Your shop can be loaded with employees having outstanding skills, but without a supportive, positive environment, low morale and turmoil can thwart all efforts to succeed.
by Pamela Mills-Senn
Pre-pandemic, SewLong Custom Covers in Salt Lake City, Utah, focused on interior and exterior marine textiles and boat covers. But when the pandemic hit and the state shut the company’s normal operations down, it almost immediately started producing masks instead, says Clint Halladay, lead fabricator and production manager for the company. Then, when Utah began offering masks for free, SewLong quickly transitioned into making isolation gowns, teaming up with nearby Jack’s Do It Shop, an upholstery maker. Because of this ability to rapidly pivot, SewLong didn’t have to lay off any of its seven employees. In fact, since it began making these gowns—nearly 200 a day—the company has expanded to 13 full-time and six part-time staff, says Halladay, adding they went back to marine work in April.
SewLong’s company culture, built around two core principles, made this possible, Halladay says. The first principle is people matter. This is very broad, he explains, and includes customers, employees and families. The second principle is to work like a predator, not prey.
“In other words, be proactive,” Halladay says. “We want to go out, show up and get things done. These values enabled us to go out and get the orders for these gowns.”
Staff morale has remained high, even during the pandemic. As soon as it hit, Halladay and SewLong owner, Justin Jones, pulled team members in and expressed concern for their safety, encouraging those who were uncomfortable coming into work to remain at home. One employee initially opted not to come in but has since returned. Another is still working from home, as of this writing.
COVID-19 has also brought the employees of Canvas Innovations LLC closer together. Located in Holland, Mich., the company specializes in custom marine canvas and has upholstery, flooring and commercial divisions.
Canvas Innovations also segued into making personal protective equipment (PPE), teaming up with a nonprofit to provide more than 50,000 masks, says Chris Ritsema, owner of Canvas Innovations. This allowed the company to bring back about half of its 10 employees. Now, it’s doing only marine work and is up to full staff.
“The pandemic underscored the success of the culture we’ve built,” says Ritsema. “We kept in close touch with those employees who had not been called back. We tried to be sensitive to the employees’ concerns. We pulled together and got through it and now we’re back to business as usual.”
Rob Kotowski, owner of Lake Shore Boat Top Co. Inc., found himself in a similar predicament. The custom canvas, upholstery and flooring marine fabrication company located in St. Clair Shores, Mich., was deemed nonessential and instructed to close. Determined to stay open, Kotowski says he had to think of how he could keep things running and his staff of 10 full-time and three part-time employees on the job.
“We changed over to manufacture face masks and face shields as well as barriers for the local supermarkets and car dealerships,” he says. “We became a production line manufacturing for the State of Michigan, as well as for the general public.”
The staff put in “countless hours” producing COVID-19 gear during the shutdown, he continues. It was exhausting, but staff morale remained high. As it happens, that time period was when the company typically prepped for the boating season. It ended up starting this effort eight weeks behind schedule. Still, the pandemic has brought everyone closer.
“It’s easy for anyone to feel exhausted and burnt out, even more now since we were so busy with the PPE,” Kotowski says, adding the company is still doing small PPE runs daily. “Keeping employees motivated and the company culture going strong is key—and the culture of this business is that everyone is family.”
An intentional family
It’s common to hear owners express the desire for a company culture that “feels like family.” But what does this look like? How is it accomplished? For Greg Keeler, owner of Oyster Creek Canvas Co., a full-service marine canvas shop in Bellingham, Wash., it comes from fostering an environment of mutual respect where put-downs, negative comments and making other employees uncomfortable aren’t tolerated. When problems pop up, they’re quickly identified and talked through.
“Many shop decisions are made after taking into consideration the thoughts of the employees, either through one-on-one or group discussions,” he explains.
Understanding how essential job security is to his five-person staff’s sense of well-being, he implemented safety measures, acquired some new equipment (such as lighter-duty sewing machines), partnered with a local company that had a plotter/cutter, and diversified into making masks and isolation gowns, along with clear vinyl and polycarbonate barriers. As of this writing, Oyster Creek is balancing PPE with its marine work.
