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How Dana Roberts recruited employees to help him get C.W. Driver growing again Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2012
How Dana Roberts recruited employees to help him get C.W. Driver growing again

Dana Roberts could not place all the blame for his company’s problems on the recession. As the end of 2009 drew near, C.W. Driver had a few issues of its own that it needed to work out if it was going to remain a leader in the construction industry.

“There were projects out there, but we kept missing them,” says Roberts, the $500 million company’s president and CEO. “We got wind of the projects when it was too late. We were way behind the power curve from the standpoint of our contacts in the industry. We just needed more people out there knocking on more doors and being more aggressive to get the information about what’s coming out.”

Roberts’ hope had been that 2010 would serve as a springboard to better business growth in 2011. But he began to understand that even if things had worked out that way and the recession had ended in 2010, his company still needed to get more focused on what it was doing in order to achieve that growth.

“We want to be able to look at 10 projects and pick out three and say, ‘OK, we’re going to pinpoint this one, this one and this one,’” Roberts says. “We didn’t have that information. The reason we didn’t have it was our whole business development group wasn’t organized in such a way to do that.”

It was a reality that led him to make a risky decision.

“In a recession era, most businessmen say, ‘OK, we need to start cutting overhead,’” Roberts says. “We did just the opposite. We expanded our overhead and we looked at it as an investment in the future.”

Roberts wanted to get more people involved and engaged in helping the company grow. He felt the move to make significant investments, despite the recession, would demonstrate his commitment to the task.

“How do we keep our people motivated?” Roberts says. “How do we keep our people, our most important asset, well engaged? It’s by trying to do new things and trying to make things happen, not waiting for the economy and our market area to come around.”

Get to your best ideas

Roberts set out to use the vast and relatively untapped knowledge base of his employees and use it as a resource to identify those opportunities they were missing and make C.W. Driver a more effective and more efficient business.

“It’s not only reorganizing the business development and marketing group,” Roberts says. “It’s also getting every employee engaged in being aware of what’s going on out there in the neighborhoods they live in and the communities they live in so the entire company is involved in the business development effort.”

Roberts got a good response as people had numerous ideas about how C.W. Driver could expand into new markets and broaden the company’s reach. The challenge in this case wasn’t getting people to open up.

It was taking all those suggestions and narrowing them down to the few really strong ideas that really have a good chance of success.

“We may have 50 or 60 different things that we start with, but we narrow it down to a few initiatives and we develop a plan that everybody gets behind,” Roberts says. “If they can’t get past that, they’re going to dilute their efforts. You’ve got to narrow it down. You just can’t physically do everything. We’ve been through that and we’ve tried to do too much. We find that in our business planning sessions, it’s got to come down to two or three things, maybe four things at the most, that you are trying to accomplish. It’s really spending the time to build the consensus.”

Roberts opens the process to whittle the list of ideas to a select few by admitting he probably be won’t be the one providing the best suggestions.

“I tell everybody, ‘Look, I come up with some of the stupidest ideas in the company,’” Roberts says. “People tell me, ‘That is a bad idea, Dana.’ I’m the president and CEO. I want that kind of environment in the company. I want people to speak their mind. I don’t want them to tiptoe on eggshells around everybody. We’re open and honest, and we do it with respect and integrity.”

It’s important that you set expectations before you go into a brainstorming session. Give your people an understanding of how things are going to work instead of jumping right into idea generation.

“We have a whole set of ground rules within our senior management group on how we conduct our meetings,” Roberts says. “Everybody knows you have to get down to two or three good ideas. Otherwise, you’re sunk. You’re going to take a shotgun approach and you’re not going to accomplish anything. It takes a day or two, but you get there.”

If there are people who are unwilling to let go of the old way of doing things and help with what you’re trying to build, you may have to let them go.

“The one person or two people that didn’t agree with it or didn’t get a fire under their butt to get behind this whole program and to understand the urgency of it are no longer here,” Roberts says. “I don’t like to say I fired them, but it no longer became a fit. We had a change that we were going to make that we needed to make and they weren’t of the mind to be part of it.

“We want people that are out in front charging hard all the time as opposed to dragging other ones along. It’s very important that we build consensus and that everybody is in agreement and doing their part to make the change work and operate in the new environment.”

Seek outside help

Roberts isn’t afraid to seek outside help when key decisions need to be made at C.W. Driver and this particular instance was no different. He doesn’t view it as a lack of confidence in his own abilities to lead the company and adds that his team doesn’t see it that way either.

“Not once has anybody criticized anybody bringing in an outside consultant,” Roberts says. “Smart people won’t do that. We don’t let the consultant run the business. We make our own decisions, but we get input from him and other things and then we make our own decisions.”

The third-party input that comes from an outside facilitator can be invaluable when you’re trying to move from the information gathering stage to the implementation and execution phase of a transition.

“You can find consultants to do anything out there,” Roberts says. “You just have to look in the right circles. You have to understand too that you don’t know everything. I may be president of the company, but there’s a lot I don’t know. So I look for a lot of input.”

