The Italian Heritage Center in Portland put its most festive foot forward Thursday night as it played host to the Best Places to Work in ME 2013 Awards Banquet.

Spirits were high, balloons were abundant and the mood was energized as more than 550 guests gathered from 60 businesses large and small across the state to be recognized as one of the best places to work in Maine.

“If you want to know a great place to work, ask the people that work there,” said Peter Burke, president of Best Companies Group, the organization that administers and manages the assessment process for more than 40 programs across the country. “This turnout is phenomenal, and the excitement is pretty high. Keep in mind, these are companies that are being honored as a best place to work. They know they made the list, but they don’t know where they are on it. Tonight we unveil the rankings.”

“We are the defending champions!” exclaimed Dan Poirier, service manager at Cintas Corporation, located in Westbrook. His excitement was palpable. “This is our third year. We won in 2008 and 2012.”

“It’s a family environment for us,” said Joel French, general manager at Cintas, with some anticipation. “We try to include everyone in the decisions we make, whether it’s a business decision or planning a company BBQ. We are the defending champions. We’ll see…”

The awards dinner, which is put on by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Maine State Council and is now in its eighth year, sees a broad mix of Maine-based companies sharing the spotlight – large employers like Unum, InterMed and L.L. Bean stand arm in arm with smaller busineses like Machias Savings Bank, Legacy Publishing and Patriot Subaru.

“Last year at this time, we had five employees,” explained Joyce McPhetres, chief Human Resources officer at Maine Community Health Options. “This year we have 40. I’m thrilled because we have hired competent professionals who are really nice people who want a different environment and they are making it happen.”

Nervous energy, smiles and laughter permeated the room as guests enjoyed a cocktail hour and a seated dinner before getting down to the business of welcoming addresses, rallying cries and announcing the rankings.

“We are here to celebrate the 60 companies who are going to be known as the best places to work in Maine,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, as he addressed the expansive audience. “Being here and feeling the energy and the enthusiasm in this room is really special.”

Charlie Miller, CEO of Bernstein Shur, the premier sponsor of the 2013 Best Places to Work in Maine program, inspired the crowd as he commended them for showing the “dedication and the foresight to care as much about your employees as you do your business. You can be proud of the contribution you all are making to help your companies be a better place to work.”

Rounding out the guest speakers who offered cheers and accolades to the audience was Jeanne Paquette, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor, who offered her congratulations to each of these 60 companies defining what it means to be a great place to work here in Maine.

“You demonstrate that Maine businesses can and do have it all,” she said emphatically. “Tonight, it’s all about what you have accomplished, and I believe it has put Maine on the map because it shows the rest of the country that we are a great place to work and to live!”

For more information about the Best Places to Work in Maine program, please visit www.bestplacestoworkinme.com.

Margaret Logan is a freelance writer who lives in Scarborough. She can be contacted at:mlogan@maine.rr.com