No industry is immune to the lack of qualified workers right now. In a recent report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 90 percent of employers who responded to the survey say they struggled to fill open positions over the summer, and 73 percent reported a decline in applications.
Independent home improvement retailers haven’t been left out of this struggle. In a recent retailer survey from the North American Hardware and Paint Association (NHPA), 61 percent of respondents say they had trouble finding qualified workers in the first half of 2021, a challenge they ranked second only to supply chain challenges. And 59 percent of retailers say they anticipate the challenges to continue into the new year.
However, despite anticipating their challenges of finding new staff to continue, retailers ranked investing in employees as the No. 1 focus for their businesses in 2022, at 61 percent of respondents to the NHPA survey.
A strong group of knowledgeable employees is crucial to business growth, and with more than half of survey respondents anticipating sales to stay flat or grow over 2021 next year, developing the team you have is key.
On the following pages, meet two diverse retail operations that have created comprehensive strategies to build their bench of employees. They have empowered their staff to be decision-makers at all levels so company leaders can work on the business and their teams can carry the business to greater heights.
Choose Your Second
At Budget Home Supply in Longmont, Colorado, general manager Sean Angelo has a simple philosophy when it comes to hiring.
“Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “We try to play to individual strengths, but we also have to have people in key roles that support the overall organization. It’s like putting a puzzle together so your organization is strong and complete.”
Bev and Butch Vernon founded Budget Home Supply in 1984, and the company has undergone several expansions since. Currently, it operates in an 80,000-square-foot facility, about two-thirds of which is salesfloor space, and it includes a 30,000-square-foot drive-through lumberyard.
Angelo joined the company in 2008, and it was always the owners’ plan for him to develop into leadership. At that time, Butch did the majority of the hiring for the operation, a responsibility that eventually transitioned to Angelo. Now, it suits the business better for department managers to handle the details of the hiring process.
“The supervisory roles in the company have developed so now managers do a lot of their own hiring for their specific employees,” Angelo says. “Giving managers that responsibility helps them take ownership of their area. We tell them, ‘Go find the right people and make it happen.’”
Operations assistant Andrea Lara joined the Budget Home Supply team in 2018 as a cashier, and she eventually moved into sales. She realized after about a year that sales wasn’t a good fit for her, but she wanted to remain with the company. At the time, Angelo needed help at the operations level, so they worked together to create a position for Lara.
“I needed assistance with facilitating policies and procedures,” he says. “She’s done a great job taking some of that off my plate. If we hadn’t moved her into this role, it would get pushed off and we would never get to it.”
In her newly created position, Lara is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades. She still manages sales, but also helps with the hiring process, training and even dabbles in IT work.
One key area she was able to develop was training. She updated the Budget Home Supply cashier handbook, developed orientation policies and created quizzes for trainees to take before they move on to the next level. The system ensures everyone gets a comprehensive introduction to the company and everyone gets the same training.
“Because it’s so challenging to find new staff, we are making a concerted effort to make every team member the best they can be,” she says.
Angelo says putting the initial investment into training and tools is key to keeping people engaged in their work and looking for more opportunities to grow.
“It’s the people you employ who make a difference, so you need to keep investing in them. Our goal is to give them the necessary tools so they can succeed,” he says. “A lot of that is driven by their self motivation and their willingness to learn. The resources are there if they want them.”
In addition to developing the training programs, Lara says it’s also important to focus on making Budget Home Supply a great place to work. Part of her responsibilities include finding ways to help people destress and make friends.
“As we continue to grow, we don’t want to lose that atmosphere of the small, family operation,” she says. “We wanted to bring co-workers and everything together.”
During the holidays, Lara hosts a Secret Santa and a hot chocolate trolley to keep spirits up and to connect people.
Budget Home Supply currently employs around 50 people, and several of them have been with the company for a decade or more. Lara is part of the newer crop of employees, but she says because of the opportunities she’s been given to identify her strengths, she sees a long-term future with the company.
“This is where I want to make my career. I was open minded and willing to learn anything,” she says. “I feel like the options are endless here.”
Local Focus in Texas
The Vaughan family started Vaughan and Sons Inc., a pioneering Texas wholesale lumber business in 1893 in San Antonio and its retail subsidiary Alamo Lumber Company in 1903. Today, Alamo Lumber CEO and board chairman Bob Vaughan and his brothers are the fourth generation to lead the company, which now boasts 14 stores in south Texas, with its 15th and 16th stores slated to open later next year.
