Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." HVAC and plumbing contractors seek his advice regularly. Al has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe Newssome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Al your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.

Dear Al,

The hours we work during the busiest times are extraordinary. I find myself struggling to stay awake at work or, worse yet, when I'm driving. But, I keep pushing myself because of the workload.

Is there someway to make this better?

Eyes Wide Shut

Dear Eyes Wide Shut,

When I was a contractor, I too found myself exhausted and facing an ever-increasing demand for my time. The hours can be overwhelming. Fortunately, a good friend told me about the virtues of a "power nap" and I've been doing it ever since whenever I feel drained.

What you do is find somewhere to take a 15-minute nap during the day. It can be done by closing the door to your office and telling them to hold your calls or, if you're on the road, pull off to the side. Set your cell phone or beeper to wake you in 15 minutes. You'll be amazed at the renewed energy you'll have for the remainder of your day.

Try it and you'll agree.

By the way, any more than 15 minutes for a "power nap" and it'll just leave you sluggish.

Al Levi

Dear Al,

With employees, I don't know how many times to speak to them and about what in order to get their best work or to correct their faults. I want to be fair and I want to avoid labor troubles by being consistent.

What should I be saying and when?

Silent Movie

Dear Silent Movie,

I recommend a three-tier approach to interacting with your employees. There should be a system of rewards and consequences that automatically tells you when to have those conversations and when. Everyone needs to understand how this system works. Begin by defining what employees must do as a minimum to keep their jobs. To set this benchmark, use objective statistics and pick a level of performance that, if they actually achieve it, you'll be happy to let them keep coming to work.

Next, define what performance level below the minimum results in immediate coaching and what the consequences are. For example:

1. Being written up.

2. Being suspended.

3. Being fired.

With an operations manual, you'll be able to define what you do and how you do it, in writing, and that ends the arbitrary nature of how employees are judged. You'll also find it minimizes labor troubles.

Finally, define what level of achievement would get employees a reward that you'd be happy to give them because they increased efficiency, saved the company money, or generated additional income for the company. For example:

1. A bonus.

2. An award.

3. A promotion.

Remember, a well-designed reward system pays for itself.

Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes, as his Web site says, in "Making Contractors' Lives Less Stressful and More Successful." Through private workshops, on-site assessments, customized operating manuals, and staff training programs, Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. Learn more by visiting You may also contact Levi by e-mail at or by fax at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 11/01/2004