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Undercover employee: A day on the job at three best companies

It takes an awful lot to make it onto our list of the Best Companies to Work For. But what does it take to work at one of these vaunted places? To find out, we sent our writer to three standouts. The answer: superior bag-stuffing skills, a thing for heights, and a well-developed inner ear. Read on for his account of three jobs — and three Best Company cultures. (And then see who made the list this year.)

Your new $18.99 Monopoly is depending on me. Here at Hasbro’s old, sprawling industrial plant for board games just outside Springfield, Mass., I’m spending a winter day as a make-believe employee. My mission: to see why this company’s so good to work for — George Plimpton puts on the overalls. In a factory that produces such classics as Scrabble, Operation, and Mousetrap — combining printing, plastic molding, case making, and bookbinding in a highly mechanized dance — I’m merely a cog.

At Cell No. 7 we’re in the last stage of making a Monopoly set, the most successful board game of all time. I’m at the back end of the assembly line, doing quality control. On a conveyor belt that mercilessly keeps advancing to my left comes open Monopoly box after Monopoly box. My dual task — every 1.81 seconds, give or take an instant — is to place a plastic bag of dice and game tokens in a tray, while also ensuring that each box includes a container of 12 hotels and 32 houses, instructions, and a shrink-wrapped stack of money. I know just how Lucy and Ethel felt when they couldn’t keep up with the chocolates at the candy factory — except I can’t stuff the accumulating boxes in my bra. And apart from manual dexterity and automatous concentration, the job requires an attribute that surprised me: a refined inner ear. Who knew you could get motion sickness on an assembly line?

“The trick is to not move your head back and forth,” explains “Peaches” Belanger, a factory firebrand who’s worked the line for 32 years at this plant of 600 employees, the last Hasbro manufacturing site in the U.S. “Try to keep your head straight with your eyes looking down at the box.” I last four minutes before my stomach flips and I’m ready to add an ingredient to the boxes that’s, well, the same color as the Monopoly houses.

Belanger thinks this is a riot. But she acknowledges that her position on the assembly line — along with the similarly nauseating task of fitting a cover on each Monopoly box racing by — is the toughest for most employees. Still, she loves the plant and the place, even turning down an attractive buyout a few years ago. “I love just having a job!” she says with an edge, though adding, “I love being part of this.” In a world of ruthless outsourcing — and in fact more Hasbro games are made in South China than in the U.S. — the Western Massachusetts plant is an anachronism. It used to be owned by Milton Bradley, which became part of Hasbro in 1984, and it still has the feel of a familial operation. Many employees have never known another job; some spouses both call Hasbro home; sons worked where fathers once did. Average seniority is 21 years. Even after downsizing and union concessions, employees speak with affection about a company they realize could well have given up on them, rather than committed $40 million in factory capital upgrades over five years. It’s all part of the reason Hasbro is on Fortune’s 2011 list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For.

In recent weeks I visited three of the companies: NuStar Energy, a leader in pipelines, storage facilities, and asphalt refining (No. 30); Aéropostale, an apparel retailer aimed at teens (No. 94); and Hasbro, the toys and games icon that’s also making a play in Hollywood (No. 59). Of course I’m now an expert in the toxicity of hydrogen sulfide, the politics of fitting rooms, and the inner life of Mr. Potato Head. More important — in an age of double-digit unemployment and unrelenting job insecurity — I learned a few things about how to treat employees right. NuStar, Aéro, and Hasbro show that corporate America can still be a pretty excellent place to work.

