Sept. 26, 2005--Don't let anyone tell you there isn't a free lunch, says Jim Wallace, CEO of GuideOne Insurance.

While rising costs are forcing many small and medium-sized businesses to slash employee benefits, workers at his company's West Des Moines, Iowa, office are eating in the cafeteria free of charge. They also get free parking, free coffee, a 39-hour work week and casual Fridays.

Those are just a few of the benefits offered at GuideOne, which was recognized Monday as one of Principal Financial Group's top ten best companies nationwide for employee financial security.

Employees at GuideOne, an insurance provider for churches, private schools and not-for-profit seniors residences, are also offered a defined pension plan, 401(K), benefit credits, an employee incentive plan linked to profitability, an educational assistance plan, a credit union, and a fitness program reimbursement.

"Our main cost is our employees," admitted Wallace, "but they're also our biggest asset. And we think taking care of them is pretty important." It's working, too. Last year the company's net income soared by over 50% to $20.3 million.

The Principal Financial Group's top ten list, now in its fourth year, recognizes small companies, like GuideOne with fewer than 1,000 workers, which excel in providing financial security to its workers. It is open to all small and medium-sized businesses based in the U.S. that have offered, as a minimum, "traditional" benefits relating to retirement, health, life or disability over the past five years. Some 500 companies were nominated this year.

In a more general way, the awards also highlight the economic importance of small and medium-sized companies, which make up some 99% of all businesses in the U.S. and employ about half of all private sector workers, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Census Bureau. As much as 80% of all new jobs in the U.S. are generated by small businesses each year, recent figures show.

Yet an estimated 25 million small-business owners, employees or dependents of small businesses are not covered by health insurance. That accounts for the largest segment of the country's uninsured population, according Dan Danner, executive vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Principal Financial Group's top ten winners this year, which includes firms with a few dozen workers to those with over 800, have each adopted innovative strategies to manage costs in continuing to offer wellness programs, health education and retirement savings.

Some have taken a proactive approach to driving employee behavior in trimming health care costs. Washington Trust offers its employees $100 to help quit smoking, said Kristen DiSanto, the company's vice president of human resources. They also redirected health-care coverage after discovering workers were using costly emergency room visits as primary care.

"People were going to emergency rooms with colds. So it wasn't very cost effective," said DiSanto.

The company also stresses employee education, with monthly seminars on retirement savings and other long-term investments.

Other winners this year ranged from manufacturers to financial service providers across the country. Each was evaluated on how well it covered major life events, such as retirement and disability, as well as how much was offered in terms of matches or premiums.

The judging panel, which included top executives from the Employee Benefit Research Institute and the Profit Sharing/401(K) Council of America, as well as business school teachers from the Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern University, among other business groups, weighed the importance the companies put on benefits deemed crucial to long-term financial security.

These included retirement plans, strong medical coverage, premium subsidies by employers, disability options, group life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment coverage, medical and retirement packages for part-time employees, and effective communication methods to enable workers to capitalize on those benefits.

Renee Schaaf, vice president of the Principal Financial Group, called the winners "impressive role models for other growing businesses." She said it was "nothing short of amazing that the companies were not cutting benefits in a cost environment that's tougher than ever."

"They have successfully navigated the benefits challenges faced by most small and medium sized businesses, including rising health care costs," Schaaf said in a statement last week.

The complete list of winners includes Flexible Steel Lacing Company, Downers Grove, IL; American Council of Life Insurers, Washington, D.C.; American Lung Association, New York, NY; GuideOne Insurance, West Des Moines, LA; Campus USA Credit Union, Gainesville, FL; The Washington Trust Company, Westerly, RI; Southwest Power Pool, Inc., Little Rock, AR; Glatfelter Insurance Group, York, PA; Moran Towing Corporation, New Canaan, CT; and Fremont Co-operative Produce Company, Fremont, MI.