The Sharpest Tool™

Southwest Part 1 | Invest in Your Training Program and See Success

Southwest Industrial Electric is an industry-leading electrical solutions provider based in Los Angeles, CA. In this episode, CEO Kristin Larson, and COO Elizabeth Rochefort, share the ins and outs behind their creation and implementation of a robust training program that has resulted in outstanding employee retention and performance.

Josh Smith (00:03):

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the sharpest tool. My name is Josh Smith. I am your host and the vice president of marketing over here at scorpion for the home services division. Today, with me on the still have podcasts, we have Southwest industrial electric. They are an industry leading electrical solutions provider, and they deliver a comprehensive portfolio of innovative solutions and managed services to today's industrial and commercial markets. Southwest industrial electric has been providing professional electric services and industrial and commercial businesses for over 40 years and has become one of the leading solutions to the electrical problems in the Southwest region. So I want to welcome both of our guests here. We have Kristen Larson, who's the CEO, the chief executive officer of Southwest industrial electric and Elizabeth Roche board. Who's the COO and the chief operations officer for the business. So ladies, welcome to the sharp store. Thank

Kristen Larson (00:58):

You. Thanks for having us. You

Josh Smith (01:00):

Bet. So tell me a little bit about the company Southwest electrics that they've been around for 40 years or so. And you focus on a lot of really interesting qualities that we're going to dive into in a minute, but tell me a bit about the background, how to get started.

Kristen Larson (01:12):

So it's actually a family company, my uncle and Elizabeth father we're actually cousins started. The company started the company about 30, 40 years ago. At this point, he actually worked with, it used to be in a different name. And then he worked with some partners. Then they ended up going on their separate ways and he was sort of left last man standing. And he then incorporated the company with the new name, Southwest industrial electric. And it stayed pretty small for a while with basically him and some guy, other people, other electricians. And then we started to hire some administrative people to be in the office. And I was one of the first people to be in the office about 15 years ago. And from there we basically started to work out better ways for the organization to run. And how do we do this and how do we do this and get things established so that we could actually have more of a company and we could hire more office staff and then therefore be able to expand who we service and the electricians and all that. So, you know, yeah. And it was just sort of up from there. We continued to grow and Elizabeth joined us about 10 years ago. And so that's where we are today.

Josh Smith (02:27):

Kristen, how does your role, I'm kind of curious how your role and Elizabeth's role differ within the context of how the company operates. So tell us a little bit about as the CEO of this particular business in this particular industry, what do you focus on? And then Elizabeth, we can jump over to you.

Kristen Larson (02:43):

So I oversee the entire business. So I'm making sure that every section from our personnel and hiring and how we handle that to sales, to finance, to quality control, all the things that we need to do are going smoothly and that I'm checking in and, you know, making sure that if they're already bumps in the road, it's getting fixed. And you know, I, I do have a big role in the finances of the company, making sure it's doing well and profitable, et cetera. So those are sort of my focuses as the whole thing, rather than Elizabeth, you can sort of describe she's more over a certain section. Okay.

Speaker 3 (03:22):

Yeah. So I basically handle mainly overseeing our production division. So I'm basically in the scheduling electricians purchasing warehouse, like just kind of ensuring that we have everything that we need to be out in the field, doing jobs every day and ensuring that we get the products that we need for the jobs. And so I kind of oversee all of that area, which obviously houses all of our electricians. So it's a very large part of the company. So that's kind of the, my main focus and what I'm working on. Yeah.

Josh Smith (03:55):

Yeah. And one of the big topics we're going to talk about today is obviously training is I understand you have some pretty interesting standards when it comes to training programs. Tell me a little bit more about that. Is it, and Elizabeth, is that something that you oversee?

Speaker 3 (04:08):

I kind of assist to a degree in it. It's still something that I think Kristin definitely as the person that helps create the whole thing. Like she worked directly with Evan and put together kind of the checklist that we have and everything. And then I've started to get into more helping with that. And also just, you know, writing policies and things like that as they come up for the, you know, either our, our office staff or if something comes up with our electricians, I do help with that aspect. Yeah.

Kristen Larson (04:37):

So she's mainly coordinating with our quality. Like we have a whole department that handles the training program and I do oversee that, but she, you know, because she's over such a big section of the organization, which is our main, how we get our, like our main servicing of the customer and the products that we're putting out. She has a big hand in ensuring that if things are happening in that area where someone needs more training or something's not going as smoothly as it should, where she's been coordinating with, with our quality department to get that fixed up.

