Just three years ago, the father-and-son ownership team of Joseph K. Beckman and Joseph W. Beckman scoffed at the idea that they needed a human resources manager for Lumberplus, their Crown Point, Ind.–based company that does business as Home Lumber in New Haven, Ind., and Glenlord Home Center in Stevensville, Mich. Even while the company was growing from a small independent dealer into a $50 million, middle-market player and thoughts were turning toward hiring some seasoned management, HR was the furthest thing from their minds. “We had not even thought about human resources until we went to a Michigan Lumber & Building Materials Association (MLBMA) roundtable in 2002, and Scott Williams [president of Traverse City, Mich.–based Brown Lumber] came up and said, ‘You know what, you're about the size now that you're going to need an HR person,'” says COO Joseph W. Beckman.
“My dad and I both kind of laughed at first,” recalls Beckman. “We never realized—and I think most dealers don't—how much time we were spending on personnel issues. I was spending half of my time doing reviews and pay charts.” Though Beckman knew that people are the key to success, the realization that the company really did need an HR manager came slowly during the long drive back to Crown Point from the MLBMA roundtable. “Where the difference finally came out is that we got to a point where we couldn't just say that it was all about the people anymore,” Beckman says. “We had to put dollars behind that idea and put someone in that ‘people' spot and develop it as a department.”
Since coming on board with the company in July 2002, Lumberplus director of human resources Bob Marion has done just that, creating an HR department from the ground up that includes character-driven and formalized hiring techniques, on-the-job mentorship orientations, career development training, and the formation of a cross-departmental employee advisory group to communicate ideas between management and the rank and file, all of which replace stop-gap personnel techniques that had Lumberplus just plugging the holes when it came to taking care of the people. “It's what I call gunslinger HR,” says Marion. “It was adequate for a smaller company, but when you are in a growth posture, you just cannot shoot from the hip when it comes to your people issues. You have to be more formalized in order to continue that growth, and a total interaction with your people has to occur.”
Marion should know. From leading a U.S. Marine Corps unit during the Vietnam War to revamping grocery distribution for private companies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War, the HR manager has been putting together teams and putting teamwork to the test for more than 35 years, cutting his personnel improvement chops along the way with companies like McDonald's Corp. and 7-Eleven.
“We're lucky to have Bob. He's been a great resource, he's very energetic, he's got great HR ideas,” says Beckman, adding that he just finished one of Marion's latest HR endeavors: a two-hour phone interview with a psychologist assembling personality profiles for all of upper management that Marion describes “as a major ingredient in a team-building exercise and blending of our very diverse management/personality styles.” “I've got 18 other things I need to be doing and I'm listening to this guy talking about how often I've felt aggressive or not outgoing,” Beckman says. “But I've got to hand it to Bob—as odd as some of the stuff seems on the outside, the results have been great—and we see it in our people.”
New Professionalism Some of the work Marion has done since joining Lumberplus has been merely a formalization of the casual HR policies and practices that the company used prior to his arrival, including a review and revamp of the employee handbook, conducting at least two interviews before hiring an individual, checking references, and administering drug tests, background checks, and workers' compensation checks where necessary. “Bob has brought a lot of crossing the Ts and dotting the Is—he's brought a lot of professionalism to the table,” says operations manager Rick Carraher. “We had been flying too quickly and not stopping to do the right things. Bob has encouraged everyone to slow down, that if we take care of things up front, it is going to save us the time and the money later.”
Chief among the areas where Marion is encouraging a little more patience is in recruitment. Like many dealers, Lumberplus would fill a job vacancy quickly, choosing the most experienced candidate out of their first cull of applicants, and turnover consequently hovered around 20 percent. “I'm managing a 35-person crew, and I still have a lot of hiring authority, but Bob is helping me to hire right,” Carraher says. “A couple of years ago we used to hire the nearest warm body, but the costs that you incur with the resulting turnover are astronomical. Bob has taught us to wait a little longer to fill a position with the right guy.”
Other areas within the company's growing HR department are a bit more unique. In addition to managerial psychological profiling, Marion has presented the Lumberplus staff with the “hidden paycheck,” a dollar-by-dollar line-item account of the corporate cost of their entire compensation and benefits package. “It is so easy for employees just to think of the hourly wage as their compensation,” Marion says. “But it is vitally important for both recruitment and retention that they can see how much is spent on medical insurance; how much is spent on dental insurance; how much the company pays for sick time, holidays, and vacations; and how much it costs to administer and match funds to a 401(k) program.”
Finally, Marion has worked hard to promote and reaffirm some of the company's long-standing cultural attitudes and beliefs, dusting off some key mission and value gems that employees are beginning to put into action rather than just tack up on the break room wall. While the idea of “the right product at the right price at the right place at the right time,” isn't exactly unique in the building material industry, full corporate buy-in and employee adherence to the concept as a mission is probably a bit harder to accomplish. But it's an area where Lumberplus is finding success. “Those are not just words on the wall,” says Melissa Kesterke, a purchasing assistant at the Glenlord location. “They are goals that everyone is trying to achieve daily. As a company, we want to do things right the first time throughout the entire business process, from taking the sale to when we deliver it at a jobsite.”
Power to the People Kesterke says that as much as Marion's efforts have been felt throughout the organization (“He got us dental!”), there is also a sense of empowerment among the staff and an improved communication with management that is promoting a culture where the employees are assuming control of their own personnel and work-life issues. For example, the creation of an employee advisory panel in 2003 has brought significant change to both operational issues and employee recognition. The panel is comprised of representatives elected from all company departments for six-month terms, along with Marion, who participates in an advisory capacity. Representatives meet monthly to brainstorm new ideas for revenue generation or employee recognition, and to air grievances.