For a guy who got fired from his first job in the building world, David Weekley has made an impressive journey. Recruited in 1974 from Trinity University, Weekley hired on with a builder as a management trainee.
For a guy who got fired from his first job in the building world, David Weekley has made an impressive journey. Recruited in 1974 from Trinity University, Weekley hired on with a builder as a management trainee. "I got fired after a few years because I disagreed with senior management’s direction and let them know," Weekley explains.
An optimist by nature who views challenge as opportunity, Weekley simply raised the bar for himself and founded David Weekley Homes in Houston in 1976. Twenty-three years later, the company has 14 divisional offices, builds in eight states across the southern and western regions, employs nearly 1000 people and tallied up 2,970 closings and $711 million in sales in 1999.
A large part of his company’s success, Weekley says, came when he shed a dictatorial style of management for a team-based approach. The opening line of the company’s mission statement illustrates this new orientation: "Our purpose is to enhance the lives of our team members, our customers and the people of our community."Team members value this approach and their conviction helped David Weekley Homes earn the #33 spot on the list of "The 100 Best Companies to Work For," in Fortune magazine. "We’re the only homebuilder that has ever made the list," Weekley says. "That’s exciting, but the really exciting thing is that our rank is based on responses from the people who work here. It’s not just PR. "A lot of companies, especially those in building, think you have to be tough on people to succeed--management by intimidation. We don’t believe that’s effective. What is effective is the team concept, people taking responsibility for their jobs.
"This has really been a 10-year process--it’s not something you just flip a switch and figure out. We keep adding to the culture bit by bit in terms of what we do. Results of the team members’ answers to the Fortune survey are the results of thousands of different actions by our managers over a long period of time. Like most things in life it’s complicated and hard."
An Educated Shift
Weekley began to pursue the team-based process in the 1980s, as the company expanded beyond Houston. He educated himself about the quality aspects of management by visiting Baldridge Award-winning companies like Milikan and Ritz Carlton, participating in a week-long seminar with quality guru Dr. Demming and attending Crosby’s Quality College in Winter Park, Fla. He formed his own team, hiring consultants and managers to help him make the transition.
"We wanted to differentiate ourselves from other builders in an attempt to reach a higher plane. We worked on processes and various quality aspects, and the more I got into it, the more I realized that everything revolves around people. We started spending more time on training and selection," Weekley said.
The Weekley team-based approach begins at the bottom line, with managers in each division selecting their staff. "It’s in the manager’s best interest to hire the very best people they can. That develops a loyalty and a bond between that manager and that team member" Weekley explains. "Also, we think people want to use their brains--so we use empowerment so people can use their brains. If we’re successful in communicating our values and hiring people that reflect them, they’ll make sound decisions out in the field." Managers take the process a rare step further by conducting at-home interviews with candidates’ spouses to make sure they support the move.
"Our industry requires long hours and hard work and we need the support of the spouse. Usually spouses are quite impressed that a manager would take time to meet with them, ask them about their concerns and fears, and talk about the positives of working for our company," Weekley says. "So, hopefully, when they come home and have had a bad day, the spouse says, ‘It’s a good company, stick with it.’"
Potential, not necessarily experience, in the building industry, is key to the selection system at David Weekley Homes. The company frequently recruits job candidates "off the street," so to speak--people such as apartment locators and retail store personnel who are diligent in their work and connect well with customers. Weekley estimates the ratio of experienced to inexperienced new hires is probably 50-50.
"It happens more often than you may think," Weekley says. "Our team members are out all the time looking for great people. We hire for attitude and aptitude--we can train for skills," says Weekley. Another component of the hiring process is a two-day orientation called Weekley 101 at the corporate office and training center in Houston. Weekley himself opens the first morning session by talking about the company’s vision, purpose, core values and goals. The tone is upbeat as 100 old-timers line up and clap the new team members out of the room, then sit with them for lunch. "It’s kind of like a ball game--most of us as adults haven’t had that happen in 20 years, so it’s good for all of us, everyone has big smiles on their faces," Weekley says.
The camaraderie beat rolls on throughout orientation. On the second day, for example, teams get blueprints for building their first house--a house made of Legos. But the fun and games have a purpose. Weekley notes that each person plays a role such as cashier, builder and sales coordinator, to "learn how teamwork is critical to their success"
Put Me in Coach
As part of its shift to a team-based management style, Weekley Homes revamped its employee handbook, one that Robert Levering, co-selector of the "100 Best Companies" list calls, "the most humorous such document I’ve ever seen in the nearly 20 years I’ve been rating best companies."
"The old handbook read like a boiler plate, standard. Our company is not boiler plate, so we hired a humorous writer and rewrote it," Weekley explains. "It’s one of the first things people look at. Since it doesn’t take the company too seriously, hopefully they won’t take themselves too seriously either."
The handbook does take company policies and goals quite seriously, but italicized asides lighten things up. An example: "Adjustments to your salary are based on merit and performance, not on tenure. Also, take into account, repeatedly saying ‘Please, please, please, please...’ in your salary review will have no effect on the potential outcome. In fact, I’m betting if it does have an effect it won’t be positive."
Once a new team member is launched into the field, the personal touch continues with an on-site training coach. "You don’t go out into the field and get dumped," Weekley says. "Coaches are like an alter ego to help new employees in areas they’re not familiar with. The results are improvements in training, fewer mistakes and more consistency. Our ability to implement new training programs and share best practices throughout the company has improved. Coaches meet regularly with each other to share what’s working and develop training methods."
The company also developed formalized mentor programs for critical positions such as sales, builders and project managers. And project managers make it a point to have "planned encounters" with team members, on a weekly basis if possible.
