Employees are your business. Without the right employees and a productive work culture, your business cannot be as successful as possible.
That message was the focus of presentations by Martha Facer, a store operations manager with Wegmans, which has made Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for the past 19 years, and Pete Gelber, owner of Barrington Dairy LLC, the largest dairy in the state of Georgia.
They were two featured speakers of the 2017 Operations Managers Conference, presented by Cornell University’s PRO-DAIRY program and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association.
“We don’t have people working for us; they work with us,” Gelber said. “People don’t care if the price of milk is low. They’re coming to work and want to do their jobs.”
Gelber’s dairy has over 9,000 heifers and employs 130 people from very diverse backgrounds. Having motivated employees is a part of the dairy’s mission statement, along with making a profit, providing cow comfort and improving the environment.
At Wegmans, the 93 grocery stores are only the beginning. They also operate an organic farm, a culinary institute, 19 restaurants, two distribution centers and a cheese cave. With more than 48,000 employees, there is a lot of employee management happening. Employee engagement is a main focus.
As a manager, Facer says she spends “70 percent of my time sitting down and talking to my people. The people run the business,” she said. Management has a “people page” for every employee, outlining their goals, interests and desired career path.
Culture and motivation
Employees at Gelber’s dairy know that performance is important. The dairy pays more to employees who do a good job, provides raises even when milk prices are low and works to maintain a culture of compassion, empathy and a strong work ethic.
His employees are a mix of locals as well as those from other countries. He has Filipino workers and several older people along with teenagers and college graduates. He finds a place for everyone and tries to understand their cultural perspective.
Taking a “cost versus asset” approach means doing as much as they can to attract and retain these employees. Gelber considers the future of his employees and strives to meet their needs.
He places employees in positions where their strengths are optimized, offers employees assistance with home ownership goals, has educational opportunities available on-farm and will go the extra mile for those willing to work hard for the dairy.
Gelber works around the needs of families, understanding when mothers stay home with sick children. He often hires family members and hires teenagers in the summer, helping the children of his employees.
“Good people cost money,” Gelber said.
Motivating and retaining 48,000 employees means creating a culture where they can thrive, Facer said. Retaining employees means matching employment positions to their skill sets, enabling them to continually learn new skills and clearly outlining paths to achieve the next employment level. With less than 4 percent turnover, Wegmans is still trying to improve employee retention rates.
Wages are reviewed as a part of the mandatory annual performance reviews. Profit-sharing, 401(K) plans, pay rates reflecting the industry standard and perks such as coupons, discounts to local businesses, scholarships and wellness groups, “keep our employees excited to be working at Wegmans,” Facer said.
All hiring is done internally first. More important than skills are the values of potential employees.
“We feel we can teach the skill set,” and 90 percent of the interview questions are based on values, Facer explained.
Training and communication
Often workers wind up at Barrington Dairy because they can’t find any other way to make money. Gelber trains his milkers for five days, for his sake as well as theirs, to see if they can acclimate to the job and do it well. He teaches the herdsmen the skills they want to learn, whether it’s performing ultrasounds or delivering complicated births.
Talented employees working the loaders are the ones allowed to feed cows. The top six employees are key managers and make very respectable salaries, including retirement savings and performance bonuses.
“Our employees are required to go through several trainings, multiple times per year,” Facer said. These range from “job-based” to “overall Wegmans-based” and include field trips to farms, restaurants and breweries that supply the chain.
“Getting our employees out to different avenues in the industry” is a part of the training goal so they see the big picture, she said.
Training includes extensive customer service, food safety and leadership development. Employees are trained to meet the goals of their current position and are given a clear outline of the next level of skills needed to advance. Wegmans takes pride in offering “endless opportunities for our people to grow.”
Each Wegmans manager – both on the store and the corporate levels – has “open door day” once per week, an “extremely successful” way for employees to comfortably express concerns, goals or suggestions. Each department has “priority meetings,” where employees are given the “why” behind protocols. A store huddle, twice a day for 10 minutes, “creates open communication for all employees,” she said.
Ongoing employee reviews, discussing strengths and accomplishments, addressing any concerns and “trying to make it better” for the employees are one way Gelber communicates caring. A monthly newsletter, in Spanish and English, provides news of the dairy and its employees, and serves as a communication tool.
The newsletter helps provides a platform for employees to present questions and have them answered in a non-threatening manner.
If Wegmans employees are no longer a good fit for their role, due to inability to perform duties, changes in the skills required or changing personal needs, they can be trained to another position, moved to a store closer to home or given a “buy down” package, Facer said. Every employee who is terminated is given an extensive exit interview to find out “the why behind it.”
Whether at Wegmans, Barrington Dairy or in any workplace, workers thrive when management has policies in place that reward performance and provide employees a path to achieving goals. When employees are recognized as crucial contributors, responsible for the success of the business and rewarded for a job well done, they are motivated to do their best. With a culture of mutual respect and teamwork, employees are eager to contribute and to share in the success of the business.
PHOTO: When employees are recognized as crucial contributors, responsible for the success of the business and rewarded for a job well done, they are motivated to do their best. Photo by Thinkstock.
Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.