A Human Place To Work A company can't be everything to all people, but it can try. Here's the tale of Medtronic's effort.
By David Whitford

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Bill George cruises the long basement hallway between buildings at headquarters, and as he moves smartly from A to B, backs straighten, chins rise, and smiles appear within a 30-foot radius of his position. It's a corporate chieftain's due, part of the appeal, no doubt, of presiding over a $5 billion company with tens of thousands of employees. Cindy Vang doesn't move around much, except on break. Her place at work is in the blue vinyl chair at the end of the assembly line, next to Sue Her. Cindy can talk to Sue, and Sue can talk to Melissa, but Cindy can't easily talk to Melissa over the drone of the air filters. Sometimes Cindy puts on headphones and listens to a book on tape. Today it's Danielle Steel's Special Delivery.

Justine Fritz moves fast no matter what she's doing: chasing her toddler, jogging on a treadmill, dashing from the meeting that just ended to the one that's about to begin. "The purpose of this meeting--everybody ready?--the purpose of this meeting is to brainstorm...."

Mark Rise's movements are constricted by the mess around him. He shares his cube with detailed models of the brain and spinal cord, an open box of cereal, sagging shelves jammed with three-ring binders, and piles upon piles of paper. "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind," says a note pinned to the divider, "one cannot help wondering what is indicated by an empty desk."

In these four people we have a cross-section of a corporation: a 58-year-old CEO on the eve of his retirement; a 22-year-old Laotian Hmong production worker; a 35-year-old marketing manager; and a 51-year-old research scientist. The corporation is Medtronic, the company that invented the battery-powered pacemaker in 1957 and today so dominates the market for pacemakers, neurostimulators, and stents that you'll often hear it referred to as the Microsoft of the medical-device industry. As with any organism, you can slice a corporation in different ways. These four people all lie along a plane of a particular product, Medtronic's Activa Parkinson's control therapy, which treats advanced symptoms of Parkinson's disease with a neurostimulator wired to electrodes buried deep inside the brain. Rise helped invent it. Vang helps make a key component of the hardware. Fritz is in charge of the product launch. George is counting on Activa to help meet Medtronic's annual goal of gathering 70% of its sales from products introduced within the past two years.

To meet that goal, not to mention many others in this business, George has to motivate the other three workers--and 22,000 more besides--to work hard and do their best. That's where the four connect again, as individuals influenced, in one way or another, by corporate culture--the stew of rules, mores, and traditions that says something about what it means to work at this company and not some other. At Medtronic (No. 83 on our list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For), this stew is very rich. Visitors to corporate headquarters in Fridley, Minn., a pastel-bungalow suburb of Minneapolis, are met by a statue of Earl Bakken, the engineer who co-founded Medtronic in 1949 with his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie. Bakken is depicted in late middle age, wearing a baggy suit, squinting through a pair of aviator-frame glasses, and clutching in one hand a spookily banal box with a screwed-on faceplate, an on-off switch, and a dial for revving up the pulse rate--the primitive pacemaker that made Medtronic famous. The box looks like something straight out of Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, which is appropriate, for according to company legend, proudly recounted on the timeline in the lobby, it was the film version of Frankenstein, released in 1931, that awakened in young Earl Bakken a lifelong fascination with the role of electricity in medicine.

Bakken, 76, lives in Hawaii now but returns to Fridley often. He shows up at ceremonies to present new hires with their Medtronic medallions--keepsakes inscribed with an excerpt from the mission statement (ALLEVIATE PAIN, RESTORE HEALTH AND EXTEND LIFE). And he never misses the holiday party, Medtronic's annual rite of corporate renewal, where people whose bodies function thanks to Medtronic devices come to give testimonials. It's a teary, communal reminder that what goes on here day after day is not the same as making VCRs. "We have patients who come in who would be dead if it wasn't for us," says Karen McFadzen, a production supervisor. "I mean, they sit right up there and they tell us what their lives are like. You don't walk away from them not feeling anything."

