CWB April 2003

Answering 'Yes'

So you have decided to become an employer. Now what?

By Anthony Noel

We have been considering one of the biggest questions owners of small woodworking shops will ever face: Should I, or should I not, become an employer?

We ended last month's discussion with a thought that could be why many owners answer "No" to that question: Because hiring someone will immediately require one of you to spend most of your time tracking down enough work to keep the other guy busy with work that is profitable enough to keep both of you paid.

On top of that, the simple truth is that many owners are content to be woodworkers and have no interest in becoming "people managers."

But let's suppose for a moment that creating a successful operation of several (or more) employees is what you're all about, what you really want to do. Who should that first employee be, and how should he think about the business?

In the February issue, we said that employees never work as hard as owners do. But for your first hire, you want someone who is going to come pretty darn close. The day you hire someone is also the day that you can choose, for the first time, to establish clearly the two most basic elements of any business: Production and Administration. And the more successful you are in hiring someone with the ability or potential to head up one of those two disciplines, the greater your odds of creating the sort of operation you envision for the long term — while still meeting the more immediate challenge of getting work profitable enough to keep you both paid in the short term.

If it sounds like you are looking not so much for an employee as a business partner, ultimately that may be the case. But your potential hires needn't (and shouldn't) know this. Nothing will put undue pressure on both parties quite like a statement of as-yet unfounded hope for a possible long-term partnership.

"While you may hope inside that your new hire will grow into the right-hand man you are looking for, take the necessary steps to ensure that your hopes remain exactly there, inside, until this person clearly demonstrates that he or she can cut the mustard. Depending on his experience, that could take a few months, a year or perhaps even longer. As long as you see real progress, invest your time patiently. If you see the kind of initiative you seek, great. If not, find out why. And if he continually fails to show progress, look for someone else."

These thoughts, from the July 1999 installment of this column, apply to a certain extent here. But remember that the more raw your new hire's talents are, the more time you will have to invest in his training. Depending on where your business is, time may be a luxury you are somewhat short of.

As much as planning is regularly encouraged in this column, there are some things you just can't plan, and chemistry between yourself and a new hire is one of them. Your best hope, as you screen potential employees, is to find someone with a solid understanding of woodworking fundamentals, along with the mental capacity and inclination to develop the most time-efficient techniques for given tasks. With a little luck, the chemistry will take care of itself.

In short, you are looking for someone who might one day oversee production. But keep your mouth shut about it until you see real proof that this person has what you are looking for.

That's assuming, of course, that you want to focus your own attention on the administrative side of things - sales, marketing, estimating, cost accounting and purchasing. If you want to run production yourself, you will be looking for someone adept in the administrative tasks just listed, sales in particular.

You should realize, however, that hiring an administrator, particularly if your talents lie in production, can expose you to all sorts of risks, not the least of which is the possibility that your customers would rather deal with a known quantity — you — than someone they have never worked with. This, along with that aforementioned hope for the long term, is the main reason most owners opt for hiring a "shop guy."

Whichever abilities you seek in your new employee, finding such a person - one with an even-money chance of becoming, if not an actual business partner, someone who is willing to make a real commitment to the business's future - is no cake walk. Where do you even begin to look?

One idea comes from reader Mark Skarich of Milwaukee.

"I am 54 and, like thousands of my fellow 'baby boomers' across the country, I have been enticed to retire at a relatively young age," Mark wrote in a recent e-mail. "I worked for General Motors as a middle manager for 27 years. Early last year, I was asked if I wanted to retire. An offer was extended I couldn't refuse. At the time, I had been taking a woodworking class for the last eight or nine years at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

"My instructor was a project manager at an architectural woodworking company," Mark continues. "I asked him if his company would have any interest in hiring a person with my skill level; I have been working there since three days after I left my old job. As I think about it, what [better] place to get lower- to medium-skilled woodworkers than your local junior college woodworking classes."

I agree with Mark. All across the country, "boomers" are taking early retirement, many with lots of training in quality management under their belts. While I am not suggesting that all of them are a guaranteed fit for any company, their experience and training makes them worthy of consideration.

Of course, as Mark admits, there can be some downsides: "Being older, endurance is not on the same level as a 30-year-old," he says. "But I am talking about retirees who are in their early 50s, not 75!"

Another negative is a desire to not work overtime, he adds. "That is not to say we do not understand an [occasional] emergency shipment. But we also do not want to spend an abundance of time at work, or we would have stayed where we had learned the ropes and knew how to survive."

Even if they are not interested in the long hours that a start-up often requires, and even if they don't turn into that long-term, almost-equally committed partner you seek, early retirees can be a valuable asset as you make the transition from woodworker to employer.

We will look at how - and how to assess quickly any new hire's long-term potential - next month.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.