Ward Lumber embraces a host of HR programs to empower communication, encourage professional growth, and enrich the morale and service of company team members.
It doesn't take long to experience the culture at three-unit Jay, N.Y.–based Ward Lumber firsthand. Walking through the doors of the pro dealer's Plattsburgh, N.Y., location, contractors and prospective employees alike often are greeted by Woody Ward, the Ward woodchuck mascot that also stops in at company barbecues and skates between periods when Ward sponsors a night of hockey at Plattsburgh State University for employees, customers, and friends. If human resources (HR) is the one area of business where lumberyards are allowed to get warm and fuzzy, Woody Ward definitely nails the act as Ward Lumber's ambassador of open corporate communication, team building, mentoring, and employee growth empowerment.
But it doesn't stop at the entryway to the stores. When it comes to indoctrinating new hires, for example, Ward may stick to traditional recruitment strategies—including promotion from within, job postings, advertisements, and recruitment firms—but the company also employs an all-out approach to new hire orientation and retention through the 90-day mark. “There is a tremendous amount of investment that we make in bringing people on board in training and orientation and finger-crossing to get them through the first 90 days,” says Ward vice president of human resources Jim Rushia. “We need to keep things interesting, and we need to listen. If new hires don't understand something, we either need to retrain them or train them more properly. If we can get them past the first 90 days, there's a very good chance we've got them hooked.”
Dangling the hook comes early. At the time of hire, each candidate learns that they are a “team member” rather than just an “employee,” and receives a $200 signing bonus. If a current team member referred the candidate to Ward, the company dispenses another $200 bonus for the new employee plus $200 for the referring team member.
The greenbacks are just part of shepherding new employees through the first days at Ward. More importantly, “every manager and Ward team member and HR employee that works with a new hire just has to remember what it was like the first day they were new on the job in the lumber business,” explains Rushia. “We have many programs, and it can certainly be overwhelming.”
Wild Communication To further ease the transition, all new team members at Ward attend a PINE Day (Preparing Informed New Employees) orientation that includes classroom instruction on company policies, history, and philosophy; yard and component plant tours; and lunch with Agnes Ward, company treasurer, family member, and a Ward employee for 68 years. At its core, the PINE Day immersion strategy is designed to promote recognition of both the team-based company atmosphere and the value Ward places on the investment in new employees. Even the name PINE Day was spawned from a company-wide naming contest—the winner received a paid day off from work.
Such simple rewards for employee efforts at communication, team building, and furthering the collective corporate goal of making Ward “the best building supplier in northern New York” are commonplace for the company, but not insignificant. Safety programs can yield $50 quarterly checks for accident-free work performance. A “Wild Card” program launched in 2003 allows team members to suggest new business ideas by filling out simple forms and placing them in suggestion boxes at any Ward location. Employees who send in ideas reap rewards ranging from T-shirts for low-impact ideas, to a $100 bonus, to a day off with pay for outstanding ideas.
“To recognize people in front of their peers is the most important part of any HR program,” says Rushia, who modeled the Wild Card effort after a similar program he took part in as a 30-year HR executive for the Grand Union grocery chain. “Recognition creates a comfort level. People come to work for a reason, and ultimately the philosophy has to be that all of the team members at Ward Lumber are our customers, too. We need to keep them all happy.”
At Ward, a happy employee is an informed employee—an adage that third-generation company president Jay Ward tries hard to live by. “Communication: We need more of it. I challenge our managers to prove to me that they can overcommunicate—I guarantee that you cannot do it,” says Ward. “Spending time with our employee team is the best use of my time and my favorite element of any HR focus, and I need to focus on doing that more, as well.”
In this quest, the president hits locations several times a month for “Break with the Boss,” an informal bull-session with small groups of employees where everyone can review progress toward corporate or personal career goals, highlight achievements, or just clear the air. “Although I don't embrace the word ‘boss,' Break with the Boss is an opportunity to update everyone on the latest and greatest and what I see going on with various company issues,” Ward says. “I'll ask for suggestions, sometimes I'll ask for action. But my main goal is to answer questions. It's been a vital program because the team members are getting information that they are craving for—and information that I want people to know.”
Power to the People Getting powerful corporate information into Ward team members' hands also comes in the form of open-book corporate financial planning, something that Ward hopes is beginning to gain ground among pro dealers. “I do financials at least twice a year and show everyone the numbers. I think that is becoming more common in our industry. I hope so. The mushroom theory of management—keep employees in the dark, feed them lots of crap—that just doesn't work anymore.” To encourage team member participation while reviewing the numbers or at other important meetings, Ward has adopted what he calls “the $5 question.” At the beginning of the meeting, he slaps a $5 bill on the table and the first employee to ask a relevant question during the meeting pockets the cash.