Generation Gap

Allison Perry Iantosca is a second-generation manager of F.H. Perry Builder Inc., a Hopkinton, Mass., residential remodeling and custom home building firm founded by her father, Finley Perry. With annual revenue of about $5.5 million, F.H. Perry employs 14 people, six in the office and the rest in project management.

December 31, 2004


Tom Swartz, CGR

Photo: Jack Grossman

Allison Perry Iantosca is a second-generation manager of F.H. Perry Builder Inc., a Hopkinton, Mass., residential remodeling and custom home building firm founded by her father, Finley Perry. With annual revenue of about $5.5 million, F.H. Perry employs 14 people, six in the office and the rest in project management. Shawn Nelson, son of Doug Nelson, is a second-generation president of New Spaces, a Burnsville, Minn., residential design-build remodeling company with 25 employees and just over $4 million in annual revenue. Tom Swartz, whose own son entered the family business two years ago, examines the advantages and disadvantages of managing employees from different generations.

Tom: Allison, do you find any difference in the communication style that your father has compared to yours when communicating to the people you work with?

Allison: I think technology - Internet, e-mail, that kind of stuff - was a little slower to come for my dad. He understands now that it's a great way of communicating, and he's fully accepted it and uses it even more than the rest of us at this point. There's a struggle with how you talk to each other based on what your role is, or what your standing is in the company. Younger people want to be seen as standing side by side, having the same weight and responsibility in a meeting or communicating in any kind of professional setting. I think that's been successfully dealt with here, but I do notice this shift in the generations away from the expectation that there's a hierarchical structure up through which you communicate.

Shawn: Doug was not really into e-mail and stuff, and now he can't get away from it. I think in terms of the older generation, if there's an issue, they just drive out there and talk with the people face to face instead of having a phone call or an e-mail. Technology, as much as they've learned to embrace it, seems to remove them from the process, whereas I think for people of my generation, technology can be as relational as any other thing.

Tom: Considering their familiarity with technology, do younger employees bring different advantages to the table?


Allison Iantosca

Photo: Dave Bradley

Allison: I didn't have a computer in college, but I still have more of a sense of technology than the next generation up from me. This next generation coming through, which just grew up with computers, solves problems using technology. Our generation is really looking to figure out how to communicate with each other with technology: jobsite communication through technology, having Web sites for projects. All of that kind of stuff is coming up through the younger people in the company, and using that kind of thinking brings in all sorts of new ideas.

Tom: Shawn what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages that the younger generation brings to a company?

Shawn: I think a lot of times the younger people are bringing in the fresh perspective that people in remodeling have been dealing with all the time, their process of asking questions and trying to learn challenges all of us. Simply asking why something is done that way. And maybe they have had some experiences that point to a different way, which is always beneficial, so we don't get too set in our ways. In terms of the technology, at least in the office I see that they come in right away understanding these things and they have that advantage. People that grew up with it, using it all through high school and whatever amount of college they went through, it is second nature to be on these things. While there is a lot more training time for the older generation, and you really need to sit down and just walk them through it step by step and say "this is how it works, push this button," and they can do that and they can do that great. Whereas the younger generation seems to be more creative with it, they understand it a little bit deeper and can use a little bit more of the power of the technology.

Tom: Are there different styles or ways of motivating employees of different ages?

Shawn: There are different incentives and compensation packages that are important to people. 401(k) and health plans are far less important to younger people. They haven't had a cold in five years and they're not thinking about retirement. They want to have some money so they can do things right now. A lot of them are starting families and obviously that's expensive, so they have more urgent money needs. How you structure your compensation package becomes a little more complicated having a diverse workforce. The younger people tend to like to be congratulated and praised in public, whereas an older worker, especially if he's been with you for a while, appreciates the pat on the back in private. It's much more of that personal relationship that you're having there.

Allison: Young people want to feel like they are able to control how they are spending their money. They want to figure out how they want to create that 401(k), perhaps a different way than if the company is controlling how it gets done.

Shawn: One of the ways we have tried to do that is a cafeteria plan. They can choose the benefits they want, yet it's a fixed cost and an equal cost for the company for each of them. So the older employees, if retirement is closer, can put more of their money into a 401(k) and the younger workers don't have to put as much into it if they have more immediate needs.

Tom: What kinds of expectations might the younger generation have for a company that perhaps the older generation doesn't?


Shawn Nelson

Photo: Steve Woit

Shawn: Flexibility. They expect to be thought of to make their own decisions about what's best. Sometimes the older generation structures their lives around their jobs, so they focus working around that 7 to 4 and they're done with their day, whereas a lot of the younger workers may come in later, they may come in earlier, they may need to leave for a few hours, they may work in the evening from home - whatever they have to do to fit their jobs around their lives. They expect the flexibility to be able to do that as long as they are willing to do the work to get the results.

