A caring company

The nurturing begins with clients and includes the staff

THE CARE OFFERED at Bright Horizons Family Solutions extends beyond the children it sees; it’s also at the heart of how the company treats employees.

“Our feeling is, if you’re not caring for children, you need to be caring for somebody who does,’’ said Mary Ann Tocio, president and chief operating officer.

A Watertown company with more than 700 child care facilities around the world, Bright Horizons placed first among large employers in the Globe’s Top Places to Work survey. The caretaker mentality starts at the top of the 19,000-employee company, founded in 1986 by former relief workers Linda Mason and her husband, Roger Brown, now the president of Berklee College of Music. Bright Horizons chief executive David Lissy invites all the new center directors over to his house four times a year to lunch on swordfish he grills personally. Mary Lou Burke Afonso, senior vice president of client relations, has been known to fill in when teachers are out sick, sitting on the floor with toddlers to read books and sing songs.

“Once we walk through the door, everybody just kind of rolls up their sleeves, titles out the door, and it’s, like, let’s love and care for children,’’ said Brendamarie Contreras, director of the Watertown center.

Tocio and Lissy take several road trips every year to meet with employees, visiting 50 to 100 centers a year. That’s how they discovered — and fixed — a search engine problem on the company’s internal website. It’s also where they realized more teachers would take the online certification class if the company paid the $2,800 fee up front, instead of reimbursing it.

Employees also volunteer at the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children, a nonprofit that sets up kid-friendly spaces in shelters, transforming empty rooms with desks, toys, and games.

Executive assistant Ann Marie Wilson-Crockett, one of 1,600 employees in Massachusetts, works a flexible schedule so she can get her three sons to and from school every day. In her 22 years at Bright Horizons, she has always found the company to be accommodating. Years ago, for example, she requested to be transferred to a center in Los Angeles. Six months later, she changed her mind and asked to come back to New England. “They were so supportive in figuring out, ‘OK, if it’s not going to work, what can we have you do?’ ’’ Wilson-Crockett said. “I always say it’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had.’’

Bright Horizons is guided by a set of values it calls the Heart Principles: “We give explanations, not orders,’’ states one; “We ask the question, ‘Why not?’ before we say no,’’ says another. For his first two years, Danroy “Dan’’ T. Henry, chief human resources officer, carried around an increasingly tattered copy of the principles wherever he went. “It’s the place where I go if I don’t have the answer,’’ he said.

The final Heart Principle, “We are doing serious and important work,’’ speaks to Bright Horizons’ efforts to improve the perception of child-care providers. Teachers are called faculty members and given educational and leadership opportunities to boost their careers; Lissy refers to the directors he cooks lunch for as “mini-CEOs.’’

“This hasn’t historically been a profession that people have viewed as professional work,’’ said Henry. “They’re not babysitting. These are real career jobs.’’

Jen O’Reilly had planned to stay for only a year when she started as an assistant teacher fresh out of college. That was 12 years ago. Partly through interactions with Bright Horizons leaders, she realized she already had the respect and growth opportunities she once thought came only with a graduate degree.

“It was just a sense of caring and respect for every level and position,’’ said O’Reilly, who is now a regional manager overseeing centers in Natick, Watertown, Framingham, Marlborough, and Wayland.

Erin Brown, a client who brings her 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter to the Watertown facility, enjoys seeing the same faces year after year.

“I would imagine this is a very high turnover industry,’’ said Brown, marketing and communications director for the books division at Harvard Business Review Press. “It seems like a stable environment, and the teachers do seem happy.’’

Lissy takes pride in his company’s retention rates, which he said lead to higher-quality services and in turn, more clients. That makes taking good care of employees a key part of the company’s business plan, he said. The recession took a toll on Bright Horizons centers located at the offices of companies hit by layoffs or mergers, and there were slight staff reductions at several facilities; yet it opened 55 new centers last year. And it looks like that number of new centers will be reached this year, as well. “Our culture,’’ Lissy said, “is a competitive advantage.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at  

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