NuStar Energy: top treatment at the bottom of the barrel

Ever drive the New Jersey Turnpike and wonder about that rotten-egg smell near the mammoth oil tanks and steam-spewing stacks? Welcome to the NuStar Asphalt Refinery and Products Terminal in Paulsboro, N.J. Here, just across the river from Philadelphia, 100 employees take Venezuelan crude oil delivered from big ships — 12 million barrels annually — and turn it into heavy, sticky asphalt goo. P.U.! In a different facility across town, a mostly automated terminal operates as a giant filling station: allowing tanker trucks to load up from the nearby storage tanks with generic gasoline, home heating oil, and jet fuel. Both sites are part of the NuStar (NS) Energy empire, which has two asphalt refineries, along with 8,417 miles of pipeline and 88 storage facilities in eight countries that allow for storage of 93 million barrels of oil. The publicly traded partnership, based in San Antonio, is the second-largest liquids-terminal leasing operator in the nation and the third-largest asphalt refiner. Its 2010 revenues were more than $4 billion.

My supervised jobs at the Paulsboro sites involve basic maintenance and testing. That’s a good thing because these are dangerous workplaces — asphalt is hot and toxic, and fuels like to burn. Nobody’s died here, but people can get hurt. I’m wearing my PPE (personal protection equipment): Nomex flame-retardant suit, hardhat, earplugs, shatterproof glasses, and steel-toed boots — and, lumbering around, I figure this is what the Apollo astronauts felt like.

Even with the inevitable workplace risk, the employees seem to be a contented lot. That’s because NuStar not only provides them with unusually generous compensation and benefits for the industry, but also prides itself on a collegial environment that concentrates on morale. On Christmas Eve an employee in the Midwest — already on medical leave — had her house burn down. Though she had homeowners insurance, NuStar immediately sent $3,000 to hold her over. When Hurricane Ike in 2008 struck the Texas Gulf Coast — where NuStar has many facilities — employees from across the country arrived to repair their colleagues’ homes, cook meals, and distribute free gasoline. In 2010, NuStar’s 1,400 U.S. employees logged more than 75,000 volunteer hours, and its per capita corporate United Way gift was roughly $2,200 per employee — which United Way says is the highest in the country.

It’s an ethos created by Bill Greehey, the nonexecutive NuStar chairman, who’s been the key player in NuStar and its predecessor companies for 30 years. Early in his career he’d seen places that treated employees shabbily, and he knew the kind of company he didn’t want. Greehey once fired a talented senior executive because he continually berated his subordinates. From 1980 to 2006, Greehey was CEO of Valero Energy Corp. (NS), which he transformed from a regional natural-gas pipeline operation into the largest refiner in North America and a No. 15 ranking on the Fortune 500. Then, in a complicated series of transactions, NuStar was spun out as a separate entity five years ago by Valero, but NuStar maintained Greehey’s style. There are family days, safety celebrations, barge rides on the San Antonio, and a Friday the 13th happy hour. Executives still visit dozens of NuStar field locations in the U.S., Caribbean, and Europe to strap on aprons and serve up Texas barbecue.

“Caring and sharing” is NuStar’s unabashedly earnest mantra. But it’s less about charity than utility: Machiavelli can have a heart. Just ask CEO Curt Anastasio, a Greehey protégé. He says a beneficent workplace yields numbers that Wall Street craves. Over the past three years NuStar has produced a total return for investors of nearly 65%. That’s “a direct result of our employee-focused culture,” Anastasio says. “If you take care of the employees, they’ll take care of their communities and the investors.”

NuStar surely takes care of employees — way past the barbecue pit. Health and dental insurance are free. Everybody gets a bonus — or nobody does; recent bonuses ranged from 4% to 35%, or about $1,100 for a mailroom clerk to about $70,000 for a vice president. (Unionized workers, about one-tenth of the company, have their own bonus deal.) There’s also merit pay; in 2010 the average was 3%. And there are equity grants. Last year half the company got them, with amounts ranging from $2,000 to $113,000. Of the $13.6 million awarded, $12 million went to employees below the executive level. A compensation consultant told NuStar’s human resources vice president: “You guys are doing it wrong!”

