National Post

April 1, 2016

Leveraging talent

When asked about their company’s progress, chief executives learn early that they are to modestly shun credit and to attribute successes to their employees. When Rob Crosbie does that, he means it.

“Our oil-and-gas unit is a services business,” says Crosbie, chairman of Crosbie Group, of its 300-employee division, which provides services such as scaffolding, rope access, industrial cleaning, pipe repairs, specialty coatings, as well as crane and deck crews and so on. “These are technical, trades-based and managerial maintenance jobs. That means the value we provide customers lies in the people we assign to their projects.”

The Newfoundland-based Crosbie Group’s oil-and-gas division is typical of many companies in Canada’s services-based sector. The manufacturing sector, which, according to Industry Canada accounted for 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2014, generates a significant percentage of its profits from product markups. However, services businesses are almost exclusively reliant on employee productivity to generate results. That means the ability to attract, train, develop, leverage and keep top talent is one of the most important competitive advantages that a service operation can have.

 “We employ a bottom-up, collaborative model that enables all employees to share insights into how we can perform more effectively,” says Crosbie, who is currently celebrating his 25th year with the family business. “Their knowledge is by far our most valuable asset. We want to take advantage of that.”

These days, Crosbie Group has a wealth of talent to choose from. Canada’s employment picture deteriorated slightly last month and many Canadians are thus looking for jobs. According to Statistics Canada, 7.2 per cent of the workforce was unable to find work during February. In Newfoundland, the picture is worse. The province lost 2,400 jobs and unemployment remains mired in the double digits.

The struggling oil and gas sector, which has been beset by falling prices, has been particularly hard hit. Many Alberta-based laid-off workers are thus thinking about returning to Newfoundland. One would think that having access to such a large pool of workers would make Crosbie’s job easier, which is true — to a point. “Even though our pool of potential workers is larger, top people are always in high demand,” notes the veteran executive.

One of the most important drivers of organizational success is morale, says Steve Bragg, a partner at Deloitte Canada. Bragg identifies Crosbie’s people management skills as one of his greatest strengths. “There is enthusiasm throughout all levels of the organization,” says Bragg. “Rob empowers his staff and he ensures that they have input in the future direction of the company.”

That didn’t happen by accident, says Bragg. Over the years, Crosbie Group has adopted a series of strategies that have dramatically improved the way its people work. One of these was the setting up of a business management team, formed of people from all divisions including human resources, finance and corporate development (among others), that meets weekly. These and other employees can also communicate via an elaborate Intranet, which more efficiently and securely facilitates information exchange within the company.

Enviable job conditions at Crosbie Group also help to keep spirits high. Although the company’s off-shore workers put in long hours in demanding conditions, their salaries are quite competitive relative to the Canadian average, according to Crosbie.

At those rates, Crosbie Group offers a strong incentive to keep employees performing at a high level. The company has invested considerable funding into in employee health services. One of these is a comprehensive program that is implemented in partnership with Definitions, a St-John’s-based wellness provider. Employees are given ergonomic assessments of the way they work and move, and are offered yoga classes and massage therapy when appropriate.  Crosbie Group also invests heavily in worker training. This includes sessions in leadership, safety and technical areas related to job performance.

Crosbie acknowledges that the current tough energy environment is putting pressure on the company to boost productivity. “We are always looking for ways that we can do more with less,” says Crosbie. “That often involves changing the way jobs or workflows are structured.”

The good news is that employees have a strong incentive to buy in. The Crosbie Group’s variable compensation system is structured so that workers get bonuses that vary between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of wages, depending on their job titles and performance.

Like most family businesses, one of the Crosbie Group’s biggest human resources successes has been its ability to attract and integrate new generations of family members. Rob Crosbie’s two brothers and one sister currently co-own the business and all sit on the board. They, in turn, have six children, three of whom work there.

Crosbie Group has made several generational transitions in its 158-year history, and by now management has absorbed numerous institutional best practices. “We always insist that (family members) who want to join work somewhere else first,” says Crosbie. “That way they get a bit of a feel for how things are in the real world. Although we provide opportunities, family members start in entry-level positions. They are treated just like anybody else.” 

Helping to integrate the next generation of Crosbies into the company has given Rob Crosbie special insight into another challenge that businesses are facing: working with hyper-connected millennials, who bring their own sets of values into the businesses they join.

Crosbie’s niece, Laura Crosbie, recently joined the company as a business development co-ordinator. The fifth-generation Crosbie employee took on her new role after completing a commerce degree at Memorial University, her uncle’s alma mater, and a period working outside the province.

The generational shift was apparent in an interview Laura Crosbie recently gave to OGM, an online magazine. In it, the first thing that she talked about was sustainability and the environment — not the usual reflex for an energy industry spokesperson.

That ability to adapt provides a strong signal that Crosbie Group is off to a good start on its transition to its fifth generation of family management.

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