Urban builders, whether they engage in commercial or residential construction, thrive on volume. From work crews to sales reps, employees on the payroll are typically numbered by the dozen. Rural builders prosper by servicing a geographic niche and a target market their urban counterparts often miss. Because boat sheds and horse barns require less people to build than a subdivision or a shopping mall, it’s no secret that rural builders run smaller operations with fewer employees.
Does that mean rural builders develop their human resources differently than contractors in the big city? “There’s no question that we believe our people are the company’s most important asset, and that we place a premium on recruiting and retaining good people who can do quality work,” says general manager Ralph Twellman of Bilt Rite Buildings in Ashland, Mo. “But when you’re a small builder, your employee training has to fit the needs of your operation.”
Bilt Rite generally works within 20 miles of its central Missouri headquarters, performing post-frame construction of garages, storage buildings, and small office or retail facilities. Among the 40 to 50 projects the company undertakes each year, contract values typically range from $5,000 to $50,000. Jobs are sold by a single full-time sales representative and built by three or four construction crewmen.
Newly hired construction employees, says Twellman, are given a two-hour orientation and training course. “We go through a training checklist with the employee,” he notes, “things like the use of tools, the use of ladders, electrical safety, minor first aid, and who to call in case of any problem.” In addition, an introductory DVD from the National Frame Builders Association is shown “to give new people a glimpse of what post-frame builders do,” he says.
Trainees are then taken to the company shop and shown the tools they will be using. “At that point,” Twellman continues, “we can see how much experience a person has with these tools.” Inexperienced workers are provided a detailed demonstration until they become familiar with the equipment. New hires then begin working at the jobsite under the guidance of the crew foreman. “From here,” he adds, “the training is informal and one-on-one as the foreman gives ongoing direction to the employee.”
Bilt Rite also stresses safety, explains Twellman, “and we have a safety director who conducts Monday morning meetings with our construction employees. He also checks to make sure all tools and equipment are working properly and are safe to use, and gives crew members the chance to voice any safety concerns.” Workers’ ongoing safety training also includes videos and DVDs that are shown one or two Mondays each month.
As for the training of sales personnel, Twellman says two considerations are uppermost. “First of all,” he points out, “I’ve probably hired less than 10 sales reps over the past 25 years. And second, in the type of operation we have as a rural builder, we’re not out there doing a lot of advertising and cold-calling. We’re known in our area, so a lot of our customers come to us. What I need isn’t a rep who goes out with a presentation book, but somebody who can take a phone call and answer customers’ questions about how we can build their buildings.”
Bilt Rite’s present sales representative has been with the company five years. But when Twellman has sought a new rep in the past, “I’ve never hired someone just on sales ability. I look for someone who has enough product knowledge to answer customers’ questions and earn their trust. That’s why most of our sales reps were originally crew foremen and why we’ve never had much extended sales training, since they already knew about the building process.”
Esh Quality Structures of Richmond, Kan., is an operation much like Bilt Rite. Located an hour south of the Kansas City metro area, about 75 percent of the company’s post-frame business is building residential garages that average $15,000 to $20,000 in value. The remaining volume is mostly in horse barns that typically run from $25,000 to $30,000. Owner Reuben Esh maintains two construction crews, with a total of seven workers, on his payroll.
After starting the company three years ago out of the basement of his own home, Esh performed 180 projects in 2005 and expects to do 250 this year. Most jobs are located within a 90-minute drive of Richmond, and Esh may at times supplement his workforce with three or four regular subcontractors.
“So far we haven’t experienced much turnover,” Esh says, “but when we hire somebody new for our construction crews, the training depends on how much experience the person has.” Esh’s lead project manager, as well as the crew foreman to which the trainee is assigned, “work one-on-one with the new employee and explain the post-frame building process.”
Altogether, Esh expects new employee training to last about three months. “That’s because there are so many different phases to post-frame construction,” he explains, “from laying out and drilling the postholes, to installing the doors and windows and metal exterior. It’s not drywall construction where your crews are only performing one function.” Moreover, since Esh’s average post-frame project takes only three or four days to complete, new employees may need to work through about 20 jobs before they can really understand the big picture.
With Esh Quality Structures having enjoyed rapid growth in less than three years since its founding, Reuben Esh is still refining many company procedures. Business has grown to the point, he says, where a formal safety plan and ongoing safety training for workers is becoming appropriate. “We’re thinking about weekly toolbox talks and quarterly safety meetings,” he says.
Sales training is another evolving area since, until recently, Esh was the only sales representative. “I hired my first rep this year, and I’m now in the process of hiring a second,” he notes. Since he hired a sales representative with no previous construction industry experience, Esh set up a training program “that starts with about six weeks of working as a construction laborer, so he can learn all the phases of the building process.”