Josh Smith (05:07):

Yeah. Kristen, tell me a little bit about the standards that you have and that you've employed over the years, for sure.

Kristen Larson (05:12):

Yeah. So our training program is set up so that individuals can move through it sort of at their own pace. So whenever we hire someone, they will start on the training program and they don't need anyone else to be starting at the same time. They can just start. And the way that works is we actually have checklists that they go through and there'll be courses, each course has a checklist and they go step by step through that checklist. And a big point that we really push is the understanding factor. And although that might seem like, like, oh yeah, of course you want to understand what you learn. Unfortunately, a lot of times with training programs or education, people will sort of get things or not get some things and then just keep going. So we really teach every person that comes into our training program to really watch out for, if it's something, if something is not clear to you, it is totally fine for you to bring that up.

Kristen Larson (06:02):

Like that is what we want. It's not showing that you are not qualified or something. If we want that, we want people to tell us that they don't understand it and go even so far as to go, I'm not getting this whole sentence. Oh, I don't know what this word means. Okay. What does that word mean? Let's get that cleared up. So that's a big standard as we really expect the understanding factor and to ask questions and get things cleared up. And then we also make sure we really balance our theory with our practice. So people will read things, watch videos, and then they will practice on that thing. Whether that's the way we are procedure for troubleshooting and repairing a light, is this good? Read it, watch the video. Good. Now practice that on a, on a dummy light fixture this many times until you have it down, pat.

Kristen Larson (06:48):

So those are some big things. And then I would also just say, whenever they complete a checklist, they take an exam and it's not like you have to get 70% or 80% to pass. It's you have to get a hundred percent. If someone doesn't know some of the answers we go back, we restudy, we clear it up until they have total certainty and going a hundred percent answer that exam. So those are sort of the big things I think, is this something that's constantly evolving or do you feel like it's pretty dialed in? It is constantly evolving. A few reasons. One is the technology is always changing. You know, there are certain things that stay the same in our industry, but there are things that change. For example, lighting, we are constantly moving into better lighting or energy efficient lighting. So we'll have things on repairing and fixing these types of lights.

Kristen Larson (07:39):

And it gets to a point where we're never running into that anymore. It's now these new types of lights we'll have to update it when that happens. And we look out for, if there's any areas where certain people have, you know, the same question keeps coming up for the same thing. That's hard to understand and we'll go, okay, how do we add something or, or make it a little more clear. So it's easy for people to get. And then of course, with again, technology, we're now trying to put our whole training program into a lot more videos. When for years we had it all written down in books, you know? And so that's a whole evolution that we're in the middle of. So yeah, it's a constant thing, but we have our basic path there and our pace study material, but then it's just those tweaks and those, Ooh, let's make it better. Okay.

Speaker 3 (08:22):

Yeah. Also like we do also have, um, you know, we've been growing a lot throughout the last few years. We've been growing a lot. So we find that changes in when it's coming with regards to the office staff. Like I think it changes how the lines work in the company who handles what sometimes we find, oh, we need now need this new position that we didn't need before. And we need to rework how that happens. So it's kind of evolving there as well, where we're kind of having to create new paths for that and put people through the training again, so that they a new and all of that so that they can actually continue to, to grow in that way. So that, that's also a thing that occurs as well.

Josh Smith (09:01):

I think the evolution of training is such an interesting thing and an interesting challenge to face because thank you facing it right with the digital thing. Just like you said, Kristen, and, uh, the other aspect too, I feel like sometimes when you put training in place, you're not sure how, like, it may be the greatest thing in the world to yourself, but then you get it out in the field and you're like, ah, people aren't picking up the way I thought they'd pick it up and maybe I'm missing. Is there a feedback loop that you typically engage with? Yeah,

Kristen Larson (09:26):

Definitely. We, we also will create new checklists, which are courses basically when certain things come up again, we'll get, we will get feedback. We have a pretty open policy for our staff to make sure that they're emailing personnel or even me or the training program, if they're running into any issues. And even if managers are running into issues with people that they're working with, they find that they always have trouble with this particular thing. Sometimes we find, oh, we have a whole, like, they never really learn that as much as they should and want to make a new course. We put pilot at the top, which is, it just basically means it's just being issued and the whole point, and as a note there, like, as you go through this, if you run into things that don't align or like there's something missing or whatever, we request your feedback and that will usually go directly to that manager over the training department. And he then forwards it to me and the team of people that help with the training program. So yeah. Yeah, definitely. That definitely happens.

