent practicable, investing heavily in remote collaboration technology.

Furtick: Given the nature of the landscaping industry, our work necessitates in-person collaboration and presence. While we've adapted to accommodate necessary safety protocols during the pandemic, the core of our operations relies on teams being physically present. However, we've remained flexible and responsive to the evolving circumstances, ensuring that our employees feel supported and safe while carrying out their duties. 

Rudrapati: Navigating the post-Covid world has been a dynamic journey for us, particularly in terms of balancing in-person and remote work. During the pandemic, we transitioned to remote work for a short period. However, as our schools took on the challenge of reopening amidst the ongoing crisis, we recognized the critical role we played as their support organization. Consequently, we made the decision to return to the office on an alternating schedule, understanding that our physical presence would be invaluable in providing immediate assistance and guidance to our schools but also that employee wellbeing was vital. Notably, our schools were among the first in the state to reopen after Covid, further emphasizing the urgency of our support. As a result, our office became one of the first educational organizations in our state to resume full in-person operations. This proactive approach underscores our commitment to supporting schools and ensuring their success in navigating the complexities of a post-pandemic world.

What has been the biggest challenge of the Covid and post-Covid world?

Kunkel: The biggest challenge of the Covid and post-Covid world at Castle Keepers House Cleaning has been maintaining a delicate balance between ensuring the safety and well-being of our team members and clients while continuing to deliver exceptional cleaning services. Additionally, the shift in consumer behavior and preferences brought about by the pandemic presented its own set of challenges. Clients' priorities and expectations regarding cleanliness and safety have understandably shifted, requiring us to adapt our services and communication strategies accordingly.

Sens: We navigated and have moved beyond Covid. The biggest challenge early on was finding team members. Schools were remote, and parents were cautious about letting their children work in public. We have seen a steady return of our workforce with job applicants once again seeking part-time flexible employment that fits with their home, school, and sports schedules. Autobell is a great first job for many; we provide them with the training to succeed.  They learn skills that last a lifetime beyond how to wipe down a vehicle – how to be accountable, how to be a good teammate, and how to interact with customers.

Compton: The biggest challenge of the Covid and post-Covid world has been maintaining continuity and stability amid uncertainty. Navigating through OSHA, DHEC, and CMS regulations, adjusting to sudden changes in work environments, and prioritizing health and safety protocols to meet the needs of our employees, residents, and community, all while adapting to rapidly evolving circumstances, has demanded resilience, creativity, and a collaborative mindset. However, through strategic planning, effective communication, and unwavering dedication, we've continued to overcome challenges and emerge stronger together.

Wolf: We tackled pandemic challenges with determination, while our leadership strategically chose expansion over downsizing, ensuring employees felt secure amidst uncertainty.  We expanded — hiring more employees and interns to pursue more and bigger projects. We also adjusted our IT procurement and employee onboarding schedules to account for supply chain issues resulting in efficiency gains and cost reductions.  Our commitment to both physical and emotional well-being, coupled with transparent communication, eliminated fears of job insecurity. Post-Covid, the challenges faced have been adapting to change and maintaining business continuity amidst uncertainties like remote work transitions, health protocols, supply chain disruptions, and fluctuating client expectations, which tested our resilience. Yet, our team's innovative response not only sustained our client support but also opened avenues for growth and learning, reinforcing our dedication to excellence and employee satisfaction. Despite the hurdles, ICE not only persevered but also expanded, offering innovative solutions to everyday problems.

Furtick: Undoubtedly, one of the most significant challenges we've faced during the Covid and post-Covid era has been navigating the disruptions to the supply chain. The volatility and unpredictability in the availability of essential resources have posed significant hurdles for our operations. Despite these challenges, we've remained resilient and adaptable, leveraging our creativity and resourcefulness to overcome obstacles and continue delivering exceptional service to our clients.

Runyan: The most significant challenge of the Covid and post-Covid world has been navigating the intricate web of national, state, and local politics surrounding Covid guidance while doing our best to protect schools and students from any adverse effects, all while prioritizing community safety. This involves delicately managing conflicting mandates and recommendations while ensuring that schools can operate smoothly and students can learn effectively. Additionally, striking a balance between prioritizing student safety and ensuring their academic outcomes remain intact has posed a challenge, but one that our schools and staff have certainly risen to the occasion to meet.