There’s even an old-fashioned pension plan. With it — as well as Social Security and 401(k) withdrawals — a typical NuStar worker who retires after 30 years will get 117% of his salary; the company-funded pension accounts for almost half of that. “For every dollar a NuStar employee receives in compensation,” Anastasio says, “he or she receives an additional 45¢ in benefits.” No wonder the turnover rate is 2%.

Most dramatically, NuStar says there’s never been a layoff. “The quid pro quo,” the 54-year-old Anastasio says, “is we expect the workforce to be flexible.” Last summer, he says, “we had a rough patch in our asphalt business. One reaction could have been to lay off 10% of the workforce. Instead, I said we had a problem and asked for suggestions how to solve it.” The result was a self-driven employee crackdown on efficiency — from tighter power consumption at pipelines and terminals, to better procurement, to reduced travel and longer hours. The bottom line went up $25 million. “If you’re not supportive of employees and their families,” Anastasio says, “where do you think they’ll be when the company has a downturn?”

Asphalt accounts for about a fifth of NuStar’s business. After crude is boiled and distilled — light fuels like gasoline separate to the top — you get asphalt at the bottom of the barrel. NuStar ships the goo out to independent “hot mix” companies that add crushed stone and gravel to produce the actual “asphalt cement” put down on roads. At the NuStar refinery in Paulsboro, in a bone-chilling wind, I’m climbing a 25-foot “caged” vertical ladder: Look, Mom, no harness! I’m on a circular platform surrounding the Unit 2 asphalt-processing tower, installing a yellow spring-loaded safety gate to prevent accidental plunges. “Did I mention I don’t like heights?” I ask my supervisor, Mike Caprice, who’s worked here 27 years.

“Me neither!” he tells me. Caprice urges me, “Don’t look down or around,” though the view of Philly across the way is indeed spectacular.

Later in the morning I put on insulated gloves to help draw a sample of 363° polymer-enhanced asphalt from a 5,000-barrel carbon-steel tank. We’ll test the blend to ensure it meets industry standards. Come afternoon, I move to the NuStar Terminal to verify the proper level of home heating oil in Tank No. 2047, which pretty much means putting a very long dipstick in at the top — which is three stories up. The 41 roundabout open stairs ascending the tank are even more fun on the trip down. Though all three of my NuStar tasks are fairly safe — unless you fall or spill the goo on you — the work environment is safety-obsessed. “No matter who you are,” says Phil Scott, a longtime supervisor at the terminal who went up the tank with me, “you can always say, ‘I won’t do that job because it’s not safe’ — and that’s it. They’ll honor that.” That kind of corporate attitude helps keep NuStar employees happy — and alive.

Aéropostale: Keep smiling and keep the line moving

Just whose idea was this? It’s 6 in the morning on Black Friday, and I’m due for eight working hours of retail on the busiest shopping day of the year. But here at the Paramus mall complex in suburban New Jersey, with the lights of Manhattan twinkling on the horizon, I can’t find a parking space. There are supposedly 10,796 of them. I finally find one on the perimeter — it seems like Delaware — and race to the Aéropostale clothing store on the second floor. There are more than 150 people waiting in front — some asleep on the linoleum — and I’m quite certain each just beat me to a better parking spot.

Inside, store manager Tom Mathis gives me my uniform — a red Aéropostale polo — and gets the 52 employees and me ready to face the Pamplona Rush of the Teenagers at 7 a.m. While everything’s on sale today, the clientele want the best selections on the $10 hoodie specials, and they want it fast. “This is our most important day of the year,” says Mathis, a seven-year Aéro veteran. “But we’re going to have fun.” The goal is to top last year’s one-day store haul of $167,000. Tom Johnson, the goateed 52-year-old CEO, who’s here to cheer on the troops, adds, “Keep a smile on your face!” Since the average age of store employees is 20 — many of them holiday temps — such saccharine sentiment seems a tough sell, all the more so at dawn. Yet the employees hoot and holler.

“Ten … nine … eight …” Mathis counts down before the doors open.

