Accessibility, Accountability, Autonomy
Triple-A formula helps remodeling companies earn their employees' esteem
F.H. Perry Builder employees say educational opportunities and the candor of owner Finley Perry (khaki pants) are just two of the factors that create their "Best" workplace. Photo © Dave Bradley
Against this backdrop, being named one of the 101 Best Companies to Work For in the Residential Construction Industry should be doubly rewarding. While many Americans complain about workplace rigidity and bureaucracy, these companies allow flexible work schedules while staying productive and successful. While four out of five American workers, according to The Conference Board, are increasingly discontented with their company's promotion and bonus plans, the 101 Best offer competitive (or better) wages and benefits very uncommon in the industry.
Essentially, the companies employ a triple-A formula:
- Accessibility: They give employees access to managers, to resources that can help employees grow and advance, and to benefits that acknowledge their work and enhance their personal lives.
- Accountability: Employees of the 101 Best know how their work affects their company, have input on company operations and feel as if they are tied to the company's fate.
- Autonomy: These companies trust their employees to do their jobs without having someone looking over their shoulders. Employees feel needed.
To find out what makes a great company tick, we asked employees questions about six main areas: rewards and recognition, professional development, leadership, communication, corporate culture and personal satisfaction.
Employees want to be engaged, so employers should create new experiences to retain current staff. Creating avenues for advancement and growth is crucial. Kirk Development Co. in Phoenix offers older field employees the opportunity to work inside the office. "Guys don't have to be framing when they're in their 50s, and that's important," designer/estimator Barry Flemming says.
At Hubert Whitlock Builders in Charlotte, N.C., vice president of production Tyler Mahan says employee retention starts when potential employees are interviewed. "We make a concerted effort to hire people who are creative and independent above anything else," he says. "We get people who look at this opportunity as a career."
Tom Duncan, president of E.H. Duncan in Poland, Ohio, follows what he calls the 80/20 Rule: As long as employees channel at least 80% of their time and effort into productivity, he will go out of his way to reward and recognize them. Three years ago, he instituted an automatic 3% cost-of-living wage increase that kicks in twice a year.
"It's not like when my father ran the company, and he would fire one guy and get another the next day," Duncan says. "I value tenure and loyalty. Loyalty is huge. In this industry, there's not a lot of loyalty anymore, in all kinds of relationships. There has to be loyalty between employees and employers. It can't be an 'I win, you lose' situation. You have to agree to agree."
Duncan credits that approach as the reason some employees who left his company in hopes of finding a better opportunity elsewhere have returned — some more than once.
Perhaps the biggest key to employee retention is to show confidence in your staff's abilities and avoid micromanaging. "One of my biggest goals is to empower my employees to do what's right," Duncan says. "I don't hound them. I set up parameters for them to do their job, and as long as they do that, I'm OK."
Bonuses: Fifty-seven percent of the remodeling companies among the 101 Best reward employees with bonuses, though the methods vary greatly. Bonuses could be paid quarterly or per job based on the project's profit margin. The bonus pool either was distributed equally or employee cuts were weighted based on tenure, position and/or salary. Some companies pay a set amount regardless of company performance, and others tie bonuses directly to that performance.
Regardless of the bonus program's structure, employees see bonuses as affirmations of their hard work. Ray Birbilas, a designer at Scott Strawbridge Inc. in Wilton Manors, Fla., says they "make you feel that your recommendations are being heard and given credibility." Ken Eifling, an estimator at Morris Builders in Rockford, Mich., says bonuses encourage continued excellence, noting, "When the company does well, everyone else wants to do well."
Profit sharing: This benefit is offered by 51% of the remodelers among the 101 Best, and many have had a profit-sharing program in place for more than five years. Again, there is variation between companies that divide profits evenly among all employees and those that use a discretionary split based on tenure, position and/or wages. Some companies require that employees work for a certain amount of time (usually one year) before they become fully vested.
|In keeping with the goal of having an employee-maintained company, all Brindisi Builders employees are expected to offer input and vote on all business decisions. Photo © Ed Wheeler|
Brindisi Builders in Marlton, N.J., splits up to 50% of its profits with employees and donates another 10% to a charity the employees collectively choose.
Nonmonetary rewards: Gestures can be just as rewarding as money. A "get caught doing something right" program at Christian Roofing & Remodeling in Watkinsville, Ga., encourages employees to congratulate their peers with words or gifts for taking initiative and solving problems. F.H. Perry Builder in Hopkinton, Mass., recently gave office manager Doreen Phillips an award featuring a bottle of Elmer's glue to signify that she's the glue who holds the company together.
