BOULDER, CO — From Spanish and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, to jobsite barbecues and ski parties, Robinson Mechanical does its best to keep its technicians — and all employees — satisfied with the company.

Out of 350 employees, 250 are service and installation techs. In order to keep the company working in high gear, the job hunt is non-stop.

All of its efforts are not without note. Robinson Mechanical earns an honorable mention in The News’ first-ever “Best Contractor to Work For” contest.

Breaking down cultural boundaries

The company “develops and nurtures relationships with various minority and community service programs,” says executive vice president Tommy Dean.

Among those programs are Mi Casa — The Avenidas Program; the Salvation Army; and Turn About. Mi Casa — Avenidas is a Colorado-based program that offers a career development program in six-week training, focusing on recruiting and preparing low-income persons, primarily women, for highway construction and maintenance jobs. (Avenidas is Spanish for avenues.)

“Robinson got quite involved with Avenidas,” says Rick Lawton, Regional Organizational Development, Building One Services.

Participants are taught math, ladder safety, welding, soldering, and changing filters on rooftop units. They are matched with available jobs after training. ESL and Spanish classes help break down language barriers within the company.

“Employees don’t just learn the language, but also the culture,” says Dean.

Robinson seems to have “a different kind of mentality” from other contractors, adds Lawton. “There’s a lot of concern for the individual.”

The ESL instructor is a company accounts manager during the day. A Spanish instructor comes from the outside, and teaches the culture as well as the language. These classes “are one of the best team-building experiences I’ve come across in a long time,” says Lawton.

The company also combs the more traditional hiring avenues. It participates in “School to Work” programs with surrounding school districts.

“Students come to work for us as part-time apprentices,” explains Dean.

Company reps attend job fairs at trade schools. However, they don’t come in there cold. The energy spent on attracting techs is equivalent to the energy top salespeople spend on nurturing a clientele. In fact, part of the company’s $100,000 marketing budget will be aimed inward, actually marketing Robinson to its own employees.

“We also focus on developing relationships with department heads of the air conditioning and heating programs,” says Dean. “We work in conjunction with them to identify graduating students as potential candidates.”

You can’t waltz in there empty-handed. In addition to relocation assistance and referral bonuses, Robinson Mechanical offers benefits that any corporate professional need not sneeze at.

Steady work, steady play

“In order to help us guarantee a steady workload for our technicians,” says Dean, “we rotate employees to different jobsites, especially if a jobsite is approaching completion.

“In addition, we constantly monitor and review our corporate schedule to identify and plan manpower needs. Moreover, about 40% of the service department’s workload is in preventive and maintenance contracts, which ensures steady work for all technicians,” he says.

During the busy season, techs are offered comp time or flexible scheduling on a case-by-case basis.

“We pay a shift differential for working odd hours,” says Dean, “and award bonuses for outstanding employees. We even allow employees to take vacation time during the busy season — if it is approved in advance.”

Topping it all off, “To encourage a fun work environment, we have an annual company picnic during the summer, a company ski trip in the winter, barbecues at jobsites, and doughnut days and free soda drink days at the office.”

Always thinking ahead, at this time Robinson Mechanical is building a barbecue truck. There are also company bowling outings, the “Friday Afternoon Club” (an informal gathering that includes pop and snacks), a golf tournament, a paid family picnic at Six Flags, a Halloween “Trick or Treat Street” set up at the company so families can enjoy safe trick-or-treating, and monthly service breakfasts offered so that service techs, who usually ride solo, get a chance to socialize and feel that they’re part of the team.

“There are no lectures at this breakfast,” says Lawton. “They just sit down together and talk.”

A matter of respect

The most fun workplace in the world wouldn’t be able to keep good workers without adequate compensation, training, and respect for employees’ ideas.

Service field manager Steve Bosto has been working hvac for 21 years, with only the past 2 1/2 with Robinson. What’s the difference between this contractor and others he’s worked for? It boils down to professional courtesy.

“At Robinson, I’ve never had to deal with anyone waking up on the wrong side of the bed,” and taking it out on employees the rest of the day.

“I’m sure people here have bad days,” he says, “but they don’t let it carry over to work.”

