In 1991, Mark Kaufman was a physical therapist and athletic trainer with a receptionist, a small space at Clark and Oak streets, and an idea.
He became the trainer for local schools, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small stipend, as a way of marketing himself and his fledgling business to athletes, their parents and school coaches.
Today, his Oak Brook-based company, Athletico Physical Therapy, employs 1,343 people at about 75 locations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, and has affiliations with Chicago's major professional sports teams, the Big Ten Conference and others.
Managing that growth has required a keen eye for hiring — and then keeping — therapists and trainers.
"When you're opening a lot of businesses, culture is on the list, but you can never quite get to it because you're so focused on growing the business," Kaufman said.
About seven years ago, he knew he had to get serious about workplace issues because the company was getting so big he could no longer manage everything personally.
"I really enjoy helping evolve our culture," he said. "Staying connected to the team is important, but I recognized I could grow and advance the culture if I brought in some outside consultants who could push us to identify our core purpose."
Out of that exercise with more than 100 company employees came a 360-degree formal evaluation process that incorporates what Kaufman calls Athletico's core values: patient satisfaction, accountability, continuous improvement and teamwork.
Those values and that focus vaulted Athletico to the top of this year's Chicago Tribune Top Workplaces survey of large companies, conducted by Exton, Pa.-based consultant WorkplaceDynamics.
The company backs up those values, on which all employees are scored, paid and promoted, with some enticing pay and benefits designed to attract top candidates in the in-demand physical therapy field.
Annual bonuses, which nearly every employee qualifies for, can be 5 to 10 percent of pay. Base salaries for physical therapists just starting out range from $60,000 to $70,000 a year, while those who break into management ranks see pay rise to nearly $100,000.
There's a company-matched 401(k) plan, which pays 50 percent on the first 5 percent of salary contributed to the plan, and full- and part-time workers have access to health, dental and vision insurance plans.
Tuition reimbursement for advanced training and business degrees is available, and the company offers its own residency education through its Athletico University. Athletico is majority-owned by Kaufman but also has more than 60 minority shareholders, who are regional managers or facility managers.
For Jeremy Smith, the entrepreneurial ownership structure and the overall atmosphere swayed him to join the company two years ago.
"I had nine job offers coming out of school," the 27-year-old Washington University physical therapy graduate said. "Athletico was the lowest-paying offer I had, but I took it because of the business model and the people."
Smith, a former golfer at his undergraduate school, Augustana College, was looking for a place where he could develop a golf training practice in addition to regular physical therapy work, which he has been able to do.
"I had a roommate in PT school who was promoted quickly to manage a facility and he's really stressed now because he's asked for help but isn't getting it from the company," he said, referring to another employer.
Andrea Johnson, a billing associate in the company's corporate office, said supportive managers have made her first seven months on the job the best work environment experience she has had in the decade she has been working in the health care field. Most recently, she worked the registration desk at a hospital emergency room.
Seemingly little things have made a big difference for Johnson, she said.
She has an ergonomic chair and footrest and can take breaks throughout the day to stand up and walk around as she processes Medicare and private insurance payments, she said.
The company is a vendor to and a sponsor of professional sports teams. It supplies athletic trainers and physical and massage therapists who work with a team's head trainer or who serve as the team's only trainers.
Employees also have a hand in directing charitable dollars the company donates, and can participate in several charity events.
"They say PT school is as difficult to get into today as medical school. I know people who have looked at medicine and decided physical therapy would be a better fit. I think it's a fantastic field," Kaufman said.
"We've created a culture of growth and energy, so now the challenge becomes that if people want to grow and manage a facility, we have to find the growth to support that," he said. "This year we will probably open 10 to 12 facilities, and even more next year."
With that kind of growth path, it naturally raises the question of what's next.
"We've been approached by a lot of investment bankers and private equity people because a lot of our competition has chosen that route. I won't rule it out for the future, but I wouldn't go that direction unless I believed our culture will be carried through."
As a result of the focus on culture, Kaufman said, turnover is comparatively low.
"I look for patterns in why people leave, and I'm the first speaker at our monthly new employee meetings. I always tell them that if someone leaves Athletico because they weren't able to meet their career goals, that hits me the hardest. Thankfully, I haven't had to self-reflect on that too often."