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November 8, 2019

Retaining, engaging workforce key for CEOs at Mainebiz forum in Bangor

Photo / Alison Nason Ellen Belknap, of SMRT Architects and Engineers, right, makes a point at Thursday's Mainebiz CEO Breakfast Forum in Bangor. Also pictured are, from left, moderator Deb Neuman, president, Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce; Chris Kilgour, CEO, C&L Aerospace; Emily Smith, president and managing partner, Smith's Farm; Kris Doody, CEO Cary Medical Center; and Larry Shaw, CEO, MMG Insurance. Not shown is Steve Mills, CEO, Maine Beer Co.

Larry Shaw, president and CEO of MMG Insurance is blunt about running an insurance agency in 2019, particularly one headquartred in Presque Isle. 

"The hiring challenges are pretty intense," he told a crowd of 200 gathered for the Mainebiz Bangor Breakfast Forum Thursday morning. "Insurance types don't grow on trees."

Yet in six years, the firm has hired 183 people and increased the number of millennial-age employees — those in their 20s and 30s — from 21% to 40%. In 2018, 42 employees were promoted; so far this year 30 have been.

He said it's all about developing and presenting opportunities in a way that speaks to employees. "Success breeds that opportunity," he said.

Shaw was one of six CEOs who shared personal stories of success and learning experiences on the "60 Ideas in 60 Minutes" panel, moderated by Deb Neuman, president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

Also taking part were Emily Smith, president and managing partner at Smith's Farm, in Presque Isle; Ellen Belknap, principal and president at SMRT Architects and Engineers, of Portland and Bangor; Steve Mills, CEO at Maine Beer Co., Freeport; Chris Kilgour, CEO at C&L Aerospace, Bangor; and Kris Doody, CEO of Cary Medical Center, Caribou.

The event was one of two "60 Ideas" panels Mainebiz held this year. A similar panel was held in Portland in October.

Thursday's discussion was wide-ranging, including recommended books, relationship building, the importance of down time and more. But the panel frequently came back to how to retain employees and keep them motivated, given the state's workforce challenges.

Here are some highlights.

Attracting and recruiting employees

Kilgour said a middle management training program is a key feature at C&L Aerospace. When promoting from within, "it's not enough to say, 'Oh, they're good at doing that,'" he said. Rather than relying on a typical brief program in management skills, a group of C&L trainees meets once a week, developing ideas, learning from each other and forging bonds as they go.

Belknap said that SMRT does something similar, and that bonding is a benefit. "They come to know 10 other people in the organization really well," she said.

Mills said that he makes sure employees at Maine Beer Co. know that there will be a safety net if they make a mistake. Hearing a boss say "I've got your back" is "incredibly empowering," Mills said. "As long as you do."

Doody said that pre-high school students are introduced to health care jobs as an option, and that the hospital follows through. Last year, Cary Medical Center hired three physicians who were born in Caribou. She herself was born in the hospital she leads.

She said the hospital also gets creative if it doesn't have positions for local people eager to work in the field. "We work with our sister organizations," she said.

Smith, who is in the sixth generation running her family's farm, said it's important to let employees know they're appreciated. "You're only as good as your people," she said. "And running a farm takes a lot of people. Everybody matters."

She said it's important to deal with employees so that they know they can trust the company, but also to make sure the employees know they're trusted and appreciated. Many of the seasonal employees the farm hires come back. "If you don't have that trust in your people, they can go anywhere."

Mills also talked about the trust relationship. "If you betray the trust, good luck getting it back," he said.

Dealing with the bad, the good

It's important, the CEOs agreed, to admit mistakes.

"If you find you made a mistake, admit it, apologize if you need to, and move on," so it doesn't linger, said Shaw.

He added that it's important to develop the culture "that you want." And once it's established, "it needs to be protected, because you can lose it so quickly."

Belknap agreed, saying, "Culture trumps strategy any day of the week, and you can't take culture for granted. You have to nurture it every day.

Smith said part of that is the appreciation factor. "You wouldn't ask someone to do what you wouldn't do yourself," she said. "To get beside somebody and do their job with them matters."

Advice for students

Several students from the University of Maine and Husson University attended Thursday's event, and during a question-and-answer session, one asked about the importance of a college degree.

Shaw said the most important thing to get out of college is the soft skills, including learning how to build relationships, and "and learning what you're good at."

Smith said, "If I had advice for college students, I'd say, 'Go to class.'"

While the audience laughed, she stressed that it's a lesson that carries through business success. "Just show up. That's 80% of the deal. Be first, or try to be first. Just don't be last. If you go to class, you're pretty much guaranteed a seat."

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