Whether we’re in a recession or still teetering on the brink of one, you don’t need a degree in the dismal science to see that the times are dismal. Tumbling home values, credit markets in crisis, skyrocketing food and energy prices, and the occasional investment-bank meltdown are just some of the troubles jolting the U.S. economy. Now the pain is leaching into the workplace, where pink (as in slips) is the year’s hot new color—the economy lost 260,000 jobs in the first four months of 2008—and gloom the prevailing mood.


It’s the Stupid Economy
The challenging times have hit local companies hard. We catalog some of the pain.
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Undaunted, we went in search of local employers who are defying the economic odds and positioning themselves to emerge even stronger once this downturn ends. While many companies are tightening belts, laying off workers, and hanging on for dear life (see "It’s the Stupid Economy"), a wide range of local workplaces—from global corporations to mom-and-pop outfits to not-for-profit organizations—are not just surviving but thriving and even hiring. We found a drugstore titan filling the prescriptions of aging boomers (a growth business indeed); a downstate heavy equipment maker riding the global boom in commodities and industrialization; and two restaurant chains easing the strain on consumer wallets with tasty and affordable food. There’s even a bank that emerged relatively unscathed from the credit crisis.

To make it onto our list, organizations had to have sound financial performance or backing, an appetite for expansion, an ability to hire new workers, and a reputation for a supportive work environment. A few names on our list may even prove to be shrewd holdings for long-term investors. Surviving hard times is not easy. But it can be done, and the workplaces we dug up are proving it.

Leading provider of independent investment research and advice, best known for its ratings of mutual funds

If you’ve ever invested money in a mutual fund, you may have based your decision on the rating it had earned from Morningstar, one of the world’s most trusted names for unbiased investment advice. Joe Mansueto launched the company in 1984 out of his Lincoln Park living room to help ordinary investors make better sense of mutual funds, which had exploded in popularity but were not well understood at the time. Morningstar’s easy-to-grasp star ratings of fund quality became the industry’s gold standard, and Morningstar has since expanded into other realms of financial research and advice. Today the company taps its database—which tracks 265,000 mutual funds, stocks, hedge funds, variable annuities, and other securities—to guide not just individual investors but also professional financial advisers and institutional clients such as mutual fund companies, banks, and brokerage houses.

HELP WANTED: If the market funk that has roiled investors in recent months should morph into an ugly bear market, demand for the kind of investment advice Morningstar offers could wane as well. But so far in this volatile market, Morningstar’s business has boomed, and the company has been adding workers to meet growing demand. Over the course of 2007, the work force grew by 23.6 percent, to 2,040 employees worldwide, almost half of them in Chicago. Recently the company was looking to fill about 50 positions, most of them in Chicago, including stock analysts, data experts, technical staff, and more.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Morningstar has won praise for its enlightened policies toward workers. "I like the fact that we treat people as adults," says Mansueto. Employees can take as much vacation time as they want, provided their work gets done, but they are encouraged to take at least three weeks a year. Every four years, employees can take a six-week paid sabbatical. The work environment is open, designed to foster creativity, and it’s egalitarian—even the billionaire Mansueto sits in a cubicle.

STOCK WATCH: Morningstar is one of those stocks that always seem cheap only in retrospect (it has more than tripled since its initial public offering in May 2005 and trades at a seemingly lofty 35 times the earnings analysts expect for this year). That remained the case after May’s blowout quarterly report—revenues climbed 31 percent; earnings soared 42 percent—which sent the stock up more than 20 percent. Still, it’s a powerful brand with a wide competitive moat and breathtaking growth prospects. If the share price drifts down from its recent $70, the time could be right to lasso this shooting star.

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Global provider of auditing, consulting, financial advisory, and tax services

Even in troubled times, says Carl Steidtmann, chief economist for Deloitte Research, companies can still grow if they are "diversified across enough sectors of the economy to buffer them from a downturn in any one sector." He was talking about companies in general, but he could have been describing his parent company, Deloitte LLP, which serves clients around the world with an array of auditing and consulting services. "We have a broad and deep set of businesses serving a broad and deep set of clients, from global corporations to midsize companies to entrepreneurs," says Deb DeHaas, a Midwest regional managing partner in Deloitte’s Chicago office. "While some of them may be up or down, depending on the business cycle, they all balance each other out very nicely." Case in point: Deloitte’s mergers-and-acquisitions transaction work has slowed over the past year; but, as many clients have struggled to stay profitable, Deloitte has done a brisk business advising them on cutting costs, improving efficiency, and restructuring operations.

