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Making Essential Workers Part of the ‘Mission’ (Egbert Sherwood)

Sherwood Egbert needed his essential workers in the factory, so he infused them with a purpose beyond the company’s goals

During the pandemic, no one from the factories of Custom Pipe & Fabrication worked remotely. Their job wouldn’t allow it — they are essential workers and needed to be at their machines, creating steel pipes, pumps and other groundwater-related products.

Sherwood Egbert, Vice President of Shapco Inc., the owner of Custom Pipe, says that their machines were well-distanced, but it was still difficult for employees to come to work. It seemed like everyone else was at home, protected from the virus, even their office coworkers. Work became harder when the supply chain slowed to a crawl; goods became harder to procure. Work became more uncertain.

Egbert, a Vistage member since 2021, knew that it was a confusing time for his company’s employees in 10 locations across seven states, so he looked for ways to bolster certainty. Headquartered in Stanton, California, Custom Pipe followed and communicated CDC safety mandates, provided masks and other PPE, and staggered lunch breaks. Management started a massive communication push to all employees to let them know that there’s a purpose to their work.

“We told them, ‘You’re not just threading pipe, you’re building the nation’s water infrastructure for food, housing communities and people,’” Egbert says. “You’re doing this so people can turn on the tap in their homes and have water.”

Employees bought in immediately, Egbert says. Working became about undertaking a mission: Provide the U.S. with water.

Custom Pipe also incentivized its employees with raises and bonuses. Employees received vaccination bonuses as well as their regular bonuses, which are based on operating income. Custom Pipe had a “banner year” in 2021, Egbert says, as material prices rose — bonuses were much bigger than usual.

Sherwood Egbert, photo courtesy of Custom Pipe

“Everyone saw the fruits of that, from the machine operators to the office staff,” he says. “At the end of the year, they saw that I wasn’t just blowing smoke. We came out of this much stronger.”

Custom Pipe’s big year in 2021 was also due to its strategic planning efforts. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t sleep on your business,” Egbert says. “The pandemic really made us realize that we needed to change how we thought about the business.”

Egbert brought in Marc Emmer, a Vistage speaker and president of Optimize Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, to chart out the company’s growth over the next five years. With Emmer’s help, Egbert refined messages around the company’s values and vision, created new incentives for employees, and tailored individual growth plans for employees to help identify the future leaders of the company.

“Not every employee is going to stay with us for their whole career,” he says. “But if we can invest in them and develop them professionally, they’ll be better off as people and as employees. Yes, we hope they stay, but if they leave, we’ll continue that relationship and that will benefit us down the road.”

Custom Pipe also implemented a feedback system. Egbert was surprised to find that compensation wasn’t at the top of the list of what employees wanted. They want to feel valued, they want to feel appreciated, and they want to feel like the company is investing in them. They also want to feel like they’re working as part of something bigger.

“We used to just try to throw money at the problem, to give out raises or give monetary incentives, and we ignored that communication piece,” Egbert says. “We came to realize that we couldn’t do that anymore. We needed to be more forthright and transparent with all the employees in communicating why Custom Pipe exists and what role they play in our bigger mission.”

With more communication, training and focus on company values, Egbert hopes that they’re turning essential employees into internal promoters. He wants to be sure that employees not only feel good about where they work but also that their families feel that their loved ones are safe and treated well. He also believes that having employees be internal promoters can only help with recruiting and retention, a tricky issue currently facing every company.

Egbert says that they’re currently looking at improving how they onboard new employees. Instead of simply following up with new employees after 30 or 90 days, he wants managers to have weekly, informal conversations with new employees. He hopes that this can provide some transparency; by answering questions and concerns of new employees as they arise, they can better retain new talent.

Through everything, Egbert believes that the success of Custom Pipe & Fabrication has come from purposeful communication.

“If you’re not engaged with your workforce, then you’re obsolete,” Egbert says. “The workforce wants to be engaged with. They want to be in a transparent company that tells them what’s going on, where they’re going, and what the purpose is. They want to be part of something bigger than just themselves, the company, and the profit.”

3 Lessons Learned

With Gail Schaper-Gordon, Egbert’s Vistage Chair

Show empathy
Sherwood joined Vistage in the middle of the pandemic and immediately applied the lessons he learned. He was aware of the pandemic’s impact on employees and increased empathetic communication.

Be willing to change strategies
While Custom Pipe was profitable, Sherwood saw that it grew without any cohesive strategy, pushing its internal capacity and leadership to the limits. Sherwood shifted the initial plan. He got to know each of the different branches of Custom Pipe as a member of the Shapco oversight team, taking a hands-on approach with the purposeful direction of the company.

Welcome expertise
Sherwood and Marc Emmer, a Vistage speaker, began a comprehensive strategic planning initiative that included reorganization, alignment and succession planning. This plan will take the company into the next generation of growth. Sherwood has learned the value of outside expertise.

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