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Meeting the Challenge of Training and Retaining Skilled Employees

William R. Rice Has Built the Success of
Commercial Plastering on How
He Treats His Employees

“The key to any business success is retaining the right people
from the field to the office,” says William R. Rice, president,
Commercial Plastering, Inc., Bradenton, Fla.

This certainly has been the key to Rice’s
success. It’s no secret that a major concern
facing the industry is the finding, training
and retaining skilled employees. Rice, who
has about 100 employees, and has annual
revenues of about $8 million, has a special
challenge, for he does very little of commodity
drywall but instead focuses on the
more difficult crafts of plastering, lathing,
stucco and exterior framing and sheathing.

Rice’s feelings about employees did not come from some abstract philosophy or
reading a book about management. He
learned everything he knows about running
a company from, as he says, “the
school of hard knocks.” This school
began, for him, at an early age. When he
was 15, he apprenticed to his brother-in-
law, and began working as a plasterer
and latherer in the Tampa area. At age
23, after seven years of hard work, he
still hadn’t progressed very far in the
world. He was married, with two children,
and, when the economy went
sour, he found himself without a job.

“Since I could find no one to work for, I
had to find my own things to do,” Rice
recalls. “I would do a little job here and
there for other plasterers, and then I started
doing my own little jobs. It was hard;
many people thought I was too young.”

Rice began Commercial Plastering in
1976. “We grew little by little, and
became more and more stable. First we
grew to five employees, then 10, then
15. Whenever I got a good man, I wanted
to keep him. I was just 23, so when I
started hiring, I might be getting someone
who was 18. But I knew what he
wanted. It was what I had wanted, and
had never been able to get a feeling of
my own stability and security. I wanted
to convey of feeling of family, of belonging,
that this company would be there
for them, and it was their company too.”

Looking back, Rice says he wishes he
knew about AWCI when he was
younger. He recalls one early lesson
when he did a take-off on prints and
gave a price, only to realize there was a
courtyard involved that he had not seen.

“I honored my commitment and
learned real quickly that you can’t afford
to make many mistakes like that. So I
was looking for knowledge and asked
some of the code people. They steered
me to AWCI. So I joined and served on
various committees for a long time. I felt
very fortunate in being able to meet a lot
of the most knowledgeable people in the
industry. You ask questions and you will
be lead in the right direction. There’s a
wealth of knowledge to be found in
AWCI, and you can get involved in the
organization as little or as much as you
want, and grow at your own pace.”

Rice did not originally have any ambition to own his own company, especially at the age of 23. “I would have stayed where I was if people had made me feel secure. I think I’ve always been aware of
that, and how important that is for
someone I wanted to work for me. I
used to watch how bosses acted. One
would pull up in his car, not talk to anybody,
just look around and leave. I think
that owners and managers often don’t
really take the time to become involved
with the people they work with. The
industry is known as being rough and
tough. And that’s fine. But you can’t just
boss people around, tell them what to
do and not do, and expect them to get

Banking on Incentives

Not surprisingly, Rice treats his employees
well, pays them well, has a 401(k)
profit sharing plan, and is generous with
bonuses for work well done. He works
to maintain a personal touch. “I don’t
undermine the superintendents, but if
someone wants to come into my office
and tell me how he feels, I encourage
that. If he can’t feel he can tell me the
truth, I’ll never know it. I won’t go over
a superintendent’s head. But if there is a
real problem, I’ll sit down with the
superintendent and the employee and
we’ll work it out.”

