The next generation Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

No matter the industry you’re in, no matter your management style, advancing technology is one of the unavoidable truths of 21st century business.

It’s a fact that Lonnie Coleman has met directly. The president of mechanical contractor Coleman Spohn Corp. has recognized the need for an educated work force that is able to adapt to new technology and changing times.

“As a leader, it is up to me to make sure our membership stays abreast and educated on the new technology to make sure that their company stays viable,” says Coleman, also the owner and founder of Coleman Spohn, which generated $23 million in 2008 revenue.

Coleman has placed an emphasis on both recruiting skilled younger employees and retraining older employees, gaining a mix of technological savvy and veteran experience.

Smart Business spoke with Coleman about how you can position your company to adapt for the future.

Q. What advice would you give about building an adaptable company?

One of the things is you’re always going to have to look at your work force and your people. General Electric, every year, they’ll look at their work force and they’ll remove the lowest 10 percent from the organization, which keeps them stronger moving forward in future years. I can’t say that we have that luxury to do that, but we have to constantly look for new talent to come into the industry, because as things change, you have to change, as well, and you want to have the type of talent that is going to help in growing your business. You want to have the type of talent that will get you to that next level.

And the talent is there. A lot of times, those of us in leadership positions, we get comfortable with the people we have; we’ve been in business with them for 30 or 40 years, they’ve helped the organization grow. But, at the same time, if you don’t look at new people with new ideas, you can become stale, and that’s what you don’t want to have happen.

Once upon a time, 30 years ago, when I started in business, there were no fax machines, no cell phones, you didn’t have laptops or BlackBerrys, you didn’t have the virtual office. Today, you have that. At one time, you could get away by not having all of these things. Today, you need them all and you need more if you want to keep your company viable and sustainable.

Q. How can you find and attract people who have new perspectives to your company?

You can go through career fairs, but in the mechanical contracting industry, we have created student chapters across the United States. Right now, we have about 49 chapters in colleges and universities throughout the country. We look at our student chapters as our apprenticeship programs for management, just as pipefitters or other forces in the field have their apprenticeship programs. In our apprenticeship programs, you have project managers, construction managers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, IT personnel that are going through these programs. That’s what we’re looking at. By creating these student chapters, we’re trying to train the work force in our industry for the future.

One of the other things we do in regard to education is we’ll reimburse students for their college classes that help them develop skills that will help grow and sustain our business. If there is a need for something, we’ll put it out there for our staff if someone is willing to go take the class and invest the time in the program; we’ll pay for it. We try to make education available.

Q. Why is education so critical to success in business?

If you’re not educating in the new ways of business, you and your business can become stale and stagnant, and then who is going to want to work with you? If you’re not abreast of the changes in the industry and you’re not willing to move the company to the next level, you are setting yourself up for trouble. For instance, once upon a time, we did estimating by hand, now it’s done electronically. If you’re still out there doing estimating by hand, how many projects are you going to be able to accomplish when competing against the guy who is doing everything electronically? You are going to fall so far behind, it would be ridiculous. That’s why keeping up with education is so important.

Q. Does a work force ultimately have to get younger to keep up with cutting-edge skills?

The work force doesn’t have to necessarily get younger. What happens with the younger work force is they’re bringing certain skill sets to the table that are going to help your company as you try to move forward and sustain yourself. But the older worker doesn’t get kicked to the curb in the process. You can offer the older worker opportunities to go and get trained in the new technologies, as well. And if they’re willing to embrace that change, there is a spot for them.

Another thing you can do is take the older worker and put them in a position where they mentor the younger worker. That is a mutually beneficial relationship, because the younger worker might have the technical expertise, but hands-on, he might be lacking. So you put the two people together, and by doing that, [you] create a powerful force within a company.

How to reach: Coleman Spohn Corp., (216) 431-8070 or www.colemanspohn.com