Good parents encourage their children to welcome responsibility, think for themselves, and take risks. Good employers do the same with employees. Having nurtured some of his 36 employees through 20-plus years of progressive growth and responsibility, remodeler Keith Alward (Big50 2002) believes in the value of autonomy and self-reliance. “You give them something to do with the faith that they can do it,” explains the owner of Alward Construction, Berkeley, Calif. “Then you stand back and let them do their best. You're not there to micromanage.”

Alward's commitment to personal development for employees is rooted in his own. A product of the working class, he worked in construction for years before forming his company. Along the way, he got a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. These varied experiences and insights, Alward says, “gave me an understanding of how difficult work is, and how intelligence makes its way into even simple work like hauling or stacking. There's a real dignity in physical labor,” he says. “It's very honorable and should be nourished.”

One way Alward nourishes labor is by assigning a graduated skill structure to field employees, whom he calls builders. The general goal, he says, “is for everybody to matriculate up the ladder,” from apprentice to master.

Excellent pay and benefits attract and retain field crews, which operate autonomously. Alward also encourages continuing education and pays “for anything that increases knowledge related to work,” including language classes for employees just learning English.

He personally conducts performance reviews for new hires at three and six months and for all employees annually. “I'm looking for signs that they've been growing and developing,” Alward says.

He also fosters a family spirit, which means recognizing employees' families as well. The company's annual holiday party is held at his home and attended by employees and their families along with architects, clients, subcontractors, and other company friends. “We buy and wrap gifts for all the kids, and I quietly and surreptitiously hand out bonuses,” which sometimes top $4,000. “It's a lovely party,” he says. “I want everybody to be treated with integrity.”