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Bosses give respect to gain respect
Competition finalists take care of workers
By Ann Meyer
Special to the Tribune
September 25, 2006
Few who work for Peter DeVore or Carl La Mell have easy jobs, yet most aren't complaining.
Both men head up ventures in labor-intensive industries in which employee turnover is often a problem. But by creating workplaces where employees are treated with respect, they're proving there is a better way, said Mary Corbitt Clark, executive director of Winning Workplaces, an Evanston-based not-for-profit that will announce the winners of its annual Best Bosses competition on Wednesday.
DeVore and La Mell are two of five Chicago-area finalists. Others are Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management; Henry Givray, chairman and chief executive at SmithBucklin Corp.; and Eric Langshur, founder and CEO at TLContact Inc.
"In our field, it's a hard culture. Turnover is great," said La Mell, president of Clearbrook, an Arlington Heights-based not-for-profit offering residential and day services for people with developmental disabilities. As a result, he said, the agency bends over backward to recognize its workers' daily efforts.
"We try to make people feel good about themselves," La Mell said.
Creating a positive workplace starts with creating an atmosphere of respect, said DeVore, president of Landscape Concepts Construction Inc. in Richmond, Ill., which handles landscape development for residential developers, municipalities and commercial projects.
"To me, the employees come first," he said. "Without these employees, we are not in business. We cannot prosper and we cannot grow."
The company, which had 25 workers when DeVore acquired and renamed it in 1986, now has 300 workers and is approaching $40 million in annual revenue, he said. Sales have been rising about 15 percent a year, he said.
Even as the company grows, DeVore makes a point to visit crews on work sites, often working alongside them on a machine or in the field.
"I get down in the trenches with them, more or less," he said. "I relate to them as friends, as co-workers. These guys respect me for that."
They also work harder because of it, he said, noting that the company was able to complete a $600,000 project in two weeks using six crews and working 14 hours a day.
DeVore also gives foremen autonomy in hiring their own crews.
"Every crew member has been handpicked by the crew leader," he said.
Many end up hiring family members, who already are committed to the company. As a result, the company's retention rate is about 95 percent, he said.
DeVore's desire to empower his workers also carries over to wages and benefits. While the company's landscape operators have been unionized since 1984, DeVore worked to get all of his landscape laborers included in the Illinois Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 in 1999.
"The cost was a concern, but in the last five years I've seen it come around full circle to me," he said. "My guys go out there and work harder than anybody."
What's more, being unionized has eliminated the recruiting issues that many landscape companies face, DeVore said. "By creating this union company, guys want to come to work for us," he said.
Clearbrook also is a union organization, with about 250 of its 400 full-time workers in the union, La Mell said.
"It will help us long-term increase the wages for our direct-service people," he said.
But high wages aren't the only way to reward hard work. "Recognition is key," said La Mell, who encourages employees and clients to nominate workers for customer service awards given each month.
For example, one recent winner was recognized for going above and beyond by organizing dinner parties and cook-outs for residents, taking them shopping and teaching them to take pride in themselves, said Stacey Sturner, vice president of communications. Winners are announced in a memo distributed throughout the company, as well as in a periodic newsletter.
But many informal thanks also are exchanged regularly. For example, when a water main broke near the company's day facility in Schaumburg recently, workers from Clearbrook's other locations helped out. But what impressed La Mell the most, he said, were the e-mails of appreciation sent the next day. "That's the culture we try to create," La Mell said.
A simple thank-you can go a long way in making someone feel valued, he said. The company also rewards workers through training and development opportunities, which run the gamut from sessions on personal money management and computer skills to sign language and client care.
Employees who complete 40 hours of training in a year earn a 1 percent increase in salary, La Mell said. Besides learning something new, training provides a much-needed diversion from everyday tasks, he said.
"When you're on the floor dealing with people with disabilities, it's nice to get out for a couple of hours. It adds to your well-being," he said.
All workers are encouraged to create opportunities for clients. But perhaps the best example is the Clearbrook Cafe, slated to open in October in the Arlington Heights strip mall where the company has offices. The cafe will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and will be staffed in part by Clearbrook clients, La Mell said.
La Mell's idea is to give them new opportunities in a safe environment, while running a cafe that, hopefully, will be profitable.
"One day I just said, `We have to do something a little different, a little exciting,'" he said.
By taking care of their workers, La Mell and DeVore are confident their clients also will be well taken care of.
"If you treat people with respect, they in turn will treat other people with respect," La Mell said.
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