Twenty years ago, whenever I told a group of remodelers to budget for staff education, a hand would invariably rise, followed by this objection: “But if you educate your employees, they'll just use it to compete against you when they leave.” I am happy that I have not heard that refrain for years.

Successful remodelers today know that they must increase the knowledge base in their companies. Not only does employee education differentiate small entrepreneurial companies from professionally managed companies, but it's a key advantage in the competitive labor arena.

Thankfully, educational opportunities have grown exponentially for our industry. Take advantage of as many as you can —conferences and seminars, books and CDs, magazines, peer review groups, associations, certifications, etc. —but be open to innovative homegrown solutions as well. For instance:

  • Visit other remodelers. Call a non-competitive company and suggest that you do exchange visits. Our peer-group networks encourage and facilitate these visits. Typically remodelers are pleased to do this because everyone wins.

Tom Mitchell, president of Mitchell Construction, Medfield, Mass., is arranging his fourth visit to another remodeler's operation. “Do some upfront preparation to make the most of the visit,” he advises. After taking four staff to visit Fisher Group in Annandale, Va., Mitchell Construction revamped its design/build process and design contract within a week. “The results of our visit were awesome,” Mitchell says. “You get everyone's minds working together. The staff has ownership, and they know they are valued. Then they are even pushing me to move ahead with changes.”

  • Create a custom curriculum to fill a particular need. George and Darlene Gayler wanted to fast-track the education of their son Chris in their remodeling company, Gayler Construction, Danville, Calif. So fellow peer-group network member Patty Oehmke, vice president of SEI Design, Vienna, Va., arranged for Chris to spend 10 days visiting four East Coast remodelers. Each company created a curriculum for him, from analyzing financials to shadowing a salesperson on a sales call. “One of the biggest benefits was seeing how other companies are run firsthand, since I've only known the Gayler Construction way,” Chris says. “Each company had their own things they did really well. I'm a visual type of person, and it was so helpful to be there.”
  • Hold an annual retreat/planning session. Fred McDavid, president of Derrick Design and Remodeling, Huntsville, Ala., begins each year with a day-long retreat for all employees. The goal is team-building. “We want everyone to know their opinions count and how every department's work affects every other,” McDavid says. They review the company's strategies, values, and mission, and set goals for the year.
  • Create a buddy system with senior staff mentoring new hires. Derrick Design and Remodeling also has a unique orientation program that pairs new project managers with senior project managers. The new hire must complete three successful projects, judged on five criteria, before being launched as a full-fledged project manager running his or her own jobs.
  • Form a local interest group. Jeff Rainey, president of Home Equity Builders, Great Falls, Va., founded the Remodelers Information Technology Group to share his knowledge with others. RITG now includes 20 remodelers who meet monthly for breakfast and a discussion or speaker. “Our concern is to help remodelers who aren't up on the benefits of technology,” Rainey says. He also belongs to an informal owners-only group of remodelers, is active in his local National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) chapter, and belongs to our peer group network.

Why not analyze your company's educational funding and programming right now? See if you can take it to the next level. If you're doing something innovative — and you probably are — let us know.

—Linda Case, CRA, is founder of Remodelers Advantage Inc. in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5620; [email protected];