Allison: There's the sense that our generation wants to have a fancy job title and not work up through the ranks to get it. I think what happens is that we get a fancy job title and then we work like the dickens to keep it. Our generation was asked to be very independent early on in our lives - letting ourselves in after school and that kind of thing - and so we've developed into very independent people who want to feel valued for who we are and what we can contribute. I think there is a lot of value in breaking out of a hierarchical structure and creating more of a collegial structure. Flexibility on hours doesn't mean they're not working. There is some real value in getting people at their best times when they're at their most productive. Health care - it's just meant to be a given. Flexibility on hours, a cell phone, a computer, a printer, a fax machine. The opportunity to speak directly to the boss or the president - companies that have an open door, so when they have ideas or an issue, they can express it and be heard. I don't want my message to be diluted. I want my message to be heard firsthand from me.

Tom: What are your thoughts on people of different ages having different perspectives on the remodeling industry?

Allison: As far as it being a worthy personal pursuit? It's becoming a very powerful industry that is becoming very well respected. Not only for the capabilities and for the roles people can play in the industry but also because it's such a wide-open, friendly industry. It seems that everybody is willing to give opportunities to grow. The struggle is that it is pulling in all these people who want to be managers, not carpenters or craftspeople, which results in our labor shortage. But suddenly these people who thought that the building trade was looked down upon now play a very responsible managerial role doing something that they really love and care about.

Tom: You just addressed the managers. What about the trades?

Allison: You don't get that apprenticeship set-up. I think college has become something that everybody does. But the general study in college has become such a broad-based thing you can't really just get any job right out of college anymore.

Shawn: We have carpenters on staff here and so I experience it firsthand. We've ended up not able to find anyone who was skilled, so we've had to train them. Fortunately, our local builders association has a program. We have a couple of guys who have been on a five-year program to get trained and are starting to get to where they can handle their own projects. It's a lengthy process.

Tom: And expensive.

Shawn: Absolutely. With not a huge amount of certainty that at some point they're not going to say, "This isn't the thing for me." They are pretty young and can make changes pretty easily or get a job offer and go somewhere else. There is risk for us spending a lot of money developing them, but it's pretty much our only option. Part of the reason I see for that is that the high schools preach that you have to go to college. Schools are rated on how many students they send to college, and if they don't send enough people to college they are looked upon as less successful. Most of these trade jobs don't require philosophy, astronomy and the general liberal education that you would get in a college setting. Having programs for the trades to develop the communication skills to run a project, to get the electrician to show up on time when they say they can't, to communicate with the homeowner - these are the things where a lot of young people need training, but opportunities are fairly limited. Our industry has had to set them up themselves, because frankly the school systems are not doing it.

Tom: Where are tomorrow's carpenters going to come from? Do you have a clue?

Allison: No.

Shawn: There are going to be companies who are able to set up training programs, but you have to reach a certain scale to be able to do that. In terms of the college level, it's construction management. The actual construction programs have been cut. In this state, there used to be a handful of good ones; I think there is only one now. Remodeling, to be quite frank, is going to go the way housing did. It's going to be streamlined and production methods are going to be improved. There will be prefabrication and factories that are cutting out labor factors and things like that. We're talking about the next couple of decades, but if the labor is not there, there will be other solutions.

Tom: What do we need to do to attract the younger generations to where we can use their expertise to make the remodeling industry more professional or better in any way?

Allison: Wow. This is like a college essay question. I think to continue to value the professionalism, to state the professionalism that there is value and worth in the industry. To continue to offer training. It just seems to me at some level if we could embrace...I'm just trying to picture that high school kid who is trying to figure out where to go. And if there is a way in which our industry can continue to show off its professional ability, to embrace the dreams with that kid, the passion that that child has, to nurture it, to mentor him or her, and to create an avenue in which there is as clear a journey into either a craft position or a management position or into the industry as there is for all the other professional industries out there. And to continue to be aware of the value these independent kids are bringing into the workplace, allowing you to shake your feathers a little bit and opening your ears a little bit to see what everyone is bringing to the table.

Shawn: We need to have a multi-pronged strategy. We need to be talking to the schools, letting the people in career counseling know about the good opportunities available and raising their perception level of those. There are some students that don't want to go to college but they can go into this skill training and have a great career. We need to be doing this at the legislative front as well so we don't get more funding cut for these programs. And, we need to be showing these are great careers through media relations as well. Remodelers are doing great things in the community. The remodeling industry, in terms of the craftspeople, is making a good living. People should be proud of their kids being willing to work hard and make a good living doing it.

Tom: What advice would you give to bring together the generations in this industry?

Allison: The structure that the older generation maintains is critical for the success of the younger generation that is coming in looking for flexibility. Balancing out of all those components could really make for a wonderful company.

Shawn: There is probably a lot more difference within each generation between people than there is necessarily between the generations. Just respect each individual. Ask them what they think. Listen to what they have to say. Treat them all like individuals and try to find a way to meet their needs, and you'll probably end up being a lot more successful.

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