Josh Smith (10:27):

Elizabeth. I'm kind of curious, when did you start seeing a noticeable difference in the quality of the team?

Speaker 3 (10:34):

Um, I think it was when we really started nailing down, like exactly what we wanted people to know and understand when they first started the company. So whether you're an office personnel or you are an electrician, so when you first come in, these are the basic checklists that we want you to get through. And we basically make sure that they get through all of that. And then, you know, for our office office positions, they then would move over to checklists that would go specifically into their positions. So it would be like you're doing scheduling, you'd learn exactly all the different, you know, things you need to do to learn how to schedule things. And then we would continue the training from there. So, you know, they would get weekly trainings, I weekly trainings where they would get a little bit more of information, you know, continuing to re you know, look at things if maybe they, it kind of fell out or they forgot about that.

Speaker 3 (11:25):

They would, you know, re-look at it. And then for electricians, you know, we'd get them through a certain amount that they would have to, you know, know and understand in order to be a apprentice on, on a job site. And then they'd start going out in the fields. And then we would really, really push getting them back into the offices. You know, I think back in the day it used to be a little more like, you know, they'd get a lot of onsite training and all of that, but we wouldn't get them back into the offices to really learn the policies that we have and everything. So they would just be kind of workers on the job site for a long time where, you know, now that we kind of really pushed that and we now have a team dedicated to just training our staff, it's made it so that we can actually see people grow and they actually really appreciate it. Like it's been really rewarding to kind of see people, wow. Oh my God. I didn't know. I could learn this this quickly or, oh my God, I'm already moving up in the company or I'm already doing this and kind of an unexpected thing that I didn't even really think about until it started happening. I was like, oh, this is cool.

Josh Smith (12:24):

Yeah. Yeah. I also heard that you have a tendency to hire someone no matter what the experience is, and you have a preference to train them from the ground up. When was that first established and why, why do you make the decision to do that?

Kristen Larson (12:38):

I'll take that one. So basically probably about 10, a little maybe plus a little more than that years ago is when we started to develop the trading program, how it is today, and then we started running people through it. And then I would say maybe about five years ago, I'm sort of ballparking it. We just sort of came to the conclusion after some trial and error that when we just looked for people that had like 10 plus years experience where they had a really big background in whatever we were hiring for, they would sometimes come with procedures or protocols that were sort of ingrained in them. It didn't necessarily match what we were going for and what our procedures and protocols were. And we would sort of run into just sort of butting of heads or whatever. It just wasn't working as well as it could.

Kristen Larson (13:29):

And so, and then we would have people that would come that would still have the skills and background necessary. They had it wasn't like we were hiring people to be apprentices as an electrician that had never done anything with a tool. Like there's a certain level that someone has to have something to be able to go into our training program and have success. But we just started to see more and more that people with not as much experience, but the basic skill level that we needed and the basic experience that we needed to could go through our training program and would take to our procedures and protocol a lot faster and easier because we weren't sort of trying to undo whatever had already been ingrained and they would just move up very quickly and they would learn very quickly. So again, there are some positions that sort of require the loads of experience to just jump in and be able to do it. But I think the majority of cases and positions we've actually had more success and we go, okay, we can hire, we just are more open then to be able to have anyone from any background.

Josh Smith (14:32):

Yeah. Are there any, uh, different, or like difficulties that you've faced with how you handle the different positions like field workers versus office staff?

Speaker 3 (14:40):

I mean, we, it's always been like a trial and error as we've gone along throughout the entire kind of training program. And I think, you know, one big thing we ran into with our office staff was that they get some basic training on electrical. They'd get into their specific position and get the training on that. And then the kind of, especially the electrical side would kind of fall out. Um, and there would be no more training on that aspect of things. And what we found though, is that you deal with the words and the terminology all the time. You know, people are bringing up things, sometimes it gets into more advanced stuff just depending on your position or, you know, like if you're in a scheduler and customers calling you saying, I need this done and this done and this done, and you're like, I don't know what that means specifically, but let's, you know, I'll, I'll get it scheduled.