Many start with the educational opportunities offered through the industry's numerous professional organizations. Ron Cowgill, president of D/R Services Unlimited in Glenview, Ill., recently gave three employees $200 each as an incentive to take Certified Lead Carpenter training through NARI and then gave them a $1-per-hour raise upon course completion.
Greco Remodelers in Manassas, Va., uses its office space to host in-house seminars on topics ranging from lead carpenter training to personal money management and retirement planning. It also maintains a library of educational audiotapes for employees. Owners John and Annette Greco take employees to industry trade shows and events so they can experience the networking and programs and see new product information and trends.
Greco office manager Francine Nichols routinely takes courses and likes working for a company that allows her to strengthen her skill set while enhancing her desire to learn. "It's a great perk, and the sky's the limit," she says. "I'm an Internet bug, so I take advantage of online courses. I feel like you have to stay on top of your game — like if I didn't take the occasional course in managing people, I'd slip into being a sloppy supervisor."
Morris Builders owner Kirk Morris sends employees to seminars, some sponsored by the local home builders association or chamber of commerce, and others centered on production management training or learning Microsoft Project. Morris wants his employees to learn firsthand what other companies are doing and to stay up to date so they can deal effectively with the company's increasingly savvy customers.
At F.H. Perry Builder, all employees learn about the business as a whole by serving on one of three "continuity teams" — finance and administration, sales and marketing, or production — that smooth field-office relationships by educating both sides about job duties and issues. The company also encourages the pursuit of educational opportunities outside the industry. Two employees are working toward college degrees at the company's expense, and project manager Tim Hoisington is the third F.H. Perry employee to participate in a full-year program that brings together 30 community leaders from different disciplines to examine social and civic issues in the community.
"The program gives you a leadership mentality," Hoisington says. "It teaches you to work smarter, not harder. I value the opportunity to be educated through the company. It's an honor."
F.H. Perry president Finley Perry says, "I think as a company we may fall down in looking for systemic weaknesses and sending our employees to specific training. But I also think it's keeping with the personality of the company for employees to go after training on their own. I really feel that people who stretch themselves, no matter in what direction, are the better for it, and they produce better work."
Tuition reimbursement: Programs vary widely among the 80% of remodelers on the 101 Best list that offer this benefit. Some companies require that coursework directly relate to the workplace and/or industry, while others pay all or some of the fees for attaining a college degree or pursuing coursework not directly pertaining to an employee's job. Educational pursuits are pursued during work hours, as a collective and/or on the employees' own time.
The one constant is that 101 Best companies consider education to be a necessary offering and a major component of the company mission. "Whatever investment the company makes toward education comes back," Cowgill says. "The more knowledgeable the employees and the more information they have, the better they do the job."
Mike Brindisi, CEO of Brindisi Builders, has been on both sides of that process, having been a union carpenter for 10 years before starting his company. That experience is why he stresses treating employees as equals and communicating with them often and candidly. Employees can have one-on-one meetings with him behind closed doors without going through their direct supervisor. He acknowledges employees' birthdays with gifts. He also holds monthly group breakfast meetings to share details of the company's performance and do personal reviews with employees.
"My goal was always to create a company that was employee-maintained, where employees were involved in the company's performance and could share in its profit," Brindisi says. "For employees to expend their time and give you part of their life working for you, it's important to know that they share in the same benefits as you. They should also know about how the company is doing in its down times."
|Education is so important at Kirk Development that three employees have earned both the Certified Remodeler and Certified Graduate Remodelor designations. Photo © Edward McCain|
Shared leadership: Except for staff salaries, Cowgill runs D/R Services completely open book, detailing for employees what the company spends on overhead expenses, subcontractor costs, etc. He also reveals costs per job, showing employees whether the company is making money.
"All good and bad things are said whenever they need to be," sales and field manager Lance Winter says. "And we are allowed to be part of the decision-making process, which is especially important given the nature of remodeling. Every job is different, and there's not always a cut-and-dried answer. Ron gives us the knowledge and flexibility to do things the way we deem fit."
Cowgill says, "Ruling with an iron fist isn't going to give you the production you want. Employees need to feel like they're involved and part of the company. They need a sense of belonging instead of being dictated to."
At Christian Roofing & Remodeling, owners Frank and Stephanie Zehna say good leadership can be as simple as keeping promises, such as guaranteeing 40-hour workweeks, every week. "Steady work is better than unkept promises," they say. Frank Zehna encourages employees to monitor his actions and take him to task if warranted ("speed-dialing Frank," he calls it).