Rice adds, “We try to do things with the
men, such as go on fishing trips. I sponsor
bass tournaments and baseball teams
the guys play in. We have company picnics
and Christmas parties that the
whole family can come to, to try to give
a family atmosphere.” People who come
to work for Rice tend to stay there, and
he has very little turnover. “People who
are here 10 years are presented with a
ring,” he says. “They consider it an honor,
and feel proud to be a part of this
company and proud of what they do.
That’s what you need to instill in your
employees if you want them to do quality

But all of this motivation is not simply
an end in itself. It has a direct impact on
profitability. “The unfortunate thing
about business is that you always have to
make money. Banks, bonding companies,
accountants—everybody is always
looking at the bottom line. It’s always an
important factor, and a never ending

But here’s where having skilled employees
who really care about their work
comes into play. For, as Rice says, “what
will always drag you down and can kill
you in the end, is that if you have to do
a lot of punch out work, touching up
and fixing up what was busted, done
wrong or left unfinished. You have to check all of the time and be your own
worst critic. That’s what your customers
will remember you for, not what you did
right, but whatever you did wrong, even
the little things. That’s why it pays to
have employees who care as much about
the finished product as you do.”

Constant Rhythm

Another important thing Rice does,
both to make for a stable company, and
to provide ongoing work for his employees,
is to schedule jobs so there is always
a predictable amount of work, neither
too much or too little. “If we plan forward
for a few months, and we see a gap,
we market hard to fill that gap,” Rice
says. “On the other hand, we don’t take
what we can’t handle. I think some guys
strive for a big volume, but then get too
busy and have a hard time with quality
control. A constant rhythm is what we
go for.”

A big factor in keeping good employees
is providing them with an upward career
path in the company, “There’s nothing
wrong with honest labor, and some people
are content to stay at that level,” Rice
says. “But we try to analyze the strong
points an employee has and help him
grow. If he shows an interest in blueprints,
train in that and let him grow.
Some managers get a guy who is really
good at one thing and keep him there.
We try to help them grow so they
become more of an asset to the company,
and so they feel like an asset.”

For this reason Rice promotes only from
within. “All our positions, from vice
president to estimators to general superintendent, are filled by people who came from the field as latherers or plasterers,” Rice says.
He is also bringing in the second
generation. His son, Jason, who
worked during summers in high school
and college, started with the company
full-time after college.

A major challenge for the industry, Rice
says, is attracting talented younger people.
“When I grew up there were a lot of
great people in the industry,” Rice says.
“And that was a time when everybody
was brought up to the same level, and
you either went into industry, or the
government or college. But over the past
20 years, every mother wanted her son
to go to college rather than learn a trade,
and that’s why there is a problem. Only
so many people can go into the computer
field. We have to find a way to
show talented young people that there’s
a good future in construction.”

But an even bigger challenge than
attracting college graduates to the business
side, Rice says, “is training mechanics.
We have to join together and figure
out a way to train people. There is not a
strong union in Florida but if there was,
I would join—and I’m a nonunion contractor.
The main benefit of unions is a
unified way of training people.”

It’s very hard to train plasterers, Rice
continues: “I’m not taking anything
away from drywall mechanics. They are
very skilled, and some framers are
tremendous. But plastering is a finer art,
and takes more training.” For this reason
Rice does a lot of training himself in
terms of things like creating molds and
rubber and latex bowls, as well as taking
employees to events like the Restoration
Convention in Washington, D.C.,
where they can learn more and sign up
for various classes.

Stuck on Stucco?

Does Rice have much competition for
his highly specialized work? “There is
competition everywhere, especially in
Florida; there is so much stucco plastering
here, and stucco is our main product.
But we do everything from custom
homes to schools to large condominiums.
We have the training, experience
and equipment, so we can do the larger
condominiums that others can’t. We can
take a block concrete building, often one
not in good shape, and make it look
really good. And then we get called to
do the specialty work, the plastering to
make the cherubs, cornices and molds
you don’t see every day. Our niche is the
combination of being able to do both
the large stucco jobs and the more specialty
oriented ones.

Recent jobs include a $2 million stucco
job on a new hotel, a $1 million renovation
of a circus museum and a renovation
of a customs house with l-inch
gypsum plaster. “We’ve done enough
jobs that we’re a very recognized company. If we know a job is coming,
we’ll always get the chance to bid, so we
don’t have to really go out and market ourselves,” Rice says.

Although Rice recognizes that drywall
has largely taken over the interior mar- ket, he says, “I think there will always be a call for plastering, in really nice homes,
theater renovations and many other
venues. Plastering creates a certain effect
you can’t get elsewhere.”

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