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To Have and to Hold

Three casual furniture dealers weigh in on what it takes to find the right kind of talent and keep them on board for the long haul

Furniture in FloridaTim Newton is reminded how valuable his loyal, long-term employees are every time he needs to find a new one. The managing director of Leader's Casual Furniture in Florida is always amazed at the pool of job seekers, especially in an economy where unemployment is still high.
     "It's been extremely difficult to hire, going all the way back to 2005 - especially for sales type positions," he said. "Of the people we feel are more qualified, at least 50% don't show up for the interview. Or they'll come in to get a business card so they can show the unemployment office they're looking for a job."
     It's a frustrating process for sure, but finding the right candidate makes it all worthwhile. It also reminds Newton how important it is to foster a work environment they want to stay in. Because goodness knows, he doesn't want to go through the hiring process more than he has to.
     Jeré Stauffer, owner of Stauffer's of Kissel Hill in Pennsylvania, runs three grocery stores and nine garden centers, three of which have patio shops, and manages about 1,000 employees total. Overall, the company invests time on the front end in the hiring process to find people who have the right kind of personality for retail.
     "You figure that out pretty quickly if you know what you're looking for," Stauffer said. "Good hiring begins with knowing the skill set you need. We look for people who understand the value of quality and who are quick to interact with other people. We look for someone who has some problem solving skills and an attention to detail."
     Newton agreed. "We try to hire personality at this point. We want people who are outgoing. We also look for people who have shown longevity in a job because we want them for the longer term."
     Ron Joiner, general manager of Sunnyland Patio Furniture in Dallas, said he relies on his instincts to detect whether a candidate meets his requirements. "I thoroughly believe in first impressions," he said. "If you come in nicely dressed and have a smile on your face and through the entire interview process you look like you're glad to be there, it makes a huge difference. That's the way you'll be the rest of the time. You only get one chance to make a first impression."
     Joiner said he looks for the same things for every hire, not just for salespeople. "I just hired two warehouse guys, and that's exactly what I looked for," he said. "Their smiles and happiness and gratefulness to have a job. Not being upset because they may be behind on their bills. Their mood is contagious. Once someone's happy everyone's happy. We work very closely together. You hear everything, so it's important we all try to be very positive."
     Being so particular about the kind of candidate you want tends to lengthen the hiring process. Stauffer said he has bowed to pressure and sped up the process, hiring the best of the available candidates even though he knew no one had all the characteristics he was looking for. "Every time we've done that, we've ended up sorry that we did," he said.
     Stauffer and his staff are more patient now, and they start the job search process as early as they can to avoid having their patience tested. "You're trying to manage labor costs, and bringing someone on two weeks early so he or she will be ready when customers roll in is tough to do," he said. "But it works out in long run."
     Newly hired patio shop employees are then put through intensive sales training, in which they learn how to ask customers the right questions, answer objections and close a sale. They are also taught the features and benefits of each furniture line and how to compare one line to another. In some cases vendor reps come in to do the product knowledge training.Stauff er is careful
     "Product knowledge is really important," Stauffer said. "Salespeople will be reluctant to talk to a customer if they feel they don't know anything. No one wants to feel foolish in that kind of situation."
     Newton said Leader's Casual just instituted a 10-day training program that not only introduces new employees to the company but also educates them on every aspect of the business, from accounting to shipping.
     "Most people, when they see the store, don't realize there's a machine behind them to support them," Newton said. "The training takes place at our distribution center. We'll put them up at a hotel during the week and train them on product, our POS system, how to interact with customers and basic room layout."
     Giving employees that kind of inside look at the business tends to make them feel more invested in it and, Newton hopes, keeps them around longer. It also fosters a good company culture, something Stauffer said is much harder to build than it is to tear down.
     "A well-working team in patio sales has a positive culture of helping each other out and a high level of trust," Stauffer said. "I as an owner can damage that culture with how I react to employees."
     Stauffer is careful to talk privately to employees he has issues with, rather than risk embarrassing them in front of their fellow workers. He also is mindful of how he handles himself. And when he does make a mistake, he rectifies it with an apology right away.
     "We don't get it right all the time," he said. "It is important to realize a little humility goes a long way. It's the owner's money, but it doesn't mean the employees don't appreciate seeing the human side of you sometimes."
     Joiner said employees also value empathy. Sunnyland Furniture has 23 employees whose average tenure is eight years. They stick around, he said, partly because they know he'll give them slack when they need it.
     "It's a two-way street around here," Joiner said. "They're willing to come in on a day off if we need them to. I respect that. If they're willing to work with me I'm willing to work with them. If their car breaks down and they can't get to work, I'll tell them to take the day off to get it fixed. Not every company is like that."
     In fact, while Sunnyland offers employees medical benefits, retirement benefits, paid holidays and vacation days, Joiner said flexibility may be the biggest benefit of all.
     "Everyone has issues in their lives," he said. "Things come up. It does burden the other staff members when someone doesn't show up, but so be it. I don't look at it as a negative. I see it as a challenge we'll get through. That kind of attitude motivates everyone to work together."
     And ultimately, it shows them how lucky they are to work in that kind of an environment.

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