Happy Employees, Big Dividends

An in-house university gives Lovett Services employees a leg up in the competitive marketplace, along with personal enrichment
Happy Employees, Big Dividends
Well-trained technicians are a hallmark of Lovett Services. Here, Corey Mohr, field technician/equipment manager, uses a Harben trailer jetter to clear a clogged catch basin drain. (Photography by Christopher Lee Evacko)

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A well-trained team can make the difference between business success and failure. Lovett Services in Portland, Ore., has built a loyal workforce by also helping its people become happier and more well-rounded. Technicians, administrative staff and management all attend Lovett University to learn everything from customer service to ladder safety to Investing 101.

“We expose all Lovett employees to the big picture, not just the part they play,” says Ti Sutherland, division manager for Lovett’s electrical, plumbing and rooter divisions. “They learn how their part affects the whole company.”

Dale Lovett founded Lovett Services in 1997 with an excavator and a dump truck. By 2005, the company expanded to offer full-service plumbing, drain cleaning and directional drilling for residential, commercial, industrial and municipal customers. Electrical services were added in 2007, and concrete restoration/waterproofing earlier this year.

Today, Lovett has 50 employees across all divisions – 35 technicians on the plumbing and rooter side, which accounts for 40 percent of revenue. The company serves an area with two million population in the Portland and greater Vancouver areas.


Being agile

Lovett technicians drive 25 box-style trucks stocked with equipment and inventory. The fleet includes primarily Gorlitz cable machines, about 20 in all, in a range of sizes to suit the scope of drains to be serviced. The firm also uses six RIDGID sewer cameras, six Ditch Witch Jet Trac directional drilling rigs in different capacities, eight Yanmar excavators, and one Komatsu excavator.

By having in-house capabilities beyond plumbing, Lovett has built a name for itself in a competitive field. “A plumbing and drain-cleaning project can quickly take a turn and require an electrician or the installation of an underground utility,” says general manager Dustin Wolfe. “We have that talent in-house, so we don’t need a subcontractor and can get the work done quickly and efficiently.”

Lovett technicians have learned that when customers call, they are usually describing a symptom of a larger problem – so they need to be adaptable. For example, a technician may go to service a backed-up drain but learn that the real problem is a collapsed or dilapidated drain line that may need replacing. The drain technician can then contact a co-worker in the excavation group for horizontal directional drilling. Then a Lovett plumber can make the connections to the water or sewer lines.

In some states, updates to the electrical system within a home may need to be made current with code when plumbing lines are replaced. In that situation, Lovett has the electrical staff to help complete the project.


Learning for life

Lovett takes great pride in its employees: The goal is to build a culture of continual self-improvement and to educate employees on what work culture means and how it benefits everyone. That’s the impetus behind Lovett University.

“The fact that a customer’s drain is now working is important, but we teach that we will be judged on a lot of other things besides our technical know-how,” Wolfe says.

All employees take part in a mentor-style orientation that introduces them quickly to the Lovett culture. “We look for talented people who bring substantial skills to the table, but our goal is to show all employees that they don’t just work for Lovett; they are Lovett,” Wolfe says.

Employees can enter the mentor program to learn a new skill or work on a skill they want to improve. For example, an excavator technician who wants to become an apprentice or work in a different division can be partnered with a mentor in that area. An administrator can learn management skills from a mentor to prepare for a future in management.

Lovett University

In the fall of 2009, with the realization that the company’s future depended on its people, management began the process of harvesting knowledge that employees brought to the table. They also determined the best way to share that knowledge, expertise and attitude. As a result, Lovett University was launched in the spring of 2010.

Instructors have been in-house, utilizing the expertise and talent of Lovett employees. Employees have been asked for their input on course design and content, as well. Lovett also has found that many vendors would be happy to play a role in the Lovett University course curriculum in the future.

Lovett University offers one- to four-hour classes before and after the regular workday for employees’ convenience. Classes are conducted on-site in a large conference room that easily accommodates up to 24 people. One of the first classes everyone takes is Customer Service 101, which covers how powerful each employee is in creating a positive perception with customers. The next stop at Lovett University is Finance 101 where all employees learn how profit and loss works.

From the top line to the bottom line, and all points in between, the class discusses where and how each person affects profitability and the company’s ability to grow. “We’ve found that most employees were not exposed to this aspect of doing business while in school or training, and understanding the big picture is important for everyone,” Sutherland says.


Something for all

Members of the management team can take finance courses, as well as classes on interviewing techniques, human resources, vision, mission, values, goal-setting and business objectives. Lovett also requires in-house job-related courses for technicians.

In all, there are currently 16 classes on the agenda, with plans to add 10 to 12 more this year. These classes include: Customer Service 101; Finance 101; Investing 101; Estimating and Bidding; Behavioral Interviewing Techniques; Visions, Missions and Values; Financial Planning 201; Setting Goals and Objectives; The Legal Aspects of Human Resource Management; Introduction to Emotional Intelligence; Understanding Workmen’s Compensation; Lasers and Grade 101; HDPE Pipe Fusion Certification; Competent Person for Trench Safety; Confined Space Certification and Fork Lift Certification. Additional programs and classes for the remainder of 2011 include Positive and Progressive Discipline; Sales Training 101 and 201; Job Site Behavior; CPR; Lock-out-Tag-out; and Fall Protection.

Most classes do not include tests except for certification classes that require them. Instead, instructors use exercises during class to demonstrate the practical application of what students just learned.

“Numerous classes are required for all Lovett employees, as we feel it is the best way to expose them to the Lovett culture and make sure we are all on the same agenda,” Wolfe says. 

To pay back employees for their contributions, and to build character in the staff, Lovett offers optional courses that don’t directly relate to the business. For example, Investing 101 discusses the basics of personal investing, the value of money, and investment options.

Helping employees on a personal level creates a positive influence that carries over to work: People care about each other and the company and want to give back. “Investing in our employees pays us back by creating a more rewarding workplace where people want to be,” says Sutherland. “Lovett is a center for human potential.”

Customers notice the difference in Lovett employees, and that feedback drives the company’s leaders to continue investing in the staff. “We get comments from customers saying, ‘Wow. What are you doing over there? Your employees are so passionate about their job, so excited. The customer service is outstanding!’” says Wolfe.

Happy customers have led to a 90 percent repeat and referral business rate. Happy employees have led to nearly 100 percent staff retention. Building up people and focusing on self-improvement pays dividends on multiple levels.

“We don’t pay employees the highest in the area, but the environment here is so different from anywhere else,” Wolfe says. “Employees like showing up. Dale Lovett gets letters from employee spouses thanking us for what we did to change their partners’ attitudes about work and life. We are attracting talent here.”


Changing industry

Lovett observes that over the past few years, customers have come to expect more from their plumbing and drain service providers: Price-based competition is a thing of the past, and there is more opportunity for companies that focus on customer service.

“Price isn’t the most important variable anymore,” says Sutherland. “It’s about building relationships and showing commitment to customer service. We rise to the challenge when a customer has a concern, and we’ve made a name as a company that will go above and beyond to make it right. It’s not about making the quick dollar. It’s about creating and maintaining relationships.”

Lovett employees aren’t paid by commission, and so they are free to make decisions in the best interests of customers. “It’s just another way that Lovett employees can learn from one another and work together in a balanced way,” says Sutherland. “Your employees will decide your future well before you do.”


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