Labor Pains - 5

Think Like Big Business

Elizabeth Williams
By  Elizabeth Williams , DTN Special Correspondent
Sally Hollis translated her mechanical engineering degree and experience managing employees at John Deere Tractor Works to her family's grain and pork operation. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)

CHICAGO (DTN) -- The Hollis family of Waterloo, Iowa, knew if they were going to expand their farm business, they needed motivated, satisfied employees. Nearby manufacturers, hospitals and colleges offered attractive wages with fringe benefits, constant competition for the family operation that encompasses several thousand acres of row crops and a large hog operation.

So in 2013, Sally Hollis joined her husband Blake's family at "Lanehaven Farms," bringing 15 years of work experience at John Deere Tractor Works and an MBA degree to help the business grow.

The Hollis family raises corn, soybeans, seed corn and hogs with the help of 15 full-time employees and 10 seasonal workers. They concentrate on three areas to help them build an engaged and top-notched workforce:

-- Communicate and live your farm's values.

The five core values of Lanehaven Farms include: Efficient, progressive, integrity, customerWOW and stewardship. The "wow" part is proactively identifying customer desires and exceeding expectations, a must for survivors in the volatile pork industry.

"Rare is a day that we don't mention these," said Hollis.

Hollis, a mechanical engineer by training, has been gradually transferring aspects of "lean manufacturing" into a "lean" farming business. "I trained our employees in the 'Eight Forms of Waste in Lean Manufacturing' [a program first developed by the father of Toyota's production system]," Hollis said. "Then we offered $100 to whoever came up with the most solutions to reduce waste in our operation during fall harvest. Our employee who has been with us 45 years came up with six and our youngest employee came up with six ideas. We gave them both $100."

Hollis explained that one of the ideas was as simple as installing a better light at their truck scale so the drivers didn't have to maneuver the truck forward and back to get the proper position at night when it was dark outside.

Lanehaven Farms incorporates their core values in employee performance reviews. "One section is a matrix that outlines behaviors that support our core values. We record behavior that has helped us achieve those values. The other section is their goals and how they have reached them," Hollis said. "We have a culture that feedback is a gift and try to drive as much real-time feedback as possible."

-- Care and understand your employees.

Lanehaven Farms employees take the StrengthsFinder assessment. "We find the top five strengths of each employee and learn why people react as they do," explained Hollis. "We try to create individual solutions that are important to each person."

For example, several employees identify with "significance," so the Hollises look for ways they can lead projects. Others have "learner" strengths so the farm tries to go above and beyond by providing training and education for them.

It's important to be creative and practical. Hollis found some employees needed a better understanding of personal finance issues. So Lanehaven Farms offered one-hour training sessions -- such as the importance of insurance and the value of savings and compounded interest. "We limit the group meeting to one hour and then make one-on-one time available with an expert," she said.

-- Offer a complete benefits package.

Since their area is highly competitive for agricultural workers, the Hollises offer competitive employee benefits. "We have a group health insurance plan and we'll pay 60% of a single premium or put money in a flex account," said Hollis. "We also offer a dental and vision plan, but the employee pays the premium."

Lanehaven Farms offers a 401(k) plan, life insurance and other benefits like providing 10% off a local gym membership. Each employee also receives half a hog.

For sick days at Lanehaven Farms, every month you don't use your sick time, you build up five hours in your "bank." "If you use two hours to go to your doctor, you get three hours for the month added to your 'bank,' which can be accumulated up to 30 days," Hollis said. "Your pay stub shows what your current sick time and vacation time is. Vacation time is pro-rated the first year and then builds."

In the first 90 days of employment, you do not get any paid vacation or sick days. "There is a 90-day probation period in which we determine if we want to keep a person as an employee," Hollis said, "although we do offer health insurance after 60 days."

Many farms, especially livestock operations, offer bonuses. "One bonus we have is based on quarterly pig mortality," said Hollis. However, if a sow barn gets a disease, those pigs are not included in the mortality rate to determine bonuses.

"We know disease is not our employees' fault," Hollis said. "One thing we did differently, when we switched from a 'team goal' to having one person in charge of one set of hogs, we got better production results."

It's not always easy. The former John Deere manager said she learned by managing several hundred diverse employees to be "hard-headed and warm-hearted."

"You have to be fair and have consistent policies," noted Hollis. Things do go wrong, that's a fact of life. But Hollis advised that problem-solving should be based on processes not people. "Where did our process fail?" That helps take the emotion out of the problem and more quickly focus on a solution.

"We've got great employees and it's our job to help them be engaged in their work and motivated to constantly improve. That's a win-win for everyone," Hollis said.


Elizabeth Williams