Is it an ill wind or can you make lemonade?

The businesses that are still standing are doing it by combining good old fashioned perseverance and modern day innovation. By thinking "outside the box" these companies are able to survive, if not necessarily thrive.

The title of this column refers to two adages that pretty well sum up our national economic situation. The first is "It is an ill wind that blows no good." The second is "When life gives lemons, make lemonade." The two sayings both have optimism at their cores; the ability to find some good or to try to make the best of a bad situation.

No one could have predicted either the depth or longevity of our current economic woes. Even the most pessimistic forecasters could not envision the shrinking housing market, mortgage crisis, credit crunch or the high and sustained unemployment situation. Even so there are those who, although struggling, are making it in the current business climate.

The businesses that are still standing are doing it by combining good old fashioned perseverance and modern day innovation. By thinking "outside the box" these companies are able to survive, if not necessarily thrive. Looking for an edge

In my March 2010 column, I used the "ill wind" analogy to describe the then current labor pool situation. I had posited that the economy had contracted about as far as it was likely to go and that the high unemployment rate meant that there was, probably for the first time in many years, a large pool of highly qualified people from which to staff a company. I suggested that a company could raise the level of craftsmanship and skill of its employees by hiring these highly trained but unemployed people, if it needed them.

Well, as it turns out, I was wrong about how far down the economy could go (call it false optimism if you will), but not about the labor pool statistics. So the ill wind analogy has held true. There are a few companies which have taken advantage of the current glut of good people in the unemployment line and have honed their search for the best people to a fine edge.

In times past, when the economy was booming, the available labor pool was so narrow that most companies would simply place want ads and begin the hiring/firing cycle until they had culled the best people available. This was not only time consuming and frustrating, but expensive as well. Many times new hires were less than qualified. Many times new hires were a liability to the company. Many times new hires were so bad that it would have been better to under man a project or walk away from one, rather than man it with some of the people represented in that labor pool. My how the times have changed!

I heard a story through the grapevine about one large plumbing/HVAC company that was fortunate enough to have landed a good sized project. They found themselves in the enviable position of needing to hire new people.

Now this particular company was pretty large to begin with. They had a long history of working with their employees to educate, train and advance from within. They placed a high value on training and retaining qualified people.

When the economy went bust, this firm was hit as hard as the rest, but they had a bigger footprint. Because the company was large, they were able to contract rather than go out of business. They laid off a lot of people, but they stayed afloat.

Once they got the job, the company made the conscious decision to aggressively recruit only the most qualified people that they could find. They set the criteria for new hires very high; new hires must hold valid plumbing licenses, and have at least 15 years of trade craft experience before they would even review the applications. By adhering to these strict guidelines the company was able to hire only the most qualified people, thus eliminating many, if not all, of the employment pitfalls that have haunted the industry for so many years. They did credit, criminal and other background checks and generally vetted prospective new hires about as thoroughly as present technology would allow. The end result, according to one trade source, is that the company now has the best crew in the state.

It is obviously not possible to say that they won't have some related labor issues with the new hires, but by setting their hiring criteria so high, they have effectively eliminated the vast majority of typical new hire problems. Assuming that everything flows the way it should, labor management and related cost control on the project will be greatly improved. This will save a lot of money and aggravation for the company. As well, the project owner will be getting a first rate job in the bargain. Building on this assumed success, the company is positioning itself to be selected to bid on more projects of this type in the future based upon superlative performance and quality craftsmanship — a great way to push-off of the bottom and head for daylight.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].