HELP WANTED: During the fiscal year that ended May 31st, Deloitte’s Chicago work force grew by 6.6 percent (a tad better than the 5.9 percent for its total U.S. work force). The company is always hungry for workers with finance and accounting backgrounds. The Chicago office recently had 400 open positions listed at all levels of experience and across a broad range of jobs, from frontline client consultants to a variety of pros who support them, in marketing, business development, finance, information technology, human resources, and more.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Deloitte is a perennial on various annual lists of the best places to work. And last year it ranked number one on BusinessWeek‘s roundup of the best places to launch a career, reflecting its excellent training and career development programs. Deloitte also scores high on measures of work-life balance (abundant options for job sharing, compressed workweeks, and telecommuting), diversity (33 percent of employees are minorities; 45 percent are women), and community involvement (for the company’s annual Impact Day last year, 1,900 employees from the Chicago office volunteered on projects that benefited the American Red Cross, Renaissance 2010, and the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce).

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One of the world’s largest hedge fund management firms

It’s hard to think of a better business to be in during volatile economic times than one whose expertise is in managing risk, which is what hedge funds do. Yet even among these arcane investment vehicles, Chicago’s Citadel Investment Group stands out. In 2007, when the average hedge fund returned about 10.4 percent, the agile and opportunistic Citadel—investing in a bankrupt subprime lender, the online broker E-Trade, and other distressed businesses—returned 30 percent and boosted assets from $13.4 billion to $20 billion. Citadel has been pushing aggressively into international markets by hiring senior executives in places like Hong Kong and London, and it intends to deepen its reach into nearly every asset class. But you don’t have to be a whip-smart master trader to find opportunity there. Spying an opportunity to provide administrative services to other hedge funds, Citadel recently spun out its back-office operations as a subsidiary called Citadel Solutions. It offers support services—reconciling financial documents, tracking trades, monitoring compliance, valuing portfolios—to Citadel Investment Group and other hedge funds, freeing them to focus on what they do best. "We manage the life cycle of the trade after the execution of the transaction," says Ann Marie Davis, head of global operations at Citadel Solutions. "A lot of these [trading] firms are not good at and not interested in being in that business."

HELP WANTED: Since launching as a subsidiary in July 2007, Citadel Solutions has grown from 100 employees to 170, and it continues to ramp up, says Davis. With about 35 positions currently open, the subsidiary is looking for technology experts, accountants, financial analysts, marketing pros, and client support specialists.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Kenneth Griffin, Citadel’s founder and CEO, could attest to the rewards of the hedge fund business—he earned an estimated $1.5 billion last year, according to the magazine Alpha. But even at the lower ranks, "this is a culture where performance is rewarded," says Davis. Other perks include an on-site gym, tuition reimbursement, and free classes taught on-site by University of Chicago professors. But ultimately Citadel Solutions is about opportunity, says Davis, the chance to join a start-up and help build it. "We look at the opportunities here not as a job but as a career," she says.

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It’s the Stupid Economy
The challenging times have hit local companies hard. We catalog some of the pain.
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Pet-care service provider

Americans don’t just love their pets. They dote on them in good times and bad. Fleece doggie pajamas, anyone? Gourmet cat food? Pet psychotherapy? In a recent survey, the New York-based American Kennel Club found that 88 percent of dog owners thought of their pooch as a "beloved" family member. "Owners are willing to give up other things to pay for the needs of this family member," says Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the kennel club. That’s good news for the scores of entrepreneurs in Chicago who have launched services dedicated to keeping the family pooch happy and fit. Belmont Terrace-based DoggieWorks, for example, is the brainchild of its owner, Jennifer Zaidan, a former veterinary technician who has worked with dogs for more than ten years. The company’s services include walking and obedience training; staff members will even drive clients to their vets or grooming appointments.

HELP WANTED: Right now, DoggieWorks has about six full-time dog walkers and is looking for more as it expands further into other parts of the city, Zaidan says. A typical dog walker is a college student or someone such as a single parent who needs a flexible work schedule. Dog walkers get $6 per walk and can earn bonuses for extra services or for referring new clients or employees. One potential downside: DoggieWorks prefers employees who have cars, but it does not cover the cost of gas, insurance, and maintenance.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: This line of work isn’t for everyone. People who don’t relate to dogs are barking up the wrong tree. "We look for high-energy people that love, love dogs," says Zaidan.

MORE OPPORTUNITIES: During her 24 years running Pet and Plant Care Service (petandplant.com) on Chicago’s North Side, Deborah Zell Mathews has seen scores of competitors come and go. When Mathews started her company, there was a "small, tight group" of pet care entrepreneurs; now there are around 370 Chicago-area pet-sitting and exercise services listed on Yellowpages.com. Getting into the business is fairly easy, because start-up costs are relatively low, Mathews says.