"We’re always trying to improve different areas, enhancing our team members to achieve goals," says Steve Ebensberger, a Dallas project manager who has been with the company for six years. "We do it on their turf instead of bringing them into our office. We’ll walk with a builder through their homes. Being in that house gives you a multitude of opportunities to see where you are in the quarterly goals process" Austin project manager Ken Swisher, says the company’s transition to a team-based approach of empowerment has made a positive impact since he signed on 11 years ago.
"There was a lot less freedom in the important decision-making then," Swisher remembers. "Over the years we’ve really refined our processes. Management listens to the field, the people who are really doing the work. They’re the ones who know what processes or systems don’t make sense or are inefficient. We listen to them and react to their suggestions."
With One Voice
Career paths and promotions are based on performance results of customer surveys, building speed, variance and the number of homes built. However, a team member’s talents and desires are essential factors in the career path process. A builder who loves to build and excels at building, for example, is not forced to leave his area of expertise and move into management. In the Weekley model, a superintendent can progress to builder, lead builder and senior builder.
"We’ve got some fabulous builders who can contribute great things to the company without having to become a project manager. To take them out of building homes would be detrimental to them and to the company," Weekley says.
"Because we have clear and accurate measurements of various activities, there’s no equivocation on the job or about what an individual is accomplishing. We’re results-focused and the measurement tools are the same across the company."
Breakdowns in the building business most likely occur when sales and construction look at things through two different lenses. "In our company we work very hard to make sure they work together"’Speak with one voice,’ as we say." To achieve that, builders and sales and warranty people use a homebuyer portfolio that explain the process. This keeps the customers’ expectations realistic and results in better customer service. The ability to "speak with one voice" also comes through in the company’s Quarterly Excellence Meetings where divisional managers, project managers and coaches review statistics and results, share best practices and have specified training sessions.
"Our company has a variety of different measuring tools to get objective results on each person’s performance." Weekley says. "We can bring 60 managers in, put results up on a screen and not have to say much because the results are self-explanatory and everyone wants to succeed.
"And the different managers all have different strengths--where one might do great in customer satisfaction, another might do better on the cost or profitability side, so we constantly have the opportunity to learn from each other. It’s a unique advantage that our size allows, we have smart people operating all over the company who can get together and share what’s worked and what hasn’t worked."
With human resources happening at 14 office sites, rather than at corporate headquarters, creating a unified culture is an enormous challenge. "It’s what we hope our Quarterly Excellence Meetings do, along with bringing people here for orientation and issuing quarterly newsletters. It’s why president and COO John Johnson and I travel to divisions." (Each week, usually Johnson visits two divisions and Weekley visits one.) High Expectations
In addition to its team-based management style and extensive training programs, Weekley believes that what differentiates his firm from other builders is its 401K profit sharing program, recently upped to a 100% match of 401K up to 6%. Every team member, no matter their position, is eligible for profit sharing. Quarterly bonus possibilities are another perk.
"Each quarter when the company makes over 5% of net profit within a division, they get a 5% bonus--if they make 8%, they’ll get 8%," Weekley explains. "It’s a cash bonus equal to that amount of their entire compensation for the quarter. In addition, we put half again that amount into their 401K."Even with a sound team-member system and great benefits in place, Weekley still has to deal with the industry’s high turnover rate, which industry sources estimate nationally runs between 40 to 50%. The 1998 voluntary turnover rate at David Weekley Homes was significantly lower at 27%.
"We’re also the easiest place to work because we have high expectations," Weekley says. "Our customers have high expectations of us. Nordstrom’s has a high turnover rate but customer service is great. Most of our turnover occurs in the first six months, where we made an improper hire.
"Sometimes people leave us, but they invariably want to come back because they can’t operate in an environment where they’re told what to do and their values are compromised. People want to take charge and be responsible for their own work."
Swisher and Ebensberger agree that the company’s high expectations generate a demanding but empowering atmosphere. "Not everyone can work here," Swisher says. "It’s very challenging. You have to be driven--the company asks a lot of you and it’s a competitive atmosphere. At Quarterly Excellence Meetings, all the project mangers get together and review results of customer satisfaction, financial results and production results--they’re all up there on a big screen in front of everybody. There’s nowhere to hide." "It’s a healthy competition," Ebensberger add, "because you’re not achieving those goals at the expense of another team member. There’s a sense that it’s not all for one, but one for all."
All these elements of Weekley’s team-based process "builds a positive culture," Weekley says. "Some leaders go looking for the silver bullet on how to develop a positive culture--I know I did. But it’s a process that takes years to develop."
When asked what keeps him up at night, worrying, Weekley answers, "Nothing. I’ve got great people doing great things. I don’t have many worries. The greatest challenge is how to keep 1000 people wanting to raise the bar on themselves even though they’re already very, very good."
The old adage "good enough never is," is a credo Weekley works hard to communicate. "It means you feel good about what you’re doing, and at the same time you can do better. You’ve got to keep pumped up and feel good and at the same time not get complacent."
Keeping the spirit alive comes naturally for Weekley "I don’t get depressed that we didn’t do as well as we could have. For me, it’s easier than most, I think. We have people working very hard trying to be the best we can be. We celebrate the successes and say: But there’s more we can do. That’s the reason we take breaks, have parties, laugh at ourselves, have celebrations and dress up in costumes-things to break the grind."
This year’s Fortune ranking also raises spirits. "Of all the awards we’ve received, to me, this is the most significant," says Weekley. "It’s in keep"
How David Weekly Homes Made the List