The offices of LexJet are housed in a bank building on Fruitville Road, but it's hardly a formal atmosphere inside: a loft-style ceiling with exposed duct work and wiring, no divisions between the worker bees and bosses, and a bullpen desk arrangement with plenty of room between work stations-perfect for a quick game of Nerf basketball if the mood strikes. They do things a little differently at LexJet, which is one reason the printing supply company is center stage in our profile of great places to work in the area.

Salary is always important, but local employers are finding that in a time of low unemployment (2.4 percent last winter), other factors can be just as critical in finding and keeping good workers. Benefits, flexible schedules, opportunities to grow in a job and a fun workplace are big attractions. New thinking plus good benefits equals happy employees. And happy employees equal happy customers.

Now, a tour of some great places to work:

Fishman & Associates

The importance of Hawaiian shirts.

What they do: Plan and design commercial kitchens and food service facilities

Employees: 10

Interesting extras: Profit sharing, high percentage of healthcare costs paid, flexible schedules.

In a small company, personal relationships mean even more. Longtime Fishman & Associates employee Marisa Mangani credits company founder C.J. Fishman with fostering an atmosphere that allowed her to flourish after she switched gears from being a chef to selling kitchen equipment.

Mangani didn't know she was getting into sales when she signed on 12 years ago. She only knew she was tired of working in a hot kitchen. "I was a chef, swearing at dishwashers. Or dishwashers weren't there to swear at, and I was washing dishes," she says.

"In the beginning it was really hard, but with C.J. I found myself becoming devoted to him and the company's mission," Mangani says. "We're trusted to do the work we need to do."

Where a larger company with 50 or 100 employees would need detailed, written employment policies, Fishman does it himself with common sense. He provides a gas allowance, covers a large portion of health insurance costs, prohibits working weekends, and grants paid time off to take care of personal issues. He even pays employees seeking college degrees for the time they spend in the classroom during work hours.

The competitive job market makes it essential for Fishman to develop new ideas to retain good employees. "You want to be consistent with your associates, so everyone's treated equally, but everyone is different. You try to give a lot of flexibility," he says.

The Fishman & Associates offices are in downtown Venice. The small accounting department is the only office with a door, so associates can easily bounce ideas off each other. Lunch is brought in monthly so employees can socialize. Fridays are "Island Day," when employees are encouraged to wear Hawaiian shirts.

"It's when you put all the little things together that keeps people happy," Fishman says. "It's not all about salary. Life right now is so fast paced, and if one of my associates has a school play or something, she goes. That's important, too."

John Cannon Homes

Keep that family feeling.

What they do: Builder of custom homes

Employees: 94

Interesting extras: Full health benefits, free air tickets for success, 12-week maternity leave.

Until its move to a spacious headquarters in Lakewood Ranch this spring, John Cannon Homes was located in cramped offices at a south Sarasota office park. Visitors had trouble finding the front door through the clutter and had to wend their way through a conference room to get back to the designers. It was a testament to Cannon's respectful and family-like atmosphere that employees weren't at each other's throats.

No one expects the move to the brand-new, state-of-the-art facility to put a sterile chill in Cannon's friendly atmosphere. Cannon employees who have worked for other builders say Cannon is different. Nine-year employee Josh Adams describes it as the leeway Cannon gives employees to make decisions on the job. "The group of people we have is next to none, and everyone has a say," he says. "Even though the company has gotten big, John's still there every day, so it doesn't feel like you're working for a big corporation. You feel like you're working for someone who cares."

CEO John Cannon pays 100 percent of HMO premiums. He also pays for employee training, education and expenses at industry seminars and conventions. Where a lot of companies have employees of the month or quarter awards, two wins in a calendar year mean two airline tickets to anywhere in the country for a Cannon employee.

The average entry-level salary is $40,000, plus quarterly bonuses, profit sharing and a 401(k). It's not just current employees who know it's a good place to work: the company received more than 500 job applications in 2005.

