Even when Oil Changers was small, CEO Larry Read recognized the danger of dissension in the ranks. Today most of his 500-plus workers are doing automobile lube jobs far removed from the management's offices -- a setup that could quickly turn into Us versus Them.

So from the beginning, Read made it company policy to have blue-collar and white-collar employees mix. Everyone at the Pleasanton, Calif., company, including managers, starts by doing lube jobs in the pit. And everyone in the corporate offices revisits the shop floor one day each month to greet customers and to work on a team, performing nontechnical tasks. Read himself works there two days a month.

"This is not some fraternal initiation," Read says. It reminds office workers of who those 500 names are. "It's easy to begin complaining about the field workers. But they pay our paycheck. We're here purely as support." The monthly fraternizing makes it easier, too, for workers to approach the office with problems. To Read, that aspect alone makes it worth paying someone an executive salary to pop drain plugs for a day.

Another benefit: on the shop floor, the management can run reality checks on ivory-tower assumptions. While washing windows one day, one cost-conscious executive discovered that the new towels he'd thought would save $20,000 weren't good at absorbing.

At many companies office workers might resent being asked to dirty their hands. Since about 60% of Oil Changers' administrative staff has risen through the ranks, that kind of labor comes more naturally there. But Rick Stubbs, who joined the company six years ago as an accountant, admits that at first he found it strange. Now, he says, the hands-on work is necessary for him to do his job right.