Zehna says company leaders must check their egos and be open to criticism. "As an owner, if I want to hold them to a production schedule, I can't be the one holding them up," he says. "I want my employees to tell me what they need whenever they need it, and I want them to tell me when I'm wrong."
Lead carpenter John Morris notes that Zehna lets employees formally review his performance, saying Zehna is "open-minded and will listen to all problems and suggestions."
At Scott Strawbridge Inc., office manager Ronni Dowd says Strawbridge "has always heard me out, worked with me, encouraged me and considered my feelings or views valid and important."
"What I hope to do," Strawbridge says, "is surround myself with entrepreneurs. Success is when the company can function without you. That's the difference between success and a job."
|President Ron Cowgill's motto of "do it once and do it right the first time" empowers D/R Services employees and gives them leeway to make their own decisions. Photo © Marc Berlow|
Small size can be especially advantageous by accommodating frequent companywide meetings. At Greco Remodelers, the entire staff goes over the financials, brainstorms and shares ideas at weekly meetings. Greco also produces a monthly in-house newsletter and has a company manual detailing job procedures.
Smaller companies also lend themselves to personal interaction not possible in a large organization. Brindisi visits every active job site every Friday to talk with employees and solve any issues that might have arisen.
Brindisi Builders sales manager Gary Witt surveys all employees at least annually to solicit feedback, including any concerns or criticisms, about the company's performance. Witt gives the feedback to the CEO and protects anonymity by not revealing who said what or attaching identifying information to comments.
"Having the workers comment without attribution is huge," Witt says. "That expectation of anonymity helps enforce the culture of honesty and honest dialogue within the company."
Kirk Development also guarantees that employee feedback will not be censured. Many of its communication policies focus on bridging the worlds of field and office personnel. The company holds quarterly roundtables to troubleshoot its systems.
"There is no walking on eggshells around here," president Tom Sertich says. "The employees are very conscientious about the work they do, so as long as they ask questions to learn from mistakes or how to do things differently, that's what's most important. Communication be-tween the field and the office, and also between job sites, like when superintendents ask other superintendents for help or for feedback and ideas, is really what this company is about. We want to take down barriers by simply talking about things."
Like companies large and small these days, Minardos Construction & Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., uses technology to facilitate communication throughout each day. E-mail and two-way radios are two examples.
Five years ago, president George Minardos changed the company's management style, giving employees access to more information. "We made the decision to move from a personality-based management system to a systems-based management system," he says. "To be systems-based, everyone has to have access to data and information — it can't just sit in someone's head. Underlying all these systems and technologies we use is a philosophy that communication should be as open as possible, so we use whatever method is appropriate to share information."
The company thus added text messaging for all employees and enhanced the functionality of its Web site, improving performance with a high-speed connection and adding password-protected project information, accessible by workers or clients through an extranet.
"The transition was tremendous because once that information was shared, it became much more of a team process," office manager Amy Ortlieb says. "The communication opened up the avenue for more participation from everyone instead of having just one person carry the burden of responsibility of one job on their shoulders."
The company still uses traditional communication methods such as weekly job-site meetings, daily reports from job-site superintendents and face-to-face communication among employees. By giving employees numerous communication options, Minardos also gives them freedom of choice and a comfort level while laying the foundation for growth.
"Taking the job out of one man's brain helped us grow," controller Brett Butler says. "Communication was vital to move beyond a one- or two-project-manager operation and extend our production capacity in the field."
Telecommuting: This is relatively rare among remodelers for obvious reasons but can be viable for office staff. Because of its technological infrastructure — including laptop accessibility for each employee — employees at Minardos Construction often telecommute.
|Diversity in sexual orientation, ethnicity and family makeup is respected and embraced at Scott Strawbridge Inc. Employees say no type of prejudice is tolerated. Photo © Michael Price|
"With the transition form the previous generation, it's been crucial that we continue to build on the reputation my father built while making sure we do the right thing by our employees and give them comfort," Scott Whitlock says. "This second-generation company takes pride in achieving the best and highest results in our product, but we want to go beyond ourselves in achieving new heights. To do that, we kept people who have been great ambassadors for the reputation our company has built."
Strawbridge didn't seek change as much as he was bombarded with it. Within the same short time frame, his partner exited Scott Strawbridge Inc. and his wife's career changed drastically. The sudden changes forced Strawbridge to become more involved in day-to-day management, a challenge he initially did not crave. But "failure was not an option," he says, so Strawbridge hired a business coach to train him in his weakest areas. He continues to hire more employees to help manage the business's growth, and he looks for individuals whose strengths complement his. He also has tied each position to performance-based measures and formed a total quality management committee.