“Our stores are in small towns in south Texas that rely on farm and ranch and oil and gas economies,” Vaughan says. “Those areas have a significant impact on our sales.”
Because the stores are spread out from one another and from the main office, hiring decisions are the responsibility of the individual store managers. But prioritizing the company values to ensure a consistent and vibrant culture across all locations is a key part of the process.
“We believe the best decisions are made closest to the customers, so we delegate a significant amount of authority to store managers,” Vaughan says. “They have sole hiring power, but we give them tools to help.”
To help maintain a consistent culture across locations, ensuring a good fit with new hires is key. About 15 years ago, company leaders worked with a consultant to develop a pre-screening questionnaire that helps identify who will—and who won’t—support the company culture.
Each potential hire is asked to take a handwritten test that includes questions regarding their ability to work in a team environment.
“The questions help us learn their commitment to teamwork, level of integrity, attention to detail and overall literacy, which are important to be successful in the jobs they have here,” Vaughan says. “Since it’s a written test and it needs to be fully completed in a limited time, that in itself provides some feedback.”
The assessment was developed with insights from current employees. Before the final version of the questionnaire was implemented in the hiring process, about 50 long-term Alamo Lumber employees took it.
“We wanted to create a benchmark, and we thought if we could mirror that on our successful employees, it would be an accurate representation of our expectations,” Vaughan says. “It’s based on the attitudes and propensities of our existing staff who already are invested in and work with our values every day.”
Kenedy store manager James Garza says the pre-screen helps take the guesswork out of hiring for him.
“The exam gives us a rundown of how they think in different scenarios,” Garza says. “It’s a lot of questions about honesty, integrity and simple decision-making, so it works to identify the people who would be the best fit for our operation.”
If an applicant fails the screening, managers have a limited number of appeals each year, which allows them to bring those applicants onto the team.
“We understand that sometimes testing isn’t for everybody,” he says. “We allow them to ask questions, so I do get people who ask what a certain question means or what we’re looking for. I have appealed maybe five negative test results the whole time we’ve been administering the assessment, and of that, only one has stuck with the company.”
Once an employee joins Alamo Lumber, store managers prioritizes cross-training throughout departments. Garza says this approach ensures a consistent experience for any customer, no matter who they encounter in the store.
“We empower our employees to be trained in as many areas as possible because it means anyone can complete any task or job,” he says. “If everyone has the same training and we practice our skills together, me included, we all have the opportunity to help the same customer. If we all mix paint, if we all do special orders, no one is left waiting to see a specific person. The more we train, the easier it gets to take care of the business.”
In addition to finding strong fits for the culture and investing in training, Alamo prioritizes employee wellness and celebrates team successes.
“We pride ourselves on our family roots, and we respect family values for our team members,” Vaughan says. “For example, we encourage mangers to be flexible in scheduling. We all try to cover for each other so team members can be there for family events.”
The company also offers a generous profit-sharing plan, which Vaughan says helps with retention and shows how each individual can contribute to the overall success of the business.
“We establish financial goals and we encourage managers to share the details of the branch’s operating statement each month with their teams,” he says. “It’s a team-building approach and it shows everyone what it takes to make a profit. We’re able to relate everyone’s responsibilities back to the overall performance of the branch and the company.”
Garza says he appreciates the opportunities he’s had with the company, and it’s all because of the employee development strategies Alamo Lumber prioritizes.
“When I was a brand new manager trainee, I tried to soak up everything, but I don’t think I realized what it was doing for me until a year or two down the road,” he says. “Every skill I learned was a new tool in my belt. It’s a great company to work for because they take care of us, top to bottom. We have everything we need to grow and succeed here.”
Qualities to Look for When Promoting From Within
All the retailers we spoke to for this article say they prefer to promote current staff members to management positions because it’s already apparent that they are a good fit for the culture. Here are some qualities they say they look for when identifying leaders.
You’re always looking for honest, trustworthy, reliable individuals who garner the respect of their co-workers.”
—Sean Angelo, Budget Home Supply
We find people who have the ability to delegate, and who are fair, firm and consistent.”
—James Garza, Alamo Lumber Co.
It’s OK to look for individuals who are different from you. They may have an answer to something you’re struggling with.”
—Sean Angelo, Budget Home Supply
It’s important for leaders to be great communicators. You have to whisper to some people and you have to paint the picture for other people.”
—James Garza, Alamo Lumber Co.
Offer Good Jobs
Listen to a conversation with Sarah Kalloch, executive director of The Good Jobs Institute, to find out how you can develop your culture to retain great employees here.