The skilled labor market couldn't be tighter, yet Steve Zimmer is doing something that he recognizes could “wreck” an employee who most remodelers would kill to have: Greg Kelly, a lead carpenter who has been with Zimmer since his first summer in business, back in 1981.

Kelly is “an excellent, excellent employee,” Zimmer says, and one of just four employees at Steve Zimmer Remodeling, Cincinnati. “He's the kind of carpenter I can hand a production package, give the address for a job, and literally let him go,” he adds. Reliable, too, and loyal. Kelly has “probably taken fewer than 10 sick days” in 24 years, Zimmer says.

So why is Zimmer trying to turn this dream of a lead carpenter into an estimator, even at the risk of “forcing a square peg into a round hole”? For two reasons.

One, Zimmer wants to grow his company, a goal he acknowledges he can't accomplish while wearing so many hats, including those of salesman, estimator, and construction manager. With the help of his Remodelers Advantage Roundtable, Zimmer says he realized that “my own bottleneck was one of the worst things we had going here,” and it was now or never to escape “that pitfall of believing that nobody can do things as well as you can do them.”

Two, Kelly is no longer the young athlete who joined Zimmer in 1981, but a 48-year-old man who has pounded tens of thousands of nails, fallen off roofs, broken wrists, and developed signs of arthritis. “He's looking at his future and wanting to do something that doesn't take such a physical toll,” Zimmer says. Estimating happens to be one of the functions he enjoys least, but Kelly is eager to learn. “I think estimating is something I can get into,” says Kelly, who identifies with the laser-like focus of the position. Plus, he says he's “ready to get away from some of the more mundane physical stuff” of carpentry. “I'm good at what I do, but looking forward to moving on to something else.”

So it's not that Zimmer is trying to wreck a key employee. He's trying to develop one, for the good of the employee and his company alike.

Pieces of a Whole Tom Riggs of Riggs Construction, St. Louis, believes that “every employee has the potential to become a key employee. No one employee is integral to our success, but the team as a whole succeeds or fails,” says Riggs, whose father founded the 20-person company in 1959. To that end, he has implemented systems that help employees understand how all the positions do, in fact, work together as a whole, and ways in which they can contribute most.

For instance, each new Riggs employee receives two training sessions in every aspect of the business, including office procedures, management systems, sales and estimating, production management, marketing, technology, client role-playing, and fieldwork. The program, developed by management consultant Joe Zanola, follows a simple grid. (See “Good Form,” page 68.)

Among other benefits of cross-functional training, the program prevents logjams; if one employee's absence or busy workload threatens to hold things up, another can always step in to fill the breach. It also mitigates generational and other misunderstandings. For example, “when you've got a grizzly old production foreman, and a selections manager comes in,” Riggs says, “and he's like, ‘Well, what the hell does she do?'”

The whole-team understanding broadens horizons as well, sometimes developing an employee into a position that better suits his or her temperament and talents. This engenders remarkable loyalty. Riggs' production manager started as an apprentice carpenter 27 years ago, and his sales manager began as receptionist 10 years ago. Hired as a production coordinator, Riggs says his current estimator worked with him “for 6 years in a variety of roles before he found his calling.”

A smaller remodeling company with a similar outlook on employee development is James P. D'Alessio Inc., an 11-employee design/build firm in Brentwood, N.H. This spring, founder Jim D'Alessio died of cancer at the age of 52, dealing a devastating blow that his company might not have survived had he not put into place systems that support cross-functional training and employee development.

A former teacher of building trades, D'Alessio carried his love of education into his career as a remodeler, and encouraged employees to teach among themselves, says Mark Randlett, the company's new president. Another legacy is the quarterly company meeting. All employees attend the half- to full-day meetings, which cover company policies, project updates, and training in a focused area, often provided by a supplier. “We want to make sure our standards and methods are consistent,” Randlett says, whether they involve how to measure, order, and install windows or how to answer the phone.

D'Alessio's jobsite handoff package also goes a long way toward developing employees. This binder (largely duplicated in the company's computer system) contains information about every stage of a project, including the detailed proposal and schedule, and information about subcontractors, selections, prices, and purchase orders. Any employee can easily check the status of an item or see how projects are designed and sold. As a result, Randlett says, field staff better produce the work as it was sold and can offer feedback for improving the sales process.

“Nobody feels like an isolated entity,” Randlett explains. Every employee sees their potential progression and knows they can “prove themselves and move to the next level. We don't hire anybody just to be a laborer,” he says. Randlett should know: He was a design/sales associate for four years prior to D'Alessio's death.