Team Building for Growing Firms

Team building is all about getting everyone in your remodeling company to participate in setting goals and core values.

May 31, 2008

This month featuring:


Tom Swartz

J.J. Swartz Co.

Contributing Editor

There is no "I" in team. That's what team building is all about: getting everyone in the company to participate in setting goals and core values. Once employees are part of the process, they'll believe in their work and be more willing to uphold the goals and values of the company.

Read the complete discussion below or link to the podcast to listen to the conversation.

Tom: Chris, define how you look at team building.

Chris: The essence of team building. If you look at professional sports or any type of sporting event, you have an idea that they're after something. They're after a championship, they have a history of their team and a fan base that they need to support. They also have a bottom line to achieve. In our business, it's no different. We have the clients, the bottom line which we have to achieve, employees that need a reason to be focused. It isn't just the job or the bottom dollar. The most successful teams or businesses out there have a goal. They have a reason for being in business and what they do that makes them different from everyone else. We've spent a large portion of our time and dedication to materials and resources, in house and outsourced, to help us identify that. You can get that answer, you can say what the answer is or go out and search for that answer of who you are in relation to the other companies in your area and what the clients are looking for. You've got the key to start the team building. One is the people — what do we rally around, and what's our goal?

Tom: Linda, being in the human resource area, how do you look at team building and how do you define it?

Linda: We look at team building in conjunction with our core values. One is exceptional customer service. Another is respect and accountability. I see that is important in the team, that they respect one another, that there's good communication and they support each other with all the different ideas coming together. It's a synergistic thing. We look at that with our staff. It benefits the client? when they feel that no matter who they're working with, it's all one team working together for a common goal.

Tom: Linda, who in your company gets involved in the team building?

Linda: Our office manager, Michelin, also puts out ideas. The two of us brainstorm areas that we think would be good to work on if there's something that comes up during day-to-day operations. What can we do to deal with communications? We'll discuss topics with our management team. When we implement them, it's everyone, including the field.

Tom: How important is the field?

Linda: Hugely important. If they can't build it, if they're not doing the job at their end, it doesn't help the sales design. We can't do one without the other.

Tom: Chris, who gets involved in your team building at your company?


Chris Stebnitz

Chris: We spent a lot of time creating a brand. Within the concept of creating and developing the brand, it's important that we keep people on the same page. One of the ways that we do that is to have a brand task force that picks people from all aspects of the company, as representatives.

Tom: You've brought in a very interesting word, brand. Manufacturers deal with it all the time. I want to make sure that we're clear on the term. You said you're creating a brand. Define brand in the context of team building.

Chris: The idea behind brand is the value that you bring to a client. It separates you in an emotional and very specific way. I'll take Volvo as an example. They have a very good brand. When you say Volvo you typically think of safety. They spend a lot of money to be the safest car. They're not the fastest or most stylish car, but their focus is entirely on safety. They want to be known as the safest car. Stebnitz Builders has spent a lot of time and effort in creating this company. You get the brand by understanding what the client wants. By interviewing our clients, suppliers, vendors and our employees, they've given us the ideas. Our employees sat down and filtered through the ideas and found the things that people want from a remodeling company and out of Stebnitz Builders.

Tom: Are you saying that everyone, including the field, got involved in giving examples of what it takes to have a brand company in the remodeling industry?

Chris: Yes. We started out with a sampling of ideas. What you get from that sampling that comes up with all the ideas, and it filters out to everyone. They take an active role in creating. For instance, our sales team created their own manual. I didn't do it for them. These are the things that are going to support our brand promise. Yes, everyone gets involved from every aspect in the company.

Tom: Linda, it sounds to me that when you get everyone involved it includes meetings and things like that. Some say that team building is just a lot more meetings. How do you address that; is it true or false? Is there a lot of time you spend in building the team from the start?


Linda Minde

Linda: No, it really isn't. Once a month we have a strategic planning meeting. That may involve our production manager, sales manager, our office manager and myself. Then we do some brainstorming. Then we have our strategic planning meeting the following week; it's about two hours. We develop our strategic goals for the year. When we get together it's accountability time about how the departments are doing. We usually have a team-building event. For example, if we're going to talk about communication, we'll do a fun exercise. Like, we pair up one field person and one office person. Put them back to back. One person has a picture and he describes that picture to the other person, who draws it and tries to guess what it is. It's a way to bond together.

Tom: You took your whole entire crew on a field trip of some nature.

