By Sharon Thatcher
Nothing beats good tools for creating solid, well-built buildings, except one thing: good people. Train them well, motivate them and give them the tools they need to get the job done, and amazing things happen.
It sounds simple enough, but in truth companies invest a great deal of time and effort into developing the right course of action for keeping every jobsite organized and every crewmember safe and productive. Rural Builder discovered that, just as unique as every company, so is the way they handle the day-to-day challenges of jobsite management.
At Graber Post, based in Montgomery, Ind., we spoke to the company’s crew manager, Marlin Swartzentruber. He’s been with the company since 2006, first working to develop a new truss plant, and then in a variety of positions as needed. He says his primary job has been “jack of all trades”, and indeed he’s been a little of everything before and during his Graber years, from estimator to salesman to truss designer.
Although college educated, Swartzentruber received some of his most valuable lessons from his father. “I grew up in the trade,” he says. “When I was in high school I worked for my father in construction. Those years in high school and college – over the summer working for him – I learned a whole lot more than I ever dreamed.”
The variety of his experience helps him in his current job. “The way it’s run here at Graber Post, we’ve got sales guys we call quoters and they’ll sell the project. Once the down payment is made, it’s brought back to our department and from that point in time we call the customer back … give them a tentative start date and basically go over the entire contract again to work out the details: number of doors, door spacing, which way they want their doors to swing … getting any lines moved or marked (phone lines, gas lines, water lines – utilities); building permits. I’ve got two guys under me – Laverne Stahl and Melvin Wagner – and between the three of us, we’ll divvy things up,” Swartzentruber explains.
Spreadsheets keep the jobs outlined and on track, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to people power.
“Each of our crew has what we call a crew leader and he’s basically the boss on the jobsite,” Swartzentruber says. “Once we make the determination which crew goes to what job, we’ll tell the customer who the crew leader is so if they have any questions, we ask that they work through him, or if they have any other issues they can either contact us or the quoter. We kind of tag-team it that way. We basically work together.”
Working together is the real key to a good jobsite mentality. “First thing, being there’s 19 crews, I can’t be on a jobsite all day long, so I have to delegate to my crew leaders. Them guys are my eyes and ears out there.”
To do that, however, he needs his crew leaders to be willing to come to him with any question or issue. “I went to college but I know you don’t learn everything in a book,” he says. “You need people skills; if you can’t get your people to believe you and trust you, they’re going to have a hard time following you.”
So how does one become a good leader? For Swartzentruber, it came down to experience. “I’ll go back to when I worked for my dad,” he answers. “Here I was some young kid who was trying to go to college and over the summertime he’d save me some of the jobs he knew I could handle, and he’d leave me with a crew and leave me in charge. So I learned from a hot frying pan. I had to earn the guys’ respect. You’ve got to earn your guys’ respect or you don’t have anything.”
Mark Graber, sales manager for Graber Post, notes that most of Graber’s managers have come from within the company’s system. “We’re looking for people that’s got good knowledge of what Graber Post is, who we are and what we do every day, as well as having good people skills, being able to handle folks and handle conflict … Those are the top qualities we look for,” he says.
Starting with workers with a good work ethic has proven reliable at Graber Post. “Most of our crew guys are Amish and Mennonite background, most of them are go-getters and you don’t have to be pushing people along,” Graber notes, adding: “Once they get out of the truck, everybody goes in a different direction and stuff starts happening.”
At the end of the day, how well a team is managed is reflected in the quality of the work. “One of the things at Graber Post, our crew leaders are pretty pro-active at listening to our customers. They’ll drop everything to be available if that customer has a question,” says Graber.
With customer satisfaction comes company success.
“Everybody in our area knows who Graber Post is,” Swartzentruber says. “We’ve got a waiting list of about 14 weeks and people are willing to wait for us because they know they’ll get a quality building with quality products.”
While the intended results are the same at FBi Buildings, Inc., also headquartered in Indiana at Remington, the process is a little different. Someone with a good handle on jobsite management is Director of Construction Greg Lehman.
According to Lehman, there are two key players in project execution at FBi: a project manager based in-house and a crew foreman at the jobsite. Simply put, he explains: “The project manager is scheduling the project with the customer, then working with other in-house departments to make sure engineering, prints, and material takeoffs are done, materials are ordered, trusses are manufactured and everything is assembled on the truck to go out to the site. The crew foreman is working on the jobsite to be sure they do the work right. He’s working with the [crew’s] training, their staffing, their motivation, safety, quality, productivity, customer satisfaction.”
Lehman has presented workshops on crew management and development at the National Frame Building Expo and offers some tips on how to be a successful foreman and how one can measure the degrees of success.
“Certain attributes make a good foreman,” he notes. “In essence, is the person dominant rather than passive? Do they want to have responsibility for other people? Do they like to be in charge? Do they maintain a proper balance between working with people and working with the methods?”
“The biggest mistake is when they focus too much on their success in building the building instead of building a team that builds the building,” he says. “Yes, they need to know how to put a building together, but it goes beyond that. The most successful foremen are not just builders of buildings, they’re builders of people. As a foreman you can know how to run equipment, you can know how to build the building, but nails don’t put themselves in place and air guns don’t put nails in place, the people running those tools do.”
With the oversight of equipment needs and material flow, safety and crew sizing added to the mix, sometimes worker needs can be overlooked, especially by younger foremen. Younger foremen tend to make the mistake of concentrating too much on methods, focusing too much on the work and not enough on the people doing the work. “You can have great specialists on a crew but to have a great foreman he needs to have some social skills,” Lehman says, adding: “What I’ll see with our younger foremen, is they focus too much on the hours. In the long run if you have allotted 100 hours for a job and you consistently run over on labor, that’s not going to work, but if you drive hard, push your men, are not kind to your men, and only focus on working hard and not on working smart, it can be disaster.”
Communication and preparation are the keys to success. “It’s important to have a plan and to communicate that plan to your people, motivating them with being a part of the plan,” he offers.
Lehman provides these tips for creating a positive work environment: train people like you want them to replace you (train them for responsibility); clarify what needs done; set the pace; share the responsibility; show trust; praise incremental progress; and celebrate success.
The success of a foreman is measured in several ways at FBi: labor efficiency, total hours produced, safety, quality, and customer satisfaction.
It can also be measured in dollars. “Across the post-frame industry, each crew member is probably producing a couple hundred thousand in revenue every year,” he notes. “So you want a foreman who is going to take some initiative and ownership in leading the men on his crew that are producing $250,000 in annual revenue per man.”
And yet, in his workshops, Lehman cautions that not every crewman has the same abilities. “Recognize and accept that there will be differences in abilities and performance. Expect each person to be the best they can be”, he emphasizes, adding: “With good leadership most people will perform beyond the limitations they place on themselves.” RB