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We are family Featured

5:58am EDT December 27, 2005
For Henkle-Schueler, getting through the boom years as well as the slow ones has depended a great deal on its people, a group CEO Mike Schueler describes as a family. And that special nature of the company culture, he says, came home to him recently.

Schueler was struck by the difference between his company and another when the mother of his son-in-law, who works for another employer, died, and none of his fellow workers turned out to pay respects. The passing of a relative of a Henkle-Schueler worker, by contrast, prompted at least two dozen of the company’s 80 employees to show up to express their condolences.

“There’s much more of a family environment here, and that’s why we’ve been successful,” says Schueler, who has been with the real estate development, management and construction company since 1975.

Schueler cultivates a high-performance culture by encouraging activities and events — such as a fund-raiser at which he donned a striped vest and acted as a greeter — that engage the work force. He hires people for their personal characteristics as much as for their particular skills or background, and trains them to suit.

And the company holds a Christmas party every year at which employees and family members rotate from table to table for each course to encourage wider interaction among the group, “not just go sit with your four best buddies in the corner,” says Schueler.

Smart Business spoke with Schueler about how he attracts and retains the best employees and how he sustains the culture as the company grows.

What is the most important factor to succeeding during a period of fast growth?
Having capable people. Underneath it all has to be an excellent product. In whatever phase of our business, we have to have an excellent product, because without that and business ethics, you have nothing.

We don’t have much employee turnover, and the idea that we’re in the get-rich-slow business is what we truly believe in.

What kinds of people do you look for?
Dedicated, intelligent, hard-working people. I think if you go back and talk about the six people we hired last January, one was a senior assistant to a U.S. congressman who decided he needed a career change. The next guy was one we recruited from Alcoa who wanted to stay home at night instead of traveling the world selling aluminum.

We had a salesman from a metal building company that went bankrupt. We added a very capable property management person. I think she was just a general administrator; we thought she’d make a good property manager because of her people skills.

How do you recruit people?
We recruit every day, a little bit every day. We’ll probably add four people next year, and we’re out there trying to figure out who they are right now.

It’s fueled by the fact that we don’t have any big machines, it’s not a heavily equipment-oriented company. It’s almost more of a collegial organization, such as an accounting firm or law firm. So the people element becomes more significant.

How does that affect how you train people?
We’re not large enough to have our own internal training program, so we have to work with them to find out what seminars or courses they need. We rarely hire someone with a real estate license, even though we’re in the real estate industry. But for many people, we’ve got to get them one.

We construct a program for them. And then it’s almost a one-on-one and learn-by-doing process.

How do you manage to have so little turnover?
It’s a large family group. We care about each other a lot. Because we’re out here in a suburban/rural area, there’s a lot more friendship and camaraderie. If we have an administrative person who’s a single mother and she’s got a problem with a sick kid in school, she’s got to go get the kid and we’ve got to be supportive and enthusiastic about that. If they need a loan because of some adverse circumstance, we loan the money.

As an organization, how do you encourage that kind of culture?
We have a very pleasant work environment. We have a very good profit-sharing plan that is consistent with my get-rich-slow philosophy. We have some very nice parties, and some of the most successful ones are potluck lunches.

And I’m not the generator of these things as much as are people who work for me who say, ‘On this day, maybe everybody ought to bring a covered dish to work for lunch.’

One of my key people said, ‘We ought to help out with the Hurricane Katrina situation. What we ought to do is raise some money to help out the firemen and police in New Orleans.’

They rigged up a tent, brought in some barbecue grills and e-mailed the other companies in the area and said, ‘Come on down and have lunch for five bucks.’

We raised $5,000 to send down there.

How can you sustain that culture as you grow larger?
If you’re building a red brick house, how high can you stack the bricks? I think we can sustain it for a long time if we don’t lose sight of our core goals and objectives.

If you keep building solid red brick courses, you can keep going.

How to reach: Henkle-Schueler Inc., www.henkle-schueler.com