Bring Donuts...

Employee engagement is one the most important things you can do in your company...just don't forget the donuts.

Back in 2000, I had recently graduated college and embarked on my first of many start-ups. Thinking back on those earlier days, everything was new, interesting, challenging … and I had no preconceived notions of “the proper way” to do anything … such a fun time.  I can’t say I am much different today but I have tempered a bit, and most who know me, know me for my willingness to try something new, push boundaries, and challenge the status quo!

 I also learned one of the greatest business lessons during this time.

Chas Roberts was one of the larger HVAC installation companies in the U.S. and had a few not so kind nicknames back in the days - my favorite being “Chainsaw Roberts.”  But I had gotten to know the people there and saw a different side - particularly in Jim Colgan and Ward Cole who were running day to day operations.  At this time in my life I was living in Phoenix and staying busy testing duct systems for air leakage with a company I helped start, D.R. Wastchak. Needless to say, our testing was causing some difficulties for Chas because a significant number of their HVAC installs in new houses were failing.

Me in 2000 completing a duct test. [Photo: Tom Tingle, Arizona Republic]

Me in 2000 completing a duct test. [Photo: Tom Tingle, Arizona Republic]

Jim and Ward recognized that I wasn’t going anywhere because home builders were becoming increasingly interested in Energy Star Homes due to Sam Rashkin’s herculean efforts. So instead of allowing this trend to disrupt Chas Roberts business, they decided to get ahead of the problem. They called us up and together we laid out a plan to train their entire organization of field installers on improved duct sealing installation.  A schedule was put together and over the next several months, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings (7am), I would meet 3-5 crews (12-20 guys total) on a job site and walk them through the proper techniques.

Well, you can imagine I fumbled my way through the first few trainings.

To begin with, we had a language barrier as most of the installers spoke only Spanish.

Secondly, people didn’t want to be there, I could tell. Nobody was smiling, nobody was talking, not even to each other.  

And if the above two items weren’t enough, here I was ... this young, recent college grad, telling these tradesmen how to do their job (some of whom were 2x-3x my age).  All of this added up to a messy start. But therein lies the learning.

Here is what I did to address each of these issues:

 #1. The Language Barrier

I bought a fog machine and pumped smoke into the duct system which easily highlighted where it was leaking. As soon as the installers saw the smoke leaking out everywhere, they grabbed their ladders and duct sealant (aka - “pookie”) and took care of business. Within minutes the leaks were sealed, the smoke stopped, and a hint of satisfaction appeared on their faces (and mine).  You can get a lot done with 20 guys crawling around a house sealing ducts.

Lesson Learned: Less talking, more theatrics. All the installers instantly understood that smoke coming out of their duct install meant conditioned air was escaping ... and that wasn’t good. I simply spoke a shared “language” and made invisible air leaks visible with smoke.

 #2. Mmmmmm…donuts.” – Homer Simpson

One early morning, I was heading out to set-up for the training and I decided to stop and get some Krispy Kreme glazed donuts and coffee … for myself.  And then it hit me ... I’ll buy a couple dozen donuts, coffee and juice for my trainings. Holy shit was that a good call.  Very few tradesmen can hold back a smile while chomping down on hot glazed Krispy Kreme donuts!  I still remember the nervous feeling I had the first time I bought all that stuff and thought, “I hope Chas doesn’t get mad at me for doing this because I spent $20 which I am going to have to charge back to them!”  

Lesson Learned: A small gesture goes a LONG way!

 #3.  Does age really matter?

This one took care of itself.  Word spread pretty quickly that the trainings were fun, helpful and fast.  From start to finish, I never took up more than 30 minutes of their valuable time.

Lessoned Learned: Age means nothing once you prove your salt!

It wasn’t too long after I had perfected my technique that I would get a few workers come up to me after EVERY training and thank me.  At first I was confused about what they were thanking me for.  In my mind, I was a nuisance because I was basically the reason they had to get to work a bit earlier and attend another potentially boring training. When I asked why they were thanking me, almost all of them said the same thing … and their answer really blew me away: This was the first time somebody had taken time to teach them and to show them how to install a better HVAC system. These guys were hungry for knowledge, yearning to do a good job.

The impact this training had on the Phoenix market was really something. Within a matter of months I was able to train over 750 installers.  Additionally, about 80% of all new homes being built in Phoenix metropolitan (tens of thousand of homes a year) were passing the leakage test by a mile.  For the building geeks, the original scores went, on average, from 8-10% leakage down to 3-4%.  I know because I was doing most of the testing … 12-15 houses per day, six days a week, for over 2 years.

I can’t thank Jim Colgan or Ward Cole enough for this great opportunity and learning experience … and for the proactive leadership Chas Roberts took to continue to improve their business. Daran Wastchak of DRW, whom I was working for at the time, took a huge risk on me at the start of my career and for that I am forever grateful.

There are many times in this industry that we get so caught up in the “science” or technology that we forget about our most important assets - our employees. They are responsible for a majority of the hard work that pays the bills on a daily basis. I hope that more companies can follow Chas Roberts’ lead; meet your employees where they are and bring donuts.

I’d love to hear your stories of employers showing unique appreciation to their workforce. Comment below or drop me a line at