Supporting role Featured

11:09am EDT November 1, 2005
Actors audition for their jobs, bankers go on job interviews.

But potential employees at Total Quality Logistics Inc., a Milford-based third-party logistics broker, must do both. Its hiring practices go above and beyond industry standards, but the tough practices are just another part of TQL's hard-working culture.

While TQL fosters a tough and competitive work place, it also treats its employees to great benefits and bonuses. After all, if it's going to go to great lengths to select top workers, it's only right that it go to great lengths to keep them. This attraction-retention policy has helped TQL set its sights on a projected $200 million in sales in 2005, a nearly 100 percent increase over 2004.

Finding good employees to help your company grow is always a challenge, and Ken Oaks, TQL president and CEO, created a five-phase hiring process at the 300-plus-employee company that he describes as "intense" to help find the people that fit into his company's growth culture.

"The first phase is really just looking over the resume," says Oaks. "The second phase is, based on the resume, we send [the applicant] a phase-two questionnaire, and based on the resume and the questionnaire, we schedule a phone interview with them."

Phase three, the phone interview, is when the interview process becomes less traditional.

"Depending on the position, we have [the candidate] answer questions and do something for us," Oaks says. "Like, for the sales position, they actually have to sell us something during that phone interview, and then we do a little back and forth interviewing."

After that, candidates are given an assignment to complete and bring with them when they move on to phase four -- a one-and-a-half hour in-person interview at TQL headquarters. It's during this phase that they begin to job shadow, and sometimes, audition. And that process continues during phase five, a three-and-a-half hour in-person interview.

"During both of those office interviews, [the applicants] spend time out on the floor, shadowing the people who are doing the job they'd actually be doing. ... Some of the positions, we actually have people calling, if it's something simple like calling carriers to find out where they have available equipment," Oaks says.

This audition gives the hiring team -- everyone from potential co-workers to managers and human resources representatives, and sometimes, even Oaks himself -- the opportunity to evaluate the candidate's ability to get the job done, giving them more information than a question-and-answer session alone could.

"We have a set list of things we want to find out," says Oaks. "If it's a salesperson, we want to ask questions geared toward finding out of they're aggressive, if they're confident, if they're motivated. Our sales position is very process-oriented, so we've got to make sure they can multitask and really think quick on their feet. So we'll give them a surprise here and there.

"I like to ask them kind of an off-the-wall question that stumps them. I don't care really about their answer -- how they handle it is important to me. If it shakes them up, then I know they're going to get shook up in an actual job setting."

Oaks also looks for prospective candidates who are prepared.

"We want them to be very enthusiastic and fired up, and we want them to know about the company," says Oaks. "We've got a lot of information on the Web site. If they haven't thoroughly gone through [it] and if they don't know a good amount of information about the company, we know that they're not really serious. We make sure of all that before we let them get into phase five."

The entire hiring process, complete with interviews, auditions and assignments, takes as long as the applicant wants it to, says Oaks, but the average time, from start to finish, is about two-and-a-half weeks for the applicants who decide to stick around. The challenging interview/audition combination was designed to help applicants decide whether they like the company as much as it was to help the company decide whether it likes the applicant.

"[The process] enables the candidate to gain a clear picture of the company, the business, the culture, the job responsibilities and basically get a good feeling of what's going to be expected of them," says Oaks. "And that really allows them to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to go further. Because, believe me, our company is definitely not for everybody.

"Candidates get the opportunity to ask any questions they may have and we encourage them to tell us of any apprehension they may have while they're gong through the process. For example, in the sales position, we tell them about the hours, that we expect them to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the customers and carriers."

That kind of commitment can be daunting, says Oaks.

"We have more people weed themselves out of the process than we weed out," he says. "We're totally upfront with them on everything. We don't want them to be surprised. We're huge sticklers about turnover, and we don't want anybody to be surprised when they walk through that door the first day that they start."

This no-surprises attitude works. In the past year, the company has hired more than 180 people and doubled its sales, and has of a turnover rate below 10 percent for first-year employees, and below 4 percent for employees who have stayed more than a year.

Oaks says that is as much a result of the training as it is of the hiring process.

"Actually," he says, "it's all because of our human resources and training departments. They're the ones who are letting people get in here and letting them know what's going on. And then we properly train them so they can do their jobs really well."

