Kimpton Hotels operates boutique properties with distinctive personalities and an emphasis on spontaneous, personal connections between staff and guests. Even with 8,000 employees, it can't afford the kind of corporate, dehumanizing culture that squeezes the life out of many large companies.

The late founder, Bill Kimpton, believed that to build a company, you must help people grow, and not just professionally. So in the mid-'90s, when Kimpton owned a handful of hotels and employed just a few hundred people, he introduced a "self-insight" program. A psychologist led senior managers through one-on-one sessions to help them understand their patterns of behavior. Managers and colleagues received lessons on how to mesh their personalities in the workplace. Frequent off-sites gave departments the chance to learn more about one another. As a result, trust--which tends to dissipate as companies grow--has deepened.

Year founded
Hotels in 16 states and the District of Columbia

The program also broadcasts a Kimpton value: individuality. The best way to care for guests, the company maintains, is to relate to them as one unique person to another unique person. That doesn't happen when employees are pressed into molds. "We've created an inclusive, supportive, human culture, where we demand people show up and be who they are," says CEO Michael Depatie. "I want the people with the nose rings and the preppies. We celebrate people's differences."

To get that message out, senior leaders stage "road shows" at each of the 60 Kimpton properties every year, at which they exhort employees to lavish equal care on the guests and on one another. "We don't talk about how to be the biggest hotel company but how to improve a guest's life," says Depatie. "How do you make your fellow employee's day better?"

Another value that size often suffocates is humor. At Kimpton, humor contributes to individuality, creativity, and a level of comfort that allows staff to respond to a guest's joking request for a bath full of Reese's Pieces with a bag of the candy and a drawing of a tub. New employees get the message at orientation, which features tequila shots from the udders of a life-size plastic cow on wheels. Hula-Hoops come out at general managers' meetings.

The need to sustain culture affects the rate of hotel openings. Kimpton refuses to franchise and has been cautious about expanding overseas, wary of how the "Kimpton magic" will translate to other markets. "I've got a golden goose here," says Depatie. "But it can lay only so many eggs so quickly."