Magazine article Personnel Journal

Share Thy Neighbor's Workers

Magazine article Personnel Journal

Share Thy Neighbor's Workers

Article excerpt

When Brooks Beverage Management experienced a lull in production, a creative team of strategic planners dreamed up an unusual arrangement for temporary redeployment: loaning workers to Haworth, its next-door neighbor.

Have you ever loaned something to a neighbor for safekeeping? Your home, maybe, while you were out of town on vacation? You relaxed comfortably in the sun knowing that everything was being well taken care of and that when you were ready to return you'd find your plants had been watered, your fish had been fed, and your stereo and computer were safe and sound. It's so much easier than holding your breath and hoping.

Two innovative companies in Michigan have been using a similar idea as a creative technique for avoiding layoffs. When production is slow, Brooks Beverage Management Inc. (BBMI), a soft drink bottler based in the city of Holland, temporarily loans employees to its corporate neighbor down the street. When things pick up again, it knows its workers haven't been lured away to other jobs and will be happy to return. Also, like the neighbor you paid to take care of your home, the corporate neighbor in this exchange situation benefits significantly.

For the last three years, BBMI has faced a seasonal dip in demand for its new line of alternative beverages: teas and flavored juices. Typically, as September and October hit, Americans return to what they traditionally have consumed in the colder months-usually coffee and other hot beverages. This part of the cycle lasts until early in the new year.

In the fall of 1994, the company knew what to expect. So as marketing geniuses scrambled to come up with ways to overcome the trend, Dennis Eade, VP of HR, and others at BBMI worked to develop a strategy to keep people working during the slowdown between September and March. There were 55 employees in the alternative-beverages production center who specifically would be impacted. "The primary goal was to avoid losing these highly trained, qualified, prescreened employees. We're in a 3% unemployment market. The minute we would have laid these folks off, I'm certain other companies in our area would have hired them on the spot," says Eade.

Plus, layoffs have been uncommon throughout the company's 64-year history, and BBMI didn't want that to change. Eade says: "In the soft drink business we typically staff to the low periods and then supplement for the high-demand periods-so we don't have a history of a lot of layoffs. Therefore we've cultivated [a reputation for] being a good employer ... and that image is important to attracting good new people to the company."

BBMI forms a task force. Faced with the slowdown, BBMI formed a team of representatives from manufacturing, legal, finance, production and HR. Members brainstormed possible solutions to this staffing dilemma. One was to keep the employees and find projects for them to work on, like painting the walls and ceilings. This option was ruled out because the plant had been operating only for a year, and there weren't many fix-up jobs to do. Another idea was to send the workers out to blitz the marketplacewashing shelves and doing resets at retail outlets-providing an unusual level of service to customers. Yet another idea was to acknowledge that layoffs would be costly, but to do them anyway-with plans to save money in the months before they would need to recruit and train again.

Then someone suggested: "Can't we just loan these people to somebody for a while?" Immediately everyone agreed this was the best choice-if the company could make it work. This alternative would preserve the sizable investment BBMI already had made in training. Much of the company's equipment is state-ofthe-art machinery run by computers, and employees receive three months of instruction before operating it on their own.

Eade says, "We figured if we made the accommodations-which were to offset the employees' difference in pay, continue their insurance benefits and continue their 401(k) matching-that had a fixed cost. …

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