Q&A: Practicing the Golden Rule

Employees are the No.1 asset of Big River Resources LLC and Deb Green is tasked with seeing to it they are well-trained, safe and happy.
By Tim Portz | May 15, 2013

Maintaining the roster of full-time employees at Big River Resources falls to Deb Green, human resources manager. Staffing four ethanol production facilities and two grain handling terminals, Green relies heavily upon her existing team to welcome new employees into the company, pass along vital skills and assure employee safety. Recognizing that these critical initiatives are widely varied, the company keeps things simple by distilling all of them down to a company-wide focus on the Golden Rule to help boost company morale.

How many people are employed across the organization and what percentage of those folks have to be replaced each year because of retirement or attrition?

Big River Resources employs and is a management company for 237 full-time employees.  The company also employs some part-time and seasonal help with the grain elevator facilities. The turnover rate per year is about 11 percent.

Most of the jobs at an operating ethanol plant are relatively technical in nature. Is it difficult to find candidates with the right technical background?

Big River Resources performs on-the-job training, which provides process-related employees the skill sets needed to operate efficiently. The position that we have recently had a difficult time filling was qualified instrumentation/electrician. This varies per site or territory.

What have you found works best from a recruiting standpoint? Are you always in an active state of recruiting, or do you only begin looking when there is a specific job opening or need?

When there is a job opening, Big River Resources posts the position internally first. Several of our managers have been promoted from entry level positions. Many excellent employees have been found from employee referrals. Big River Resources also has an online application website. Newspaper help-wanted ads are also used to find applicants.

Big River Resources is able to keep an applicant listing for some positions. This accelerates the hiring process. There are other positions that recruiting begins upon a job opening.

Can you talk a little bit about the training program you’ve developed for new employees?

Training is ongoing at Big River Resources. For most positions, employees are trained through on-the-job training by the site employees. Once an employee is hired, the second item—after new hire paperwork—is harassment and violence training. After this training, the new hire has an extensive safety training program to complete. This program is coordinated through the safety manager and the site safety/environmental coordinator. Once safety training is completed, the employee begins on-the-job training.

Throughout the year for all employees, additional formal safety and vendor training is performed. Key personnel also use their skills for operational training. Supervisor training, team building, and other performance enhancement training are available throughout the year.

New employees receive an introductory period review evaluation at 45 and 90 days. This allows the manager to concentrate specifically on the new hire. If the review shows the new hire is having an issue in a specific performance area, a different training strategy may be implemented to assist the employee. In the past, we have found significant improvement in the next evaluation. This is thanks to recognizing there was an issue early and addressing it by another method that worked better for the employee. 

The state of Iowa has an excellent training grant program that is available for new, existing, and expanding facilities. This grant was used at our two Iowa facilities and was instrumental in helping with the initial bulk cost of getting new staff trained.

How has it evolved as the organization has grown?

The training process has become more streamlined. As everyone gets familiar with their jobs, they can focus and adjust to what works well and what does not work well. 

For example, the introductory period review evaluation form was implemented after a few new hires were not performing at 90 days. We wanted to make certain the new hires were given the chance to be successful at Big River Resources. This chance begins with a successful training time frame.
Are you finding more and more applicants with industry-specific experience now that the industry is mature?

Yes, for the exempt (salaried) positions, as these employees are more likely to relocate.  However, the turnover rate for exempt positions is very low at Big River Resources.  Occasionally applicants with previous ethanol experience apply for nonexempt (hourly) positions.

How important is employee morale for the organization?

Enormous, ginormous, astronomic, gigantic. A negative attitude is not tolerated at Big River Resources. If an employee possesses a toxic attitude, the attitude can quickly infect other employees, and be detrimental to morale. Regardless of the skill sets the employee may possess, the employee has a choice to correct their attitude or be relieved [to pursue] other opportunities.

How does Big River positively affect employee morale?

Big River Resources believes employees are its most important asset. Therefore, we take every opportunity to shine, polish, and protect our most important asset.

The company is diligent to train, careful to coach and counsel, and thoughtful through difficult personal life events. Managers have been given the leeway to care for employees and be considerate during unexpected life events. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is the company culture. It starts with the board of directors and senior managers and gets absorbed into the entire staff. Positive morale can be difficult to keep at times, but the company culture definitely helps with morale and, ultimately, retention.

Do you think it is an advantage from a staffing perspective to have multiple production facilities? After all, ethanol producers with only one facility can’t reach out to another lab manager or general manager if they get stuck, have turnover or other issues.

The advantage of multiple production facilities is administrative staff. For example, one senior manager (general manager, financial director, etc.) for four facilities is more cost effective than one for each.  

In regard to one facility not being able to be reach out to another, quite the contrary. One facility can and does reach out to other facilities within the industry. A company does not need to own multiple facilities for this to happen. While this is common within the industry, it is not universal. It does depend on the culture of the company.

The ethanol industry requires a marketplace to survive. One production facility is not capable of supplying the entire marketplace and government-mandated usage. This tends to aid the ethanol industry in functioning with a collaborated effort. It is not uncommon for one facility to contact another facility within any department. The relationships are built through organizations and previous experiences and the opportunity to assist another facility, if needed, is welcomed. Big River Resources participates in this, both within and outside of its own organization.

Big River Resources has contacted other ethanol companies for parts in an emergency breakdown and has eagerly assisted other companies in the same situation. The industry benchmarks wages and company stats, assisting facilities in finding the strengths and potential weaker areas. When a new project is being considered, it is not uncommon for a company to seek advice from another facility.

In a unique way, certain companies within the ethanol industry function as a team. If one team member needs something, the others are eager to oblige within the constraints of potential confidentiality agreements.