During the past two years, companies in the boating business, and most other industries, have been shedding employees left and right in an effort to right-size their operations for today’s economic conditions.

However, now that the majority of those layoffs are behind us and the recovery has yet to generate any significant momentum, it’s the perfect time for boat businesses to reassess their employees. Not only is the pool of potential candidates deeper than it has been in many years, the level of experience and education of those in the job market is much higher than average as well. But these conditions won’t last long. One of the first signs of a recovery is an increase in hiring, at which time the best and brightest will be quickly snatched up.

“Due to the downturn, we have been able to obtain several employees that we would not have had access to in normal times,” says Cathy Hayes, co-owner of Hayes Marine. “We feel this continues to be an opportunity for the business and will continue to try and obtain qualified staff who have been displaced to grow our business.”

Now is the time to ask yourself the following questions: Do you have the best team possible in place? Should you consider upgrading your talent in areas of weakness? How will you find and identify the leading employees you deserve? How can you transform good employees into great ones? How will you retain your star employees as hiring picks up, and beyond?

This is your guide to answering those questions, and others, in your quest to develop the “A” team that will lead your business into the new decade.

Evaluating your team
Just about every company will tell you its employees are its most valuable assets. But successful businesses understand that statement is more than an overused cliché. Finding the right person for the job, then developing and retaining them, aren’t just items on the day’s to-do list, they’re top priority. As such, those companies rely on strategies that go further than the traditional methods many businesses employ.

First of all, they’re most likely to be tracking the performance of their current employees and observing how each staff member fits the culture of the company. These businesses work with employees to set monthly, quarterly and annual goals, then measure their progress and hold them accountable for the results. Therefore, these employers are aware of each employee’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the opportunities that may exist for improvement. This knowledge may be used to shift someone to an area of the business that might be a better fit, or to replace the employee with a stronger candidate.

Businesses that excel at employee evaluation are also more likely to clearly define their missions and values for workers. South Shore Marine, located in Huron, Ohio, presents its employees with what it calls a cultural map. Each year, on the first day of January, the company holds a meeting to refine its mission statement. Then, it prints up posters that detail each aspect of the mission and posts them on the break-room wall. This year, the dealership asked each of its employees to sign that mission statement in order to underline the importance of following it in their day-to-day jobs.

Owner Tom Mack says the statement has served as a filtering system to help the company determine whether employees are truly in line with its values and direction. In fact, the dealership used its mission to make decisions about who to downsize in late 2008. However, he says it has been most useful when it comes to hiring.

“When we’re bringing new people in, we show them the mission and we say, ‘Why don’t you digest this and get back to us on how you feel about it,’” he explains. “It helps us find a match.”

Promoting from within
Advertising an open position is the first step in filling it for most dealerships. That often means posting ads on their own Web sites, other boating-related sites, Craigslist or maybe even Monster.com, as well as in local newspapers, magazines, etc. While that approach allows a wide net to be cast, it ensures only quantity, not quality. (One dealership did have success with that method; see “Extending your reach” in the Web Exclusives section of www.boatingindustry.com to learn more.)

Some dealers are able to save themselves the time of combing through piles of anonymous applications, and the advertising expense often related to those channels, by planning ahead for the day change inevitably comes. When New Jersey’s Causeway Marine has a job opening, a quick glance around the weekly staff meeting reveals a roster of qualified replacements.

“The first step in doing this is to make sure any new hire has the potential to be promoted,” says Paul Terzian, Causeway partner. “For example, we don’t hire just anyone to be a boat washer. We first determine whether the individual has any ability or interest in becoming a technician or parts staff.”

Action Water Sports, based in Hudsonville, Mich., takes a similar approach, hiring people it expects to advance: “eagles that fit within our team,” as Owner Jerry Brouwer puts it. When the four-location dealership does have to hire from the outside, it does so with the goal of not having to do so again.

“We hire team members who portray and have instilled the values, vision and passion that parallel our business,” Brouwer says. “If we see an all-star employee, but don’t have an open position, we will hire them and make a position.”

Similarly, most of the employees at Galey’s Marine in Bakersfield, Calif., started out sweeping floors or washing boats. The dealership’s technicians have been with the company for anywhere from seven to 20 years, and each started out moving boats, then worked their way up.

“Our service manager retired two or three years ago after 25 years with our company,” explains dealership President Don Galey. “The man who took his place had been here for 15 years.”

The company has never found a new employee by having someone with experience in another industry, like automotive, simply walk in and take over. Rather, it brings employees into an entry-level position, trains them, sends them to school, treats them like family and thereby retains them. Galey says that while the company pays employees considerably more than most dealerships, including fellow 20 Group members, they’re worth even more than that.

“The retained knowledge of senior employees, you can’t train for that or build it in,” he explains.