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One of the world’s leading producers of mining and construction equipment

Global free trade may have become a whipping boy in some political circles, but the issue is playing well in Peoria. With the U.S. economy faltering and Caterpillar’s North American sales growth languishing in the low single digits, the company is delivering stellar financial results and doing its share to hold down the U.S. trade deficit thanks to skyrocketing global demand for its mining and construction equipment. In the past five years, annual revenues have more than doubled, to over $45 billion. In the first quarter of 2008, sales bulldozed 18 percent ahead of the comparable period a year earlier, with much of the growth coming from exports. Global demand for natural resources has fueled a surge in orders for the company’s large mining trucks (made in Decatur), wheel loaders and hydraulic excavators (made in Aurora), hydraulic components (made in Joliet), and other equipment. And in emerging markets, a boom in infrastructure projects such as roads, tunnels, and power plants has boosted demand for Cat’s earthmoving machinery.

HELP WANTED: Caterpillar’s global work force numbers 102,000, about 26,000 of whom punch the clock in Illinois—up from 21,000 just five years ago. Near Chicago, the company operates two large manufacturing facilities, in Aurora and Joliet. The company has a big need for engineers, says Jim Dugan, a spokesman, but it is hiring across the board—in manufacturing operations, process improvement, logistics, technical marketing, information technology, human resources, accounting, finance, and the legal department.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: A job at Caterpillar comes with competitive benefits and an emphasis on learning and development, including a tuition assistance program and Caterpillar U, which offers classes and e-courses to help employees sharpen skills and advance their careers.

STOCK WATCH: Caterpillar has been very good to investors. As of mid-May the stock was up about 19 percent in 2008, compared with minus 5 percent for the S&P 500 stock index, and it has trounced the S&P over the past five years, more than quadrupling the index’s gain of roughly 50 percent. At a recent price of $85, though, the stock is fairly valued, says John Kearney, an equity analyst for Morningstar covering the industrial sector. "It’s not a stock you get a chance to pick up on the cheap a whole lot, because it’s a quality company," Kearney says.

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Out in the real world, tough times often mean job cuts and lower pay (or slower growth in pay), but that rarely translates into paying lower taxes. As a result, many government agencies still have the cash flow to fill important jobs. The U.S. Postal System, for example, is looking to fill 52 local jobs that pay up to $45.76 per hour. Successful applicants must pass a written exam, be a citizen or have a green card, and hold a high-school diploma or GED. Oh, and you can’t be a convicted felon.

Meanwhile, demand is brisk for schoolteachers and instructors this year. A recent check of the Careerbuilder.com site found there were 237 teaching-related jobs in the Chicago area. Demand is great for all kinds of teachers, ranging from preschool to community colleges. The Chicago Public Schools system is looking to fill 225 positions, including jobs as assistant principals, school nurses, psychologists, social workers, and elementary and high-school teachers. In addition, many local park districts are seeking instructors.

Elsewhere in the public arena, some suburbs are seeking help for their police and fire departments. Among local municipalities looking to fill public safety positions are Arlington Heights, Evanston, Park Ridge, and South Holland.

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Financial services company involved in investment banking, retail and commercial banking, asset management, and more

In a banking industry that’s feeling deep pain, JPMorgan Chase is faring better than many of its peers. Chase, the country’s third-largest bank, was sound enough recently to acquire the near-bankrupt Bear Stearns, albeit at a bargain price. While focused on integrating Bear Stearns into its operations, Chase is also growing its retail banking business, especially at the branch level.

HELP WANTED: Demand for new workers will build as Chase, the Chicago area’s largest consumer bank, continues bulking up its network of full-service branches. Currently Chase has 340 branches in the area, compared with 205 in 2003, and is scouting for new locations, says Thomas Kelly, a spokesman. Locally Chase is hiring predominantly entry-level and mid-level staffers such as tellers (including more bilingual Spanish-English speakers), personal bankers, branch managers, loan officers, and customer service representatives.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Banks are not known for paying big salaries to the rank and file, and Chase is no exception. But the company does provide a better-than-average benefits package, which includes health coverage for salaried full-timers and part-time employees who regularly work at least 20 hours per week. In some instances, Chase part-timers are providing their families’ primary health insurance coverage, says Kelly, who points out that the bank’s plan covers domestic partners. Chase also provides employees with a pension plan and a 401(k) savings program. (Many companies are phasing out pension plans.) It also provides an employee discount stock purchase program.

