Spruceland Millworks benefits from generosity

Family focus, helping out less fortunate and fully paid vacations all part of the job

The generosity of spirit within Spruceland Millworks is surprising, even for a company named one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers for 2008. Case in point: Through voluntary regular payroll deductions, the 130 employees at the softwood lumber remanufacturer in Acheson, Alta. (about 25 kilometres west of Edmonton) raised $186,000 for charity in 2006.

Owner Ben Sawatzky matched every dollar raised by staff which means, on average, workers donated about $715 out of their own pockets to charity.

As if fundraising weren’t enough, employees get their hands dirty too. Earlier this month, a crew of 16 employees flew to the Dominican Republic to help build the foundations for a new town that will house poor families and give them a fresh start. Next year Spruceland hopes to send another crew to build 30 homes in the budding town. (The employees paid for their own tickets, while Spruceland covered all the other expenses including wages.)

“Charity work gives employees an overall sense of community through the workplace and gets a good attitude out there,” said Josh Sawatzky, the owner’s son who oversees the three-person HR department.

The extent of goodwill fostered among employees is precipitated in no small part by morale-boosting initiatives consistently rolled out at the company. Rather than pocket the rebates of duties paid on exports of softwood lumber, Spruceland gave employees a “prosperity bonus” — a one-time cash payment that ranged from anywhere between $2,500 and $5,000 depending on years of service.

“It gets employees excited and shows them they are appreciated,” said Sawatzky. And at the last Christmas party the company hosted its own Deal or No Deal game, giving 10 employees the chance to win $10,000 each.

Money isn’t the only way Spruceland expresses gratitude to employees. Every couple of years, when the numbers are on target, the company takes everyone on a fully paid all-inclusive vacation. Staff who have worked with the company one to two years get one ticket; three to four years, two tickets; five to nine years, three tickets; and 10 years or more, four tickets.

“When I tell people that when I’m hiring, it’s a pretty good sell,” said Sawatzky.

In the company’s 25-year-history, there have been 18 trips. In 2008, employees will be heading off to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Another key retention strategy is the legacy shareholders plan, which gives employees the opportunity to buy into the company.

“This was not done out of necessity,” said Sawatzky. “It’s the owner’s way of taking care of those employees who step up and see a long-term career at Spruceland.”

These initiatives pay off. Roughly 10 per cent of the staff have reached a 20th anniversary and been awarded a Rolex watch featuring a Spruceland plate on the back of the face.

Spruceland also markets itself to employees as a family-oriented company by hosting picnics and barbecues. This is a big draw when the company finds itself competing for workers tempted by the province’s high-paying oil opportunities that take them away from family for weeks or months at a time.

Employees are also able to end their workdays when they meet daily production targets (and when they do so, they receive a $20 bonus plus the full day’s wages), allowing them to get home early to spend more time with family.

So powerful is the company’s reputation, Spruceland did not have to advertise for employees until about a year-and-a-half ago. Many hires came from word-of-mouth and references by current employees, although the highly competitive Alberta job market has forced the company to advertise recently.

In 1992, a massive fire destroyed Spruceland’s facility. Ben Sawatzky could have closed the plant for good but he told a newspaper reporter that he would rebuild the 100,000-square-foot facility within 100 days because he had 60 employees relying on a paycheque. He kept that promise and the new facility opened 103 days later. The employees didn’t lose any wages as they continued to work in a temporary facility, nor was any of the company’s core business lost.

“Time and again we’ve been reminded that the people are the key to our success,” said Josh Sawatzky. “If you have the staff buy-in, you can make money even if the market slumps or times are hard.”

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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