Roberts stresses that the involvement of outside consultants is a demonstration of strength by a leader, a willingness to do what it takes to get the job done.

“If companies try to do it themselves, they’re not going to end up where they want to be,” Roberts says. “They need somebody in there to facilitate them and guide them. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we can’t agree on anything. Let’s get a consultant in here.’

“It’s like trying to fix your own car. I’m just going to get all the manuals and read the manuals and I’m going to fix it. But you get somebody who does that every single day and you realize you really need that outside type of knowledge. If you’ve got a big ego, you’re going to have to get over it.”

There are, of course, good practices to follow when it comes to using consultants. Perhaps most importantly, especially when you’re trying to encourage engagement and teamwork, is to make sure everybody likes the consultant you’re bringing in to help.

“Don’t you select him and then he comes in and everybody hates him,” Roberts says. “That’s the first consensus you want to build. Hey, we all like this guy. The key is finding somebody that everybody relates to and everybody likes and has really good credentials coming in the door. See who he has worked for and where he has been. Talk to his references and talk to his other clients. Find out the plusses and minuses for him.”

Consultants don’t come cheap, but Roberts says when you find the right one, it will be well worth it.

“It’s a big expense,” Roberts says. “But it’s worth every dime.”

Take action

There were a couple big changes that C.W. Driver made to better respond to market demands. One was to form a special projects group that would handle smaller projects.

“We had clients that we had done big projects for, but now they only had small projects to do,” Roberts says. “And we had clients we were trying to establish a relationship with, new clients, but their projects were too small for us to compete on.”

This new segment would be able to take on those projects and free up the bigger company to handle projects it was more suited to take on.

“The people that work in this group get paid a little less so they can compete on smaller projects,” Roberts says. “So instead of waiting until the market turns, we decided to take more aggressive action and say, ‘OK, how can we compete in a market and maintain these relationships and gain new relationships for big Driver? So we opened small Driver.

“The other one is the for-rent housing market. We decided that in order to compete in that market, we have to have a separate company that focuses on for-rent housing, student housing, senior living and possibly extended stay hotels.”

The smaller companies are part of the C.W. Driver brand but can operate in a way that better fits them.

“They can operate just like a small company, but we can give them all the support of a big company without the bureaucracy,” Roberts says. “So far it’s worked out, and we’ve built a backlog of about $20 million over the last seven months.”

When you embark on a remaking of your company, you’ve got to move smartly, but quickly. Your employees demand it of you, even if they don’t always openly tell you that.

“They want to see that the company is moving forward and doing something to maintain its growth and maintain its level of business activity,” Roberts says. “They don’t want to lose their jobs. They want to know if they are going to have a job next year. That’s the most important thing in everyone’s mind right now. Are we going to have a big layoff? Are we going to lose our benefits? Is our pay going to be cut? What is the company doing to sustain itself or increase its business? They are looking to senior management to come up with those answers.”

They are looking for answers and then they are looking for follow through and execution on what you’ve talked about.

Roberts was committed to preserving jobs and finding ways to remake C.W. Driver without having to do layoffs. It’s often viewed as the harder way to go, but that may not actually be true.

“You can’t just do these wholesale layoffs because if things turn around, then you have to hire people back and that is an incredible cost,” Roberts says. “Find new people, hire them, train them and get them involved.”

You’ll probably find that your people are more receptive to change than you think if it means their position with your company is secure.

“There’s very few people saying, ‘I don’t like working on this project. I want to work on this project,’” Roberts says. “I think everybody is really happy to have a good job, have good benefits, not have their wages cut and have a company that really has a lot of empathy for its employees.”

How to reach: C.W. Driver, (626) 351-8800 or www.cwdriver.com

Dana Roberts, President and CEO, C.W. Driver

The Roberts File

Born: Los Angeles

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, Utah State University; master’s degree in civil engineering, University of Southern California.

What was your very first job?

I had a paper route when I was 9 years old. It was called the Valley News and Green Sheet, which is now the Los Angeles Daily News. I had 120 papers I delivered and people would pay for it on a voluntary basis.

It was 65 cents a month and I would have to go and knock on doors and say, ‘I’m collecting for the Green Sheet.’ They’d say, ‘I don’t want it; that’s a rag.’ Or they’d say, ‘Oh, we love that paper,’ and they would give me 65 cents. One lady, she gave me a dollar. And I would go to give her the change and she’d say, ‘Keep the change.’ I got a 35-cent tip. She never failed to give me that 35-cent tip.

Who had the most influence on you?

There were two things my father said to me. He said, ‘Son, I can’t afford to send you to college. But I can give you a job.’ So that’s how I got through school. Then he said to me when I became an owner of the company, he said, ‘I’ve reached the pinnacle of my career. I’ve got my kid signing my paycheck.’

He was a great influence on me. The respect he had for people. Not only the people who worked for him but the people he worked with and worked for.