STOCK WATCH: Chase has been bruised but not beaten by the mortgage and credit crisis. In the first quarter of 2008, net earnings fell 50 percent, to $2.4 billion, compared with a year earlier. Still, earnings clocked in at 68 cents a share, exceeding analysts’ expectations and maybe even auguring a turning of the tide. Fox-Pitt Kelton, a New York-based investment house, recently raised its rating, predicting Chase stock would "outperform" its peers in 2008.

MORE OPPORTUNITIES: Bank of America, which recently acquired LaSalle National Bank, is also on the prowl locally for new hires. A recent check of that bank’s job board found 97 area-based help wanted postings for many of the same kinds of positions that Chase is looking to fill.

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It’s the Stupid Economy
The challenging times have hit local companies hard. We catalog some of the pain.
Read this story >>

Global provider of medical instruments, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology products

Baxter has been in the news a lot lately—for reasons no company would want. Last year, the actor Dennis Quaid and his wife sued the company, claiming that a blood-thinning drug was improperly labeled and thus accidentally given to their infant twins. (Baxter says the hospital staff misread the label.) While those headlines tarnished the company, Baxter has improved its image on Wall Street with a run of solid financial results. Under CEO Robert Parkinson, who took the helm in 2004, the company has bucked the prevailing trends by raising its earnings outlook for 2008, saying sales growth will approach 6 percent, driven by better-than-expected results for several products, including treatments for hemophilia and immune disorders. After holding the line on research and development for years, Baxter is pumping more money into new medicines, technologies, and applications. Last year, the company invested $760 million in R&D, a 24-percent increase from the year before, says a company spokeswoman.

HELP WANTED: While more than half of Baxter’s 46,500 employees live outside the United States, the company Web site recently listed more than 150 positions open in Illinois. Many were professional jobs, including sales and marketing staff for specialty medical devices, and medical specialists or doctors with experience in vaccines, surgery, and biosurgery. The company was also searching for mechanical or product engineers, computer software developers, and quality control managers. And Baxter had entry-level positions in finance, marketing, and human resources.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: The company has a long-held reputation for emphasizing a balance between work and life. In addition to competitive pay and benefits, Baxter has programs for child care, elder care, telecommuting, compressed workweek schedules, and more.

STOCK WATCH: Investors are upbeat about Baxter’s prospects. In January, Citigroup upgraded Baxter to a "buy" rating, citing better-than-expected earnings. And in April, the Chicago-based William Blair & Company upgraded the stock to an "outperform" rating. "Baxter’s financial performance, while showing steady progress over the last few years, has significant further upside," said Ben Andrew, in a Blair report.

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Operates no-frills warehouses selling general merchandise and groceries
HEADQUARTERS: Issaquah, Washington

This has been a rough year for retailers. Among those that have filed for bankruptcy reorganization are The Sharper Image, Linens ‘n Things, and Lillian Vernon. Meanwhile, Home Depot is closing 15 stores nationwide, and Sears, Roebuck and Co. is retrenching again. Against that backdrop, Costco is one of the few major retailers prospering and growing. Since entering the Chicago market in 1998 with two west suburban stores, the company has continued to expand locally, with 13 outlets now in the area and ambitions to open more. Costco sells groceries, dry goods, electronics, and more. The company needs wide open spaces to accommodate its mammoth warehouse outlets (each store is 148,000 square feet) and adjacent parking. Locally, Costco is reportedly looking to build a store on the soon-to-be-vacated Maurice Lenell Cooky Co. site in north suburban Norridge. "We’d like to get much bigger [in the Chicago area]," says Richard Galanti, Costco’s chief financial officer.

HELP WANTED: The company is always looking to fill jobs, including bakery and deli staff; cashiers; pharmacists; warehouse workers; forklift truck operators; shipping and receiving help; and customer service representatives.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: The company has earned a reputation for providing generous wages and benefits to its workers—too generous, chide some Wall Street analysts—and has been hailed as an enlightened Illinois employer by the likes of Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a populist Democrat who has long dueled with business interests. While the typical big-box retailer pays an average wage of $13 an hour, Costco pays $18, Galanti notes. In addition, the company offers comprehensive health and retirement benefits to all workers—including part-timers, who can qualify for those benefits after only six months of employment.

STOCK WATCH: Costco enjoys two primary revenue streams: customer membership fees and store sales. Net sales for the second quarter of fiscal 2008 increased 12 percent over the year before, and net income grew 8 percent. Investors are bullish on the chain’s business model. Among Costco’s fans is CNBC’s fiery stock picker Jim Cramer, who recently said that the company "continues to execute better than any retailer out there."