“This pandemic has been a reset of sorts, giving us time to reassess what jobs we’re taking on and giving ourselves a little more space on the schedule,” Keeler says. “I don’t care if a project takes longer than normal. I’m not going to put anyone’s health in jeopardy because someone wants their boat canvas done more quickly.”
When he was building his business, Keeler began offering more employee incentives, such as a monthly stipend to help offset health insurance costs, paid holidays, pizza days and birthday celebrations. Fostering empowerment and encouragement from others in the workplace are also key to the culture.
Canvas Innovations celebrates birthdays with lunches outside of the job, says Ritsema, and does an end-of-summer trip. Team meetings are held twice a month during the busy season to uncover any issues.
“We hold our teammates accountable for having good relationships,” he says. “If there’s tension between two employees, they’re encouraged to work it out on their own. But I do have an open-door policy and I will step in and mediate if needed.
“We try to iron out any issues and come up with solutions,” Ritsema continues. “We spend a lot of time together, so it’s important we treat each other with respect. And if someone is having a bad day, we give them grace. This has been the way since we’ve opened.”
Halladay says SewLong has purposefully created a culture where it is safe for everyone to admit mistakes. As a result, there’s less of a tendency to point fingers and a greater willingness to accept responsibility and learn from errors.
Several years back Jones and he made a “massive leadership transformation,” Halladay says. “All the issues we used to blame on external factors or forces, we no longer blame. Now, there’s less of a victim mentality and more internal accountability.”
SewLong holds 15-minute Monday morning production meetings where the mission statement is read by an employee. Another production meeting is held on Wednesday mornings where the core values are discussed and employees recognize each other’s accomplishments.
“It took about a year or so for employees to participate in the recognition, so you have to be deliberate and consistent in your efforts,” says Halladay. “But now, everyone wants a turn to recognize someone. This has had a big impact on morale and productivity.”
Hiring for fit
Halladay also worked with a mentor, J.P. Nerbun. The first thing Nerbun did was help SewLong define its core values, created with input from the entire staff. He also assisted with the hiring process. Now, unlike in the past where Halladay says the company used to hire “just about anyone,” the approach to this task is very deliberate, focusing not only on skills but on cultural fit as well.
Hiring for attitude is essential, says Kotowski.
“I’ve worked hard to find the right staff,” he says. “They have each other’s back. They all step up when we have a job that must get completed for a customer’s deadline. When someone has pain, we comfort each other. When someone has joy, we celebrate. As the company has grown, so have I as a leader. I have to wear many hats. I’ve had to learn how to train others and be their coach.”
Telling applicants that the company will be evaluating skill sets and cultural fit is part of Canvas Innovation’s interview process, says Ritsema. He uses several hiring tools, one of which is Management by Strengths, brought to his attention by a business coach. Ritsema explains that this tool reveals four personality types—Blue, Red, Green and Yellow—and some of the characteristics associated with these colors/types.
For example, Blues focus on harmony and are good listeners. Schedules and deadlines are important to them. Reds are direct and results-oriented, hard-driving, candid, with high egos. The outgoing Greens are gregarious, friendly and like to be liked. Focused on being right, Yellows hate making mistakes. They’re perfectionists and have good organizational skills.
Ritsema has been using this tool for more than 10 years to help determine if
someone would be a good fit for a particular position. Prior to this, he had made some bad hires. He’s also made a few since, but now he catches them faster before they’ve had a chance to negatively affect the staff.
“I tend to want to go the distance with someone, but I’ve learned it’s best to deal with things early instead of dragging them out,” he says. “A culture can go bad quickly if the owner isn’t paying attention. You need to have the courage to deal with things quickly if someone isn’t working out.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.
SIDEBAR: : Recommended reading
In addition to the learning and networking opportunities afforded by the Marine Fabricators Association, Chris Ritsema, owner of Canvas Innovations LLC, says books have vastly contributed to his culture-building efforts. He strongly recommends:
Up Your Business by Dave Anderson
Winning with People by John C. Maxwell
The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon
Clint Halladay, lead fabricator and production manager at SewLong Custom Covers, recommends these books:
EntreLeadership by Dave Ramsey
The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle