Jake Henderson, Jeff Folsom and Jacquie Peterson, from left, of AWARE Inc. stand outside the business’s office in Missoula.

The Missoula Job Service Employers’ Council presented “Employer of Choice” awards to three businesses Wednesday for their innovative practices, including benefits, on-the-job training and family-friendly scheduling.

The awards for small, medium and large businesses went to Collection Bureau Services, Missoula Federal Credit Union and AWARE Inc., respectively.

“We are honoring businesses for innovative practices to retain and attract people,” said Wolf Ametsbichler, the manager of the Missoula Job Service. “We want to recognize those employers that go over and above to provide a work environment that is highly attractive and conducive to employee growth and employee training."

AWARE, which stands for Anaconda Work and Residential Enterprises, is an Anaconda-headquartered private nonprofit that employs more than 1,600 people across the state. It provides services to between 3,000 and 5,000 developmentally disabled children and adults every year, including mental health care and housing assistance. The organization operates 44 residential programs across Montana, including a large operation in Missoula at 1055 W. Sussex Ave.

“Our job is to take care of our clients, and that is the foundation of our whole organization,” said Chief Operating Officer Jeff Folsom. “The pillars of that are how we take care of our workforce and retain the best staff that we can. The people who walk through the door buy into the notion that we’re going to do everything we can to make our clients successful.”

The company pays more than $26 million in wages and benefits to its employees.

Folsom said that unlike many other nonprofits, AWARE chooses to reinvest its revenue into its employees rather than pad the coffers of a large foundation, although it does operate a foundation. The organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“We want our employees to be proud of who they work for and what they do,” Folsom said.


Jack Lawson, CEO of the Missoula Federal Credit Union, showed a video of the company’s humble beginnings during the awards presentation at the Holiday Inn Downtown.

In September 1956, eight police officers banded together with $320 between them to provide each other with low-interest loans.

“I’ve watched that video hundreds of times and it still almost brings me to tears,” Lawson said. “Now, we are a $420 million organization serving some 45,000 members. It’s always very special to be recognized for something that is hard to do, like be a good employer.”

Lawson said his employees come to work every day with a really strong sense of purpose.

“We have numeric goals, but through that our employees still recognize that what they are trying to do, day in and day out, is make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

“They are just a first-class employer, and besides offering a lot of benefits that are stellar, they are really doing things that support the community,” Ametsbichler said. “Their community work is incentivized, and you can find a credit union employee as a volunteer in many organizations around town.”

Jennifer Whipple, the vice president of Collection Bureau Services, accepted the award for the company her grandfather founded 40 years ago.

“We don’t sell gadgets or widgets; we sell our employees,” Whipple said. “Nobody wants to get that call from the collection agency, so we really pride ourselves on making it a great place to work because it’s a really hard job. Nobody wakes up and wants to call people asking for money.”

However, Whipple said the company has a generous profit-sharing program to go along with contributions to its 401(k) program.

“We want our employees to be able to retire and have a nice living afterward because they’ve put in a lot of hard work,” she said. “We have an employee appreciation day in March, which is really fun and rewarding. And one time an employee came up and said, ‘I think we should get our birthdays off.’ And now, after working for two years, everyone gets their birthday as a paid holiday."

Ametsbichler said the Job Service Employers’ Council pays for a scholarship for postsecondary training. The organization’s goal is to support the Job Service and assist the community’s workforce development needs. Its main source of funding is hosting seminars for the business community for relatively small fees, including one called “The Honest Leader” on Thursday from 8 to 11 a.m. at the Holiday Inn Downtown, 200 S. Pattee St.

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