Don't let PPM America Inc.'s drab office fool you.

The traditional cubicle culture at 225 W. Wacker Drive, including a break room almost entirely devoid of color, does little to stir the soul when compared with hipper, more open-concept modern offices around the city.

Then again, with the biggest chunk of its workforce squarely Generation X (those born roughly between 1965 and 1977), other priorities clearly dominate.

PPM, which manages about $100 billion in investment portfolios for large insurance companies and other clients, offers its employees long-term-care insurance and full tuition reimbursement for advanced degrees, two benefits aimed squarely at midcareer executives.

Flexible work schedules and the ability to work remotely are other perks seemingly made for midcareer — "sandwich generation" — workers struggling to care for children and aging parents. Nearly half of PPM's 219-employee workforce is from Gen X.

"We're all dealing with parents and kids," said Carol Schweidel, a managing director and real estate credit analyst who purchased long-term-care insurance through the company benefit after helping her parents navigate a nursing home stay. PPM also allows relatives of employees to buy into the insurance.

She credits the company for taking away the "noise" that slows many professionals — banal office difficulties, personal work-life issues and the like.

Craig Close, senior vice president-portfolio services, got an MBA on the company dime in 2001 and today uses the tuition reimbursement program as a recruiting tool. PPM mostly hires professionals who are at least a few years out of school and into their careers.

But the cultural fit is what matters most, said Close, who has been with the company for about 16 years.

"When I first started, the firm was very entrepreneurial, but it was clear we needed someone who could come in and form a culture here," Close said.

President and Chief Executive Leandra Knes was named to the top job in 2000 after joining the firm three years earlier as chief investment officer.

"Leandra set the tone upfront," Close said. "She said we need to be indispensable to our clients, and she made everyone memorize that and say it over and over."

And she was very big on dealing with people "straight up" rather than allowing unproductive alliances to build, he said.

Strong leadership helped earn PPM America the top spot among small companies in the Tribune's annual survey of best workplaces, conducted by WorkplaceDynamics, an Exton, Pa.-based consultancy. Knes also was singled out among small-company executives for her management skills.

Without qualifiers, she says the buck does stop at her corner office.

"The culture of PPM is entirely my responsibility," she said. "Some leaders feel, 'This is just our people,' or, 'This is just the way things are, what can I do?' Mike Wells, my boss (head of U.S. operations for Prudential PLC, PPM's parent), has never said to me you can't fire every single person and rehire people you feel could accomplish this. And that puts an incredible burden on me, but it's also an incredible empowerment.

"At the end of the day, when I look in the mirror, if this is a terrible place to work, it's just my fault."

Judging from the low rate at which employees are leaving the firm, Knes needn't worry.

PPM's attrition rate for investment professionals has averaged 2 percent for the past five years, well below the 17 percent tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the financial services industry, company officials said. The stability is important for clients, particularly for a period that has included historic market volatility.

"We don't make bar soap here; we manage people's money. The product is confidence in our money management skills, in our people. And if you're selling confidence, you want the same people explaining our story," she said. "If it's 2008, when people really want to be hiding under a barrel, we want the same people on those phones with clients."

Even stability has its challenges. Because of the low attrition rate — average tenure has gone from four to nine years on Knes' watch — people tend to hang on to jobs, which can make the promotion pipeline crowded.

As a workaround, the company throws people into challenging one-off assignments and cross-trains them in different aspects of the business, employees said. And compensation moves up accordingly, even without new titles.

Knes also holds monthly breakfast meetings where small groups of employees are invited to toss out questions and everything is fair game. There are also regular sessions for all employees, from receptionists to executives, to learn about key business prospects and plans.

Early in her tenure, as she was shaking up the management ranks and replacing some executives, employees pushed back on her public statements about running the company under the Golden Rule.

"They said, 'You talk about treating others as you want to be treated, but then you fired all these people. If someone didn't have this one right quality, they were gone.' And I told them that's exactly right. If I've gone past the point where I can contribute effectively and my boss has given me six months to get back in shape and I can't do it, and so then I'm given income preservation for some period of time while I find another job, to me that is exactly how I'd want to be treated if I'm not contributing to the value of the organization anymore," Knes said.

"There's tremendous power in having 227 people rowing in the same direction."