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First things first Featured

9:20am EDT March 23, 2005
When Kathy Reehling started CREW Technical Services, her daughter was 1 year old and her son was 4.

Family and friends cautioned her that it might not be the best time to start a business, but Reehling was determined to make it work. The result is her family-first company, where employees can work a flexible schedule at home or in the office. And employees with sick children are encouraged to stay home.

"I didn't want to be in the office five days a week, eight hours a day, and I didn't want to ask anyone else to," Reehling says.

The system works for employees who value that flexible, family-friendly environment, but Reehling has learned that not everyone is disciplined enough to thrive. During a growth spurt, she hired employees who were skilled but not excited about the policy, and she had to let them go. Reehling says that now she doesn't hire anyone unless that person is enthusiastic about the company's policies and core values.

"We learned that that is a good indicator," she says.

Reehling is so committed to the family-friendly policy that it has become part of the company's core values, or 14 Commandments, which are posted on its Web site. "Family first" appears on the list, along with more common values such as honesty, integrity and quality. Reehling also encourages employees to have fun.

This atmosphere is not just working well for the company but is proving to be a wise business decision. CREW's family-friendly environment attracts higher-quality employees who are willing to take a smaller salary in order to have a flexible schedule and the ability to work from home or bring children to work, as needed.

"And these employees are happy, very loyal, and stay with us for a long time," Reehling says.

Smart Business spoke with Reehling about the benefits of running a family-friendly company.

Why do you post your 14 Commandments on the company's Web site?

The 14 Commandments are integral to who we are and the culture we've built. They are something we want everyone to know about. If a potential employee can't agree with them, then that person won't be a good employee for us.

If a client doesn't appreciate them, then the client won't appreciate CREW Services. It's an important way to get people to know who we are and what we're about. We are, however, consolidating the commandments because we feel that 14 are too many to expect people to remember. So we are paring them down to five core values.

We just recently moved to a new headquarters and are going to have them framed and hung on the wall. We've gotten a lot of feedback about them, and the one we get the most feedback on is 'Viva la difference.' It's also the easiest to remember. And it is an extremely important value: diversity.

The commandments also reminds us to be compassionate. We are keeping family first, and we strive for honesty, integrity and quality in all that we do. The five core values will encapsulate the 14, emphasize those that I mentioned and are easier to remember.

How do the commandments impact the way you run CREW and your strategic business planning?

We take strategic planning seriously. We don't do it and then put it away. We execute our plan and discuss it at team meetings twice a month. We have people that become champions of specific strategic initiatives. They report on the progress of the initiatives during the team meetings. The core values are a starting point.

As an example, at other companies, so much attention is on sales and profit. While we track that closely, one of our strategic initiatives is to maintain our corporate culture, and we devised goals for it. It's harder to measure and know we've accomplished the goals.

We also want the goals to be realistic. One way we're measuring this corporate culture goal is we are tracking every time someone on the management team has a connection with an employee. Since some employees work at home and some work on the customer's site, contact is very important.

We keep track of what kind of contact it was, who initiated it, whether it was face-to-face or e-mail. We also do surveys of both our clients and employees. Customer satisfaction can also be hard to measure. We do surveys and keep track of how many times we've interacted with the customer.

The surveys give the customer an opportunity to let us know whether they are happy or unhappy, and we act appropriately and make decisions based on that feedback.

Was there ever a point where you hit the wall with your business?

Yes. We actually had a banker tell us that we were insolvent at one point. But we knew we had some business developing in the pipeline, so we did what we could to get through. It is true that if you can learn from your mistakes, it makes you stronger.

We looked at how we could stretch what resources we had. And we really learned from that experience, especially because it forced us to do the hard things we hadn't wanted to do up to that point, like laying off staff that were adding to our overhead expenses. We didn't want to do it, but not doing it was killing our cash flow.

We did save the business, and were able to grow and employ more people. Laying people off is always an option of last resort, but what we have learned from that experience is not to wait so long to do it.

We saw it coming a second time in advance and did some juggling, assigning some of the staff to billable projects, and we didn't have to let anyone go. We learned our lesson.

What was the turning point in your company's growth?

One of the big turning points was when we were named a preferred vendor for a major client. Our work just doubled overnight, and we knew we had arrived.

Also, companies began knocking on our door wanting to be a subvendor to us. That's another point when we knew we had arrived.

What was the hardest business decision you had to make during that growth period?

When we were growing very fast, we hired people we shouldn't have hired. We lost sight of our employees. We had this vision that we wanted to be a great place for people to work. It takes a lot of self-discipline to work here because you can work from home.

Some people think it is easy, but it isn't. People are paid for what they produce, and it takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline. There are many people who can't do well in our environment.

We hired people that had the skills we needed, but I got a sense that they probably wouldn't work in that environment, then we had to let them go. Our policy is that you are only paid for every hour you work. You don't get vacation days. We do give a vacation bonus twice a year, so people can afford to go on vacation, but not everyone can manage their money.

We explain that during the interview process. If the person is not excited about the system, then he or she is not a good fit for the company.

We tend to hire women who are re-entering the work force, and they like the flexibility the job offers. They can take time off at spring break to spend with the family, for example. It can be hard for some people, ideal for others.

What a lot of our employees like is that if the kids are sick, we tell them to stay home with the kids. If the employee is uncomfortable with the system, then it is probably not going to be a good fit.

What challenges have you faced as a woman business owner that your male counterparts may not have?

I don't play golf, so I don't do golf course deals. I can't take the head of the Indiana Airport Commission out for drinks; it wouldn't be politically correct. But if I were a man, he wouldn't think twice about it.

I belong to the Young Presidents Organization, so everyone knows me from that. But when I go to regional or national meetings, everyone assumes that my husband is the member.

There are some advantages to being a woman business owner. I think it is easier for employees to knock on my door and talk to me about anything. I think I'm seen as more nurturing, I am more nurturing.

I went to a meetin g at a big pharmaceutical company once and there were representatives from each vendor there. There were 300 men in dark suits and me in a red suit. They remember me.

How did you build the family-friendly culture, and what do you do to nurture its growth?

The policy started because when I started the company, my daughter was 1 and my son was 4. Our friends and family members said 'You'll hate yourself if you start the company now. You need to eat, sleep and breathe a start-up company.' I didn't see why I couldn't start the company and bring others in so I didn't have to live the company 24 hours a day.

I job-shared from the start so I could work at home one day a week. And at that time, most of the people I knew were mothers of young children, some of whom were interested in working part time. So we built a system that worked for us. It not only works, but it's good business. We are attracting fabulous employees that are willing to work for less because of the flexibility we offer.

Not everyone fits, but we get rid of the occasional bad apple and move on, working to keep the good, loyal employees.

How to reach: CREW Technical Services, (317) 713-7777 or www.crewtech.com