Beyond Basic Benefits

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Production manager Mark Bruins of Howell Design & Build Inc., touts “excellent pay and benefits” as a big part of his company’s appeal, and praises owner Steve Howell for modeling the benefits package on that of Howell’s former employer, Hewlett-Packar...

June 01, 2002

 

Mark Bruins, Howell Design & Build. Photo: Dave Bradley

Production manager Mark Bruins of Howell Design & Build Inc. in North Andover, Mass., touts “excellent pay and benefits” as a big part of his company’s appeal, and praises owner Steve Howell for modeling the benefits package on that of Howell’s former employer, Hewlett-Packard.

“Working in the high-tech world, I learned that a nice, full benefits package gives people the ability to stay at one company,” says Howell, who founded Howell Design & Build in 1997. For that reason, he made sure entry-level employees receive the same benefits package — medical and dental coverage, eight paid holidays per year, plus an annual two weeks of flexible paid time off that can be used for vacation, sick days or personal time — as more senior employees. In addition, part-time employees who work more than two days per week receive prorated benefits.

In 1999, Howell began offering two retirement savings plans, both administered online. One is a profit-sharing plan to which the company contributes once a year depending upon net profitability (the target is 5-6% of each employee’s salary), with employees fully vested after five years. The other is a 401(k) plan to which the 17 em-ployees can decide on their own contributions.

“We know the success of the company depends upon attracting and keeping the best employees for each position,” says Bruins, who notes that some of these benefits “go above and beyond” the industry standard. Perhaps most unusual: a flextime policy that lets even lead carpenters start work at 9 a.m. as long as they’re on a regular schedule.

These benefits aren’t so unusual for the remodeling firms on the 101 Best Companies to Work For list, though. Regardless of company size — three employees or 76 — the 101 firms offer at least paid holidays, a retirement plan, medical insurance, and some combination of paid vacation, sick days and personal days.

Many of these companies also contribute to an employee retirement plan; provide a tool allowance, a company truck, gas money, cell phones and company shirts; offer bereavement days and dental insurance; and treat employees (and sometimes even their families) to an annual trip.

“It shouldn’t matter whether you’re in a big manufacturing firm or a small home-improvement firm,” says Denny Cisney Sr., president of Cisney & O’Donnell Inc. in Huntingdon, Pa. “You’re entitled to the same things.”

Even so, Cisney recognizes that it can take small firms awhile to build up to offering big benefits. His $3 million company has been in business for 33 years but didn’t offer a 401(k) plan until 1995 because Cisney didn’t want to offer it until the company could sustain it.

Now, regardless of employee contribution, Cisney & O’Donnell contributes 3% of an employee’s salary into the 401(k) after that person has worked at the company for one year. In addition, the company matches an employee’s contribution dollar for dollar up to $1,000 in an individual retirement account.

Dunright Construction & Remodeling Co. in Toledo, Ohio, an 8-year-old exterior remodeling firm aiming for $1.6 million to $1.8 million in 2002, offers its six employees a different kind of IRA, a SAR-SEP (salary reduction simplified employee pension), which allows employees to contribute through elective salary deferrals. (While SAR-SEPs still exist, employers have not been able to start new ones since 1997 because of federal legislation.)

More noteworthy, however, is Dunright’s paid time-off plan: Employees can take as many vacation, personal or “mental-health” days as they want, whenever they choose.

“Most of our guys take vacation when it’s not quite so busy,” says owner and president Bill McConnell. “I haven’t had anyone take more than a week or 10 days in a row. No one takes advantage.”

He says he can fill in at any position if necessary, or hire a temp. It helps, he says, that employees will speak to a colleague who isn’t performing up to par, thus informally policing company expectations.

The big question, of course, is how a small company manages to pay for benefits that many would consider a luxury. On top of up to three weeks’ vacation, a personal day, and 401(k) contributions of an equal match up to 3% and then 25 cents on the dollar up to 6%, Gehman Custom Builder Inc. in Harleysville, Pa., pays the entire medical premium for its employees.

“Year after year they have worked to adjust the numbers so that we would not need to pay any weekly premium,” project manager Jon Downey says. That’s exactly how all these companies do it. Employees and owners alike are quick to point out that their firm is known as one of the more expensive ones in the area.

“Charge the right amount,” McConnell says. “You attract the proper salesperson, attract the proper installer and attract the right customer.”

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