"There has always been timely communication of changes and things that could potentially affect the employees or the company," Birbilas says. "Additional training is provided to employees to prepare them for organizational and personal growth. Employees have input and influence over change and the company's direction through open and honest communication. Change is viewed with excitement, optimism and encouragement."
At D/R Services, Cowgill's open-book management style prepares employees for economy-driven change. "With the economic turns we've had the past two years, it's been difficult," Cowgill says. "I'd just as soon they be aware of what's going on, and I want them to know and understand. They may not understand completely why things happen, but I want them to see where the money is going."
Walker Information cites "the critical need for employers to develop positive employee relationships simply to maintain productivity, reduce costs and ultimately produce a more loyal customer base, a factor that increases in direct proportion to employee loyalty."
The research firm says the five workplace factors with the biggest influence on employee loyalty are employer care and concern for employees, fairness, feelings of accomplishment, day-to-day satisfaction and company appreciation of employees' ideas. Essentially, all fall under the umbrella of company morale.
The keys to high company morale are the absence of egos and the presence of a culture that cultivates teamwork. Before working for E.H. Duncan, lead plumber Tim Hum worked for his father for many years. He left his father's company in 1992 in lieu of buying him out and says he finds his current working environment more liberating because the company solicits and values his ideas.
"Working with family presents its own set of challenges," Hum says. "I didn't have benefits or a retirement plan. I can talk to Tom [Duncan] more easily than I could my father. That was very important to me. I wasn't going to spend the rest of my working years in a company where I didn't have any say. We work together here to solve problems."
|E.H. Duncan employees liken their experiences to the company's customer service approach, saying the company will bend over backward to make them happy. Photo © Marc Berlow|
At Minardos Construction, "We consciously set up our systems and culture so there aren't groups that have conflicted interests," George Minardos says. "We all work toward a common goal, and that goes back to our founding principles."
The same is true for Morris Builders. Kirk Morris encourages fun during and after company hours by organizing company outings to HBA general membership meetings and socializing outside of the office. He says a solid company with loyal staff is built on the camaraderie that comes from experiencing both good times and bad. "We look at our track records, and together we take baby steps toward the big picture," he says. "What we want at the end of the day is for our employees to be constantly engaged."
At F.H. Perry Builder, project development coordinator Allison Iantosca credits company morale to the ideal to put no limits on employee growth and influence. She says Finley Perry facilitates this.
Project manager Jon Gerrity agrees. "The whole strength of the company is Finley. He did not surround himself with 'yes' people, he encourages us to be independent, and he participates in open dialogue and even open disagreement with us."
Perry says, "I want committed, en-gaged employees who feel comfortable with who they are and know what they can do. We expect that our employees own who they are and what they do for the company. My job is to promote that."
In addition to hosting holiday parties, retreats, award banquets, working meals and other activities that build morale, the common thread among all of the remodeling companies on the 101 Best list is a commitment to work/life balance. They allow employees to be loyal to their families and other personal commitments, and they invite families to company social functions. When employees see this commitment to family, the company eventually becomes a second family that's practically as meaningful as the families they work to support.
Flex hours and job sharing: Three out of every four remodeling firms among the 101 Best offer flexible work schedules, if not a formal flex program. Usually, em-ployees can take time to accommodate family issues or events such as doctor's appointments. Some companies require that those hours be included on time sheets or noted in a company database detailing when and/or how long an em-ployee will be gone. Others just trust that employees will make up the time. In addition, companies aim to avoid weekend work. D/R Services employees work 10-hour days Monday through Thursday, leaving them with three-day weekends.
Job sharing is less common. The few companies that have some form of it say it's used mostly by single parents. Brindisi Builders currently has six to eight employees job sharing at any given time.
Retirement options: Many remodelers among the 101 Best consider a 401(k) plan to be an obligation. Approximately half of those we interviewed match employee contributions. Minardos Construction distributes profit shares directly into employees' 401(k)s to promote long-term savings, and D/R Services requires a selected group of employees closer to retirement age to pay into its plan.
Then there's the case of Christian Roofing & Remodeling, which had no 401(k) plan when it received the initial 101 Best questionnaire asking for company basics. Frank and Stephanie Zehna promptly initiated a 401(k), exemplifying what being a 101 Best company is all about: constantly striving to improve working conditions and the well-being of employees.
"Our conscience told us we had to get them this coverage," Stephanie Zehna says. "We're trying to be a professional business in a sometimes unprofessional industry. We felt it was our corporate responsibility."