Linda: We did. In 2007, we started doing some strategic planning with the whole company so that everyone would be on the same page and develop their own goals for their department. After working a couple hours on that strategic planning, I booked us at the racetrack. We raced cars, there was a pit crew challenge and we had some of our trade contractors join us as well. There was some great teamwork there with our trades. It was a surprise, we didn't tell them! It was a paid day.

Tom: Can you put a cost to this?

Linda: I'm not really sure. I would say $3,000. We rented the location and had lunch.

Tom: Do you have a line item budget for team building and things of that nature?

Linda: It's part of our training budget.

Tom: That budget would run how much a year?

Linda: It's usually around $15,000.

Tom: Chris, what about you? Time-wise, it seems it's got to happen by communication. I would say that communication would take time. What is the time and money involved?

Chris: There is definite time involved. We have regular meetings. I don't like meetings for meeting's sake. We have an agenda and time and things are laid out so everyone has the expectation and understanding of what's going to be happening. It is important to have those meetings, so we can go over, for instance, our task force that meets once a month. It can be from one to two hours. There are four people and myself at the meeting talking about issues that might be going on right now — things, ideas if we want to change the way we're handling something. If someone's doing something really well, we'd like to incorporate that in another aspect. We bring up and talk about those things. From there, they're brought to the departmental meetings, sales meetings and production meetings which happen on a regular basis. Our sales meeting is once a week, and the production meeting is every other week. Those ideas are being brought to them and are discussed at that point at the discretion of the owners, if they want to continue on. For the most part, the ideas that come out are supported by the employees. Many of those things have gone through without any problem at all.

Tom: If hourly field employees come to this, they're paid?

Chris: Yes. Typically, they come in during the morning. Primarily, it doesn't interfere with their day, so they don't set up and then have to jump to a meeting. It's more efficient to have it in the morning so they can at least be more efficient with the time they're there. They are paid, and the meetings don't cost them anything. It is a cost to the company.

Tom: Do you have an annual budget for team building or training? In our company we call it training; we have a training budget.

Chris: Ours is under training as well. Ours is probably close to $10,000 for the year.

Tom: Chris, is there any time that you would advise and think it was important to bring in outside consultants, team builders, coaches or anyone else outside the confines of your company?

Chris: Absolutely. We've brought in different professionals whose level of expertise has helped bring more clarity to different aspects. Whether it be production, sales, we have a brand approach that, for me, helps bring clarity to a situation or opportunity for us.

Tom: Isn't there a cost to bring those people in?

Chris: No. With the company I'm affiliated with, that's part of their service. They're going to work with us on certain aspects. If there's something above and beyond, like we're going to create a production manual, or something, there is a cost to that. The aspect of the meeting with us is part of their service.

Tom: Is that part of the $10,000 training or is it outside of that?

Chris: It depends. I would say it's above and beyond. You can't really anticipate when you're going to need that. If something comes up where you want to bring in a consultant or professional who has more experience of training, you won't know that until the middle of the year; you want to tie that in. Yes, that would be above and beyond.

Tom: Linda: Outside consultants, coaches, or other people that would be besides your in house. Do you use outside sources at all?

Linda: We did last year. We hired a consultant to help us do our first strategic planning. I'm a member of NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners. I talked to someone I met at that organization, mentioning that we were growing our company and bringing our design in-house. I felt there was a little bit of disconnect between the field and the in house design. She recommended doing a strategic plan and bringing everyone together. We did hire her to come in to work with the managers of all the departments, and the individual employees. It was actually her idea to have some sort of a fun event after the strategic planning meeting.

Tom: Cost?

Linda: About $4,000. I did a little bit of bartering.

Tom: By bartering you mean she wanted more and you didn't want to pay that much so you got it for four grand.

Linda: Right.

Tom: And the four grand is above, you would say it's more of a consulting budget item than a training budget.

Linda: Yes.

Tom: I'm trying to get a handle on cost. This thing does not come without cost. We had consultants come in and we paid a lot more than that, and I'm not sure you need to do that, although I guess we thought we did. Linda do you believe that an outside source is helpful or do you think you can do about as good in-house?

Linda: The first time, I thought it was very helpful because it was all new to us. Working with the consultant, there were things that we could do ourselves; like putting our own brochure together, that lowered the cost somewhat. Since we've done one, we do it in-house now, we don't feel the need to bring her back again.

Tom: Chris, do you see a need for outside consulting or outside help coming in from time to time to bring the team back together?

