Meet The Business Owner Doing It

A business owner sent this note to new hires:

“I am writing to let you know [the company] would like to show you a way to be successful with our company. You will not find another company willing to give you the opportunity and education to succeed and go as far as you want. Please make an appointment with me most Saturdays. Sometimes I also work on Sundays. We can discuss a way to improve. It’s very easy to understand and achieve if you’re willing to do it.”

In a tight labor market, recruiting and retaining good employees is difficult but crucial. Improving the skills of existing employees is often easier than trying to recruit experienced and talented employees. And the best employees will read the slip and want to stay with the company because the owner is trying to help the employees. This mindset is far more valuable for employee retention than yoga classes and other bells and whistles.

The business owner is Manuel Castaneda of PLI Systems, a soil stabilization company in Hillsboro, Oregon. (He and I both sit on the board of directors of the Cascade Policy Institute.) Castaneda came to this country as a teenager who couldn’t speak English. During his school days he started with a lawn mowing service. In 1989, he learned how to operate construction equipment on steep slopes to mitigate landslides and founded his current company. He now has 44 employees.

When asked about the motivation for his note, Castaneda said his employees might see opportunities to make an extra dollar or two elsewhere. He wanted them to know that if they stayed with the company and honed their skills, they could do much better.

The guiding principle was followed by tips for employees. Example: “A CDL [commercial drivers license] gives you the freedom to be more independent. Once you know how to do the job and use the gear, you can move your own gear and not depend on someone else. This will allow you to grow much faster.” He followed up this tip with this comment: “If you can’t get your CDL now because you’ve made mistakes in the past, don’t worry. Start training and learn other skills that don’t require driving for now. Eventually time will pass and you will be ready when the opportunity presents itself. Just don’t do stupid things again to get suspended.”

Other tips were simple: “Learn how to read blueprints. We offer courses in plan reading. Just let me know and we’ll make it happen.” This offer is for entry-level professionals who don’t currently need to read blueprints, but for whom the ability to take on more responsibility would be valuable.

In the first two weeks, half of the new employees made an appointment to meet with the owner.

The company helps owners of buildings on steep slopes or with drainage problems. This doesn’t solve all of the world’s problems, but it does solve specific problems that certain people face. Castaneda doesn’t brag to co-workers about saving the world. Instead, he offers them a way to gain pay, responsibility, and respect. Workers are probably starting to think about more wages, but wages are earned by taking on more responsibility, and the result is not only wages but also more respect—both self-respect and respect for others.

Every CEO is a salesperson, and part of their role is selling jobs to current and potential employees. Salespeople are trained to emphasize the benefits of their product to customers. In today’s job market, an employee doesn’t have to buy a job from you; he or she can get a job almost anywhere. Therefore, the CEO’s pitch to employees, both for retention and recruitment, must include what’s in it for the employee. Notes like this focus on potential benefits.

Castaneda ended the letter with one final piece of advice: “Find habits that will help you improve your life and think about a brighter future.” That’s good advice for everyone.

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