Labor Gains

This fall’s annual meeting at Home Finishes Inc. in San Ramon, Calif., will bear a striking resemblance to the United Nations, figures Ned Seawell, CGR, vice president of business development.

October 03, 1999

This fall’s annual meeting at Home Finishes Inc. in San Ramon, Calif., will bear a striking resemblance to the United Nations, figures Ned Seawell, CGR, vice president of business development. About one-third of the employees will be wearing headphones to hear presentations in their native language--Spanish. Home Finishes’ ability to integrate Hispanic employees, coupled with its strong focus on retention programs, has helped the company to stay on course even though it has expanded its staff by more than 200 people in the past two years.


Home Finishes Inc.

"We’re going to have to become more resourceful in finding people now, because we’ve hit a flat spot in our usual recruitment approaches, and we’re still growing," says Seawell. "But the methods we’ve used to this point to find good people aren’t that out of the ordinary. What is unusual is that we’ve managed to recruit the best people and retain them with our training programs, benefits packages and other elements."

Recruiting employees from non-traditional markets, such as Spanish-speaking communities, offers great potential for expanding the universe of qualified candidates. But doing so can create additional concerns that must be addressed to ensure both new and long-term employees blend well and communicate effectively. At Home Finishes, for instance, those not fluent in English are scheduled to work only with bilingual supervisors or in positions where they won’t have to interact with English-only clients. Approximately 80 percent of the field staff have been issued two-way radios to provide instant communication with the office on problems that arise.

"Communication problems occur, but they happen very rarely," says Tony Friday, vice president of corporate operations, who runs the day-to-day line operations. That’s reinforced by the employees’ handbook and systems manual, which was first offered in a Spanish edition about two years ago. One company employee also takes time each Friday to translate all employee memos into Spanish to ensure the entire staff understands what is being communicated.

"We recognized that our employee base was expanding and we needed to respond to those changes," Friday says. "We knew that as Spanish-speaking employees represented a larger segment of our workforce, we had to ensure our information was communicated to them in the best way for them to understand it. We had to respond to their needs, and it has helped us tremendously."

But the bilingual meetings, manuals and other such programs aren’t the only focuses at Home Finishes. They’re simply elements in the company’s overall strategy of retaining employees. Such an approach is both quality- and cost-effective in a market where finding new employees is difficult without factoring in the additional training costs and time, plus the lost expertise when a well-trained employee leaves.

Home Finishes CEO Mike Giosso is well aware of the value of retaining quality employees and always has stressed this need as the company has grown. The company works in several areas, which include preparing punchlists and doing final detailing on new homes to ready them for occupancy. It also handles warranty-maintenance work on new homes, remodeling and repair jobs, and an online warranty-management system, which links builders, vendors and buyers in real time.

The result of these programs has been dramatic growth in the company in the past two years. Volume has risen from $12 million to $19 million while staff has grown from 150 to nearly 400. "We have capitalized on a market here in Northern California that is growing rapidly, and we’ve diversified in ways that keep us focused on our key niches," Seawell says. "Mike keeps telling me to find the work and we’ll have the labor to do the jobs," he says. "And so far he’s been right."

That’s because the company focuses on being a great place to work and counts on its employees to brag to potential recruits. Home Finishes uses word-of-mouth referrals to find the best people. The company pays a $250 bonus to any employee who recommends a job candidate who hires on. And because of the company’s accommodations for Spanish-speakers, Hispanic employees recommend the company to friends, both here and in Mexico.

A key element in recruitment has been Mario Portillo, who runs the company’s growing painting division. It long has been staffed with native Mexicans, because Portillo could recruit, committed workers with a good work ethic, and communicate on the job. Because most of the painting is done in new homes being prepped for occupancy, interaction with English-only customers seldom occurs. The initial draw for recruits is obvious, says Friday. In addition to Spanish-language communication programs, benefits include good pay, medical benefits, and a 401(k) program with a company-matching program. Other benefits are monthly bonuses of $100 (after taxes) for meeting efficiency standards, plus overtime bonuses (in addition to overtime pay) of $500 for working 1,800 annual hours and $1,000 for working 2,000 annual hours.

Those entering the company as field staff receive an initial training program to hone their skills to Home Finishes’ standards. The courses take one to four weeks, depending on the employee’s initial competency. "If you come with tools and skills, you can be done in a week," Friday says. "If you’re looking to add new skills or learn on the job, it could take two to four weeks." Each employee then is rated on his capability in that specialty, from Tech-1 to Tech-4, and customers are billed at different rates depending on the employee’s skill level.

During this period, each trainee is monitored in the field by one of the company’s five project managers, who recommends any additional training that may be needed. The project managers also encourage employees to think long-term, and the company has instituted programs aimed at turning jobs into strategic career paths. "As a growing, entrepreneurial company, we’re looking for people who demonstrate a willingness to achieve more and continue learning," Seawell says. That holds true for both field and office staff, he adds. "You want to be in management? Show your colors, and we’ll put you in place to get there."

This includes a mentoring program, in which ambitious people who demonstrate talent are paired with someone to teach them the ropes. "We need to teach employees exactly what our project managers do, because we want them to grow into those positions so we can duplicate those positions as we branch out," Seawell says. That type of clear path keeps employees focused and shows that good effort and interest will pay off.


Office Perks
Recognition and communication are as vital to morale as bonuses. Tony Friday (right) learned that when the company instituted several programs for the office staff that were more successful than he anticipated.

One program featured a dry-erase writing board in a prominent location, where key achievements are celebrated, such as the billing department hitting its goals or a department setting a record. "I didn’t think that would be a big deal, but it’s been huge," he says. "People like seeing what everyone else is doing, and they like seeing their name or department receive credit."

To support that recognition factor, the company installed an upscale coffee machine with fancy drink options. To reward work above-and-beyond the call, supervisors hand out tokens for a free drink. "It’s just a small perk, but it’s well received," he says. Next up: a massage therapist, hired to work out on-the-job knots.

The staff also holds monthly potluck lunches to celebrate upcoming birthdays and to have a chance to chat. The company also sponsors an annual golf tournament and supports local sports teams. Employees can nominate their favorite charity to receive a company donation, with the current list including AIDS walks, Boys and Girls Clubs, seeing-eye dog programs and aid to handicapped children. "We try to stay in touch with our community and what our employees are involved with," Friday says.

The company also holds three-hour specialty training classes on Saturdays, so employees can expand their skills or learn new ones. "They’re open to anyone who tells me they want to attend," Friday says. Some have as many as 20 people in them, he says, which requires several trainers. They focus on hands-on lessons where attendees hang doors, hang drywall and learn by doing. Employees also can attend outside seminars through colleges or other learning centers related to their jobs, with Home Finishes picking up the tab.

The company continually asks for feedback from customers and encourages them to report any communication difficulties, so they can be caught immediately. The company also offers a $250 bonus for each college-level language course completed by an employee, whether they’re learning English or Spanish. "We want our employees to communicate better, and that fluency can work in either direction," Friday says.

These programs will continue to pay off, Friday says, because like Seawell, he anticipates having to put more effort into recruitment as the labor shortage and the company both grow in the future. Friday sees one key market segment that remains virtually untapped: women. This additional pool of recruits is needed: The company opened an office in Southern California in August.

"Especially with our technology component, geography is not a drawback," says Seawell. "The ability to tap into new labor markets will be a big help as we look for people to staff our growth."

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