When it isn’t possible to promote from within, many dealers say word-of-mouth is their next best method of finding the right person for a job. M&P Mercury Sales, based in British Columbia, believes the key to its recruiting success over the last couple of years has been providing staff members the list of open positions and encouraging them to contact family and friends. The dealership also has had its sales team mention openings to clients, which produced good results as well.

Another dealership based in British Columbia, Rayburn’s Marine World, goes a step further and uses the increasingly popular method of offering its staff a bonus for finding new employees. The company offers $500 for the referral if the person is hired and lasts past the company’s 90-day probationary period.

“One of the most effective ways we have recruited quality employees is through our existing staff,” say Dale Koepke and Kevin Isabey, Rayburn’s owners. “The network generated from our own staff has created a pipeline of good recruits.”

Zeroing in
Once a job candidate, or group of candidates, has been identified, boat dealers use a number of different interview methods to ensure the best fit for a given job.

Neal Harrell, president of marine management recruiting firm Brooks Marine Group, suggests all businesses should have a review process they use that includes assigning responsibility for candidate screening, interviewing, behavioral profiles, verifying training and education, and background checks.

M&P conducts telephone interviews for outside applicants, then develops a short list (2 to 3 candidates) and does face-to-face interviews with those people. They come in to meet with the department manager, and those the manager feels would be a fit, complete testing and personality profiles. One person is then selected and, once they’ve accepted a conditional offer that is presented with a “subject to a favorable reference from your existing employer” clause, the background check is performed.

Action Water Sports has a human resources manager conduct the initial interviews, sending the people who survive that process to the department manager for a second interview, then on to the president for a final interview.

Another step some dealerships take is to send the candidate to lunch with the employees with whom they will work if they are offered the job. This allows management to gain additional insight into whether an employee will fit well into the company culture.

As with M&P, a number of dealerships use testing to measure the aptitude and temperament of candidates. One of the most popular tests is a psychometric profile developed by the Omnia Group. It takes about 15 minutes to complete, and the company says it is an assessment tool that “reveals an individual’s personality tendencies in the workplace.” Analysts at Omnia then review the profile, compare the answers to benchmarks submitted by the business, and write assessments based on the similarities and differences found.

Shipyard Marine uses Omnia as a pre-employment screening tool for key hires and has also used it to make sure current employees are in the correct positions. The Wisconsin dealership says Omnia “has proven to be very effective and accurate in measuring ability and competency in potential employees.”

Since Castaway Marine has started using the Omnia profile, which all applicants take, there has only been one instance when it says it proved to be incorrect, although the dealership does not base hiring decisions solely on the Omnia results. And Action Water Sports says Omnia is an amazing tool, and the company “wouldn’t hire a full-time staff member without profiling them first.”

Yet another dealership says it has used Omnia to re-evaluate each key employee in its business and was able to lower payroll expenses by more than 40 percent (over $1 million) as a result. (To learn about other testing options, see “Taking the Guess Out of Work,” p. 20)

Testing the waters
Even when a business thinks it has hired the right person for a job, nothing is ever certain until work begins. Many dealers, as mentioned before, make hires on a probationary basis to try and remove as much doubt as possible before offering new hires the same benefits veteran employees get.

Hayes Marine took that approach one step further in 2008 by implementing a trial-hire period, which serves as a two-week test before a formal job offer is made. Both parties enter into an agreement knowing that when the time is up, the job can be offered or, if either of the parties does not see a good fit, they can go their separate ways.

“A two-week period of time provides us ample opportunity to see an employee’s true skill set and if additional training or supervision would be needed prior to a formal offer of employment,” says Hayes.

The Boat Shop, a three-location dealership based in Tafton, Pa., has also found that hiring employees on a test basis for a few weeks is very beneficial – both for the company and the individual. The Boat Shop pairs the employee with a supervisor who trains and observes strengths and weaknesses. This allows the dealership to offer further training where warranted, gives the employee a better understanding of the job and the company’s culture, and helps both parties realize quickly if the fit is not a good one.

The Boat Shop’s approach is a short version of the apprenticeship model that’s been used around the world for centuries and still works successfully today.

Parks Marina, based in Okoboji, Iowa, has partnered with the local marine mechanics school to provide work experience for students, several of whom have gone on to be full-time employees at the dealership. And Hayes works with its local high school, a regional college and the Marine Mechanics Institute, to do the same thing.

In 2008, Russo Marine – a four-location dealership based in Medford, Mass. – partnered with a local community college and the Massachusetts Marine Trades Association to create a “Jobs in Boating” internship program.

The college developed a boating trades curriculum to generate interest and bring new people into the industry. Once the students completed their coursework, they would then intern at boat yards, dealerships or marinas and, thanks to a grant, the state would pay their wages for the duration of the internship, generally 90 to 180 days. (To learn more about apprenticeships, training programs and funding sources, see “What You Can Learn From” in the October 2006 issue of Boating Industry.)

And there is a similar program that has been beneficial to dealers in Canada, where the Ontario Marine Operators Association has partnered with a regional technical college to train marine technicians.

