Some of the largest companies in St. Louis have discovered that the key to making their employees happy is to simply ask how they're doing.

Many of the companies that rank highest in employee satisfaction already rely on their own internal surveys regularly to ask their workers what the company can do better — and follow up the recommendations with changes.

When Nestlé Purina PetCare last surveyed its 1,800 local employees on benefits, the global pet products company found that professional development opportunities the company offered were highly regarded. So Nestlé Purina invested $15 million in the construction of a new training facility at its headquarters campus, which opened last month, to allow more of its 17,500 employees around the globe to receive training. The company also participates in the St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative, which offers minority employees leadership training and networking opportunities.

And while many companies trimmed tuition reimbursement during the recession, Nestlé Purina has maintained its policy of paying 100 percent of employees' tuition up to $2,500 annually, and 50 percent of any remaining costs.

"We're very focused on the development of our people," said Steve Degnan, Nestlé Purina's vice president and head of human resources. "No matter what stage of their career, people know that they can grow and develop."

Purina ranked first among 19 large local companies that agreed to have their employees confidentially surveyed in a joint project by the Post-Dispatch and WorkplaceDynamics, a survey company.

Visitors to Nestlé Purina headquarters south of downtown could easily overlook that it's a corporate campus. Canines frolic in a five-acre dog park, and employees stroll on walkways lining koi-filled ponds.

Inside, desk massages are available, and a dietician gives employees advice on healthy eating.

Employees' dogs, which are welcome at the global pet product company's headquarters, go a long way to helping reduce stress levels, Degnan said. He brings his Siberian husky, Sweetie, to work several times a year. "People will come by my office to see her, not to talk to me," Degnan said. "It just makes you smile."

Other perks include an on-site medical center, coffee bar, dry cleaning and postal services. A flexible work hours policy allows Nestlé Purina's employees to adjust their schedules as needed.

A similar philosophy of listening to employees is followed at Edward Jones, where employee retention is viewed as critical to the company's success. Edward Jones ranked second among large employers on the Post-Dispatch Top Workplaces list.

Employees eating their lunches at Edward Jones' headquarters cafeteria in Des Peres last month had their midday break interrupted by more than a dozen people dancing their way through the lunchroom with music blaring.

The "flash mob" — made up of the investment firm's employees that kicked off a charity fundraising effort — drew applause and smiles from colleagues who watched the impromptu show, according to a video on YouTube and a recounting of the scene by the firm's managing partner, Jim Weddle.

"We work really hard to feel small as we grow larger, and that's not easy to do," Weddle said.

Edward Jones has grown to more than 11,000 offices globally since its founding in 1922, and like Nestlé Purina, Edward Jones surveys employees to find out what it can do better.

Weddle, who refers to the firm's workforce as associates rather than employees, said associates in recent months have asked the company to add a few more fun activities. And the firm is responding, he said, with more casual-dress days, for example, and visits to local institutions such as the St. Louis Science Center.

"They want us to celebrate a little more," Weddle said. "They said, 'We work hard, we want to play hard as well.'"

The company's profit-sharing program is cited by employees as an important perk. And, about half of its more than 30,000 employees are limited or general partners.

Weddle also said a decision the company made four years ago to announce to employees that no layoffs would occur also helped morale.

"We were going into 2008, when business was slowing down and lots of people were asking questions," he said. "We reduced travel expenses and meetings and cut where we could, but I didn't want people worried about whether their bills were going to be paid."

The 7,400 global employees at Graybar — a Fortune 500 distributor of electrical products that ranked third on the Post-Dispatch list — have a chance several times a year to ask their president and chief executive questions and provide feedback on the company's benefits. The Clayton-based employee-owned company holds quarterly calls with employees and all questions are answered, said Beverly Propst, senior vice president of human resources.

Graybar's rich benefits package includes a profit sharing plan, a defined benefit pension plan and a 401(k) plan. Graybar's employees also can switch career paths and take on other jobs within the company, which has helped employee retention and boost the average time employees work at Graybar to 12 years. "People come to work here for their career, and we have a promote-from-within policy," Propst said. "The hallmark of our company is really our employee ownership, which brings with it a sense of pride and passion in what employees do."

At Centene Corp., ranked fourth on the Post-Dispatch list, the company's growth is one of the reasons employees consider the company a Top Workplace. Centene, a Fortune 500 company based in Clayton with 1,030 St. Louis-area employees and 5,800 employees companywide, increased its employee count 28 percent from 2010 to 2011, and 23 percent locally.

While many companies have curtailed health care benefits, Centene's executives said they have put a priority on their employees' health and provide 100 percent coverage on many health costs. Sixty-eight percent of the company's employees participate in a wellness program, which offers biometric testing and coaching on a list of topics, including weight loss and exercise programs, said Bob Sanders, Centene's senior vice president of compensation, benefits and travel services.

One of the company's most popular new additions is its on-site health clinic for employees and their dependents added last year. The clinic is open during work hours, and its services are free.

Centene also offers a company-sponsored daycare near its headquarters and at two other company locations, on-site oil changes and car repairs and dry cleaning services. At the company's headquarters building in Clayton, healthy food items at breakfast and lunch are offered at a discount.

Sanders said that with offices spread across the country, Centene gives autonomy to the local office to develop services and programs that meet employees' needs. "Each individual location has amenities they can provide, and we give each location latitude on what they offer," Sanders said.

Scottrade's financial perks — including a 5 percent interest rate for employees who have a savings account through its business unit, Scottrade Bank — made that company stand out among its workers. Scottrade, ranked fifth on the Top Workplaces list, also has never had a layoff in its 32-year history and has paid a quarterly bonus for the past 25 years. "That's very important for people," said Jane Wulf, chief administrative officer for St. Louis County-based firm.

Scottrade surveys its employees several times a year on workplace issues and takes suggestions for improvements. Based on employee surveys, Scottrade began matching employees' charitable contributions, up to $10,000 annually. The company also began offering employees paid time to volunteer during work hours, with the bonus of donating $20 per volunteer hour to a charity.

Rank Company Industry Employees
1 Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. Consumer Goods 1,800
2 Edward Jones Financial Services 4,587
3 Graybar Electric Co. Electrical Distributor 848
4 Centene Corp. Health Care 1,030
5 Scottrade Inc. Financial Services 1,541
6 Panera Bread Co. Food Service/Restaurant 2,700
7 St. Louis County Library Public Library 642
8 Pinnacle St. Louis River City & Lumière Place casinos Gambling 2,261
9 Mercy Hospital-Washington Health Care 801
10 Wentzville R-IV School District Education 1,787

Source: WorkplaceDynamics