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Purveyor of made-to-order sandwiches, served warm

Economic slumps may last months or years, but hunger usually takes just a few hours to kick in. With its simple menu of toasted sandwiches, soups, salads, and shakes and its quirky ambiance, Potbelly has figured out how to satisfy appetites. Begun in 1977 as a small antique store in Lincoln Park that started selling sandwiches on the side, Potbelly is now a chain 200 strong that has expanded by leaps and bounds while managing, so far, to maintain the charm that made the original a success. With 70 stores in Chicago and a growing presence in places like Houston, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., the company has seen sales rise by about 40 percent since 2004, and this year expects top-line growth of roughly 25 percent, a spokeswoman says, to more than $200 million by the end of 2008. Long lines of hungry customers aren’t the only ones smitten. In 2001 Howard Schultz, the Starbucks founder and CEO, invested $21 million in his fellow CEO Bryant Keil’s privately held enterprise. And in recent years, Potbelly has attracted more than $80 million in investment capital. As a result, the company has "good venture capital backing for expansion, and its menu is priced right," says Ron Paul, CEO of Technomic, a consulting firm that tracks restaurant and fast-food industry trends.

HELP WANTED: Each new store needs three or four full-time managers—who can make up to $74,000, plus bonus—and up to 25 part-time workers, not including those singing troubadours who often entertain the lunchtime crowds. By 2010, Potbelly will have hired 400 new general managers and 1,300 assistant managers. It will also be creating more jobs at its Merchandise Mart headquarters in administration, systems, and human resources, according to a spokeswoman.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: There is such a thing as a free lunch—at least for Potbelly employees, who can eat their own cooking gratis. Those working 30 hours or more a week are also eligible for health care, dental, and life insurance coverage. Moreover, the company offers the same coverage for domestic partners, discounted pet-care insurance, and tax-free commuting plans.

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Operates more than 6,000 drugstores in the United States and Puerto Rico selling prescription and nonprescription drugs and general merchandise

With baby boomers starting to hit retirement age, this drugstore giant is perfectly positioned to fill their growing needs for prescriptions and to supply customers with life’s little necessities. The company has more than 6,000 stores nationwide and intends to boost that total by at least another 10 percent this year. In the Chicago area, the chain plans to add 15 stores over the coming year to the 400 it already has.

HELP WANTED: Each new store needs 25 to 30 part- and full-time employees. Many  will be in low-level starter jobs such as cashiers and shelf stockers, but Walgreens is also scrambling to fill pharmacist positions, which can pay in the low six figures, says Michael Polzin, a company spokesman. What’s more, the company is becoming a low-cost health-care services provider by opening in-store clinics, staffed by nurses, that offer customers quick treatments for minor ailments. In the coming year, Walgreens plans to add to its local roster of 27 in-store clinics, and will need more nurses to staff them. On average, a nurse practitioner makes about $63,000 a year, according to industry data.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Working at a drugstore, especially in the pharmacy, where customers are often fighting illness, can be stressful, Polzin concedes. But Walgreens compensates with amenities such as flexible work hours and a generous 401(k) plan; the company matches about $3 for every dollar contributed by employees working at least 20 hours a week on average.

STOCK WATCH: Walgreens’ aggressive expansion is rattling some investors. The stock lost more than a quarter of its value between late September 2007 and early May of this year. Still, the company posted a 5.3-percent increase in net earnings on 10.4-percent sales growth in the first half of its fiscal year compared with the same time frame a year before. Now, at least one Wall Street analyst sniffs a bargain: Neil Currie, drugstore analyst with UBS Financial Services, recently upgraded Walgreens to a buy.

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It’s the Stupid Economy
The challenging times have hit local companies hard. We catalog some of the pain.
Read this story >>

Provides Internet search information and targeted Web advertising
HEADQUARTERS: Mountain View, California

One of the country’s fastest-growing companies, Google has a thriving local presence, though chances are you’d have to do a Google map search to find its River North office. "Despite the fact that we have dozens of offices worldwide, whenever I tell people that I work for Google in Chicago, most of them respond, ‘Google has an office in Chicago?’" wrote Brian Fitzpatrick, an engineering manager, on the company’s blog last year. That’s beginning to change as the Mountain View, California, Internet search giant raises its profile in the local press, partners with the Chicago Transit Authority to enable riders to map bus and train routes, and beefs up its Chicago staff. The local Google outpost, which started with two employees in 2000, now has about 400, according to the company. "We go where the customers are," says Jim Lecinski, managing director of Google’s central region. "There’s a lot of [Fortune 500 companies] in the middle of the country, so Chicago makes a smart strategic fit for us." Last year, Google showed it was serious about bulking up in Chicago when it paid $100 million to acquire FeedBurner, a Chicago-based Web-application designer. In 2007, Google also bought the New York-based Web advertising consulting company DoubleClick.