Next, the sales trainee spent another six weeks “doing material takeoffs and drawing up sets of plans required by local authorities, so he can learn how to do that function as well,” Esh says. Only after becoming familiar with the building process and with executing plans and takeoffs, he relates, “would I let my sales rep talk to the public.”
Esh Quality Structures, especially as a newer builder, is an active advertiser in the weekly shopper newspapers within its sales territory. Leads are rotated among the sales reps who send a company brochure, follow up a week later with a phone call, and then try to set an appointment with the prospect. Since his company is proactive about developing new business, Esh says, “We plan to make sure that, as we get our sales force in place, our reps are given opportunities for ongoing professional training.”
Informal but careful
A somewhat larger operation is Stoneburner Inc. of Harrisonburg, Va., which runs four construction crews of three or four workers each. Working in a four-county area and traveling up to 50 miles from its home office, the company builds post-frame light commercial projects, residential garages, horse barns, “and even a few houses and churches,” reports partner Mike Miller. Jobs range from $10,000 to $100,000 in contract value.
Nevertheless, though Miller has more construction employees on his payroll than Twellman and Esh, he still takes the attitude that “since our individual crews are small and have only three or four people, then our training can be informal. With our small crews, the foreman is a working foreman. So he can work right alongside any new employee.”
The small size of Stoneburner’s crews also means that, Miller adds, “We don’t have any ‘helpers.’ That’s why we try to hire people with some past carpentry experience. But everybody on a crew gets to do everything, and so new people pick things up pretty quickly.” He likewise points out, “We’re fortunate that our foremen have been with the company a long time. They know the post-frame building process and can do a good job of training people.”
Though Stoneburner officially maintains a 30-day trial period for new employees, Miller seldom has to let anyone go after their probation. “Problems don’t usually occur because we’re careful about our hiring procedures,” he explains. “It’s expensive when a new employee doesn’t work out, because we lose productivity. So we always do screening and call references.”
Sales training is also dictated by Miller’s preference to avoid a corporate mindset and to run a company where people all know each other. “In sales we have almost no turnover,” he relates. “It’s been more than five years since I last hired a new sales rep. Instead of any formal sales training, we would just do job shadowing. As a small company, we can’t afford to have people take time away from their regular jobs just to train other people.”
Stoneburner maintains three sales reps — including Miller — who focus on construction services, plus three more who concentrate on the company’s lumberyard business. Each year Miller sends one or two reps to Frame Building Expo to take advantage of sales seminars and other professional education sessions. In addition, the company attends conferences offered by the NFBA Mid-Atlantic Chapter.
Though Stoneburner does some advertising, Miller agrees that rural builders typically gain most of their sales by word of mouth, referrals, and repeat customers. “And when we build a new building,” he adds, “then people see it and get calls from that area.” Selling the job, then, usually consists of taking calls and advising customers how their projects can be built and at what cost. “As a small company,” Miller affirms, “we don’t have a marketing department!”
Having the answers
One rural builder that does have an active marketing effort is Graber Post Buildings Inc. of Montgomery, Ind., a company that both manufactures and constructs post-frame buildings. Last year Graber began placing television and radio ads in its markets, generating leads that divided among six sales representatives who sell post-frame building services. But according to sales manager Mark Graber, the key is having reps “who can answer customers’ questions.”
Projects built by Graber Post Buildings include “all types of construction,” reports Graber, and can range in value from $5,000 to $1 million. Sales reps need a broad knowledge of the post-frame building process, he continues, “and so most of the people we hire in sales already have some post-frame experience, on average about 12 years.” Of the four new reps trained this year, he says, two formerly worked on the company’s construction crews.
Sales training, Graber explains, typically provides three or four weeks for trainees “to observe experienced reps, learn the computer system, and then gradually ease into taking calls from customers — maybe one a day at first, then two, and so on.” However, since most reps hired by Graber “already have experience in dealing with the public, either in past sales jobs or on our field crews,” he remarks, “they pick it up pretty quickly.”
The approach Graber takes to his sales team is “very informal, relaxed, and laid back,” he explains. Reps are paid hourly wages on the clock, rather than compensated by commissions or salaries. “We don’t have any sales meetings,” he laughs, “because it’s too hard to get everyone together!” Yet the philosophy of hiring knowledgeable salespeople who are comfortable in dealing with customers and answering their questions has worked well. At present Graber Post Buildings enjoys nearly a four-month backlog of post-frame construction projects.
These projects are built within a 100-mile radius of Montgomery by six construction crews on the Graber payroll, supplemented by seven regular subcontractors. Out of some 145 combined Graber employees in both its manufacturing and construction divisions, about 65 are engaged in the latter. “We’re located in the heart of Indiana’s Amish country,” notes Mark Graber, “and so we’re fortunate to have minimal turnover, since the people here are rooted in the community.”
A willingness to work is the most important element for a successful training program, Graber believes. Those are the kind of people a builder can find in a rural market, he advises, “and so the best way for us to train our construction crews is simply learning by doing.”