Service field manager Troy Knutson came to this contractor after training for the trade in Minnesota. He’s been with Robinson six years, and comments that, “Everyone’s willing to share knowledge. You don’t get in trouble for asking.”

Knutson also is sent back to his Minnesota alma mater once a year to recruit graduates to the Boulder contractor.

And tech Phil Stewart has only been with the company 15 months, making a complete career switch (he had been a professional truck driver).

“I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “People here are willing to help you.”

Still learning, he hasn’t decided upon an area in which to specialize, but he feels confident that whatever he chooses, this contractor offers good career paths.

Bosto agrees.

“There’s an amazing potential to move up, over, and about. A monthly newsletter spells out all job openings. You can make whatever path you choose.”

And, “If you choose to staying in the field instead of going for an executive position, you can still advance,” adds Knutson.

Pay, training

Since Robinson Mechanical is a merit shop, employees are paid “based on performance and in accordance to their experience and knowledge. Wages may be increased once employees obtain certifications and/or licenses.”

“I don’t think anyone’s been turned down from any schooling,” says Knutson, no matter where it was held or what kind of transportation it entailed.

Regular education includes apprentice training and craft skills.

“On average, our employees receive 40 hours of training per year,” Dean says.

Apprentices get 160 hrs/year at an on-site training facility during regular work hours, and are paid the base hourly rate.

Perhaps one of the most important testaments of technician respect is listening to their ideas. With this in mind, Robinson Mechanical has instituted “Share the Plan,” under which techs are encouraged to submit ideas on how to fabricate and install products more efficiently.

“There were already so many good ideas coming in,” says Lawton.

The company wanted to share them, reward the best, and in so doing, encourage still more good ideas to come forward. Awards will be distributed at the end of each quarter and the most outstanding suggestion for the quarter receives $1,000 in cold, hard cash.

It’s easy to understand how Robinson Mechanical’s “different kind of mentality” is attracting some of the best talent in the area, and keeping it.

Sidebar: Hvac benefits, corporate-style

Here’s what Robinson Mechanical has to offer its employees:Health, Insurance
  • Medical is a choice between HMO and PPO. Robinson pays 100% of employee coverage and 50% of family coverage.
  • For dental, the contractor pays 100% of base coverage for employees.
  • Employees electing medical coverage automatically receive life insurance (100% paid by the company).
  • Employees receive long-term disability, for which the company pays coverage for 40% of the employee’s base earnings.
  • Under a Section 125 plan, employees can set up one or both accounts with pretax dollars for unreimbursed medical expenses (up to $3,500), and/or child care or elder care expenses ($5,000 limit).
  • Under a cafeteria plan, employees opting out of medical coverage — say, if they choose to go with insurance from a spouse’s company — can use the funds to buy supplemental insurance, extra vacation time, or contribute towards Robinson’s 401k.
  • After one year of employment, workers are eligible to participate in a 401K plan. However, after April 1, 2000, new employees will be eligible after 90 days. Participants will be fully vested after 12 months.
  • Under a stock purchase plan, employees can buy shares of the company’s common stock at 15% less than fair market value — after they’ve been employed one year.
More perks
  • The company offers tuition reimbursement.
  • Techs participate in a company safety program. Employees are eligible to redeem gift certificates based on the number of injury- or illness-free hours they work.
  • Employees earn two weeks of vacation after one year of employment, and can use up to one week after six months of employment.
  • All employees receive six paid holidays with no waiting period.

Sidebar: Just the facts - Robinson Mechanical

Winning contractor: Robinson Mechanical, a part of Building One Services

Founder: Dennis Robinson (now regional president, Building One Services)

Current ceo: Jerry Mills

Location: Boulder, CO

Years in business: 21

Bulk of market: Commercial-industrial

Total revenue for 1999: $59 million

Total employees: 350

Total service technicians and installers: 250

Average annual hours employee spends in training: 40

The News selected this contractor because: Robinson goes “above and beyond” to look for new sources of technicians, including working with minority groups and teaching Spanish and English in-house. Moreover, this company’s benefits rival just about any found in corporate America. The corporate attitude of “thinking outside the box” is paying off, encouraging creativity at work as well as at play.