HELP WANTED: Google is looking to add software engineers and computer operations experts to its Chicago office, as well as ad sales staff, administrators, and more. It is recruiting from engineering departments at Northwestern, Loyola, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and other nearby colleges.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: On top of competitive pay and above-average benefits and bonuses, Google is known for its loose, idiosyncratic work environment. On the flip side, 10- to 12-hour workdays are the norm, so winding down with some Ping-Pong or video games in the recreation room (where there’s a white board just in case someone gets the urge to brainstorm) is encouraged.

STOCK WATCH: Google’s valuation has deflated from a heady $740 a share in November to $581 in mid May, reflecting concern that the growth in the company’s Internet advertising revenue will  slow this year. Still, Google exceeded analysts’ estimates with quarterly net income of $1.31 billion on revenues of $5.19 billion. And recently, George Askew, an analyst with the St. Louis-based Stifel Nicolaus Corp., declared the stock a buy. "We believe Google will widen its lead in search advertising and Internet innovation," he said in a report.

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Entertainment and dining complex offering bowling, bocce, and food

It’s getting tougher for families to afford an evening of entertainment. Attending a Chicago Cubs game, for example, can easily exceed $200 for a family of four, counting tickets, transportation, and concessions. Dale Schwartz, a former investment banker with a Harvard MBA, thinks he’s happened upon the perfect formula for families in search of bang for their entertainment buck. Schwartz is founder and CEO of Pinstripes, an upstart entertainment and dining complex in Northbrook that houses 18 bowling lanes, six bocce courts, and an upscale Italian bistro (entrees are in the low to mid-$20s).

Schwartz may be onto something. Bowling has enjoyed a revival in this country; annually, 70 million people bowl, often at newer "mixed use" centers that also provide dining, video games, and other activities, says an industry expert. Such facilities can exceed $1 million in annual sales, according to Amusement Entertainment Management, a New Jersey-based industry consultant. "The more successful bowling executives say, ‘I want all the family business I can get.’" says Frank Seninsky, a bowling industry expert for AEM.

Open for a year, Pinstripes has attracted a steady flow of customers, who often bowl a few rounds and then stick around to enjoy dinner or a pickup game of bocce, also known as Italian lawn bowling. Schwartz is so confident of success that his company is constructing another Pinstripes in South Barrington while scouting the western suburbs to add a third complex. "We’re doing well with parties, special events, and bowling leagues," he says. Once the Chicago-area Pinstripes are up and running, Schwartz says, he wants to expand into other regions.

HELP WANTED: Pinstripes is already adding more staff to handle demand at the Northbrook facility, which will employ 140 full- and part-time workers, Schwartz says. The search is on for chefs, bartenders, managers, event planners, and a few financial staffers.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Most employees enjoy the buzz of working in a fast-paced sports/food complex; others are happy to have a part-time job, and some are seeking to further their careers as the company expands, he said.

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Private research university attended by 8,000 undergrads and 7,100 graduate students
LOCATION: Evanston
EMPLOYEES: 7,100 on faculty and staff

Offer a limited supply of a product that’s in high demand, and the world will beat a path to your door—or ivory tower, as in the case of top-notch universities like Northwestern. Despite annual tuition of $36,756, NU continues to attract a growing crush of would-be students. Freshman applications are up 54 percent over the past three years; last fall more than 25,000 applicants knocked on the university’s door, but only 2,025 were admitted.

NU is a thriving local business with a $1.2-billion budget and solid financial footing: Its endowment fund, valued at $6.5 billion in 2007, is 11th among all U.S. universities and was up 26.5 percent from the year before, according to the Washington-based National Association of College and University Business Officers. The big jump stems largely from a one-time windfall of $700 million NU earned last year by selling its royalty interest in the pain relief drug Lyrica, which was developed at the university, to a major pharmaceutical company.

HELP WANTED: A recent check of the school’s job board showed about 300 positions open on the Evanston and Chicago campuses. While it may be tough to become a full professor, NU needs information technology specialists, administrative staff, and people with financial and accounting skills.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: You won’t get stock options, but NU offers a benefit package that rivals those of many corporations. Employees can get discounts up to 85 percent on NU tuition, and up to 90 percent for their spouses and children. (Employees’ children can also get up to 37 percent off tuition at other schools.) Medical benefits are available for full- and part-time workers logging more than 17½ hours per week. The university also offers same-gender domestic partner benefits, and matches $2 for every dollar employees contribute to the NU retirement plan.

