If you work under N1 Critical Technologies CEO Nate Ellsworth, you might be downstairs at the company’s downtown Janesville corporate office, playing video games for an hour or so.
Or you might be someplace cuing up that one YouTube video of the hyper-muscled “buff cat” you decided 13 seconds ago would brighten your day.
Ellsworth isn’t trying to figure out where you snuck off to just now.
He’s actually upstairs, in a Milwaukee Brewers cap, a plaid shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. He’s on a weird-looking hover board with blinking lights, scooting from a sales call in his office to someplace else.
If he needs to recharge his own brain, maybe he’s in Chief Financial Officer David Farrell’s office, catching a lunchtime snippet of “Band of Brothers” on Farrell’s 65-inch office TV screen.
Farrell’s office is just one many hangout spots for employees.
Ellsworth’s N1 Critical went live earlier this winter selling its innovative, new line of lithium-ion powered, uninterruptable electronic power supply systems. The firm of 15 mostly Janesville-area natives recently moved into the company’s new digs in downtown Janesville—the former Red Cross building at 211 N. Parker Drive that N1 bought and renovated over the last year.
On a deceptively casual morning at the N1 office, 17 pallets of the company’s product were ready to go outbound to a new client. It was a big enough sale to be eyebrow-arching for a few leaders at N1. The startup aims to grow in the near future to a $40 million, 40-employee, national company with clients that now include NASA, Tesla, and few major airlines, Ellsworth said.
Under Ellsworth’s hand-built business philosophy, he thinks having some unguarded office fun won’t harm N1’s bottom line.
In fact, during a time when the local and national unemployment rates have dipped to around 3 percent—near full employment—Ellsworth said his office’s tech-casual environment might not hurt N1’s ability to recruit and retain workers.
There’s getting it done, and then there’s getting it done with fun.
“Here’s my take: If you’re tired, if you’re having a s——- day, go play some video games for a while. Take a nap. What’s an hour break going to do, except make you feel better?” Ellsworth said. “My whole goal is to be named the No. 1 best place to work. We don’t have to be the biggest or most profitable. But I want to be known as the best place to work.”
N1 has turned the place into an open-concept office splashed in the company’s colors of blue and black, along with bright green, 3-D wall panels made of bamboo. The office is outfitted with quiet meeting space; a gym and shower room; and break areas with lounge chairs TVs, tea tables, video games, virtual reality headsets, toy drones and other gadgets. Along with soda, the office fridge has vodka and beer.
Not only do Ellsworth and his other executives endorse such mild hi jinks as unicycle riding in the office—yes, that’s actually a thing for one N1 employee—the company has a slew of unorthodox office policies, including a work-from-home policy for employees who might want to tunnel in a few days a week.
Ellsworth said N1 does not limit vacation days with any set policy. He said he’s found that if employees have a set number of vacation days, many will tend not to use the time off.
“I’ve tried before to offer $500 for people to leave their computers and phones here if they’ll just get out of here for a honeymoon, or a couple days of vacation. You want people to be able to disconnect and go recharge if they need that,” he said.
Jennifer Revels, who runs local human resources consulting firm Revels Consulting, said that in the current job market there’s no one strategy that’s a silver bullet for recruiting or retaining workers.
While the office ambience at N1 might seem a revelation to some long running local companies, talks Revels gives to local companies about recruiting and retention focus on the importance of being more flexible with work hours and work-from-home hours.
“You have to have the combination of pay, benefits and strong leadership and engagement and communication with employees to really have the perfect formula. Most are really good in one or two areas but not always good in all areas,” Revels said.
Revels said she hears from many companies that are struggling to keep people and attract new employees in the current market.
“Employees are all motivated by different things. Depends on what they value most, (whether it’s) pay, benefits, culture, relationships or (the) challenge of work,” she said.
Startups and newer, smaller companies such as N1 that might be uniquely positioned to write their own book on company culture geared keep employees happy.
Katrina Pitas, vice president of SHINE Medical Technologies in Janesville, said her company is focused on getting employees to hang out with each other outside the office and engage with what is for many is a new community.
SHINE is a medical radioisotope startup that moved its corporate offices to downtown Janesville last year. The company has grown by a few dozen to 70 or so employees—many of them engineers or physicists with a focus on nuclear technology.