“Line tamer” is my first assignment. Even at 5,400 square feet, the store isn’t particularly large, so when the horde’s ready to pay, there won’t be enough cashiers — thus a segmented, serpentine line that runs down shopping lanes and across aisles. I need to keep it organized, moving, and absolutely no reentering the line. Two hours later, after I’m a greeter at the entrance and a sales associate in men’s graphic tees (please don’t ask for a Blue Inlet in medium), I take a turn as a bagger at the cash register. Folding merchandise is a pipe dream, so I aim only to get the clothing into a red-and-white Aéropostale bag as quickly as possible, making sure to ask if the customer wants any red gift boxes. It’s a good thing they’re not Monopoly boxes. Customers who spend at least $100 get a free stuffed bear, assuming I remember.

The cashier at my station is Angelina Perez, 19. She’s quicker on the register than I am with the bags, so stuff piles up. She can’t decide whether to be more bemused than concerned, but she loves the “excitement.” (As with all the real workers I talked to, I eventually tell her I’m not really an employee and am instead with Fortune.) Johnson stops by to remind us, “Bag it, box it — fast, fast, fast!” On a Black Friday several years back, he saw long lines and got up on the counter and motivated the cashiers by announcing, “I’ll give everyone in line a free hoodie if you’re not out in 10 minutes.” The cashiers cleared the line. In the first hour today, the store takes in $15,814, which is 8% more than the prior year (though we won’t wind up beating 2009’s Black Friday).

The Paramus site is one of about 900 that Aéropostale (ARO) operates in the U.S., including in Times Square. (It also has several dozen P.S. stores, which aim at tweens.) Founded in 1982 as a private label within Macy’s (M), Aéro opened its first store in 1987 and last year hit $2.4 billion in revenue. Its merchandise is known for being inexpensive and logo-happy, and its stores are distinctive for their open floor plan and oversize backlit photographs of happy Aéro-wearing youth. Although it’s had turbulent moments on Wall Street and in the executive suite — Mindy Meads unexpectedly resigned as co-CEO in December — the company remains a fashion favorite for teens and a prized place to work.

In the cramped, cluttered storeroom in back — amid mangled mannequins and shelves overflowing with inventory — employees gather to share doughnuts, Hawaiian Punch, and the pizzas Johnson has brought in himself. During breaks, they’ll tell you why they adore the place. Aéro offers flexible hours, which is attractive to part-timers and students. So is an hourly rate typically above minimum wage. Temps sometimes become full-time, 59% of current store managers were promoted into that role, and women make up 73% of management.

All full-time managers are allowed unlimited sick days. Even so, traditional benefits like health and life insurance don’t matter as much because the overwhelming majority of Aéro’s 28,000 employees (as of this month) are seasonal or part-time. What these employees want are such perks as clothing discounts of at least 30%, on-the-spot “bear hugs” for exceptional performance (good for additional discounts), and summer parties. Employees also say they appreciate the company’s community outreach and charity programs, like “Teens for Jeans,” which last year collected and donated 625,000 pairs of jeans for the homeless.

Cindy Martinez, the 23-year-old assistant manager, started as a sales associate when she was 18. “Where else can you talk to the boss over pizza?” Martinez asks. Johnson, who during high school worked as a part-time custodian, likes to say he’s made it “from bathroom to boardroom” and understands the working class. “We don’t act like jerks.”

No, they do not. A few years ago the chairman, Julian Geiger, learned that the young spouse of a store manager in suburban Philadelphia was dying of cancer. “Pack up your stuff today — and take all the time you need to be with your husband,” Geiger told her. When they hear such stories, Aéropostale employees have good reason to smile.

Hasbro: Morale isn’t just a roll of the dice

Hasbro, too, is an employee-friendly place to work. Compensation and benefits are solid. Equity grants and bonuses are increasing. Almost everyone gets four paid hours a month to do volunteer work for children. There’s a company store with deep discounts on merchandise and, in return for an extra four hours of work between Monday and Thursday, everybody but shift workers gets Friday afternoons off. These two widely loved policies — which cost the company relatively little — earn enormous goodwill from the workforce. So does the Edy’s frozen-yogurt machine in the cafeteria requisitioned by the CEO.

