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Meet the new boss

How some of America's best small companies inspire workers and boost the bottom line.

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(Fortune Small Business) -- The Great Recession won't last forever, but no matter what comes next, business as usual is clearly over.

Wall Street and Detroit are melting before our eyes. Trade barriers are rising globally, while the federal government moves into corporate boardrooms here at home. Meanwhile, in offices and garages all across America, entrepreneurs are looking past the recession and inventing the great companies of the future, just as William Procter and James Gamble, Thomas Edison and Fred Smith looked past the Panic of 1837, the Long Depression of the late 19th century and the Oil Crisis of 1973, respectively, when they launched Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500), General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) and Federal Express (FDX, Fortune 500).

Innovation isn't always about inventing a new gadget or service. Sometimes it's about maximizing the most obvious asset a business has -- its employees. Nowadays almost nobody expects to work at the same company until retirement.

"The old employee contract was, 'I devote myself to you, the employer, for the long haul, and in return I get job security and a chance to grow within the company," says Batia Mishan Wiesenfeld, a professor of management at New York University's Stern School of Business.

This paternalistic worker-boss relationship prevailed in corporate America from the end of World War II right up until the early 1990s, when globalization forced most Fortune 500 companies to protect profit margins via automation, offshoring and downsizing.

Corporate America still has its advantages, namely health care and pension plans. However, most big companies can't provide what modern workers want most: intimate workplaces, cutting-edge benefits and creative input. But that's exactly what the companies profiled here offer.

At Daxko, an Alabama software firm, employees keep stress levels down by playing Rock Band on a 52-inch office television. Maya Design, a creative consulting agency in Pittsburgh, blurs the line between work and life by allowing staffers to bring their babies to the office. After one year at Colorado's New Belgium Brewing, employees receive a free bike to lower their carbon footprint. They also get shares in the company, giving them a voice -- and a stake -- in its future. And all of these businesses offer generous health benefits to boot.

These strategies won't all work in every firm: There are probably as many ways to be a great boss as there are small businesses in America. But these companies, some of which we found with the help of the Great Place to Work Institute, a research and management consultancy based in San Francisco, provide glimpses of a 21st-century employer-employee contract, one that keeps employees engaged and gives entrepreneurs the productivity they seek.

Talk back: Tell us how your company motivates its staff.  To top of page

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QMy dream is to launch my own business someday. Now that it's time to choose a major, I'm debating if I should major in entrepreneurial studies or major in engineering to acquire a set of skills first. Is majoring in entrepreneurship a good choice? More
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- Spate, Orange, Calif.

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