Craig Deimler's production manager left Deimler & Sons Construction in November 2003. The person had worked in the key position for only seven months, but it took Deimler several days to undo the organizational and paperwork mess the employee left behind.

“I had a ton of making up to do from a customer service standpoint. Clients were angry because we started the job and then did not show up. He was running crews from place to place, but nothing was getting done,” the Harrisburg, Pa., remodeler recalls.

But the situation would have been truly awful if Deimler had not had a cross-training plan in place. He was able to redistribute the workload and keep the damage to a minimum. His sales staff picked up more of the sales so he could concentrate on fixing the problems, and the other production manager took on more work.

“We were $100,000 in the hole and during the four coldest months of the year, we turned that into an $80,000 profit,” Deimler says proudly.

Most remodeling company owners will lose a key employee at some point in their tenure. Whether the employee is being fired, relocating, or starting their own company, owners can prepare for this eventuality. They can be ready for the steps they will need to take when that person leaves. And they can set up policies and procedures that prevent major disruptions.

Ready to React When an employee leaves, the company owner needs to provide continuity on projects, inform clients and staff of the change, and find a replacement. Andrew Shore of Irvine, Calif.–based Seapointe Construction has a checklist that includes items like turning in a cell phone and gas card and removing the person's name from the paperwork for insurance and 401(k) plans. “If they are leaving voluntarily, we ask them to sign a form that states it is voluntary,” Shore says. (This is because former employees resigned and subsequently filed for unemployment stating they were laid off or fired.)

Positions vacated for tragic and unexpected reasons can be the most touchy to fill. When his sales manager died in a car accident, Jason Larson took over the manager's current jobs as well as the 10 jobs the salesperson had sold but not handed off to production. The president of Lars Construction, La Mesa, Calif., made it clear to clients that anything that was in writing would be honored, but verbal agreements with the salesperson would not stand. “We had them acknowledge this in writing,” Larson says. He told clients they could void the contract if they were not satisfied with the terms. “We went back to the negotiating table with some of them,” Larson says.

When Joseph Kraft of Kraft Design Build asked his foreman/vice president to leave, he was faced with several projects that were mired in multiple-page punch lists. “I stopped taking on new work, and as we finished other jobs, I put those teams on these projects to give them our full attention,” says the San Carlos, Calif., remodeler. He also had to salvage client relationships and referrals. “I tried not to air the company's dirty laundry, but one set of clients had high expectations of us. I had to explain to them that we were a good company, but we hit a rough spot,” Kraft says.

In his 35 years running Weiss & Company, Carmel, Ind., Mike Weiss has found that informing clients prevents the former employee from stealing those clients. “I notify clients immediately. In some cases, I've let clients know the day I was going to ask the person to leave,” he says. “I ask them to let me know if the employee contacts them.”

Remodelers should also make a company-wide announcement. Shore puts a positive spin on it at company meetings. “I say, ‘Jim is leaving for this opportunity; we wish him the best of luck,'” he says. This prevents gossip and keeps the door open for that person to return.

If the employee leaves voluntarily, Shore suggests keeping communication channels open. When his kitchen designer left, he was able to contact her for a month afterward to ask her about projects. When his bookkeeper moved, during her one month notice, she helped hire and train her replacement. “She was available by phone to help us if there was a problem. I paid her an hourly rate for helping us. It took about 20 to 30 hours over a few months,” he says. “It was a life saver.”

Staying in touch is also a good idea in case the employee decides to return. “When an employee comes to you and says I want to try going out on my own, you help this person,” Weiss says. “If they make it, they are good competitors. If they don't make it, they will come back.”