"It's growing, and we're part of amazing growth," Adams says. "Being a part of building it is something special. John makes you feel like you're not just working for him but that you're a part of it."

LexJet

Jeans and T-shirts welcome.

What they do: Distribute, develop and troubleshoot supplies for printers and digital photographers.

Employees: 71

Interesting extras: Casual dress, beach parties, full health benefits, and starting salaries can be as high as $45,000, reaching $60,000 by year four.

LexJet has just three employee rules: 1.) Have fun. 2.) Make money. 3.) Don't get in anyone else's way of having fun and making money.

"Rule Three we added about five years ago, once we got bigger," says LexJet's Chris Cudzilo. "We have fired people for breaking Rule Three, as simple as it sounds. And it's hard to lose your job here. You have to really screw up."

Company founders instilled an attitude in their young management team to break the mold of corporate America. Where others cut benefits such as healthcare, they even pay for dental. Where most make new ideas crawl up a chain of bureaucracy, they encourage everyone to share thoughts about everyone else's job. New employees are trained for three months and aren't given a sales quota for the first year. In the past, a typical prize for achieving sales goals was time in a "cash machine," where money blows around and you grab what you can. The result is a group of young, energetic employees who all feel like they have a role in the firm's success.

They also don't believe in titles. Chris Cudzilo, a member of the four-person "guidance team," says, "We don't like to confine people. We're still all responsible for the success of the company."

The LexJet workplace is noticeable for its dress code, or lack thereof. Most people work in telephone sales and do not deal with customers in person; their clothing looks more appropriate for a college dorm than a multimillion-dollar company. Shorts, flip-flops and jeans are the order of every day. "We have a dress code," Cudzilo says. "Collared shirts, no hats, but you do have to wear shoes. We didn't used to have that, but it got real ugly. For a guy right out of college, his idea of casual may have been clothes piled in the corner that he had worn for five days, but didn't smell too bad. We had to institute the dress code for reasons of hygiene, really."

The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota

Training makes the difference.

What they do: Hotel, spa, beach and golf clubs

Employees: 600

Interesting extras: Top 30 percent in salaries in the hotel industry, tuition reimbursement, empowerment.

The tourism industry, central to our economy, has a bad rap for low-paying jobs with slim chance for advancement. Not at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota where attracting and retaining employees are a priority.

"The cost for us to hire a new employee is $8,000 per employee," says general manager Jim McManemon, who started in the housekeeping department at The Ritz in Atlanta, 17 years ago. "We put our money on the training end instead of churning and burning a lot of people."

Turnover in the hospitality industry hovers at about 60 to 70 percent annually. McManemon says the Sarasota Ritz was down to 22 percent last year.

With far-flung operations including the hotel, spa, golf club and beach club, The Ritz has grown to 600 employees. While the enormity of the operation and the reputation for elegant service dictate firm schedules and strictly monitored appearance, The Ritz offers its employees a range of opportunities for growth. They include 250 hours of training for new hires, daily meals of Ritz quality, a tuition reimbursement plan, Weight Watchers at Work, and English language classes. The toughest thing about a job at The Ritz isn't keeping it or growing in it but landing the position in the first place.

"I was intrigued by the whole Ritz-Carlton mystique," says Beth Price, who has an English degree from Georgetown University. She was hired in 2001 to serve afternoon tea. "I think I had six interviews to get hired as an afternoon tea server. But I found a place that I really loved, so I stayed."

Born and raised in Sarasota, Price previously worked as a copy editor and columnist for a financial Web site and in public relations. Although others may wonder how that background suits the hospitality industry, Price says it makes perfect sense to her. She has worked her way up to her current position as club concierge manager, responsible for seven employees.

The Ritz maintains its reputation of service by empowering all employees to address a guest's problem-without checking with a manager. "We're encouraged and trained to handle just about anything on our own," Price says. "We don't make them wait for a manager."

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