Remodelers use a variety of strategies to keep employees happy--and at the company. By Nina Patel

In today's competitive market, it's difficult for remodelers to find and keep good help. Robert Criner, president of Criner Construction in Yorktown, Va., says remodelers must be proactive in their quest to retain employees. "You have to make sure that people are not just satisfied, but happy," he says. He and other remodelers have found that combining a fun, inspiring work environment with a good benefits package is a surefire formula for successful retention.

More than just money

"In every statistic I read on retention priorities, money is fifth or sixth on the list," says Doug Nelson, president of New Spaces in Burnsville, Minn. Nelson says that more than a fair salary, employees want to be appreciated and feel like a vital part of the company.

Ike Daughenbaugh agrees. Owner of Heritage Builders in St. Louis Park, Minn., Daughenbaugh recently hired a great lead carpenter at a salary less than that at his former job. "He came over for $4,000 less a year because he felt he wasn't being listened to or valued," says Daughenbaugh. In most job interviews he has conducted, the importance of salary varies according to the age range of the candidate. He finds that applicants in their 20s prefer money, but those in their 30s value money and job satisfaction equally. For workers over 40, job satisfaction is at the top of the list. Daughenbaugh receives feedbackdirectly from twice-yearly employee surveys. "We ask what they like and what could be better," Daughenbaugh says.

Lead carpenter Ross Gravrock, a 10-year employee of Doug Nelson at New Spaces, says he enjoys his job because Nelson gives him the freedom to do good work. "The jobs aren't bid on such tight numbers that I have to hurry and do a bad job," he explains. Another plus, he says, is the company's reputation in the local construction community for having steady work.

Jerry Liu still recalls praise he received from a foreman on a commercial job he worked almost 30 years ago. That unforgettable experience prompted him to set up a system that rewards employees based on customer feedback from post-job evaluations and from direct comments or letters. Each week, the employee who has the best feedback receives $20, and the customer comments are read aloud during the company meeting. Liu says praise in front of peers makes employees happy. "Try to catch people doing something right instead of doing something wrong," he says.

Criner's approach includes painting a clear picture of company philosophy during job interviews. "You'll find people with similar beliefs, and that makes it easier to keep them," he says. All of his new hires have a two-week trial period that gives Criner and his staff a chance to see if the person is a good fit. After the trial period, Criner wholeheartedly puts his trust in the employee. "They get cell phones, truck, shirt, charge cards, open accounts, and keys to the office and tool room," he says.

Kacey Fitzpatrick, president of Avalon Enterprises in Mountain View, Calif., uses a democratic style of management in which all employees contribute ideas on improving the company. "Then I set up work groups to develop the systems that we want to implement," she says.

In employees we trust

Trusting employees to make decisions about their jobs and the company makes them feel valuable. Criner is open about the company's financials. He periodically gives part of the profits to his employees and lets them decide what to do with the money. "I call a meeting, put $25,000 in cash on the table, and ask the eight employees to decide how to divvy it up," Criner says. He informs them of the company's need for equipment and tools, but ultimately, the division of the money is their decision. Though this is a dramatic approach, it illustrates Criner's complete trust in his employees. "They know they will get paiddirectly based on how well the company does," he says. In the few meetings held so far, Criner's employees have set aside money for company activities and awarded bonuses based on tenure -- they even gave him a bonus.

Fun and games

Company-sponsored social activities complement work-related rewards. Daughenbaugh takes his staff to lunch once a month so they can get to know each other and talk about their families and lives outside of work.

Several companies we spoke with schedule "fun days" for their employees. Past outings at Criner Construction have included whitewater rafting, a pig roast, and several bowling parties. Nelson has organized canoeing and fishing trips, a cabin fever party in the winter, and a golf tournament that pairs up employees with clients. Fitzpatrick's staff takes turns planning a quarterly fun day that costs about $25 per person. Employees have raced Indy-style cars, played laser tag, and spent an afternoon at the movies.

Criner says it's worthwhile for a company to spend money on these activities. "Happy employees is the return. It's an attitude you can't put a price on," he says. For Nelson, these social events are more cost-effective than the $35,000 to $40,000 it would cost to replace and retrain an employee. Fitzpatrick has noticed another unexpected benefit: During a recent hiring interview, the candidate was excited to hear about the fun days. "It may help for recruiting," Fitzpatrick says.

Tangible benefits

Cultivating trust and a fun-loving atmosphere is important, but remodelers need to build on a base of good salary and benefits. Once a year, Criner calls his competitors to ask them about employee salaries. He has also put together an attractive benefits package that includes medical insurance, paid holidays, and paid vacation.

When he started his business, Daughenbaugh was one of the few remodelers in his area who offered a vacation policy. Now, he has to offer a good package to stay competitive. Vacation days increase along with an employee's years in the company, peaking at four weeks after seven years. He offers seven paid holidays per year, a solid retirement program, and a $500 yearly tool allowance. Like many of his peers, he also helps when an employee needs help on their own house. (Owners who do this need to follow legal guidelines.

Fitzpatrick offers full dental and medical benefits, a 401(k) program, eight paid holidays, and 10 days paid vacation a year that increases to 15 days after five years. She is working on a profit-sharing plan that she thinks will promote long-term careers with the company. "I want employees to feel more invested in the company and give them a reason to put in extra effort," she says.

Most remodelers say training is also an attractive deal. Daughenbaugh and a few fellow remodelers banded together to bring lead carpenter system expert Tim Faller to their area. Daughenbaugh sent all of his field and office employees to the half-day seminar. He and his employees know education translates into job satisfaction and bottom line pay.

In the end, no matter what tangible and intangible benefits you may offer, good employees start with the company owner.

Criner says to keep good employees, a remodeler has to hire well in the first place. "Hire people you want to keep. Then become proactive in making sure they are making as much as they possibly can," Criner says.