BY TIM JOHNSON
TIJUANA, MEXICO — On a recent day off from her assembly plant job, Antonia Morena put on her prettiest blouse, painted her lips bright red, and returned to her factory, her fiance at her side.
There, the couple took part in a mass wedding.
Two employees on break at the Plantronics headset assembly plant in Tijuana, Mexico, play ping pong at tables provided by the company. TIM JOHNSON — MCT
The factory paid for the invitations, the white roses, photos and wedding cake. It also took care of red tape around the marriage certificate and put on a splashy ceremony for Morena and her fiance, and 30 other couples.
It’s the sort of thing the Plantronics assembly plant here does on a routine basis, earning it earlier this year the U.S. State Department’s corporate excellence award, one of three worldwide, and the loyalty of its 2,300-member work force.
“Those who’ve worked at other plants say it’s better here,” Morena said before taking her wedding vows. “In other plants, they don’t have physicians. They don’t sponsor events to help retirement homes and orphanages. They don’t help us with our savings. If we save 150 pesos, they match it.”
Plantronics, headquartered in Santa Cruz, Calif., designs and assembles headsets for use by air traffic controllers, police and fire dispatchers, and retail clients. It’s had operations in Tijuana for four decades.
Just 400 yards from the U.S. border, its air-conditioned factory floor has natural light filtering in through the louvered roof. Employees, during breaks, congregate around pingpong and foosball tables. Not long ago, Baja California Symphony members set up chairs at the factory and played classical music at the end of one shift. A dance troupe, opera singers, a mime and mariachis have also regaled workers.
“It’s really no wonder that the company has been named the best place to work in Mexico three years in a row,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in January at a ceremony honoring the three companies that won the State Department’s corporate excellence award. He was referring to the judgment of the Great Place to Work Institute in San Francisco.
Kerry noted that the Tijuana plant “contains the largest rooftop solar facility in Latin America,” but he also remarked on the unusual mass weddings at the company.
“Every year, the company helps dozens of couples to navigate the bureaucracy around getting married in Mexico,” he said. “They provide invitations, photos – even a wedding gift. And Plantronics helps the newlyweds even apply for housing as a married couple.”
“Folks, that’s a full-service company,” Kerry added.
To be sure, hundreds of employees at the plant receive little more than the minimum wage of $400 a month – equivalent to other nearby factories _ but promotion possibilities are ample, and morale high. For some, it’s the gymnasium, basketball courts, free Zumba classes and help in reaching a high school or college diploma. For others, it’s the on-floor health clinic with two attending physicians.
“I feel good here,” said Ernesto Martinez Lopez, 34, who moved here from the southern state of Chiapas. “There’s a lot of companionship.”
Through the years, Plantronics in Tijuana has moved far beyond an assembly plant. It now has a 110-person design and engineering center and testing lab that has earned four U.S. patents for its work.
Whether engineers or on the assembly line, all employees are encouraged to suggest ways to improve productivity, winning tickets to sporting events or even better parking spaces for their tips. It’s paid off. The company says it’s saved over $100 million through improvements suggested by employees.
“The company has to make a profit, but we try to make it a gratifying place to work,” said Cesar Lopez, director of government regulations at the plant.
In turn, employee-led teams decide what institutions – such as orphanages, the Red Cross and police and fire departments _ the company should support as part of its practice of improving Tijuana and helping the community. Employees volunteer to take orphans to movies, sports events and on camping trips.
The company provides jerseys for employee cyclists taking part in an annual charity ride to Ensenada and provides buses for beach cleanup campaigns, which have been so successful that the amount of garbage collected each year keeps dropping.
Outside labor experts marvel at employee morale.
When a Great Place to Work team came in to assess attitudes, said Ana Cecilia De Anda, the consulting firm’s regional director, “99 percent answered yes to the statement: Taking everything into consideration, I would say this is a great place to work.”
Not long ago, factory managers arranged for the temporary installation of 600 art works by renowned Mexican painter Raul Anguiano around the plant.
“We brought the museum to the manufacturing floor,” said Alejandro Bustamante, senior vice president of operations.
The company’s reputation has made it easier to bring in such exhibitions.
“The presentation of the orchestra didn’t cost us anything,” said Rosa Ruvalcaba, vice president of manufacturing, noting that artists often like to do outreach to workers.
Bustamante said Plantronics looks broadly at the attitude of employees, their families and even the community.
“If a person has a problem in their house, they will carry the problem to work,” Bustamante said. “We are involved in the education of the kids.”
The company has 188 well-being programs for employees and families, touching on fitness, weight loss, study habits, good parenting and community service. Workstations are scattered about the assembly hall floor where workers can peruse job openings and learn how to gain skills for new jobs.
“Every employee can see how they can advance in the company,” said Diana Alvarado, head of the plant’s human resources department.
Once a year, employees can bring their children to work.
“The kids go home saying, ‘I want to do what my father does,’” said Elizabeth Morales Urrea, a human resources specialist.
Inculcating a sense of mission in employees is part of the company ethic.
“There’s an old story about a couple of workers in a quarry. Somebody comes by and says, ‘What are you doing?’ The first one says, ‘I’m digging rocks.’ The second one says, ‘I’m building a cathedral,’” said chief executive Ken Kannappan during the ceremony Jan. 29 with Kerry.
Employees grasp that lives rely on the headsets they design and assemble, he said.
“We know our headsets have to be depended on, whether it is someone working at a 911 station dispatching fire, police or emergency medical, or someone from the moon,” Kannappan said, noting that Neil Armstrong used a Plantronics headset when he set foot on the moon in 1969.
The scores of benefits that make for a happy workplace make hiring easy.
“A few months ago, we were asking for 75 people that we needed to hire, and we got over 1,000 people,” said Bustamante.
“People always say, ‘Get me a job there. Let me give you my resume,’” said Pedro Rivas Huerta, director of the design center.