Fast Company

The Hippest City in the USA (Des Moines)

And the best place to work is . . . Des Moines? Okay, we admit it's a stretch. But unemployment here is so low, and work-life balance so important, that Iowa's capital city seems pretty cool to us.

Emily Snavely is a tiny 11-year-old with blue eyes, freckles, and curly blond hair that's pulled up on top of her head in a green hair band. She has been a student at the Downtown School since kindergarten. "I don't get it when my friends who don't go here say, 'I never see my parents,' " she says. "I always see mine. They're around all the time." Emily's father, Rodney, is a fixture at her school: Five years ago, he began helping Emily and her classmates wash up for lunch every Friday. He has also read to them and supervised recess. Emily's mother, Kelly, helps out at the annual book fair and occasionally makes lunch-duty appearances at the school, too. Rodney isn't a postmillennial stay-at-home dad. He's a full-time dentist with a thriving private practice. Nor is Kelly a housewife; she works full-time as a vice president at Wells Fargo. The Snavelys are, however, poster parents for the imaginative work-life balance championed by residents and employers in -- get this -- Des Moines, Iowa, home of the 10-year-old Downtown School.

Never mind California or New York. By some important measures, Des Moines is way ahead of its cooler coastal cousins. A stunning 68% of children under six years old here have no stay-at-home parent, significantly more than in Chicago (53%), Houston (49%), Los Angeles (46%), or New York (51%). And while big burgs like New York and San Francisco flirt with double-digit jobless rates, unemployment in Des Moines is only 3.5%. Companies elsewhere have slashed the benefits and other goodies they piled on in the booming 1990s (they're expensive, after all). According to the Society of Human Resources Management's annual benefits survey, in the last year alone, the percentage of U.S. companies offering flextime options to employees has dropped from 64% to 55% -- and the percentage of companies allowing telecommuting as a full-time option has dropped from 23% to just 17%. But in Des Moines, companies have only increased their family-friendly perks, making life in Iowa's capital city today feel as hip -- and as privileged -- as in Silicon Valley circa 1999. Not bad for a city that just narrowly avoided being named Fort Raccoon in the 1840s.

Of course, it helps to have a local economy that's still on the upswing. A flock of financial-services firms have been settling in Des Moines, attracted by its quality of life, cheap real estate, good public schools, short commute times, and low labor costs. Some 60 insurance companies make their headquarters here. Many mortgage lenders, their businesses booming thanks to low interest rates, have also expanded their operations in Des Moines. Two high-profile examples: Last April, Wells Fargo added 1,500 new jobs to the city, mostly in its mortgage division. And ING closed offices in Phoenix and Houston three years ago, moving 400 jobs to the city. A favorable tax structure and good highway access have attracted companies with large distribution operations, too. Firestone just opened a new tire distribution center on the outskirts of the city.

In Des Moines's tight labor market, those employers face some stiff challenges when it comes to attracting and retaining quality workers. For starters, the high proportion of working spouses means there isn't an untapped labor pool to draw on, says Jim DeVries, vice president of human resources at Principal Financial Group, Des Moines's largest employer. "The goal then becomes how to make jobs attractive enough to keep those spouses in the workforce and keep our turnover as low as possible." And for all of its many virtues, Des Moines isn't Seattle or San Jose. Potential recruits from out-of-state may have it pegged as isolated, provincial, and homogeneous -- not to mention awfully cold in winter.

And so it is that Principal, a diversified insurance company, offers employees free financial counseling, lactation centers for new mothers, free or subsidized parking, a Muslim prayer room, and on-site childbirth classes for expectant mothers. At an annual "Stork Fair," expectant parents are enticed by programs such as "Daddy Boot Camp," where dads-to-be can learn how to change diapers and bottle-feed newborns. Each month, more than 3,500 Principal employees use the company's state-of-the art athletic facility, which hosts classes in tai chi, Pilates, spinning, and body sculpting, and is also home to volleyball, basketball, and softball leagues. The company's subsidized Weight Watchers program is one of the largest in the United States: This year, spokeswoman Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, made a special trip to Des Moines just to speak to Principal's members.

Sara Jane Bowe, an attorney for Principal who has spent her 20-year career at the company, says benefits like these have changed her life. "I deliberately chose corporate practice, not a courtroom career, because of the possibility for balance. I knew I wanted to have kids," she says. Bowe is a regular at Principal's body-sculpting and tai chi classes, and both her children attend the Downtown School. "I have my tai chi sword in my office; I take the class during my lunch hour," she says. Her favorite benefit? "Free parking. My spot is right upstairs from the Downtown School. Makes my life very easy when I drop the kids off in the morning."