If ever a company had a built-in advantage in the motivating-the-worker department, Medtronic is it. And its leaders know the power of playing to that advantage. But even making lifesaving medical devices is, ultimately, just a job. It takes constant care and feeding of corporate legend (remember Frankenstein) and mission (those medallions) to imbue Medtronic employees with a sense of satisfaction in their jobs day after day. In the employee surveys that help determine FORTUNE's 100 Best Companies to Work For, 86% of Medtronic employees said their work had special meaning; 94% felt pride in what they accomplished. You can get more shared satisfaction than that, but not much.

But keeping workers motivated takes much more than a mission. Spend time with people at Medtronic, and you begin to understand why people keep working at the 100 Best Companies. They don't stay for on-site gyms or free dry cleaning--although those things may have attracted them in the first place. The ones who are lucky enough to get stock options and big bonuses might stay to get a payout, but they could just as easily leave afterwards. The real reasons people stay are more personal and come down to something pretty basic: fulfillment. The four people introduced here are fulfilled at Medtronic, albeit in very different ways and to different extents. They may not all have jobs or lives you would want; they may not be entirely satisfied with things as they are. But given their circumstances and their choices, Medtronic satisfies for each of them certain specific desires--to work with the best scientific minds; to be with one's children; to get acclaim; to find meaning in one's work. It might not be everything they need, but it keeps them coming back.


Mark Rise has a paunch, a salt-and-pepper beard, and reading glasses he can't easily misplace because they're on a cord around his neck. He owns a rubber plant that he has kept alive since 1972. He hasn't seen his ex-wife since their last day in court. He has boulders inside his house, part of his work-in-progress for an indoor pond with a waterfall. His ambition is like a turtle's, he says; he just keeps plodding along.

In the first semester of his sophomore year at the University of Iowa in the fall of 1968, Rise got two D's and two F's. Too much partying, he says now, too much protesting, too much "new information" from all sides. "I would describe myself then as confused," Rise says. He was also about to flunk out of school and lose the student deferment keeping him out of Vietnam. He thought about leaving the country. He thought about going to jail. He thought about applying for conscientious objector status. In the end he enlisted as a medic, which led him to a two-year posting at an army hospital in Germany, where he got turned on by medicine. Later he got an undergraduate science degree on the GI bill, a master's degree in electrical engineering, and a doctorate in biomedical engineering; and so, by twists and turns, he came to Medtronic.

Rise's job is partly about narrowing choices--should Medtronic make devices to manage movement disorders? Chronic pain? Schizophrenia? Epilepsy?--and partly about dreaming. "Mark's our most prolific, creative inventor," says Curt Kinghorn, a Medtronic patent lawyer. Don't picture Rise in a lab coat, though. If Medtronic were a record company, Rise would be a producer or a talent scout rather than an artist. He works with physicians, medical researchers, software developers, and engineers to dream up new therapies and convert them into products. Often it's deceptively simple, a matter of adapting existing technology to new purposes. The Activa Parkinson's control therapy, for instance, relies on a technique that's been around for 20 years--electrical stimulation of the nervous system by means of an implantable device. What's new are the precise placement of the electrodes and the hoped-for results: the cessation of tremors and other symptoms of advanced cases of Parkinson's. "A neurostimulator or a drug infusion pump is just a tool that you can use, like a screwdriver," Rise says, "and you can use a screwdriver to fix a lot of different things."

It's been ten years since he moved out from Minneapolis to his 85 acres of forest, meadow, and swamp. Sometimes he looks around and sees his home the way a visitor might, so much of it unfinished, and he thinks about retiring. Maybe then he'd have time to tackle the molding in the dining room, and to clean out some of those big oaks that fell during the last tornado, and to finally do something with those boulders. But he'll get to all that, he really will, one of these days. Meanwhile, he's coming up on 21 years at Medtronic, in January. It's the only job he's ever had, and it still captivates him.

In Rise's field, there's more prestige in being affiliated with a university. And there's more money, possibly, in starting your own company. He sometimes thinks about all those patents hanging in the cafeteria, the ones with his name on them, which are all owned by Medtronic. But Rise isn't very much interested in raising capital or marketing or any of that other stuff entrepreneurs have to deal with. He's interested in science; in learning how the mind works; in interacting with the smartest people he knows; in hearing proposals that only the leading medical device company in the world ever gets to hear. And what really matters (and this is why he's not an academic) is coming up with products that actually perform. He can do all that at Medtronic. "That's what keeps me tied to what I'm doing now," he says. Not just seeing something in his mind's eye, he means, but seeing it take shape. Whether it's a solar-heated house, an indoor pond with a waterfall, or a gizmo in your brain that stops your body from shaking.