Chris: I do. We're members of Remodelers Advantage. We'll come back from our meetings with some big ideas on how to move from point A to point B. Sometimes we're too close to it so it helps to have someone else come in without prejudice, it makes things go much smoother. They meet with us and they're going to do what we want them to do to achieve; we have an end result. We have them come in and identify what that is, and I think it's really invaluable.

Tom: Chris, give me a specific example of team building in your company, and specific improvements that occurred. How do you measure that success? Linda had a good example, $3,000: taking them to the go-cart racetrack.

Chris: I'd go back to when we first started the development of "brand." We had about a dozen of our folks together. They knew what we were trying to do, and they were a vital part of creating that end product.

Tom: What was the end product?

Chris: The end product was our brand promise. Everything that we do is going to run through that filter. If it was too big or didn't fit, it wasn't going to make it. That brand promise is what they created. That took about three full days of meeting off-site with a facilitator. They came up with that brand promise and from there came up with: the focus of our company is listening. "Perfecting the Art of Listening." If you go to our Web site, you see listening everywhere. That's where our focus is. We know that there're so many benefits that come from that when we concentrate on being the best listeners around. How we measure that is, primarily, through the adoption of all the practices that we've created. The systems that we've put in place all came from the employees. We didn't just say, "We're going to do A through F" and just jam it down their throat. It was, "What do you think? How should we answer the telephone?" That's how basic we got. All the way to how we are contacting people for the final bill. There are so many different things about this whole process that we mapped out with their help, and using that brand promise as the filter. How we measure that is really the employees, their feelings on it and how they feel about having been a part of that. Also, the client service that we do and the amount of feedback we get without provoking them — they're saying they can't believe that we listen as well as we do. They're telling us how well this is working for them.

Tom: You've said a lot there. You got very specific. Linda, what do you say to that? Give an example of team building, specific improvements, and how it's measured?

Linda: One time we decided that we would do the "FISH" philosophy. It has four parts to it: Play, Make Their Day, Be There and Choose Your Attitude. We had everyone read a chapter and we would discuss it. It was interesting to see what developed after we got through all those components in that philosophy. The results we saw were the mutual exchange of ideas. There was a much-improved handout package. I found the field and the design talking more, appreciating each other's gifts more. I saw an estimating manual go a notch up. They wanted to make sure they had everything in there for production to do a good job in coming under budget. Production also wanted the design team to make sure they thought about "this" and "this" when they were going out on a sales call. I saw better communication and more respect for one another. The "choosing your attitude" was huge for a lot of people. Sometimes we had people "putting their attitudes" on their door in the office if it was one of those days. You would know, if I'm going to be talking to that person today, their claiming their attitude is crabby.

Chris: I had a flag on my door. Whenever that flag was there, I was assured that no one would come into my office!

Tom: Linda. As I look around the country, I see where things have slowed down. In general, you just came back from a week with your Board of Directors group, Chris is out a week, and I might be off a day or two. In tougher times, as in USA Today, I've quit reading that. It made me quit reading everything. In tougher times, in team building, do you get pushed aside for the more immediate needs of the company?

Linda: I don't see it being pushed aside; if anything, we rally together more often because we all have to brainstorm. "If it's a little slow right now, what can we all do? We're all in this together." It's amazing how many employees do have ideas and do have ways in fact that could be very beneficial. When we bring everyone together and ask, "Here's the problem; what are we going to do to solve that?" it was amazing when one of our production sales guys said, "I used to take that flyer around to just one street, but I can go a few more blocks and deliver those a little more!" It's amazing what everyone will step up to the plate to do.

Tom: Chris. There are places and pockets that are not affected by any slowdown or recession in home building, and there's the myth that when home building goes down, remodeling goes up. It is tougher times. You can't have gas at $3.50 to $4.00 and food at what it is and not have tougher times. If it's affected by the business or in the plan, do you see team building sometimes taking the back seat for the more immediate needs of the bottom line and other things with the company?

Chris: No, I don't at all. I think that, if anything else, it makes us work harder to do those other things. Team building right now is a great opportunity for us. Anyone listening to this podcast or reading this in the magazine is already a step ahead of the rest. I'm focusing on what I can do for my company right now. It might be a little slow, but we'll take this opportunity to better ourselves. Let's make this thing a leaner more efficient machine, and create better relationships. When things start to move again we're in even better shape. That's where I think team building is absolutely critical. Marketing is absolutely critical at this time. In our case, I go back to branding. Ask if that branding is identifying that one thing that makes you different from all the rest that adds value to your product; it has some emotional value to it. If there isn't a real value, something that you can put your finger on, "This happened to me," something they can feel, something they can touch, it has to have that. When you have that developed it makes this slow time an opportunity to be able to narrow your focus and get these things back into line. Let's face it, when things are great, you can get sloppy in this. It's easy to say: "Leads are coming in and we've got jobs. Who cares about this stuff?" That's when people leave team building to the wolves. When things aren't that quick and easy let's get that and refine that now.

