Touring big-city publishing and media executives through his printing plant never gets old for Curwin Friesen.
“We have a lot of customers from New York, Boston or L.A. who come here for press checks,” says the president of Friesens Corp., located in Altona, Man., a town of 4,200 an hour’s drive south of Winnipeg.
“For them, we’re in the middle of nowhere and they’re kind of confused about what to expect,” Friesen says.
“Print shops have a reputation as dingy, dirty, ink-covered sorts of places, so when they see a brightly lit facility with art everywhere and floors so clean it looks like you could eat off them, it really makes a statement about our company.”
It does more than that, actually.
A clean, cheerful workplace is just part of Friesens’ progressive approach to personnel management. Farm employers could learn a lot from this company, whose engaged and innovative workforce is the reason it’s Canada’s largest printer of hardcover books (everything from Harry Potter to high-end coffee-table books) and is prospering in a time of upheaval in the book business.
It starts by ensuring the cleaning kits liberally scattered around its 250,000 sq. foot production facility are used regularly.
“Cleanliness is a big part of the pride piece,” says Friesen, who is one of 38 Friesens on the payroll unrelated to the company’s founders.
“We really emphasize that if there’s down time — you’re waiting for paper or plates or something — then clean something.”
It’s a simple thing but it encourages a sense of ownership, he says. So do the book covers hung with pride on the walls.
“An author or photographer often spends years on their book and so while we’ll print 5,500 titles a year, we don’t want to forget each one is someone’s dream come true. It’s not just another order we need to get out.”
The company is employee-owned, but with 550 workers, it’s not a given every one will automatically act like an owner. So there’s a big emphasis on giving people a say in how things are done.
For example, when a new machine is being bought for their area, workers join managers in deciding which model or option to buy.
The company also takes an unusual approach to leadership training.
“We tell them that if they want to be a leader in our company, first be a leader somewhere else by volunteering with a sports or community club or some other organization,” says Friesen.
“You’ll get experience and a chance to see if being a leader is something you enjoy or not. And when a job comes open and five people apply, you’ll have references and experience in areas we can evaluate.”
Employee evaluations are also different.
“We always make sure the employee is doing 70 percent of the talking, and it’s not just the manager saying, ‘this is what I want you to do and here’s how I think you did,’ ” says Friesen.
“Instead, we always ask the employee, ‘tell us something that you’re proud of and you think you do really well.’ ”
So how does this relate to a farm?
Imagine dropping by a farm when “the boss” is away and chatting with the employees in the equipment shed. OK, the floor’s not clean enough to eat off, but the place is tidy, not grimy. It looks like a nice place to work. In the lunch area are pictures from seeding or harvest, and maybe maps breaking down productivity per field and showing how the yield trend is rising.
One of the employees — you recognize him because he’s a coach in your kid’s hockey league — proudly shows you the new seeding rig.
He says he persuaded the owner to buy it over other models because he’s become the farm’s go-to guy on seeding. You dig further and find out he’s got a passion for precision agriculture and his boss encourages that by sending him to courses and conferences.
Want to bet this farm is more profitable and has less staff turnover than average?
Now think about the cost: some cleaning kits and using down time differently; taking pictures on your smartphone and making posters of the work your people do, having flex time so employees can volunteer; asking them for their input; finding out their interests and providing learning opportunities.
These are do-able things. The toughest part, says Friesen, is thinking beyond the job at hand.
“As a manager, I have to worry about productivity, things like the number of pages or books per hour.
“What’s happening right now and in the next hour or next shift is important, but you have to take time every once in a while to think about the long term and the bigger picture.”
Archived columns from this series can be found at www.fcc-fac.ca/learning. Farm Credit Canada enables business management skill development through resources such as this column, and information and learning events available across Canada.