Liza Warner, 43, has the sort of résumé that recruiters at Big Four accounting firms drool over. Her specialty is internal auditing, a hot skill now that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires CEOs and CFOs to vouch for the strength of their internal financial systems. But instead of toiling at one of the accounting giants, she has chosen to work at relative unknown Jefferson Wells International -- a firm that has gone out of its way to give valuable employees flexibility.
Warner spent the 1980s and first half of the '90s working at Bank One (JPM ) before joining fledgling financial outsourcer Jefferson Wells in 1996. She rose quickly. Six months after signing on she got her first promotion. In a year, she was managing a staff, and by spring of 1998, she was running the big Milwaukee office. But by 2002, Warner needed more time with her two young sons. She left the company -- then discovered that she missed the stimulation of her career. "It was a shock," she recalls. When the company invited her back 10 months later with the promise of a 30-hour workweek, Warner jumped.
Of Jefferson Wells's 2,000 employees, 10% work a flexible schedule, with benefits, like Warner. A further 20% work even fewer hours, project by project, without benefits. The remaining 70% are full-time, but still have a lot more control over their lives than is typical at the Big Four firms many come from, where travel schedules are often grueling. How does the firm do it? Jefferson Wells is structured on a local-office model. Even when staff are stationed at their clients' offices, the offices are usually within driving distance of home. And unlike the Big Four, which work with the same clients for years, Jefferson Wells (now owned by Manpower Inc. (MAN )) works on a contract basis, often on projects that last only a matter of months.
Although it can be complex to manage so many part-time staffers, there is a payoff: The company relies on its commitment to work-life balance to attract top-caliber candidates like Warner. Jefferson Wells will not hire anyone with less than seven years experience. People at that level are professional enough to get the job done without being baby-sat. "They probably get more out of me as a part-time employee than they did before," says Warner, whose schedule lets her put the boys on the school bus in the morning and greet them at the bus in the afternoon.