Hardhat utopia

Sixties social theory meets the building trade at Dallas contractor TDIndustries -- and it works

TDIndustries managers and supervisors are supposed to fashion themselves after Leo, respecting the preferences of their subordinates.

All the talk about servant leaders and employee ownership, however, would amount to little if TDIndustries managers didn't manage to bring those ideals into the workplace in concrete ways. Yet the company does distinguish itself in everyday details, erasing outsiders' understandable skepticism about sappy notions such as the company's pledge that it will perform "like a powerful river, chang[ing] each day, even as it stays within the banks of its deepest guiding values."

"The opportunities here are great," says Maurice Kelly, a superintendent who started 12 years ago as the lowest-level sheet-metal worker.

"It's just a fun place to work, and it's a good place to work," says Bernie Williams, a 48-year-old plumbing supervisor who has worked there 13 years, and three years ago persuaded his son, now a foreman welder, to join the company.

Kelly's and Williams' photographs are among the hundreds of framed portraits hanging in the entryways of TDIndustries' corporate headquarters. Each employee who's been with the company for at least five years gets honored with a photo in the foyer. There are now 375 photos in the hall.

"Just hanging in there is a big deal here," Lowe says as he walks past the rows of portraits.

It's 3:20 in the afternoon, and 18 plumber-helper applicants are seated at round tables in a conference room at TDIndustries' headquarters in Far North Dallas. The applicants are diverse: Hispanic, white, and black. But only two women are present.

(Of TDIndustries' new hires in 1997, 14 percent were women and 31 percent were minorities. Only 7 percent of its new professional hires, however, were minorities.)

In the conference room, Rosalyn Joseph, TDIndustries' employment coordinator, stands at a lectern. For the past few weeks, Joseph has screened about 100 calls from people who have read the company's newspaper ad seeking applicants and specifically encouraging women to inquire. Joseph invites the respondents who sound serious on the phone to this session, the first step in a paid 10-week training program at the end of which the pupils become $10-an-hour plumbers' helpers.

A petite woman with a slightly skeptical look in her eyes that suggests she's caught on to a scam or two, Joseph tells the assembled applicants matter-of-factly about the virtues of TDIndustries. She starts with this year's projected revenues: $163 million.

It doesn't take long for Joseph to brag about the Fortune ranking. A banner in front of the building also proclaims that honor.

"Is Herb number two?" asks a woman in her 30s. No, Joseph explains. Southwest Airlines, the company where Herb Kelleher is CEO, is "actually number four. We try not to hold it over them." Fortune had ranked Southwest the No. 1 company to work for the previous year, while TDIndustries rated number five.

Robert Levering, director of the San Francisco-based Great Place to Work Institute, which, along with Hewitt Associates, conducts the research for Fortune's rankings, says TDIndustries ranked so high because of its unusual structure and the company's phenomenal scores in surveys of employee satisfaction. The researchers have known about TDIndustries for years, since the company has extensive contacts with consultants in the worker-satisfaction field. Levering also included the Dallas company in his book, co-written by Milton Moskowitz, The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America.

To come up with the Fortune rankings, Levering and Moskowitz investigated 206 companies, culling from a list of more than 1,000 large and mid-sized firms. They sent questionnaires to 250 workers at each of those companies. At TDIndustries, Levering says, 85 percent of the 189 employees who responded said they believed they were fairly paid, and 83 percent believed they got a fair share of the profits. Few companies--even among Fortune's exalted roster--have such high percentages of satisfaction, Levering says.

In the conference room, each TDIndustries applicant gets a copy of the company's mission statement: "We are Committed to Providing Outstanding Career Opportunities by Exceeding Our Customers' Expectations through Continuous Aggressive Improvement."

Joseph attempts to explain how that fancy language translates into immediate benefit for the prospective plumber trainees. "We pay for you to learn a trade," Joseph tells the group. In addition to extensive internal training, TDIndustries will subsidize any tuition for coursework--even programs offered by other companies--related to an employee's current job or one he aspires to at the company. Indeed, all TDIndustries employees are required to get some kind of schooling or internal training for at least 32 hours a year.

"The other big thing I like about this company," Joseph tells the group, "is our ESOP." All TDIndustries employees are allowed to participate in the ESOP three to six months after their start date, Joseph explains. They can invest up to 10 percent of their salary in the ESOP, and the company will match the contribution from a fund created from 20 percent of the annual profits. If TDIndustries does well, so do the ESOP participants, with no limit to the company's dollar contribution. Lowe says an employee who has put 10 percent of an annual $30,000 income into the ESOP for 10 years can expect to cash out for somewhere in the neighborhood of $120,000.

The ESOP represents more of an opportunity for TDIndustries employees to gain control over their work lives rather than an accelerated investment plan. When workers retire, the company is required by the plan to buy back their stock, which is not traded publicly, if the employees want to sell it. But the workers also have the option of keeping their stock in the plan and cashing out later. For retirement purposes, TDIndustries workers have the more common 401k program.

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