Every year since 1986, we have devoted this issue to profiles of the Big50 —owners of successful, growing remodeling companies of various sizes that are among the best in America. The Big50 now number nearly 1,500, and each one has met consensual standards for professionalism and integrity. Under their leadership, their companies have distinguished themselves in some way, whether through smart marketing or unique design, exemplary business practices or team-building, or an extraordinary impact on their community or the industry at large.

To select the Big50, we measure hundreds of candidates against a set of objective benchmarks for longevity and financial performance, and evaluate them against more subjective characteristics, such as short- and long-term mission and ability to innovate. We also measure them, in an admittedly inexact but nonetheless effective way, against an ideal informed by all of the Big50 companies that have come before them.

The fact is, however, that the demands of the marketplace and the standards of business practice have evolved over the years. As outstanding as Big50 winners of 10 or 15 years ago were, it's a more costly and more complicated business these days, making hard-line comparisons among companies from different eras impractical and ultimately futile.

Frankly, in any given year, Big50 candidates meet their sternest test when compared to one another. The policies, performance, and best practices of their contemporaries set the standards against which winning companies must compete. Each year, this proving ground takes on a different topography, but lately — and especially this year — it centered mainly around employee benefits, particularly health insurance.

For companies performing as well financially as the Big50, a complete employee benefit package is — or should be — a given. Most owners of candidate companies recognize the value of their employees beyond the costs associated with having to replace them, and provide benefits on top of salary as a way of recruiting and retaining team members. But some hide behind some fairly flimsy excuses.

This year, for example, a few candidates told us that their employees would rather receive more take-home pay than participate in a retirement plan. No kidding. Somewhere out there, I'm sure, 25-year-olds are planning for retirement, but none of them are carpenters. They may understand intellectually that their saving for retirement has to start long before they need the money, but it won't get their attention for another 25 years. I'll wager it will dawn on them the first morning they wake up to find that the stiffness they felt in their knees last week is still there and isn't going to go away by itself.

Not every company owner who hides behind this kind of employee shortsightedness is a cheapskate; sometimes they just don't want to make the time or take the trouble to set up a retirement package. But when we compare them to what other Big50 candidate companies are doing, it's no contest. Different companies spend different amounts, but the best companies tend to spend proportionately. They go beyond the basic package and make it their business not only to educate their employees on the value of a 401(k), but to provide an incentive to participate by matching contributions.

Health insurance is an even better example. It's expensive and difficult to shop for, and there are many more ways to rationalize not offering it to employees. We've heard them all: My employees are healthy and don't want insurance; My employees would rather have more take-home pay; My employees are covered under their spouses' insurance.

When that happens, we don't have far to look to find a rebuttal: the other Big50 candidates provide it for us. This year we have several companies that not only provide a good-better-best health package so employees can choose how much to spend, but in the case of an employee covered by a spouse's policy, they add what they would have spent on insurance (pro-rated for payroll taxes) to the paycheck. They don't do it because they have to — typically, none of their competitors offer anything like it. They do it because it's fair and it's good business to acknowledge and reward the source of their prosperity — their team.

As the Chinese say, “When you drink the water, remember the spring.”

Sal Alfano, Editorial Director
salfano@hanleywood.com

The 2007 Big 50
Business Savvy | Fine Design | Industry Impact | Market Wise | Movers and Shakers | Niches | Sales and Marketing | Teamwork