Low key, high quirk

January 17, 2013, 12:00 PM UTC

Not long ago, Plante Moran, the midsized Midwestern accounting firm, celebrated the removal of its ampersand. That may sound like a wacky stunt you’d expect from a certain paper supply company in Scranton, PA depicted in the hit show “The Office.” But Plante Moran is no Dunder Mifflin; in fact it’s a perennial presence on our Best Companies to Work For list, now a 15-year veteran. And that ampersand was high cause for celebration: Three employees won gift cards for the most creative farewell letter.

Google may claim all the buzz, but from Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird to apartment manager Camden Property Trust, some of the most-loved workplaces in America are the ones that may not roll off the tongue. Plante Moran’s managing partner, Gordon Krater, readily admits there are “no daily back massages” at the company. But what it lacks in brand name status and trendy perks it makes up for in quirky office antics and a dynamic work culture that keep its 1,600 staff members in Detroit and 17 other Midwestern offices happy.

And when it comes to quirk, Plante Moran may in fact take the prize. The ampersand is just the start: On the company’s internal television network, PMTV, along with training videos you’ll see spoofs on office culture produced by a team of accountants in the firm’s Columbus office. They’ve so far parodied Plante Moran using YouTube Korean dance sensation “Gangnam Style,” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Laverne and Shirley. “We have a lot of fun,” acknowledges Krater, who started at the firm in 1980, straight out of college.

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Krater himself often travels with employees in their spare time—in the form of a 12-inch cardboard cutout of himself, anyway. Called ‘balance buddy,’ the miniature cardboard Krater sits cross-legged and symbolizes the firm’s dedication to work/life balance. The ‘balance buddy’ been photographed in India and China; on camels and water skis; at football games and atop Machu Picchu. It’s even spurred a corporate meme—‘Kratering’, a spin on ‘Tebowing’ in which staff photograph themselves in the same cross-legged position and post the photos to the company Intranet.

To best understand Plante Moran’s culture, it helps to understand Frank Moran, the firm’s co-founder. A philosophy major in college whom Krater calls a “man ahead of his time”, Moran sought to build a “people firm disguised as an accounting firm.” He was known for sundry bits of wisdom, like “Things are managed; people are led.” He banished the word ‘employee’, which was deemed too hierarchical, and brought on an industrial psychologist to administer assessments of prospective hires.

Though Moran died in 1997, his vision and values remain at the core of Plante Moran. One of his main tenets was his “life on a tightrope” approach, the idea that life is a balancing act of professional and personal responsibilities, and that companies are best-served when workers can manage both.

That concept is what drives the company’s flexible work options—anything goes so long as it’s ok with the client—and its openness to special case-by-case arrangements. Missing meetings for family functions is accepted practice (as long as the client approves). One of the company’s most successful female partners takes every Thursday off. Company lore has it that a previous managing partner wrote work functions on his calendar in pencil; pen was reserved only for family matters.

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The approach goes over well with staff, who appreciate not being micromanaged and the sense of trust it breeds at the firm. But for all the focus on time off, staff at Plante Moran like their work a whole lot, too. Everyone I spoke with at the company commented on the quality and range involved in their work. As the nation’s 12th largest accounting firm, staff at all levels work directly with leadership at a variety of companies.

When they do venture to leave, employees often come back as “boomerangs”, the term HR gives to returnees. The work was largely what lured Jeremy Louters back. Tempted by call from a headhunter and curiosity of the outside world, Louters left the Plante Moran for the private sector in 2007. He was back six months later, gone just long enough to realize the grass wasn’t greener. “It was kind of the stereotypical sit it your cube and crunch your numbers place,” he says. “At Plante Moran, there’s a lot more to it.” Back massages or not.