The Company As Family

Perhaps one of the most important elements in employee satisfaction is also one of the most difficult to quantify.

May 31, 2002


Theresa Same, Small Carpenters at Large. Photo: Robin Nelson

Perhaps one of the most important elements in employee satisfaction is also one of the most difficult to quantify. It’s called corporate culture in large companies; in the more casual atmosphere typical of remodelers, it might be referred to as “the feeling around here.”

Whatever it’s called and however it’s defined, a company’s culture is the atmosphere in which its employees function every workday. It encompasses all of the non-compensation-related rewards (or burdens) they have. Among remodelers, exceptional culture is most frequently described as being like a family — an attitude that usually can be traced to the owner.

That’s the case at Small Carpenters at Large, an Atlanta remodeling firm whose employees reported over and over that their boss, Danny Feig, CR, is one heck of a nice guy. In the views of those who work for him, Feig has his priorities straight, emphasizing the importance of family and life away from work. This is one owner who isn’t impressed by employees’ worrying about work on the weekends.

Speaking of weekends ... at SCAL, they’re almost always three days. The 40-hour workweek is four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday. Feig instituted this schedule to give his staff an extra couple of hours a week of personal time, says SCAL controller Theresa Same. With Atlanta traffic notoriously snarled at rush hour, the earlier start and later quitting times help SCAL employees avoid the worst of the traffic on their average one-hour commutes and skip it altogether on Fridays.

“If there’s a sub who can work only on Friday, we’ll make some kind of arrangement to work around that,” says Mark Camillo, SCAL administrative assistant. “But the four-day week works out really well most of the time.”

Same says: “Money has never been Danny’s primary motivating factor. Quality always comes first on the jobs, and he cares more about people than how much they’re producing. He allows people a lot of autonomy and lets them create their own niche.”

With so much of the company’s culture based on the attitudes of one person, what would happen if Feig were suddenly out of the picture for some reason? While Camillo is nonplussed at the thought, he isn’t particularly concerned about the company’s future. “I’d like to think the company would go on with the same philosophy he has built it with: craftsmanship, not an assembly-line approach.”

Not surprisingly, every firm on the 101 Best Companies to Work For list has an outstanding culture. Kaz Brothers Construction is typical of the remodelers on the list: Its emphasis on teamwork motivates employees to do their best at all times. Employees are empowered to make decisions on the job site when a problem pops up. They get plenty of practice, too, by expressing their ideas about how the company is run.

“We include everyone in decision-making,” says Ed Warren, roofing production manager for the West Seneca, N.Y., remodeler. “Even the lowest man on the totem pole gets input on how things run. It’s not just the managers.” Ron Kazmerzak, siding and window division manager at Kaz Brothers, explains that he and his brothers Rick (president) and Ken (roofing division manager) were acutely aware that as owners of a family business they present an intimidating front to new em-ployees. So they have made special efforts to show their 20-plus employees that each person is equal in the eyes of the company.

“Everybody is here to grow,” he stresses. “Rick’s philosophy is that we all share the wealth. He’s very accessible to anyone who wants to talk to him. We try to listen to the guys and do what they want.”

The word family popped up repeatedly on the survey forms returned by employees of the top remodelers, even in unexpected places such as responses to “What one thing about your company would you like to improve?” Many employees feel so close to their bosses and co-workers that they wish they had more chances to socialize with their entire families. Not that there is a shortage of such events: Christmas parties, barbecues, picnics, fishing trips, golf outings and boating excursions (at least one remodeler has a company boat available for employee use).

And how’s this for family atmosphere: Every year, Julie Platt, wife of owner Halsey Platt, bakes birthday cakes for all 25 em-ployees of Walter H.B. Platt Builders & Cabinetmakers (Groton, Mass.). She and the Platts’ two young sons bring the cakes to the office and join in singing Happy Birthday. “It blew me away the first time it happened to me,” cabinetmaker David Ahlman recalls. “But it’s just the kind of thing that happens around here. We’re all friends.”

The atmosphere is casual and friendly, even allowing for occasional job-site appearances by man’s best friend. As longtime employee Frank Stark puts it, “Quirks are tolerated; imaginations are embellished. Dogs are OK, too!”

Stark explains that Halsey Platt is committed to the people he hires. If someone makes a mistake, well, “suck it up and try again,” Stark says. “Halsey takes the time to work with people for their strengths, and he’s put together a great team.”

Platt is adamant that he needs every member of the team and has since the beginning. “This is not my company. It’s our company. I couldn’t do this alone. I have a great deal of respect for everyone who works here. I’ve got a lot to learn from them. I listen to what they have to say and let them do it their way if it makes sense.”

It’s getting harder to maintain the family atmosphere with the number of employees the company now has, Platt says, but he’s trying hard to keep it. “At our monthly meetings, I try to single out two or three people to compliment on something special they’ve done — a problem they solved or an especially good job on a project. The family feeling is important to us, and the clients can tell the difference, too.”

Enjoying workdays was common among survey respondents, and many acknowledged an employer’s willingness to share the company’s success with them. But several also admired their firm for taking stands on larger issues. Scott Bridge, another Platt Builders cabinetmaker, notes that his boss actively supports Habitat for Humanity and invited his staff to join him on a fund-raising hike last month. And at Allen Associates (Santa Barbara, Calif.), several employees praised the firm’s commitment to the environment.

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