Sheri Tackett knows the secret to increasing sales and profits: Keep employees happy.
It’s that simple. “I firmly believe that if employees are happy, that comes through in the work that they perform with and for our customers, which translates into higher profits and growth,” says Tackett, president of Delta Energy LLC. “The perfect example of this is visible in our financial statements.”
In 2005, just two years after Tackett formed Delta Energy following a management buyout from Ashland Chemical, revenue was $584 million. The following year, revenue jumped a full 45 percent to $847 million. In 2008, sales are expected to close in on $1 billion.
“Many companies say that their employees are their most valuable asset,” Tackett says. “At Delta Energy, our employees are our only asset. For this reason, employee satisfaction is at the top of the list of priorities.”
Delta is a Columbus-based energy management business that services more than 50 Fortune 500 companies, including General Electric, Harley-Davidson, Honda of America, Merck, Ashland Inc. and Worthington Industries.
“I have found that it is often the little things that have the biggest impact on individuals,” Tackett says. “A small example is our outdoor workspace. Employees truly enjoy conducting meetings on the patio or working outside in the fresh air when they can. Another example is having the fitness room available on-site whenever our employees can take a break and work out during the workday.
“We work hard, work smart and have fun,” Tackett says, quoting one of the company’s mottos.
Yet, adhering to that motto requires a lot of work. “Keeping employees happy is an effort that must have continuous attention,” she says.
Here’s how Tackett has made an art out of maintaining employee satisfaction and kept her company in a favorable financial position as a direct result.
Like most things, it’s easier to maintain a happy work force than to build one from the ground up. That’s why Tackett places a high priority on starting off with the right people.
“The folks that work for Delta have been hand-picked because of their experience and knowledge but also because they have a winning attitude, great work ethic and are team players,” she says. “We have a rigorous interview process to ensure that we hire the right people because we realize how much time, energy and effort it takes to correct performance problems.”
Prospective employees can expect no fewer than four interviews with Delta before an offer is extended. The first part is a 30- to 45-minute telephone conference, which isn’t that unusual, but the next step is a panel interview with at least three key employees. If each panel member independently rates the candidate high enough, the interviewee is called back a third time to meet with a group of senior managers.
“If all is well and it looks as though an offer will be extended, a meeting is scheduled with the candidate and me, as the final check and balance,” Tackett says. “We are very deliberate about the types of individuals that we employ and while experience and knowledge is mission critical to serve our customers, equally important is attitude, work ethic and being a solid team player.
“I think one of the primary reasons that people enjoy working for Delta is because of the culture that we have created.”
That doesn’t mean there’s never been any trouble in paradise. But Tackett makes sure any employee performance or attitude problems that crop up are addressed as soon as they are recognized by a manager.
“I have experienced many situations in my career where employee productivity and growth of a work group suffered because performance issues were not addressed quickly by management,” she says. “In at least a couple of cases, employees left the department because the situation was not handled timely and effectively.”
Sometimes, that can mean showing technically capable but lax employees the door to prevent widespread discontent.
“While every effort is made to correct the issue, we do not dillydally around,” Tackett says. “If positive changes are not recognized according to a prescribed timeline, the employee will be released — for their own good and the good of the organization. It is unhealthy, and costly, for the organization and the individual to allow the process to drag on. I firmly believe that this practice has kept our highest-performing employees more satisfied with their work.”
Pay and play fair
Satisfaction among employees can also be closely tied to how fairly employees feel treated — both by management and amongst each other. That’s why Tackett has made what she called “internal equity” a priority at Delta.
“We go to great strides to ensure that everyone in the organization is treated fairly in terms of compensation,” she says. “The pay scale corresponds directly with the scope of work and the level of responsibility and accountability that the job requires, rather than tenure.
“I have been in situations where individuals with more service were paid more and underperformed when compared to their counterparts with less service,” Tackett says.
“Although, ideally, salaries should remain confidential, it seems that is impossible in the real world. As a result, if high-performing employees realize that they make less than others with more service, their
motivation to go above and beyond could be diminished.”
In addition, Tackett has made sure the physical space in which employees work is also seen as equal across the board.
“We all sit in open cubes the same size, making it easy to communicate — and throw footballs,” she says. “My view is that when you come into our offices, it doesn’t matter what your title is or how much money you make; what matters is taking care of our suppliers and customers.
“And, if one individual feels unappreciated, that negativity can spread like wildfire and quickly destroy the culture of a company.”