MORE OPPORTUNITIES: Other local universities are also looking to staff up. A recent check of online job postings found the University of Chicago (uchicago.edu) had about 150 positions open (many of them for health care technicians and professionals at its medical center). DePaul University (depaul.edu) had about 60 openings, while Loyola University (luc.edu) had more than 65 openings. Both of the latter were looking primarily to hire administrative assistants, information technology staff, and part-time help. The University of Illinois at Chicago (uic.edu) was also looking mostly for health care specialists and medical technicians, with more than 60 open slots in all.

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Supersized purveyor of burgers, fries, and other fast food, with more than 31,000 restaurants worldwide
CHICAGO-AREA EMPLOYEES: 29,000, including 3,800 at headquarters, division, and regional offices, and roughly 25,000 at more than 430 area restaurants

With consumers watching their budgets like hawks, a lot of restaurants are feeling indigestion—dining out, after all, is an easy expenditure to trim—but the new austerity may actually be helping McDonald’s, home of the dollar double-cheeseburger and other budget-friendly fare. "Fast food is much more of a consumer staple now, not a discretionary item," says John Owens, an equity analyst at Morningstar covering the restaurant industry. "It’s very difficult for families to save that much money by preparing food at home versus [McDonald’s] dollar menu. So we think fast food, and McDonald’s in particular, is recession resistant."

McDonald’s has been on a tear over the past few years, in part because business is booming in places like Europe, Russia, and China. But even in a slowing U.S. market, life under the arches has been golden—domestic same-store sales have mostly galloped ahead in recent months. The popular dollar menu, successful new products such as salads and wraps, and expanded store hours that have boosted breakfast and late-night business have all contributed to sizzling top- and bottom-line growth.

HELP WANTED: That growth, in turn, has spurred a hiring boomlet. If the typical McDonald’s restaurant employed 50 people a year ago, the figure is closer to 60 today, says Danitra Barnett, U.S. vice president of human resources operations. Also, with restaurant staff turnover approaching 100 percent per year, it pretty much guarantees a perpetual hiring frenzy. Most of the demand, of course, is for low-wage burger flippers and other crew. But those who stick around and excel can move up—each store employs about half a dozen managers earning an hourly wage and three or four managers on salary. At the Oak Brook headquarters, turnover is considerably lower, but need abounds. The company was recently looking to fill 85 open corporate positions—everything from lawyers and accountants to supply chain experts and real-estate pros.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: McDonald’s has a long history of promoting from within (Barnett started as crew 28 years ago) and doling out abundant perks. Flexible work arrangements run the gamut from job sharing to compressed workweeks. Salaried employees get ample paid time off (including eight-week sabbaticals every ten years), annual stock options, profit sharing bonuses, and a generous 401(k) match ($3 for every $1 an employee contributes up to 3 percent of pay, and then a dollar for each dollar up to 7 percent of pay). Now even part-time employees are feeling the love—the company recently started offering them medical and dental coverage.

STOCK WATCH: Investors waiting to take a bite of McDonald’s stock after a big pullback have been mostly disappointed in recent years. The stock has nearly doubled over the past two years and tripled over the past five while also paying a dividend. Right now, says Morningstar’s Owens, the stock is fairly valued. "We think the market has finally gained an appreciation of what a great business this is, and that’s reflected in the stock price," he says.

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 Photograph: Jetta Productions/Stone/Getty Images



It’s the Stupid Economy
The challenging times have hit local companies hard. We catalog some of the pain.
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Largest provider of health care in Illinois

As an aging U.S. population requires ever more medical care—and many health care workers over 50 start to leave the work force—the shortage of nurses and other medical pros only figures to worsen. "We’ve got labor shortages," says Caryn Stancik, spokesperson at the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, which represents 96 hospitals and tracks area health care trends. The council says there is a shortfall of physicians, technicians, and other medical personnel, but the lack of nurses may be greatest of all. Only about 1,500 new nurses enter the local market each year, Stancik says, well short of the 4,500 needed.