Linda: I couldn't agree more, Chris!

Tom: When things get slow, people start pulling their horns in. When they do, the first thing they do is cut advertising and marketing.

Chris: That's the exact opposite way of viewing things. Most business owners are not trained in marketing and they're not trained advertisers. They hear what the news people come and ask and when they should be placing an ad. When you listen to the people who have been there and done that, this is the time that you need to be the one company that's doing well. I've stopped reading the newspaper long ago. If I listened to them, I'd be in a mental hospital.

Tom: Actually, I was instructed to do that. Our son's running the day-to-day business and I would send him articles, and go to the board meetings, and get the economic housing outlook from NAHB. Finally, he said, "Don't send my any more articles." Linda, when you take a look at team building, do you look at people or processes?

Linda: It's a little bit of both. Usually it's in the process side that something that is not working well. It may or may not be employee-related. It may just be that some communication is not well. Usually it starts with the process.

Tom: Chris, people or processes?

Chris: 100% process. If things aren't being done, then I've done a poor job at getting the process in such a way that it dictates who I being in. If I don't have a job description that fits the right type of people I have then I could just hire anyone and bring anyone in. I think it's process driven. It enables you to do all the other things in you business well.

Tom: Now, the last bit of information. You're going to tell a group of remodelers who want to get ahead and want to know more about team building.

Chris: First of all, define who you are! The way to do that is ask the clients and ask the people you work with. If you have employees, ask them. If you have past clients and current clients, ask them. Try to get an unbiased survey done. Ask the suppliers and those people what it takes to make a great company. Those are the people who you want to listen to. Once you get that feedback, identify the type of client you want and the things that they want from you. Generally, go through the process of defining what it takes to get there, what are the systems and processes we need to get from here to there? Who do I need and who's going to be doing this process? What are the specific things you can achieve out of this? In essence, we probably want more profits, happier clients, and happier staff. No matter where you're at in the process, from a one-man crew to a 50-person company, this process works. It eliminates a lot of the running around and chasing your tail and buckshot approach of trying to get to the end result. Understand who you are, and understanding where you're going and how you're going to get there. That takes a lot of time; it doesn't happen over night. We've been doing it for five years. It's going to take another 20,30, 40, we're always going to be re-evaluating. It's not a one time thing. To think that there's a magic pill out there to solve this, it won't work. Unless you know who you are and the message you're going to create and the process that supports it. We never placed and ad about listening until we had all the processes set. When we put the ad out there, people understood what we're doing. When they pick up the phone to call us, they experience that right away. The first time they talk to someone on the phone. If they don't the first time, that's when it starts to erode our brand and our processes. That's what I'd say everyone should start to look at.

Tom: That's great advice! Linda, what can you add to that?

Linda: I would say for those who are working a lot of hours and trying to do it all. If they would just take a step back. So many small businesses don't make it because they're burned out. They're trying to do it all. Take a step back and see why it is that I have to be involved in this? Why is it that my staff doesn't really know what their job is or what the process is? If they would start with one little piece, that would be huge. It would probably take five to ten hours out of their work week. They need to empower their staff. Start with one little piece. Then they could see the benefit of that, and they'll start working on another area.

Tom: I like it!

I appreciate everything you've both said. You've been a great inspiration for this particular topic. For today, my thanks to Linda Minde of Trilite Builders and Chris Stebnitz of Stebnitz Builders.

This is Tom Swartz of J. J. Swartz Company for Remodelers' Exchange. Thank you both very much!


This month featuring:

Linda Minde, Co-Owner

Trilite Builders, Chandler, Ariz

Trilite is a design/build/remodeling company that's been in business for 25 years. The firm has 11 employees. Annual volume is $2 million to $2.5 million.

Chris Stebnitz, Owner

Stebnitz Builders, Delavan, Wis.

Stebnitz is a 36-year-old company, with Chris as a third-generation owner. The firm has 20 employees and an annual revenue of $3.5 million to $4 million.

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