That’s why Delta management actively looks for opportunities to keep that internal equity scale in balance — even anticipating problems and creative solutions.
“We have several golfers in our company that entertain suppliers and customers on the course during the summer months,” Tackett says. “Since most of our female associates don’t play golf, they don’t seem to get out of the office very frequently. Realizing this, we organized a lunch and a trip to DSW to buy shoes. What female does-n’t always want or need a new pair of shoes?
“My opinion is that if employees don’t feel appreciated, they are not inspired to work hard and work smart for our customers,” she says. “As humans, when we are unhappy, it is very difficult to hide it and, therefore, it will come through when dealing with a customer or a co-worker.”
Keeping things fair around the office can go a long way in avoiding those problems.
Employees have come to expect generous benefit packages from large companies. Small ones like Delta, which has a payroll of just 34 employees, can get away with less, but that’s not Tackett’s style. She likes to exceed expectations with plentiful, unique and — perhaps most importantly — affordable employee benefit packages.
“We start with offering benefits that mirror those of Fortune 500 companies,” she says.
The benefit package includes medical, dental, vision, life and disability insurance, a 401(k) plan, plus vacation time and sick leave.
“In addition, we have a performance incentive plan that is based on team and individual performance,” she says. “The largest component of the payout is based on our financial success as a team, reinforcing one of our sayings: ‘If one wins, we all win; if one loses, we all lose.’”
Flexible work hours are also a big hit at Delta.
“We always encourage our parents to attend school functions with their children whenever possible,” Tackett says. “We are extremely flexible with employees when they have personal issues with parents or children that take them away from the office unexpectedly.”
Other benefits include offering free snacks, sodas and fruit, catered lunches for special occasions, an on-site fitness room, an on-site basketball court, and monthly on-site massages.
Then there are the Friday lunchtime cook-outs in the summer and the happy hours on the patio to celebrate business accomplishments.
While the scope of the benefits package at Delta tends to wow employees, the real kicker is the cost.
“It has been our mission to maintain or increase the coverage associated with the traditional benefits, without increasing premiums,” Tackett says. “In fact, while health care costs have risen dramatically since we formed Delta in 2003, we have absorbed 100 percent of the increases.”
How does she justify taking on those increases?
“I believe that the return for Delta is a work force that has peace of mind that they will have the benefits they need, when and if they ever need them,” she says. “This peace of mind eliminates worry, thereby allowing our folks to focus on their responsibilities for Delta.”
Look and listen for new ideas
Most of Delta’s unique benefits have come from employees — either directly or indirectly.
“I listened to what employees were saying, and not saying, about what benefits they would like to have,” she says. “You can pick up on things just by paying attention.”
For example, Tackett often noticed how much employees enjoyed their lunch hours when the weather was nice. That led to the creation of Delta’s outdoor workspace.
Another time, Tackett overheard a conversation between employees that prompted her to install Delta’s outdoor basketball court.
“And it’s not just me that picks up on these things,” she says. “The individual responsible for our energy management business, Justin McMaster, organized a laser tag game for the members of his team so they could cut loose and enjoy each other’s company because he sensed that the team would benefit from an activity outside of the office.”
In addition, Tackett takes requests. “We have tried to adopt most, if not all, of the benefits that have been suggested,” she says.
On-site lunches are a perfect example. “There are certain times during the month when it is difficult for our associates to get out of the office for lunch,” Tackett says. “One of our commuters from Pennsylvania suggested that we have company-sponsored Chipotle or other semi-fast food during these times, which would allow folks to stay in the office during lunch.”
The practice has become a benefits staple. “Listen to what they are saying, both through words and actions,” Tackett says. “More than 90 percent of the time, they are right — and those are pretty good odds.”
To ensure that Delta employees remain happy on the job, Tackett recently formed an in-house Employee Satisfaction Committee.
“This committee is responsible for confidentially securing ideas and input from employees on how to improve their satisfaction with Delta,” she says. “These ideas are then evaluated by the team and, if accepted, are presented to management for consideration.”
The committee comprises a handful of employees plus one member of the management team: the controller.
“If employees are satisfied with their work, they are happier, more productive and work harder to satisfy the customer,” she says. “And, satisfied customers ensure profitability and growth.”
In fact, more than half of Delta’s growth since 2003 has come via referrals from existing customers.
“And when customers refer Delta to their peers, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
HOW TO REACH: Delta Energy LLC, (614) 339-2600 or www.deltaenergyllc.com