But the chief reason the 3,100 folks enjoy working at Hasbro is that it’s fun. Every new employee gets a Mr. or Mrs. Potato Head. (I asked for the Star Wars collectible, Darth Tater, but was denied.) Due respect to a mall store or the refinery business, few employees come home to a wide-eyed kid asking, “Hey, Mom — just how was asphalt throughput production at the plant today?” It’s a lot different when Dad makes Tonkas, Twister, Easy-Bake Ovens, Candy Land, Clue, Cranium, Nerfs, and FurReal Friends Squawkers McCaw Parrot (batteries included). “It’s impossible not to have fun here,” says Brian Goldner, 47, Hasbro’s CEO since 2008. “That’s what the place is about.”

If Hasbro’s games plant in Western Massachusetts is a vestige of American manufacturing power, its corporate headquarters in blue-collar Pawtucket, R.I., reflects the reinvention of a mighty $4 billion international brand. The combination of old and new is central to the Hasbro ecosystem. Not that long ago, Hasbro’s core properties — toys like G.I. Joe and Transformers, as well as games like Battleship — were languishing; a company founded in 1923 by the Hassenfeld brothers was too focused on licensees like Pokémon and Batman. It was accepted wisdom that the toys and games business was subject to fads, and products had a natural life cycle, including oblivion.

What Goldner saw was a strategic opportunity to exploit Hasbro’s own brands across a range of media — not just in new platforms like iPads, but on TV and in film. Two Transformers movies — Goldner was an executive producer — have grossed $1.5 billion worldwide; Hasbro (HAS) gets a small piece of the action and lots of merchandising booty. The third and final Transformers installment will be out July 1. And you thought Battleship was just an antiquated board game at the ski lodge? Next year Battleship the $200 million naval war film opens nationwide, starring Taylor Kitsch and Rihanna; it’s got something to do with aliens, “blind reveals,” and endless chances to proclaim “You sunk my battleship!” Coming soon: Battleship cereal, where the marshmallow flotilla doesn’t float for long.

“We are reimagining and reigniting brands that people grew up on and doing it for the next generation,” says Goldner, whose office is a shrine to Hasbro tchotchkes. “We have a vault of 1,500 assets. We are not just in the toys and game business — we’re in the intellectual-property and entertainment business.” Hasbro now has its own film office and TV studio in Los Angeles. Goldner talks about the mythology of, and storylines behind, Hasbro characters in a way that almost makes you believe Care Bears have literary import.

Hasbro especially treasures its designers, who are charged with reaching into Hasbro’s vault to shape something new. Rob Daviau, 40, is one of them. He specializes in board games — Risk, Trouble, Trivial Pursuit — and snickers at the idea that a board game is just a board game. “A game is about storytelling,” he says. When you modify the rules, add or subtract dice, you “change the dynamics of a conflict.” The game of Risk, for example, is “fundamentally about revenge: You did it to me, so I’m going to do it to you.” He, of course, spent his childhood doing it to his two younger brothers.

Daviau, who majored in classical civilizations at Tufts, spends his days thinking of how to reinvent Hasbro games. He’s worked on Risk: the Lord of the Rings, Risk: 2210 A.D., Risk: Black Ops, and the upcoming Risk: Legacy. He’s also the guy already responsible for the elimination of four countries from Risk — Quebec, Congo, Siam, and Ukraine — to keep up with geopolitics. And he’s been a judge at three Monopoly world tournaments (top prize: $20,000). He can’t believe that Hasbro pays him to do this kind of work. “I’m lucky. I figured out that there are fewer full-time games designers in the country like me than there are professional shortstops in baseball.” Yeah, and they don’t even have a frozen-yogurt machine in the dugout.

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