Speaker 3 (15:28):

So people would kind of pack up all these different misunderstandings that they didn't know. And, you know, that was something we realized you feel like a year or two ago or a few years ago. And we kind of really started when we need to fix that. And, um, Kristen started implementing like a bi-weekly training where we do minimally, you know, twice a week, we get all of our office staff together and we, you know, right now zoom calls and all of that. But, um, we get them all together and we go over different topics. We go over lighting, we go over power systems, all the different subjects that we deal with a lot. And we found that people one, I think do better at their positions because of that. So that was kind of a, you know, a difficulty we dealt with, like with the office staff and then, you know, electricians, I think, you know, they get out in the field. There's a lot of, I think it's kind of the opposite. Almost. They run into issues with how we handle things internally, you know, like how we, how the invoicing line works or how the scheduling line exactly works. Sometimes we can run into issues with that. So we've kind of tried to beef up our training beforehand to handle that issue and things like that that have really kind of helped trial and error, but it's made it better and better so that people can get into your positions and just, you know, roll in continued flourish.

Josh Smith (16:44):

Yeah. You know, I, I think, uh, I think too, there's something to be said about keeping it. It's not just about hiring the right people, moving the right people in the right position on the bus to use, uh, some common language here, but it's also about retaining those employees throughout the life of the career. What kind of employee retention rates do you have currently? And do you attribute a lot of that to a really ironed out training process and career path?

Kristen Larson (17:07):

I would say depending on the period of time that we look at, it's probably around between 90, 95% on employee retention. And that's definitely a, at this point, the majority of our staff have been here for years and then we keep hiring. But, you know, we have some really solid, amazing staff that are just part of this team and, and helping with, with the company so much. But yes, I think obviously having difficulty in your position, like if someone is having, isn't having success at what they do that can obviously lead to not wanting to do your job. So if you are fully understanding everything about your job and you're becoming more and more confident about how to do things, because you understand everything about it, it just leads to success. And obviously success is going to make someone want to keep doing it. So, yes, the training program is big and like Elizabeth said, you know, we're constantly figuring out better ways to train people faster, get more, even more training than they've ever had before.

Kristen Larson (18:09):

And like we've now because we're doing zoom calls. It's pretty cool because now we're doing, we've always wanted to do more of on the job, basically like having office staff go to job sites more so that they could see the actual work that we're doing and get more experience with the services we perform, you know, and not just in their mind, but actually physically seeing it. So we've actually started doing, as part of these trainings, we'll have a zoom call with one of our senior electricians he'll call in from a job site and they'll walk the whole job site and go through all the equipment we're installing and why we're doing this. And then we do Q and a to ask him questions about what's that, why are you doing that? And he'll show guys working. And it's been awesome actually, to even up the level of what our office staff are able to experience in their training. That's awesome.

Josh Smith (19:00):

That's right. Well, there's a lot of information here. Just kind of, as we wrap up, talking about training, is there anything else that you should mention in regards to the training program that perhaps we haven't covered?

Kristen Larson (19:10):

I think that's about it. I think that that was pretty, yeah, that's pretty good. I think we got most of it.

Josh Smith (19:16):

I go this way, Chris, and I'm just kind of curious for the business owner, perhaps struggles with training. I mean, it's a lot of work to put in the time and effort to develop an actual training roadmap and then put together the materials and to even go as far as testing and quizzing and making sure we got a hundred percent on the knowledge retention, what's the, what's the best piece of advice you could give a business owner right now who may be struggling in that area.

Kristen Larson (19:39):

I would just say, do something on it. It's been a long road to create what we have today, many, many years of creating what we have today, but just starting with something like pick something that you feel is like a really important area that you want people to know more about and start creating it. Even if you can only work on it like a little bit each day, or you go, you know, a lot of times my movement on, on the training program is Saturday. I go, okay, this Saturday I'm coming in all day and all I'm doing, I'm shutting everything off. I'm just going to work this portion of the training program that I want to make better. So I do think you just got to set aside some time and then just start somewhere. And then if you can just make a list of a roadmap, like what are all the things you want to do and what in some kind of order that you think, and then that way you can just start going, I'm going to start with this and work on that until you have it and then move to the next thing and you'll get there at some point.

Josh Smith (20:32):

Awesome. Well, this has been awesome, really helpful. Actually, one of the things that we wanted to get to, I think I'd love to, to break this into two episodes. If, if you ladies are a game and we're going to talk about specifically partnerships on the next episode, because I know there's some really good thoughts you have on how to develop those and looking at the long-term effect, effective benefits for the business. So we'll stick around for everybody listening, definitely stay tuned for next week's episode, where Elizabeth and Kristen will be joining us to discuss partnerships. But for now, I want to thank you ladies for joining us on this episode of the sharpest tool. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much. Awesome. And for everybody listening definitely hit the like button wherever you might be listening and hit the subscribe button as well. So you can continue to get more of this awesome content delivered to you by scorpion was here. We'll talk to you soon. Thanks.

Speaker 4 (21:29):


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