Motivation Muscle

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Employee incentives

September 01, 1999

Competitive wages provide financial incentives for employees, but remodelers who care about quality don’t put the emphasis there. Remodelers who put customer satisfaction first find that quality- and service-driven employees aren’t motivated by money as much as they’re motivated by working environment, encouragement and an atmosphere of trust. Remodeling Designs Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, provides such a culture.

According to vice president Mike Cordonnier, CR, "A happy and enthusiastic employee will do whatever it takes to get the job done." Cordonnier, who’s responsible for human resources at RDI, says the company’s success rests on the Golden Rule. Management treats employees as they would want to be treated, and employees treat customers the same way.

RDI’s excellent customer satisfaction and quality were recognized by the NAHB Research Center with a National Remodeling Quality Gold Award. Cordonnier showed Professional Remodeler editor in chief Rod Sutton how company culture has fostered success at RDI.

PR: How do you convince employees to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer?

CORDONNIER: I give them that power. We had a situation with some towel bars, which the client had picked out, that weren’t really what she wanted. So you take the extra step to take care of that. You’re giving the employees the power to make those detail changes.

Quite frankly, when mistakes are made, I’m not a jump-down-your-throat kind of person. They’re [not] scared that if they make a mistake they’re going to get fired. I don’t fuss about overtime; they don’t have to get any clarification. It’s understood that you do whatever it takes and at a reasonable cost.

PR: Do they understand how their decisions affect the project financially?

CORDONNIER: When we have our weekly production meetings, we go over job costs. We dissect a job, and if the framing is over, we ask why. [The lead carpenter] may say, "Once I got into it, there was no way I could have left that wall. I had to redo it." That’s fine, and that’s why we have some pad in [our estimate], to take care of those things.

PR: How do you ensure that lead carpenters act responsibly with that authority?

CORDONNIER: A lot of it is common sense on their part. The fact that we’ve hired the right people has a lot to do with it. I always tell the leads that communication is one of the most important tools we have on the job. It all goes back to the Golden Rule: common courtesy.

PR: Do you ever ask a lead to redo something?

CORDONNIER: I would ask if he’d checked it with the homeowner. Then it would be fine. [On one of our projects,] the lead and homeowner [decided to use] this round window. I thought it was a despicable thing to do to the house, and I still don’t agree with them. That was one of the decisions that I really had a problem with, [yet had to live with].

I can’t think of the last time I second-guessed one of the carpenters on something they did. I trust their opinion. They’re on the job all the time; they know the homeowner’s likes and dislikes.

PR: How do you foster this culture?

CORDONNIER: When Erich [Eggers, co-founder] and I were working together [before starting the company], we were in an engineering sweatshop, working 90 hours a week. We were verbally abused for cost overruns and what have you. When we started [RDI], it was going to be a laid-back company. We charged enough to be able to provide a good culture, to provide a laid-back atmosphere where we didn’t have to watch every single penny. That translates into happy employees and into that do-whatever-it-takes attitude that makes the customer happy.

PR: Did your Golden Rule philosophy come from your experience at that previous job?

CORDONNIER: Yes. When I think as a manager, I [ask], "Is that what I would want done to me if I were working in the field?" Maybe my attitude’s a little different because the first four years of the company I was in the field.

PR: You’ve said that you hire for life. What do you look for when hiring?

CORDONNIER: I don’t do a lot of interviewing. One of my weeders is, I ask them for a resume. If they can’t fax or mail me a resume, I don’t want to talk to them. If I get a resume, at least they have some sort of communication skills. We look for work ethic, communication skills, public relation skills, dealing with the customer. We look for those first, before we look at highly technically skilled people.

PR: You mentioned sense of humor, too.

CORDONNIER: It’s very important. I joke a lot. [During the interview,] I read people on how they take it. And I’ll ask them point blank, "How do you deal with it?" You can tell from the time you spend with them.

PR: Why do you provide such a generous benefits package?

CORDONNIER: So they won’t leave. They see the value in [benefits]. When we implemented the simple IRA, the financial administrator sat down with every single employee, privately, and explained the whole program. They were made aware that, with the company match, it was an automatic raise. We spent a lot of time and effort to educate them to the value of this hidden paycheck. On their last review, [I showed employees] their paid holidays, paid vacations, insurance that we pay. If a guy was making $12 an hour, he’s really making $17 an hour. I wanted to make them know that was out there. We make a concerted effort to think about our employees. "What are we going to do for a summer outing? What are we going to do for a Christmas dinner? What token of appreciate can we give when they get their CLC?" It’s stuff that we [consider] common sense. It’s a fair amount of work as owners to do that. At times, it can be costly. But we want them to have a mind-set that there’s no reason to go anywhere else. This is as good as it gets. We can afford [our benefits package] by charging more. It’s part of overhead. Our overhead is around 30 to 35%. That’s probably higher than normal, but we also have a showroom.

PR: What are the top motivators?

CORDONNIER: I give employees a survey listing motivators: money, praise for a job well-done. I want to know what they want. Of those 10, money’s always around No. 8. Praise for a job well-done, the ability to do their best without restrictions, a manager that’s easy to get along with, and then the working environment. I never leave the job site without telling them that it looks good. I make a concerted effort to praise them as much as I can. One of the leads says he can go make a lot of money somewhere else, but he wouldn’t be nearly as happy. We’re doing the right thing.

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