Cindy Vang works at Medtronic's Brooklyn Park facility in a dust-free room where the workers all wear zippered smocks, hair nets, booties, and surgical gloves. Vang is one of 45 production workers in her department. Most are women. Together they make 200,000 units a month of a needle-like component called a feedthrough. It transfers an electrical pulse generated by a pacemaker or a neurostimulator to a lead, which in turn carries the pulse to a patient's spinal cord, heart, or brain.

Vang's first job at Medtronic had her hunched over a microscope all day. With training she requested, she has since been certified in five of the 14 skills listed in her department's cross-training grid. (The grid is posted on the wall by the door, next to a motivational poster extolling the virtues of teamwork and a notice advertising on-site massages, one dollar per minute).

Now one of the tasks she performs is loading finished feedthroughs into a slotted storage block using a pair of tweezers. Each block holds 275 feedthroughs and takes about 15 minutes to fill. Once filled, the block goes on a shelf.

This is tedious work, and watching Vang perform her task you understand why Medtronic makes such a big deal about the holiday party, about its many efforts at motivation. In theory, feeling good about the end product may make work like this seem more tolerable. In truth, Vang has more basic reasons for liking her job. For one thing, while she says that her current work is not as challenging as other jobs she's had, "I like it because of the flexibility of moving, sitting, standing, all the combinations together."

More important, Vang has found a job that doesn't get in the way of her home life, a rich one she's taken years to find. She has no memory of the Thai refugee camp where she was born. Her family got out when she was still an infant and settled in Santa Rosa, Calif. She has straight black hair, translucent skin, and a loud, toothy laugh that she tries to muffle with her hand when she's around strangers. Young as she is, she looks even younger, and her co-workers kid her sometimes. "They still see me as a baby," Vang says, which is ironic because she went straight from having to act like a mother while she was growing up (she's the oldest of eight siblings) to motherhood itself at age 16. She stayed in school, had more babies, and got her high school diploma.

Two years ago, she and her husband, Thai Yang, moved to the Twin Cities, joining some 40 members of Thai's extended family who had come before. So here she is now with a husband, three sons, a full-time job, a mortgage, car payments, and a mother's deep sense of duty. "Since my parents were there for me when I was young, that's what I feel for my kids now."

For Cindy and Thai, being there means not putting their children in day care. Realistically, they don't have much choice. Both Vang and her husband have production jobs at Medtronic that pay less than $500 a week, not enough to cover full-time care for Shiva, who's 5, plus after-school programs for Jova, 6, and Sommy, 7. Maybe in another industry or at another time one production job would be enough to support a family, but not here or now. But both parents say that money isn't the issue; even if they could afford day care they wouldn't want it. "We want to teach them our models," says Thai, whose own haunting memories of life in a refugee camp are vivid. "What we do around the house and what we do for our family."

This is how it goes in the Vang household. Cindy works from five in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon. Thai goes in at 2:30 and works a ten-hour shift until 1 A.M., four days a week. That means that on a typical weekday they're together 40 minutes in the afternoon, plus an overlapping 2 1/2 hours in bed. Thai gets the kids up in the morning, makes breakfast, walks the older ones to school, and minds Shiva until Cindy comes home. Cindy is there when school lets out, makes dinner, helps with homework, puts the kids to bed, and aims to be in bed herself by ten, which gives her six hours of sleep, interrupted briefly in the middle of the night by Thai's return.

What Medtronic gives Cindy Vang is far from perfect. If she and her husband made more money, maybe they would take advantage of Medtronic's employee stock purchase plan; as it is, they need all their income for current expenses. If she had more time off, maybe she could find a way to visit her parents in California, whom she hasn't seen since the move to Minnesota; as it is, she spends her 80 hours of vacation drip by drip on doctors' appointments and stay-at-home sick days with the kids.