“By allowing student apprentices to complete their job placement training in your dealership, you gain rapid insight into how they would perform as regular employees,” says Deborah Paris, dealer principal at Ontario’s Paris Marine. “You get the benefit of an extra pair of hands, without the financial commitment of hiring another employee, while the student gains on-the-job knowledge and skills training. It’s like having an employee work their probationary period for free while providing the opportunity for the student and the employer to determine if they are a good fit for one another.”

Planning to train
Personnel is the single biggest expense at most marine companies, which makes development and training vital once the right people have been hired, especially in today’s market. In order to maximize their success, proper orientation and training need to begin immediately.

At M&P, new employees are presented with “90-Day Objectives,” which outline the training requirements for the job, how the training will be executed and who will be their mentor and trainer.

“Effective training and training processes can lead to more efficient operations, satisfied customers and higher profits,” says Bob Pappajohn, president and owner. “It ensures employees’ understanding of dealership processes and procedures that are important.”

The next step in an employee’s training plan is mapping out long-term goals. Maine’s Port Harbor Marine, for example, has begun the process of working with employees – or crewmembers, as the dealership calls them – to develop individual career plans.

First, the company added a question to the crewmember review process concerning that person’s personal and professional goals. Then, career goals and the approach and time frame needed to accomplish them were discussed. The results of those interviews were shared with each manager to allow the company to “become a part of their growth and development.”

Finally, employees were encouraged to accept training and cross-training opportunities to further their development and broaden their abilities. Port Harbor offers tuition reimbursement for classes taken outside the company that relate to their job and growth.

“One of the greatest responsibilities of our ownership team is to create opportunities for our crewmembers to grow within the company,” says Rob Soucy, president, Port Harbor Marine. “The other aspect of our philosophy is to provide the resources needed for our crewmembers so they can grow and develop so they will be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that develops.”

Similarly, Gordy’s Lakefront Marine uses a performance management system for all its full-time employees, which includes specific job objectives, development objectives and career discussions. All employees at the Wisconsin-based dealership have at least two development objectives at any one time, designed to increase their existing skill sets and, consequently, help drive the business. Gordy’s also sees the system as a key component of its succession planning.

Holding on
Few businesses will tell you that they like to see employee turnover, yet many do little to prevent it. Those that do work hard at employee satisfaction and retention can not only boast about the quality working environment they provide, they also often see a benefit where it counts: the bottom line. They understand the cost to replace a departing employee can be high – as high as 250 percent of that person’s annual salary, according to some estimates.

That’s not to say employee retention is an exact science. But there are many actions marine businesses can take to decrease their employee turnover rates.

One of the most valuable tools in encouraging retention is an employee satisfaction survey, which is a key component of the Marine Industry Dealer Certification program, but can also be conducted by a dealership on its own.

At Vallely Sport & Marine, the results of this annual survey are shared with employees during quarterly dealership meetings, and process improvement changes are then discussed.

Such meetings, which take place every 90 days at 7 a.m., are actually another component of the Bismarck, N.D.-based dealership’s retention strategy. The one-hour sessions are mandatory for all employees, dates are decided a year in advance, and breakfast is served by a different department each quarter in the full kitchen within the company’s conference room.

The main purpose of the meetings is better communication between all dealership departments. Topics typically include the dealership’s results during the past 90 days, the schedule for the next 90 days, employee suggestions or concerns, benefits information and more. Management aims to take at least one idea or suggestion from each meeting and implement it before the next meeting, according to John Vallely, Jr., general manager. “This … assures employees that their concerns and suggestions are taken seriously and that management values their opinions.”

Finally, Vallely makes process improvement sheets available to employees so they have input into how the company is run. Once they fill out the form, they submit it to a manager for consultation. After all, if a company is going to continuously improve, it must take “suggestions from the people that know what’s happening best, its employees,” Vallely says.

Retention can be particularly challenging for marine dealers in northern climates as employee compensation can fluctuate with the seasons. That’s part of the reason why Rayburn’s Marine World introduced its Golden Handcuffs program, which is tied to the dealership’s profit-sharing initiative. Through the program, employees receive 50 percent of their profit sharing at the end of the year and the other half eight months later. During the intervening months, the money sits in an investment account earning interest and the gains are passed on to the employee. The only stipulation, according to owner Kevin Isabey, is that the employee remains employed with the dealership during that time.

Similarly, Galey’s Marine has found that exceptional pay, combined with fierce loyalty, has been the key to its employee retention rates. Despite its hometown – Bakersfield, Calif. – being named the tenth most depressed market in the nation with an unemployment rate of 16.5 percent, the dealership hasn’t laid off any of its employees.

“When the downturn came, it would have been easy to move them out,” says Galey. “But we held onto them, and they appreciate it. It has been tough for us, but because we elected to do that, when it does turn around, we’ll reap the harvest because we’ll be ready for it.”

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