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General Mills, IBM make list of best workplaces for mom

By Rick Bersnak Jr.

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- For companies trying to navigate a rocky economy, conventional business wisdom might dictate a no- or low-frills workplace.

But that's not the case at firms lauded in the October issue of Working Mother Magazine, which lists the results of its annual search for the 100 companies that treat working mothers best.

The magazine developed its list this year by focusing on companies that have not scaled back benefits because of the harsher economic climate, those that allow fathers to use family leave and employers who emphasize flexible scheduling.

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The top 10 employers cited by the magazine were Abbott Laboratories, American Express, Bank of America, Booz Allen Hamilton, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Colgate-Palmolive, Computer Associates, Fannie Mae, General Mills and IBM, which has made the list for 17 years, longer than any other company.

The businesses above have found that helping parents find a balance between their careers and home life can pay handsome dividends, the magazine said.

"The highest cost that you have in the people area is turnover," said Steve Sanger, chairman and chief executive of Minnesota-based food maker General Mills Inc., which offers employees company-based infant care, a fitness center, prescription-filling and medical services.

"All these are things that just try to take the hassle out of people's lives," he said. "They end up being things that all employees value."

The magazine also named Sanger its "Family Champion" for making moms' needs a priority. "If we can provide a work environment that enables people to commit themselves to their long-term careers here, that pays big dividends for us," he said.

Those remarks echo a trend magazine editors found -- fathers, particularly the younger ones of Generation X, are seeking a greater role in their children's lives.

"We are seeing the uprising of the Gen X dad who really wants to be involved with his kids," said Carol Evans, chief executive of Working Mother Media.

Hundreds of companies completed what Evans called a rigorous application process to be considered for the list, drawn up by editors. Each firm was evaluated on what programs were available to working mothers and how many use them.

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"We really get down to the nitty gritty of usage," Evans said.

At the Noel Group, a travel insurer based in Stevens Point, Wis., mothers can keep tabs on their children from the road. Using 24 remote-controlled cameras, parents use a Web site to watch their kids at the agency's learning center for preschoolers.

John M. Noel, the company's founder and chief executive, said the agency has enjoyed low turnover and uses the money it saves on hiring and retention efforts to reinvest in employee benefits.

Noel said workers have more loyalty because of the benefits. "Our turnover has gone down to unbelievably low numbers," he said.

But it was Noel's loyalty to employees last fall that earned him recognition as the year's "Small Business Champion." When the travel industry faltered after the Sept. 11 attacks, Noel told workers, "We are not going to lay anybody off. We are going to fight." By temporarily moving workers from slow departments, Noel said he managed to avoid staff cuts.

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