The Downtown School is a key part of the Des Moines business community's effort to bridge the gap between employees' work and home lives. A cooperative venture between the Des Moines Public School System and a group that calls itself the Business/ Education Alliance, it began when 19 local companies banded together in 1990 to donate office space, used furniture, carpets, and office supplies. The Des Moines school board agreed to administer the new school and provide teachers. The result is a K-through-5 elementary school, which opened in 1993 with three teachers and 45 students, located in the heart of the downtown business district. Now, 10 years later, the Downtown School boasts two locations, with a third to open soon, and is home to 19 teachers and 270 students. All of its facilities are connected by elevated skywalks to the area's office buildings, so working parents can easily drop off and pick up their children, or pay a visit during their workday.

Jan Drees has been principal of the Downtown School since it opened. "We recognize that time is limited when parents are working, so we want to do whatever we can to maximize that time," Drees says. "We ask, When are they free? Lunch? Okay, then let's schedule activities for them to participate in with their kids during the lunch hour."

Leslie Silverstein, who works for insurer Allied Group, has a 6-year-old daughter, Molly, at the Downtown School. "Instead of my work and her school, it's all just blended together," she says. "We don't need Take the Kids to Work Day here, because she already understands what I do, and she loves coming to work with me."

Des Moines enjoys some advantages that have nothing to do with corporate policies. Tracy Lewis, an HR manager at Kemin Industries, recruits heavily from out of state to fill scientific positions at the company, which makes specialty food additives and ingredients. When he entices new employees to join Kemin, he emphasizes the city's old-fashioned midwestern values of neighborliness, community involvement, and family support. "It's a do-or-die issue for us," he says. "We're recruiting from Maryland, Florida, Georgia, even internationally, and we have to make a strong case. I always ask, 'What do you think you'll miss out on here in Des Moines?' " If it's sports, he'll dig up information about community leagues for employees to participate in. If it's the arts, he'll point out the world-class Des Moines Metro Opera -- and that it's much easier and cheaper to get season tickets here, in a greater metropolitan area of around 684,000, than it would be to attend the Met in New York.

Across town, Townsend Engineering is engaged in a pretty prosaic -- and maybe even traditionally midwestern -- business: It designs and manufactures meat-processing equipment. But the way it goes about motivating its employees seems more New Age economy than sausage economy. Last year, owner Ted Townsend took 610 employees and spouses (half from Des Moines and half from Townsend's European operations) for a long weekend celebration just outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Such excursions, which began in 1946 with a fishing trip to Minnesota, have included vacations in Hawaii, Florida, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and the Bahamas, taken whenever company funds permitted (usually every two to three years).

To business owners for whom such extravagances are out of reach, Townsend has this to say: "Look, the logistics of a big trip are enormous, so that may not be the answer. But there are other things that any company can do. When people ask how other firms could afford to do this, I say start with the little things."

Things like giving every employee a parking space. "Do you know how excited people get about a parking space?" Townsend asks. Once a year, employees are also allowed to send flowers to someone special, on the house. "It's just a nice touch," he says. The company pays for anonymous pastoral counseling and for late-night cab rides so that employees never drive home drunk after an evening out on the town.

And with every sale of a piece of equipment, a portion of the proceeds is placed in the company's Attitude Bonus Bag, whose totals are broadcast on a loudspeaker over the factory floor once a week. It's a way for employees to know how the company is performing. Twice a year, the pot is shared equally among every employee. Since it began in 1977, the bonus bag has paid out $3 million to employees, including $160,000 last year.

Every few years, Townsend employees are also given a free five-hour physical. After one of those physicals three years ago, 55-year-old engineer Chris Arnold found out that his longstanding liver disease would be fatal without a transplant. The CEO of Townsend told his three company pilots to give Arnold their cell-phone numbers in the event that a donor liver became available and he needed immediate transportation. "That's exactly what happened," Arnold says. "I flew to Minnesota for the transplant on the jet and they even paid for my hospital stay. I wouldn't be here otherwise."

Bryan Kanis, who has been with Townsend for 26 years, tells a similar story. The company offered to make its plane available for his father, who was in line for a heart transplant. "I've thought about leaving Iowa over the years," Kanis says. "I hate the cold, wouldn't mind living someplace with palm trees. But the one thing that's kept me here is Townsend Engineering. They've been loyal to me and my family, and I'm going to return that loyalty to them." So there are ways to make Des Moines seem warmer than the sort of place where palm trees grow after all.

Sidebar: By The Numbers

Des Moines New York San Francisco
unemployment rate 3.5% 8% 7%
average commute (minutes) 19 35 29
median home price $131,200 $350,900 $560,200
average rent (1 BR apartment) $605 $1396 $1379
office rental (per square foot) $19.66 $55.40 $40.32
national rank of public schools* 5 47 28
median household income $39,408 $47,030 $55,221

* Determined by statewide high-school graduation rates

Alison Overholt (aoverholt@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer based in San Francisco.

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