Many of SHINE’s newest employees moved here from throughout the U.S., Pitas said.
“We try to do a lot of community engagement activities as a way to get employees to connect to the community here. A lot of our people aren’t from Janesville. They moved from out of town,” she said.
Recently, SHINE employees—about 40 of them in all—spent an afternoon out of the office sprucing up Riverside Park. Pitas said the employees painted a building at the park, and some worked on landscaping, such as shoveling new mulch in flowerbeds at the park.
SHINE plans its summer company picnic at Riverside Park.
The company also plans regular office potlucks and outings at different locations in Janesville each month, Pitas said. Those aren’t new-fangled techniques, but they are intended to get as many different employees together as possible.
Recently, it was a few hours at Rock County Brewing for a “Star Wars” themed office trivia night—drinks on the company.
Revels said in talks she gives on recruiting and retaining employees, she stresses the importance of group activities as a way to build loyalty, particularly among younger employees.
Pitas said SHINE group activities are intended to humanize coworkers.
“Those kind of things make a big different in how everyone in the company works together. It’s taking you out of that formal setting that can make a bigger difference in relationships.
“When you are working with people, my office isn’t next to the chief financial officer. It’s next to a guy with a family who has interests,” Pitas said.
Maybe you heard their sweet voices on a spring morning.
Late last month, pastor Felix Malpica led preschool children from the chapel into the parking lot at Janesville’s Faith Lutheran Church.
There, they joyously sang “so the whole neighborhood could hear us,” the pastor explained.
It’s no secret that people of God sing.
But Pastor Felix, as he is affectionately called by church members, is someone with exceptional musical talent.
When the 31-year-old lifts up his voice, “it sends chills down your spine,” one church member declared.
When he plays an assortment of musical instruments, including the conga drums and ukulele, he builds community.
When he chooses world music for Sunday service, people in Janesville know they are linked to others around the globe.
Pastor Felix and music director Cherie Norquay select music for Sunday services from a variety of sources.
Global songs, including Zulu, Korean and Hebrew music, stretch the congregation in good ways, Pastor Felix believes.
“Music from around the world connects the congregation with a broader sense of what their church is,” he said. “We are not just a church in Janesville. We are not just a white church or an English-speaking church. We are a church that celebrates around the world in many different ways and many different rhythms.”
The congregation never really knows what it will hear and sing each Sunday. But the music best reflects the Scripture message, Norquay said.
Most of the world music comes from the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, so it is available to any congregation using the hymnal.
“But Felix teaches the congregation how to sing many of those songs in the original language,” Norquay said. “And we sing those songs more frequently than I believe many Lutheran churches do.”
Donna Herzfeldt, president of the congregation, said she enjoys singing songs from different cultures and in different languages.
“Janesville is not exactly the most multicultural place,” Herzfeldt said. “But we are getting some of that through global music.”
She called music a great way to unite people of different backgrounds.
“I like the feeling of making friends rather than enemies,” Herzfeldt said.
Pastor Felix marked his one-year anniversary as senior pastor May 29. In the last year, church attendance has almost doubled.
“I think people love the worship experience, the message, the music,” Herzfeldt said.
The charismatic minister, who often wears jeans and different colored Converse tennis shoes, talks easily to people of all ages.
“He has a maturity beyond his years,” Herzfeldt said. “Our older members love him, and he emphasizes the welcoming of children. Our congregation needed revitalization. He brought back families and kids.”
Pastor Felix was born and spent his early years in Puerto Rico, where he still has family on the outskirts of San Juan. He traveled to the island in February to see how relatives fared after last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria.
Parishioners donated $14,000 in gift cards for Pastor Felix to give to the Caribbean Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and other reputable groups for distribution.
As a child, Pastor Felix’s father was bishop of the Caribbean Synod.
Later, Pastor Felix and his family moved to Chicago, when his father, Rafael, took another important position with the church. Today, Rafael is bishop for Global Missions for the ELCA.
Growing up under his father’s shadow, people often asked a young Felix if he was going to be a pastor someday. At first, he did not think so.
Then something happened to make him reconsider.
As a teen, he helped serve Communion and chanted some of the liturgy during First Communion Sunday.
“I remember being overwhelmed by the moment,” Pastor Felix said. “I remember feeling that it was such a privilege to be part of those sacred moments in people’s lives. I thought this could be something I do for the rest of my life.”
