Smooth sailing Featured

8:00pm EDT July 28, 2006
 When Marriott employee Joe Collier III could not accommodate one of his biggest clients, he quit the franchise hotel chain and started Mainsail Management Group Inc., a property development and management company.

Mainsail entered the corporate housing industry in 1998 when it built the 360-unit Mainsail Suites and Conference Center in Tampa as an extended-stay training facility for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ international consultants.

“I started out sold out for 10 years with one client,” Collier says.

But when IBM bought out PricewaterhouseCoopers’ consulting practice two years into the agreement, it absorbed a lease on a facility it no longer needed. Collier renegotiated to give IBM some of its money back and opened Mainsail Suites to the public.

Today, Mainsail operates lodging facilities in several major metropolitan areas and has developed a resort in the British Virgin Islands.

Smart Business spoke with Collier about how he finds the best employees to ensure a positive customer experience.

As the company grows, how do you ensure customer service remains strong and consistent across properties?
We generate customer feedback forms. We get hard-copy and e-mails back and automatically our customers get something from us, so we get lots of data. We also leave room for people to write us and tell us how their experience was. We use that as a lesson for the staff.

Another thing we do is send the staff out to see other customer service, good or bad, and let them experience it first-hand so they can fix it and make it better at our place. We’ll stop at other hotels or get on a speaker phone and go through a shop call, when 10 people are sitting around and call up a reservation agent at another hotel or another product and listen how they perform, good or bad.

We’ll say, ‘See how bad that person sounded? How they did not ask the right questions?’ Sometimes bad examples are the best examples.

How do you attract and retain the right employees to ensure good customer service?
We try to put together sort of a culture package. When people come on board, instead of handing them an orientation package of nuts and bolts, we try to give them a sense of what the culture is going to be like.

People coming from big companies, a lot of them are attracted to what we’re offering from a culture standpoint. They meet the boss right away, they get a tour of the property and they get a sense of core values rather than just focusing on, ‘This is what you’re going to get paid per hour and these are your retirement benefits.’

We get a sense pretty quickly as to whether or not they’re going to fit in. We try to go with this ‘hire slowly, fire quickly’ thought process.

How do you find new employees?
We pay a bonus to employees that bring somebody on that we end up hiring. We get word-of-mouth referrals and we do a lot of networking. Then we hire people that we run into that are great.

Somebody who is really awesome that we run into in some service situation, we bring them in for an interview and steal them from other businesses. Not just other hotels, but folks you can tell have the right kind of hospitality spirit. That’s who we want with us.

How is running a company different from simply working for one?
The biggest difference is the financial guarantees that I personally have my neck out for. Those are clearly different when you own your own company.

When you work for a company, the worst they can do is fire you. When you own the company and you feel responsible for all these people feeding their families, not only do you have that responsibility out there, but you also have a financial responsibility for the mortgage. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. This is a much funner way to go.

How do you handle that pressure?
If you have really good people, that makes it a lot easier because you have sharp people all around you and the chances of something falling through the cracks are much less.

You try to get out and meet with some of your peers. That’s why it’s good to belong to associations. You get a chance to hear some other guys from different backgrounds talk about their issues and how they have solved some of their problems in their companies. You’ve got insurance companies, guys from engineering backgrounds, real estate, big financial guys and people who own restaurant companies.

I wouldn’t say it’s lonely at the top — I don’t believe that — but you’re facing different issues.

HOW TO REACH: Mainsail Management Group Inc., (813) 243-2600