With more than 200 facilities across the Chicago area—including Lutheran General, Bethany, Illinois Masonic Medical Center, and South Suburban Hospital—Advocate is grappling with those labor shortages while continuing to grow. In 2009, it expects to complete a new eight-story, 191-bed patient facility for the Park Ridge-based Lutheran General. In 2007, Advocate added a $45-million surgical pavilion to Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove and upgraded operations at Chicago’s Trinity and Barrington’s Good Shepherd hospitals. A not-for-profit, Advocate has maintained a healthy "AA" rating with the major bond rating agencies throughout its growth spurt—proof of the company’s financial health.

HELP WANTED: Every month, Advocate typically fills between 500 and 700 positions locally, mostly openings for nurses, technicians, and other medical staff.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Advocate’s employee vacancy rate—the number of jobs unfilled—stands at 3.4 percent, says Ben Grigaliunas, senior vice president of human resources. That’s below the rate in excess of 5 percent at other major Chicago-area medical centers, and a sign that Advocate stands up well against its peers as an attractive place to work. The company pays above the market rate and offers a 401(k) plan, pension plan, and health care benefits.

OTHER OPPORTUNITIES: Medical providers elsewhere in Chicago are also looking to fill crucial jobs, especially nursing positions, which pay a median $60,000, according to Salary.com. Evanston Northwestern Healthcare, University of Chicago Hospitals, and Resurrection Health Care are all hiring.

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Produces The Oprah Winfrey Show and other Oprah-themed media and entertainment products

In an age when many media companies are reeling, Oprah Winfrey’s is living its best life. Sure, the audience for the company’s flagship program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, has shrunk a bit in the past few years, but the show remains a ratings juggernaut, delivering Oprah’s New Age-y message of personal empowerment to about 7.3 million daily viewers—the most in talk TV. Meanwhile, the company has steadily extended the Oprah brand into other businesses, including film (features and made-for-TV movies), additional TV programming (the recent reality show Oprah’s Big Give and prime-time specials), print (O magazine and O At Home), radio (Oprah and Friends on XM), the Web (Oprah.com), and even retail (the Oprah Store, adjacent to Harpo Studios in the West Loop). Next up: a cable TV channel, set to debut in 2009.

HELP WANTED: All those ventures have continued to drive growth at Harpo, where revenues climbed from $290 million in 2005 to $345 million last year, and total employment swelled from 341 at the end of 2005 to 430 at the end of last year, much of that growth at Oprah.com. The pace of hiring is "absolutely" continuing in 2008, says Tenia Davis, director of human resources. Harpo recently had about 15 positions available—mostly for Web site staffers and TV production personnel. The company offers paid internships that often are a springboard into entry level jobs there. As for the cable channel, Harpo is gearing up for the launch next year of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, in partnership with Discovery Communications. The search is now on for a chief executive to run the network, to be followed by other top executives and the remaining staff. The company has not said where the operation will be located.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: Being part of one of the most powerful brands in entertainment is one of the psychic rewards of working at Harpo. More measurable perks include a comprehensive benefits package, an on-site spa and gym, $5 lunches in the cafeteria, and a generous 4 to 11 weeks of paid vacation. Then there are the extravagant gifts Oprah lavishes on her staff. Two years ago, for example, she treated all full-time employees and their families to a week’s vacation in Hawaii.

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World’s largest futures exchange, operating the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade
EMPLOYEES: 2,000 in Chicago area

The spawn of an $11-billion merger between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade, CME Group is a global trading powerhouse with designs on establishing its presence in every major and emerging financial center. Recently the company spent about $9.5 billion to acquire the New York-based rival Nymex Holdings, which runs the New York Mercantile Exchange. The deal must still be approved by shareholders and regulators.

There’s no doubt the Loop-based CME is changing with the times. The company has mostly abandoned its "open outcry" method of trading in favor of computer-based transactions worth billions. It is also exploring new product areas and spreading into new countries. This year it acquired 10 percent of a Brazilian exchange and is expected to partner with other foreign companies.

HELP WANTED: People with the right technical skills and business savvy could find the CME a welcoming place. The company job board recently listed postings for more than 70 Chicago-based workers, the vast majority calling for advanced programming skills, information technology expertise, or financial strategy and planning skills.

PERKS AND BENEFITS: CME’s estimated 2,000 employees enjoy competitive pay, annual incentive bonuses, and perks such as parental leave, an adoption incentive program, and employee assistance efforts, including legal, personal, and child or elder care counseling. Like most emerging Internet or cutting-edge tech players, CME offers stock options to employees with at least three years’ tenure and discounts on CME stock to all employees.

STOCK WATCH: CME has not avoided the bloodletting among financial stocks this year—as of early May, shares were down 32 percent from their 52-week high. Still, its business is booming: In 2007, earnings of $658.5 million were up 61.7 percent over those of the previous year.