But Vang is not complaining. She has a tidy bungalow on a quiet suburban street, happy children she adores, a husband she thinks is "pretty terrific" (he cooks and does housework), an income that gives her an equal-equity stake in the family enterprise, and a low-stress job that, for now, is right for her. Not so much because she's "contributing to human welfare," as the Medtronic mission statement puts it, although she's aware of that (she proudly displays her Medtronic medallion, received with a handshake from Earl Bakken himself, on the mantel above the fireplace in her living room). But ask Vang why she came to Medtronic and she says, "I guess because it was close to home." She already has a mission. It's a personal one.


Justine Fritz leaves the office most afternoons at 4:30 so that she can beat the traffic and not be late to pick up her young son, Michael, at day care. The only way that works for a leader of a 12-member team overseeing a massive product launch for which FDA approval is expected any day now is if she starts really early--at 4 A.M. That gives her an hour of quiet time at the computer while the rest of the house is sleeping, plus an hour on the treadmill and with the weights at the club, and a little time left over to shower and get dressed and drink a protein shake and play with Michael on the kitchen floor for a few minutes until her husband, Jeff, comes downstairs and she can leave for work. Once she arrives, it's pretty much all work and no play for Fritz.

Fritz has thick brown hair that falls below her shoulders, a round face, and expectant eyebrows. She sucks water from a plastic squirt-bottle all day and fuels up on the fly, eating whatever's on the credenza--a bagel at the breakfast meeting, a sandwich at the lunch meeting, popcorn and a cookie at the afternoon meeting. Part of her job right now is managing more than 100 projects--brochures, manuals, sales materials, insurance forms--associated with the launch of the Activa therapy. Each is aimed at a particular audience (doctors, patients, suppliers, hospital administrators), and each has to pass through elaborate, multistep approval processes. The whole of it is subject to a mystery deadline controlled by the FDA that could be tomorrow, for all she knows. "Some days you wake up, and if you think about all the things that you have to do, it's so overwhelming, you could be paralyzed," she says. You could be, maybe, but she isn't. "You just have to get it done."

Fritz doesn't have to wake up at 4 A.M. and try to do it all. Her husband, Jeff, makes a very good living as a tax lawyer with Deloitte & Touche. She could stay home with Michael if she wanted to, a tug she says she feels "every day, every day, every day." But she's made a choice. The summer before last, with Justine coming off maternity leave and Jeff up for partnership, they talked it over. "We kind of reached the conclusion that she's got a great career at Medtronic, really enjoys working there, exciting things going on," says Jeff. "We wanted her to be able to continue, and not necessarily in a part-time deal." Two adjustments came of that discussion: Justine got permission to work at home on Fridays (her mom, who lives right around the corner, comes by to watch Michael), and Jeff voluntarily stepped off the partnership track at Deloitte and instead took a less lucrative and slightly less demanding appointment as a director.

It's plain from the moment you meet Fritz that she loves her work. She loves the powerful sense, reinforced every day, that what she's doing is not trivial, unlike her first job, marketing cakes and pies at Pillsbury. "I've just never worked on anything that so visibly, so dramatically changes the quality of somebody's life," she says. And it's personal. One of the symptoms the Activa therapy addresses is tremor, characterized by constant shaking of the limbs and abrupt movements. Six members of Fritz's family suffer from a related condition, and she herself is at risk.

And frankly, she loves the limelight--the opportunity to excel publicly, on a big corporate stage, and be recognized for her accomplishments. Home life can't give her that, obviously, but neither can toiling below the radar for some puny startup. "I'm a highly competitive person," she says, sitting at the kitchen table after work; Michael's in his high chair, gurgling happily, green dinner goo all over his face. "I'm very driven. I like working on high-profile things. I feed off [recognition], and that keeps me going. You don't get those same types of rewards at home. You have little people saying, 'I love you,' and 'Thank you for being here,' and 'You're the greatest.' It's a whole different reward system. But I need, I don't know, a different kind of validation. They always say that highly driven people are insecure about something." Now she's laughing. "I'm out to prove something to somebody. I'm just not sure what it is."


