The shoe-in
Here's how CEO Jeffrey Swartz keeps Timberland firmly planted on our list.
By Kate Bonamici

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Tough. Rugged. Enduring. You might describe Timberland boots that way, but it's also a fitting description of CEO Jeffrey Swartz. His company is one of only 20 that have earned a spot in every Best Companies survey. When we launched the list in 1998, Swartz had just succeeded his father and uncle at the helm of his grandfather's company. In the years since, Timberland's sales have risen 75 percent, net profit has nearly tripled, and its stock is up over 300 percent (not to mention that rapper "Timbaland" has carved out quite a career as a producer). We caught up with Swartz to discuss apparel, Timberland's "NFL draft," and the secrets to staying a Best Company. Below, edited excerpts.

We hear from a lot of big companies that the larger you get, it gets harder and harder to keep employees happy. What's been your experience?

Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz
Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz

Scale makes it harder to have real relationships. I've had to really change what I do. It would be so convenient to have a big sales meeting in a hotel ballroom -- but that's not our community. You've got to look the other person in the eye. We would have had two or three smaller meetings when the company was 500 employees. Now that it's 5,000, I've gotta do the meeting ten times.

How do you make sure a new hire is going to fit into the Timberland culture?

The night before I interview someone, the recruiter will call and say, "Wear your favorite outfit tomorrow, whatever it is -- please don't wear a new pair of Timberlands. Dress passionately." Once I had a guy show up in a really tight navy-blue suit. He said, "I got married in this suit.... I remember every single instant of my wedding." I said, "I love this guy! I can't wait to have a creative discussion with him, because he's going to fight for what he believes in." With senior people, we also try to do a day of community service with them before we hire them. It's not a test, but I'll tell you, in an interview I'm sure you're more clever than I am. But on a service site you're out of your comfort zone, and you will reveal who you are.

How do you make sure employees don't get bored?

We have what our HR guy calls the NFL draft. We identify high-potential employees, and at least twice a year we get in a big room and say, "Okay, who can we throw something weird at?" Really cool things have come from that -- our treasurer, who was a 20-year finance person, became an international sales and marketing vice president.

How was your web business this Christmas?

Way up over last year -- I was thrilled, and very pleased with our execution.

Do you have any holiday sales figures?

Some, but no comprehensive results yet.

How do you approach hiring for the web and developing that business?

Web talent is mostly developed from within, but we have a wonderful partnership with a company called GSI that is our "platform" partner.

There are a lot of family firms on this list. Why do you think that is?

Families are also communities, and they are also organized around values and mission. When you come from a context of family -- I'd come to work and my dad would be here -- it forces the integration of personal values and mission into the workday. That's a powerful way to think about organizing the business.

What's your favorite boot?

I've taken groups to our factories in the Dominican Republic, and had them make boots. It helps people understand what a bootmaker really is. And I'm telling you, those oddly stitched, slightly off-center, boots are prized possessions around here.


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