The training process at TQL can be even more demanding than the hiring process. Members of the sales team spend their first six months as TQL employees-in-training.

"It's like being in school -- they have reading they have to do, tests they have to take," Oaks says. "That's another reason why [this company is] not good for everybody -- we want people who want a career, who want their career to be part of their lives, not just a job, a nine-to-five type of thing."

A growing environment
Because TQL demands so much from its employees, it makes every effort to provide a workplace that meets their needs.

From the beginning, employees are encouraged to voice their opinions about working at TQL. New employees are required to attend a new-hire focus group. After that, they have either weekly or monthly meetings with their managers to discuss problems or concerns. Employees are also sent monthly surveys, which can be returned anonymously, and the company has posted suggestion boxes in its offices.

"All management makes sure everybody knows that we're here for them," says Oaks. "We believe in an open-door policy, so employees are encouraged to share their thoughts, good or bad, about their experiences. We want to improve the company, so we need their feedback."

TQL uses that feedback to improve its policies. One example is its training program. Based on employee feedback, new employees now spend their first day on the job getting to know the company and their co-workers rather than jumping headfirst into training.

"Employees felt like the first day they were immediately immersed in the employee training program and after that it was just go, go, go," he says. "So what we do is, instead of the first day starting with the training program, the first day they'll be spending with the HR department, given a tour of the company and presented with all the things the company has to offer. So it's not as crazy as it used to be."

This willingness to listen to employees helps keep them around, as do ample opportunities for advancement. TQL operates on a strong hire-from-within policy -- 75 percent of sales managers were promoted to their current positions, and 100 percent of senior salespeople started as sales trainees.

"Six out of our top nine managers and almost all of middle management have been promoted to their current job from within the organization," says Oaks. "The fifth employee of the company is now the vice president of sales, the sixth is the sales operations manager. It just shows that the people that started with us in the beginning are the ones that are up at the higher levels now."

According to Oaks, this policy has been instrumental to TQL's success for three main reasons. First, it gives managers the operations experience they need to manage well -- they have first-hand experience in the jobs they're overseeing. That, in turn, gives them credibility with their staffs. And finally, promoting from within allows new employees to see their career path within the company and visualize where they might end up, which provides ample long-term motivation.

But for the short term, TQL turns to other tactics. First and foremost, after employees are trained, they're given the space they need to do their jobs. For Oaks, it's about trust.

"Our company is not big about management," he says. "We train them to do the job right and then we give them the freedom to go with it. And we offer them any support they could ever want, but we're not looking over their shoulder all the time."

Even if managers wanted to constantly monitor employees, it would be challenging -- employees are given the flexibility to work around their families' schedules, meaning that they aren't always working in the office.

"We're pretty flexible with hours, depending on the position," says Oaks. "Technology that we've implemented allows our employees to work from their home computer, giving them access so it's as if they're sitting at their computer in the office. So if they have to leave at 4 o'clock, they can get back on their computer at 9 o'clock at night and finish up what they had going on.

"We always let employees leave early if their kids have any functions. That's the No.1 thing for us -- we keep families in mind."

They also keep in mind the effect that traveling for work can have on family life.

"All managers that we send out of town on business -- I require them to take off extra time to spend with their families, either that week or the following week, to make up for time that they missed with their families. If they're out two days, I want them to take at least a half-day off; if they're out three, take at least a full day," Oaks says.

Oaks also rewards his employees' hard work with money, in the form of a no-cap commission policy for sales staff members and bonuses for other staff.

"Every position has goals they need to meet," Oaks says. "It depends on the position, but a lot of positions, if you get to 90 percent of your goal, you get this, if you get to 100 percent of your goal, you get that, if you get to 110 percent, you get something more."

The culture of hard work and excellent employee support at TQL has helped the company stand out among its competition. In 2004 alone, Total Quality Logistics received an honorable mention in the Better Business Bureau's Torch Awards for Marketplace Ethics, a Small Business of the Year Award from the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and a spot on the Cincinnati Fast 50 and the Greater Cincinnati 100 lists.

Not surprising, giving Oaks' formula for success.

"We hire aggressive, competitive people, we train them to perform at a high level, and we reinforce and support their efforts."

How to reach: TQL, or (513) 831-2600