By Bridget McCrea
The numbers are in and the results are both staggering and sobering. According to a recent Gallup survey of 5.4 million working adults, more than half of employees say they are not engaged in their work. An additional 18% of workers describe themselves as “actively disengaged” – a state of mind that can quickly create bad apples that spread their bitterness to co-workers.
Another survey from Careerbuilder.com also paints a dim picture of today’s workplace, where 76% of full-time workers, while not actively looking for a new job, would leave their current workplace if the right opportunity came along. Combined, this pool of negative sentiments results in a talent loss of 20 to 50% annually for the average company.
But what if you’re not running an average company? What if your manufacturing firm went the extra mile to establish a corporate culture that oozed employee appreciation and was designed to not only recruit the best of the best, but also keep those workers happily employed for the long term? And as an added benefit, that strong corporate culture would spawn stronger customer and business partner relationships – both of which are vital to precasters operating in today’s increasingly competitive market.
Treating everyone like family members
Michael Achenbach understands the value of a strong corporate culture. Since inception, he says the ownership team at Leesport, Pennsylvania-based Reading Precast Inc. has gone out of its way to create a workplace where people actually want to come to work every day. The company started by Achenbach’s family 41 years ago boasts an average employee tenure of 15 years, with some exceeding 20 years. He says the 20-employee firm’s culture is rooted in a very simple philosophy: “To treat everyone who works here as if he or she were a member of the family.”
As part of that mission, Reading Precast uses a triple-interview process when hiring new employees. “Obviously experience is key, but we also like to look at the individual and at how well he or she will fit in with our corporate culture,” says Achenbach. “We operate in a pretty laid back atmosphere around here and that’s different for a lot of employees. Not everyone fits into this atmosphere.”
Achenbach says the company’s culture began to take shape in the late 1980s when his father, who headed up the company at the time, became frustrated with high employee turnover. “At one point, he realized that maybe it wasn’t the employees who were the problem; it was something that he was doing,” recalls Achenbach. “That’s when things started to turn around and when we really began focusing on honing our corporate culture.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and Achenbach says former employees are now calling him to get back on the employee roster at Reading Precast. Maybe it’s the personalized birthday cakes and associated celebrations managed by Karen Achenbach, Michael’s wife and company controller, or perhaps it’s the fact that the company’s president takes the time to speak one-on-one with every employee as frequently as possible. “Little things like that really add up,” said Achenbach, “and it’s something that a lot of our workers have never experienced at their previous jobs.”
To further cement its corporate culture, Reading Precast also holds monthly meetings with all employees. At those pow-wows – which have been taking place for the last 25 years – the meeting leader reads the firm’s mission statement and customer compliments and complaints received during the prior month. The firm’s sales manager goes over company sales numbers, profits, order backlogs and “anything else that might be going on at the company (like the purchase of a new truck or office equipment),” Achenbach said. Employees are also given the floor and asked to voice their opinions, criticisms and compliments. “It really makes our employees feel like they’re part of something bigger,” he notes, “and that their opinions and voices matter.”
Achenbach says his ultimate goal is to get all employees thinking like small business owners who have a stake in the company’s overall well-being and success. “All employees owe it to themselves to get out there and sell their services for a company that will appreciate them and take care of them,” Achenbach said. “Our 15-year average tenure proves that things must be pretty good here, and I feel great about that.”
Reaping the rewards
According to Daniel Paulson, CEO at InVision Business Development in Madison, Wisconsin, the most effective corporate culture initiatives start at the top of the corporation and move down through the entire organization – right to the frontline staff. Paulson, who recently helped a second-generation, family-run cast stone manufacturer strengthen its leadership teams and build on an already effective business culture, said frontline staff is often the most important component of an effective corporate culture.
“In a precast plant, those frontline workers are most worried about building the next widget, and even their managers don’t always understand concepts like business direction and culture,” Paulson points out. The cast stone manufacturer, for example, was dealing with a number of redundant systems and processes that had been instituted over time but never actually assessed in their entirety. With an eye on improving efficiencies, the company broke down its bid process to ferret out points of delay – and wound up reducing its bidding system to two days from one week – and worked with teams in the plant to lower error rates and manufacture better products.
“A lot of the improvements were a result of working with management teams to communicate to the frontline workers on what they were doing, how they were doing it and looking for better solutions,” said Paulson, who sees continuous improvement as a necessary component for a strong corporate culture and for ongoing profitability and success. “A lot of companies assume that they’re at the top of their games and/or the best in their industries, when in fact that’s not always the case.”
Precasters who take the time to develop and hone their corporate cultures can expect numerous benefits in return. Paulson cites lower employee turnover, increased sales and higher profitability as just three of the key rewards that most companies achieve over time. And while those benefits may not appear overnight, Paulson assures precasters that the rewards will become evident as time passes. “Usually there is a slight lag time before companies begin seeing the advantages of a strong corporate culture,” he notes, “but as you start to improve your culture and as employees and managers buy into those improvements, the positive results will show up.”
Don’t fight a losing battle
At Western Precast in El Paso, Texas, all employees are treated equally – whether they’ve worked for the company for 10 years or one day. And even though the company has staff members who have been on board for two or three decades, Leo Feuerstein, operations manager, says the company’s owners work hard to create an atmosphere of equality as part of their core corporate culture. “No one is more important than the next person,” said Feuerstein, whose management team applies that philosophy when recruiting and selecting new hires. “We know that they won’t always last,” he admits, “but we try to make every newcomer feel as though they play an important role from day one.”
Feuerstein says Western Precast’s corporate culture has been in place for more than 30 years and that the company is continually honing that culture to make sure it remains relevant and useful. “We’re always trying to improve upon it,” he said. As part of that culture, the company distributes cards containing personalized notes from the firm’s owners and $25 checks on employee birthdays; gym memberships for staff members and their immediate family; life insurance policies; and a health maintenance program. Western Precast also offers a week of vacation and five personal days annually for workers who have been on the payroll for over a year, and free psychological counseling for stress-related job or family situations.
Having grown from just six employees to 50-plus over the last three decades, Western Precast operates on the core value that if you want to achieve profits and build quality products, you have to treat all individuals equally and with respect. “Ignore that human element and the odds that you’ll have a profitable firm and/or quality products will be pretty slim,” said Feuerstein. “You’ll basically be fighting a losing battle.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.