Top Talent Retention: Interview with Tom Wickersham, President, Roncelli LLC 

Tom Wickersham, COO, Roncelli, Inc.Family owned businesses comprise 80%-90% of businesses in the US. More than 70% of these businesses are going to “change hands”. One of Southeastern Michigan’s leading construction companies, Roncelli LLC, is strategically mapping out their future. Find out what they are doing to have such great success at retaining their talent.  Tom Wickersham, President and COO explains how.

How has this economy impacted your company’s ability to attract and retain top talent?

There is undoubtedly a workforce shortage in all areas of the construction industry. The greatest is in the skilled trades. A decade of declining growth in construction has left a gaping hole created by age attrition and lack of new entries. With a 15% increase in number of construction jobs in the past year, any excess capacity has been absorbed on the management side, while there has been constant movement among employers of project managers, project engineers, schedulers, and even high-level group managers as the volume of work has steadily increased. To replace departing professionals or attract new talent for expansion, there is a premium on new-hire salaries.

Retention: What are some examples of specific strategies or steps your company, Roncelli, Inc., has taken to “retain” your associates at all levels?

A major facet of our strategic planning initiative, undertaken 18 months ago, is Talent Development. We have increased both our internal and external training programs. Our primary external focus has been on leadership training applied at all experience levels. We have launched several Special Project Teams (SPT’s) made up of cross sections of disciplines to work on strategic initiatives as determined by management. With the assistance of outside consulting, including Premier Executive Forums, we have completed two employee engagement surveys to ascertain levels of employee satisfaction and identify areas of concern, then followed up with action plans to formally improve those areas with the lowest scores.

In the last two years your company has conducted two employee engagement surveys with tremendous results. What role does this employee survey play in your attempts to attract and retain great talent?

We conducted our first employee engagement survey approximately one year ago. While the results were in general very positive, they provided a roadmap of areas that required improvement. By focusing on specific areas, and creating teams of employees to correct certain behaviors and employment policies, we not only increased targeted areas, but received ancillary improvement across all platforms. Scores improved or remained constant in every category. The end result is a better place to work. A better place to work results in employee retention. Our goal is to be the best place to work in Metro Detroit. When interviewing prospective employees, especially in today’s environment where the millennial generation makes up a significant percentage of the workforce, employee satisfaction and workplace culture/environment are key to both our hiring and retention systems.

Your company has had extremely low turnover in the last few years. How does that impact your customers?

Our business model includes Customer Experience as a specific element of our strategic plan. Delivering at a very high level, consistently over time, is the product of that initiative. An experienced workforce, familiar with the Roncelli delivery method, all with the passion that embodies Roncelli, requires stability and longevity. These are all characteristics that an owner finds valuable, and generally demands. Through our process-based culture, our goal is to deliver a consistent product regardless of personnel. Our turnover over in the past five years has averaged less than 3%.

In the last 12 months you have launched a Leadership Development program. What is the link between this strategy and retention?

Human nature instills in everyone the need to succeed and excel in what they do. Providing the tools and training to be a good leader at every level is our responsibility. Leadership is a trait that needs to be applied in very specific but different ways for each level, or leadership passage. Fulfilling that basic human nature to succeed, leads to better employee engagement, therefore satisfaction, therefore retention.

As a family-owned, growing business, how important has it been for the owners to be very supportive and all on the same page when it comes to being a “Great Place to Work”?

We started our Strategic Planning by putting all four principals in the same room to discuss short- and long-term goals and strategies. It was imperative that we were all working from the same playbook, and were tightly aligned in our expectations of the process and the results. After my 30 years at Roncelli, it is clear that we have a very experienced and loyal nucleus of employees. Our entire management team from middle management up is home grown. That tells me we have been a “great place to work.” However, the requirements to maintain that status through growth and changing work environment expectations and definitions is a challenge. Exposure to Generations X, Y, and Z is changing the rules, and our expectation is to continue to strategically evolve into a “great place to work” by today’s standards. Roncelli is currently beginning the transition to our third generation of leadership. As a Millennial himself, Gino Roncelli provides direct insight into the psychology, values and expectations of today’s core workforce.

As the President and COO, what are one or two of your key responsibilities when it comes to culture and the company’s ability to continue its growth?

Communication. Everyone wants to know what’s going on all of the time. In response, I have adopted a regular employee communication to stay connected with our employees. It was one of the shortcomings illuminated by our first employee engagement survey. The response has been overwhelming. As a closely-held, family-owned business, it was out of character to be so open in our communication; however, the benefits outweigh the perceived risks.

How did “Talent Development” become one of your company’s three business priorities in your five-year master plan?

Our Strategic plan is made up of three priorities: Operational Excellence, Customer Experience, and Talent Development. Attracting and retaining a highly skilled and talented workforce is a key driver to a great customer experience and operational excellence. All three are intertwined, and feed off of each other. Our Special Project Teams (SPT) are focused on working on each specific initiative to provide the continuous improvement necessary to thrive in a very competitive marketplace. In a market fed and nurtured by the automotive industry, I believe Detroit has the most efficient and competitive construction industry in the country.

What feedback have you received since launching Roncelli University last year?

The feedback has all been positive. The program is in its infancy, but creating formal education and training opportunities ensures consist workforce development. We are tweaking the class structure and curriculums to strengthen our educational and training objectives. It is a work in process, continually improving. Most importantly, it provides the vehicle to design individual development plans for each employee to foster technical growth as a supplement to practical experience gained in the field. A key contributor to our Roncelli University Initiative is the value of actual associates’ developmental experiences and continual feedback from supervisors, peers and mentors.

Your company has a tremendous track record of giving back to the community for decades. How does allowing and supporting employees at all levels being very involved in various community projects link to employee engagement and retention?

I think that goes back to the human nature of wanting to help those in need. Roncelli has a long history of community involvement and corporate citizenship. As an example, over the past five years alone we have participated in numerous efforts to revitalize and renew specific areas of Detroit, first through Life Remodeled, and subsequently with GM Cares and most recently the YMCA. It’s part of that “feel good” experience that bonds our team and contributes to our community. Giving back has become part of the fabric of our company that makes it a “Great Place to Work.”

To contact Tom Wickersham, President, Roncelli LLC  visit or call 586 264-2060.

John Lankford

John Lankford was recognized as the 2007-2010 Associate Business Advisor of the Year in North America and brings proven executive experience and best practices to select companies every year. He served 18 years at the Executive Education Center at Ford Motor Company and is former Senior Director of Ascension Health Learning Institute. John has developed top leaders around the world in partnership with the University of Michigan Business School, the Center for Creative Leadership, Comcast University and GE University, to name a few. His business expertise has been tapped by prominent business media such as the New York Times, CBS and Dbusiness magazine and has been a syndicated business columnist. He is the author of The Answer is Leadership and Superstar for life…Career Transitions. John’s keynote speaking has landed him on the elite team that trains and certifies the new Executive Coaches joining the worldwide coaching community. John is also former Chief Executive Officer of the Innisbrook Leadership Institute. Lankford can be reached at [email protected] or call (888) 730-1950

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