From an early age, Pastor Felix was involved with the church’s global ministries. He learned a lot by attending summer missionary conferences, where he met people from all over the world.
Pastor Felix earned degrees in music and Spanish literature from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and he also studied abroad in Spain. Later, he attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, on a full scholarship.
At a summer camp in Wisconsin, he met his wife, Jessica. They have a 1-year-old son, Javier.
Pastor Felix calls music a tool that has taught him how to be a better pastor.
“My job as a pastor is to unlock the true potential of a community,” he said. “The point of the church is to open us up so we can see our neighbors with love and to see people around the world with love.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux @gazettextra.com.
President Donald Trump’s lawyers composed a secret 20-page letter to special counsel Robert Mueller to assert that he cannot be forced to testify while arguing that he could not have committed obstruction because he has absolute authority over all federal investigations.
The existence of the letter, which was first reported and posted by The New York Times on Saturday, was a bold assertion of presidential power and another front on which Trump’s lawyers have argued that the president can’t be subpoenaed in the special counsel’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The letter is dated January 29 and addressed to Mueller from John Dowd, one of Trump’s lawyers at the time who has since resigned from the legal team. In the letter, the Trump’s lawyers argue that a charge of illegal obstruction is moot because the Constitution empowers the president to, “if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon.”
Trump weighed in on Saturday on Twitter, asking “Is the Special Counsel/Justice Department leaking my lawyers letters to the Fake News Media?” He added: “When will this very expensive Witch Hunt Hoax ever end? So bad for our Country.”
Mueller has requested an interview with the president to determine whether he had criminal intent to obstruct the investigation into his associates’ possible links to Russia’s election interference. Trump had previously signaled that he would be willing to sit for an interview, but his legal team, including head lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have privately and publicly expressed concern that the president could risk charges of perjury.
If Trump does not consent to an interview, Mueller will have to decide whether to forge forward with a historic grand jury subpoena. His team raised the possibility in March of subpoenaing the president but it is not clear if it is still under active consideration. Giuliani has told The Associated Press that the president’s legal team believes the special counsel does not have the authority to do so.
A court battle is likely if Trump’s team argues that the president can’t be forced to answer questions or be charged with obstruction of justice. President Bill Clinton was charged with obstruction in 1998 by the House of Representatives as part of his impeachment trial. And one of the articles of impeachment prepared against Richard Nixon in 1974 was for obstruction.
Topics of Mueller’s obstruction investigation include the firings of both Comey and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, as well Trump’s reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation.
In addition to the legal battles, Trump’s team and allies have waged a public relations campaign against Mueller to discredit the investigation and soften the impact of the special counsel’s potential findings. Giuliani said last week that the special counsel probe may be an “entirely illegitimate investigation” and need to be curtailed because, in his estimation, it was based on inappropriately obtained information from an informant and former FBI director James Comey’s memos.
In reality, the FBI began a counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 to determine if Trump campaign associates were coordinating with Russia to tip the election. The investigation was opened after the hacking of Democratic emails that intelligence officials later formally attributed to Russia.
Giuliani has said a decision will not be made about a possible presidential interview with the special counsel until after Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore.
local • 2A-3A
Chapel restoration celebrated
Oak Hill Cemetery chapel Saturday morning hosted a group of about 120 in the chapel on Janesville’s northwest side. The crowd had come to witness the grand opening of the chapel and celebrate the completion of a five-year, volunteer restoration project that has brought the 119-year-old, stone chapel back from the brink of demolition. “In 60 years, I’ve never heard anyone really, truly play that organ,” Janesville resident Jon Harrie said as he looked around the chapel in wonder. “This is really something else.”
sports • 1B-9B
Sippy completes ‘triple crown’
Peyton Sippy capped her illustrious high school running career in rare fashion Saturday with her own version of the triple crown. Sippy can now lay claim to being the fastest Division 1 runner in the state over one mile, two miles and three miles. Sippy led from gun to finish in the 1,600 meters Saturday and broke a school record for the second straight day.
nation/world • 10B-11B
Just what is denuclearization?
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un say they have the same goal—denuclearization of the Korean peninsula—at their upcoming summit in Singapore. But they disagree fundamentally about what that would look like.