Employees stay for the intangibles, not just a check

June 6, 2002

Recently a story ran in The Courier-Journal newspaper about 67-year-old Charles Howe, a worker at Gateway Press who'd just completed his 50th year of service at the printing company. Five years before that, the company had four employees who'd posted more than 40 years' service, and since then four others have joined the same club.

"If you've got 20 years here, you're just a baby," receptionist Peggy Floyd told the paper.

Steve Coomes

How'd Gateway keep those folks that long?

Loyalty to employees, it appears, begets employee loyalty to the company.

Gateway owner Kit Georgehead told the C-J, "Some people say the customer comes first. But you've got to take care of your employees first, because your employees will take care of your customers."

Apparently his theory works: 50 percent of Gateway's business in 2001 came from customers who've used Gateway's services at least 25 years.

And get this: The company's 260 employees split 25 percent of the pretax profits every year, which averages out to six weeks' pay per employee.

Back to reality

I must point out that Gateway's average hourly work rate is $18 an hour -- three times higher than most pizza makers' and twice what delivery drivers make.

Still, there are lessons from Gateway that can be applied to your company, such as this: When you meet employees' needs, they're much better prepared to meet customers' needs.

If you're an operator, you're likely wondering whether you can keep employees long enough to show them how nice you can be.

But the real truth is, a lot of companies talk about putting employees first, yet few deliver on it. Some pay well, provide decent benefits and even get employees to stick around for six months. Still, in an industry where turnover averages 100 percent a year, it's clear little is being done to keep employees for the long term.

Consider intangible rewards

Competition for workers in a lean labor market has been exacerbated by operators simply one-upping each other with promises of higher hourly rates. Some dangle the benefits carrot to draw employees, but let's face it, young workers who are healthy rarely consider things like insurance much of a plus because they rarely need it.

So, is it money they want? Yes, but it's not the only thing.

When I started my restaurant career as a busboy 22 years ago, my goal was to generate enough pocket money to pay for some decent-enough wheels that wouldn't embarrass my girlfriend. The work was hard and the pay pretty good, but I stayed because I liked the work. I made a lot of friends and memories during my time in that first restaurant, and despite the numerous brow-beatings my co-workers and I got from our persnickety supervisors, we had a lot of fun.

I even had enough fun to continue working for the same company and become a cook -- for the delightful rate of $3.50 an hour. (Even in 1982 that was chump change!)

Over the next nine years I barely tripled that rate as a chef before figuring out that I'd rather write about the industry than work in it (as if that meant more money!) But the fact remains I stayed with it because I liked the work and loved my coworkers.

* If you're an operator, ask yourself whether your operation is a fun place to work. Even amid the stress of a Friday night rush, are employees having fun in your store, cutting up and teasing each other? Do your employees hang around with each other after hours?

Try encouraging them to recruit friends, and reward the recruiters when they bring in a new hire who stays (For more info, read Dave Ostrander's columns "How to Hire Eagles," and "Hiring Eagles: Part 2.")

* Build goodwill with employees' friends and family through freebies that employees give away. Once or twice a week, let a different employee choose to whom they'd like to give a free pizza. That allows them to win points with the beneficiary, and you look good by being so generous. That's a sure-fired employee and customer loyalty builder.

Have an opinion?

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* Open your books -- just a little -- and show your employees what it really costs to run your operation. Show them just how much of every dollar is devoured by the costs of food and labor, as well as utilities, cleaning supplies, liability insurance, etc. At the very least that generates some sympathy for you, and you've given them a valuable economics lesson in the process.

* Lastly, show them you care. Ask them about the classes they're taking at school while you're training them to mop a floor. If they're parents, ask about their kids and make an effort to learn their names.

And, if they're merely using their jobs as springboards to other careers, ask them what they plan to do when they get there. Stirring their dreams on occasion may invigorate them to perform more energetically for you.

No, it's not likely such things will get you a 50-year employee like Charles Howe, but it just might get you someone who stays two or three years. And wouldn't that change the state of labor in this industry.

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