When a bilingual college graduate interested in the building materials supply industry dropped on his doorstep by chance, Rick Zaslove wasn't sure what to do with him. “You can't hire a guy like that to go through the ranks or spend six years in the yard like I and some of the older guys did,” says the COO of Golden State Lumber, a five-location, $433 million dealer based in Petaluma, Calif. “You need to show him what we can offer as a career.”
So Zaslove made something up: He ran the recent grad through a three-month shotgun introduction of Golden State's entire operation, from hauling trash to the IT department, in one-week intervals. “We showed him the breadth of our company so he could find a place for himself in it,” says Zaslove. “The company is growing and guys at the top are getting older. We need to develop a deeper bench.”
Golden State is not alone in that challenge, within the LBM industry or across the business landscape. “Many businesses find themselves ill-equipped to grow because the skills required to meet demand for growth are in short supply in their organizations,” says Tony Bingham, president and CEO of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) in Alexandria, Va. In a recent ASTD poll of 300 executives, more than two-thirds of respondents reported the skills gap Bingham describes, and another 20 percent see it coming.
The problem is especially acute within the LBM industry and its “pay your dues” legacy. “Dealers are finding themselves a little thin of management skills,” says Les McKeown, president and CEO of Marblehead, Mass.–based employee development consulting firm DeliverthePromise.com. “The industry has to shift its mentality to think about [young management talent] as engines of growth,” instead of being there to maintain the status quo.
It's a concept that the general business world seems to be grasping. “A growing number of organizations understand the relationship between creating a skilled workforce and achieving enterprise-wide success,” says ASTD's Bingham, citing the group's annual state-of-the-industry report that shows an increase in the average percentage of payroll earmarked for training and development from 2.2 percent to 2.52 percent—and a much higher percentage among those companies recognized by ASTD for their best practices.
McKeown generally agrees with Zaslove's shotgun approach to embedding new employees in Golden State's growing realm of operational opportunities, but cautions against leaving it at that. “It's a common strategy for organizations that have decided to foster management development,” he says. “But it needs to be supplemented by a cross-functional culture,” including regular communication and interaction among departments and facets of the business to reveal their common threads. While Zaslove works to refine and formalize his approach for the next qualified candidate (and eventually as a recruiting tool to attract more talent), Dunn Lumber in Daytona Beach, Fla., is incorporating McKeown's cross-functional advice into a succession plan initiative started by the five-location, $60 million dealer two years ago. The cornerstone of identifying and grooming candidates for key positions, says human resources manager Donna George, is plotting career development with a timeline and supporting that process with cross-functional training and mentoring. “It keeps high-potential employees stimulated and motivated,” she says. “Continuous improvement is a corporate value. It's part of our culture.”
Similarly, the year-long Manager in Training (MIT) program at Stock Building Supply, a 236-location, $3.5 billion operation based in Raleigh, N.C., exposes entry-level management candidates to the different disciplines within the company's operations at the yard level. In addition, Stock supports a mentoring program that pairs seasoned associates with developing associates. “Mentoring programs really work when you can let the associates quickly absorb the company culture,” says Josh Brammer, manager of Stock's Indirect Spend department.
Exposing potential managers to the workings of a location, meanwhile, allows them to “see their discipline in action and all the functions colliding,” says Brammer. “They get a micro view of the macro issues,” they'll confront as higher-level executives down the road.
Value Seekers Through his own hiring experiences, Brammer has had the opportunity to interact with many college graduates and learn about their career goals. “The wage has to be competitive and the work has to be interesting,” he says. “You have to pay on the same scale as other industries looking to hire the same functions,” such as IT, logistics, manufacturing, engineering and design, and human resources, in addition to sales and traditional management jobs within the LBM realm.
As for the industry's less-than-sexy career image, dealers are able to debunk that myth, says Brammer, by showing a recent history of and plans for growth and diversification that offer a wide variety of opportunities to a would-be executive. “These kids aren't necessarily predisposed to an industry,” he says. “Show them the strength of the business and the potential for growth in that business and how they can develop. They just want to apply their skills.”
McKeown sees today's workers turning the tables on the traditional employer-employee relationship. “It used to be very paternal,” he says. “The employer would say, ‘Work for me, do a good job, and I'll continue to pay you.'” Now, McKeown says, the employee drives the conversation. “Today it's “I'll work for you and as long as you continue to develop me, I'll stay.' It's a mind-set of continual improvement.”
At Golden State Lumber, Zaslove understands that value as he refines his fledgling program. “If you can show them a path of where they want to go, it works for both parties,” he says. “But you have to physically show them so they can clearly see the career and salary opportunities.”—Rich Binsacca is a contributing editor for PROSALES.