Bill George has narrow shoulders, a trim frame, and something of a little boy's face, even now. His wife, Penny, remembers thinking he looked about 15 years old when they met as young college graduates in Washington more than 30 years ago. They were introduced soon after George had suffered an unspeakable loss: His fiancee died of a brain tumor two weeks before the wedding. Penny wasn't sure she wanted to deal with a man carrying so much emotional baggage. "But of all the people I'd ever dated," she says, "he was the first one who was genuinely interested in my experience of life, my experience of my work, and that was really compelling."

George still seems most interested in precisely that nexus--where life and work intersect. He thinks about it a lot in his role as CEO. He worries about preserving Medtronic's reputation as a "human" place to work. ("If it's not, we've failed totally.") He regularly gathers up small groups of employees for Breakfast with Bill. ("The idea is to try to get a handle on how employees are feeling about their jobs.") He believes that, companywide, the "passion for the mission" is genuine, but he knows how much pressure his middle managers are under to push new products into the marketplace, and acknowledges, "It's easy for them sometimes maybe not to keep the mission top-of-mind." He marvels at the "incredible intensity" of young people just entering the work force but wonders what's driving them, and isn't sure, always, how to reach them. "You're all going to have plenty of money to live on," he pleads with B-school grads when he goes on recruiting trips. "Why not have real satisfaction in your work?"

George's father was a consultant, an industrial engineer with Booz Allen, and he traveled a lot. Thursday nights when George was a boy his mother would drive him to the airport (he's an only child), where they'd have dinner overlooking the runway and watch his father's plane land. But on Fridays his father was at the office all day, on Saturdays and Sundays he played golf with his pals, and on Sunday nights he flew off again. As soon as the boy was old enough he took up caddying--"so I could be with him on weekends, you know?"--but whatever he got from that, it wasn't enough. Fifty years later, George says simply, "I was much closer to my mother than my father."

In some ways a son will emulate his father, and in other ways he'll try to improve on the model. George doesn't golf; he prefers tennis. ("Tennis you can play in a lot less time.") He belongs to a men's group that has met for coffee every Wednesday morning for the past 25 years to talk about "career changes, marriage problems, problems with children." He meditates daily to manage stress. He quit coming in to work on Saturdays long ago when he figured out that people who worked for him thought that they had to show up too. He has always gone to church with his family on Sundays. And for 13 years, while his own two sons were growing up, he coached their soccer teams.

That's how Bill tells it. Penny, a psychologist, confirms the outlines, but she doesn't want to kid anybody, either. "The truth of it is, there are tradeoffs," she says. George spent the first 20 years of their marriage rising through the ranks at Litton Industries and Honeywell before joining Medtronic as president, in 1989. He traveled a lot (maybe he missed a few soccer practices), worked late, and wasn't always fully present, even when he was around. In 1996, Penny was diagnosed with breast cancer. She's better now, cancer-free five years after a mastectomy and chemo, but there were dark days. "He just couldn't take it in," she says, "so he clung to the positive prognosis. That wasn't where I was. We were kind of doing a dance that wasn't very helpful to me or to us. Finally I was able to articulate that what I really needed to know was that he shared my fear. And then the dance stopped."

George is five months from the finish line. Five months from fulfilling an unsolicited pledge to the Medtronic board to serve ten years, no more, and make way for the next guy. But don't say retirement; he hates that word. Say "transition." And don't think he's slowing down. "I want to finish strong," he says. Under George, Medtronic's sales are five times what they were when he arrived, and they have doubled in just 18 months, following a flurry of acquisitions. He's overseeing the design and construction of a new headquarters out by the highway, a modular corporate campus faithful to George's belief that knowledge workers don't function well in high-rises. And he's busy implementing Vision 2010, which he means to be his legacy. It's a vision of Medtronic as a provider of medical services, not just products, getting paid over the course of a patient's lifetime for futuristic implantable devices that could closely monitor a patient's weak heart, for example, and send his doctor an e-mail when it starts acting up.

He loves his job, and not just because the waters part when he walks through the corridors. He's made compromises in his life, but he feels right about this career choice. "I always dreamed since I was 18 years old of being the head of a major corporation where the values of the company and my own values were congruent," George says. "Where a company could become a kind of symbol for others. Where the product that you represent is doing good for people. We make mistakes. I don't want to be holier than thou, because we make a lot of mistakes. But at least the intent is there."

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