Top Places to Work | Leaders

The value of confidence

Workers want a leader they can believe in

By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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HERB CHAMBERS WAS in the middle of expanding his car sales business when the recession hit, but he kept right on going with plans to open new dealerships and expand others. Now Chambers is hiring, and employees are glad they’re at a company that’s growing while their industry is gasping.

When the economy dipped, office-supply superstore Staples fine-tuned its product mix, but did not cut back on workforce development or engagement with employees.

Consigli Construction found new customers when construction jobs dried up, and kept its people working.

“We live up to the promises we make to them as employees: that they have challenging work with good people,’’ president Anthony Consigli said.

When the climate is gloomy, employees want company leaders to offer confidence, communication, and a sense that a bright future is being built. Workers at these companies believe their professional fate is in good hands:

Herb Chambers Cos.: Twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t the norm for an auto dealer’s service department to wash the cars before returning them to customers, but Herb Chambers did it. “My feeling was a clean car always ran better than dirty one did,’’ said Chambers, head of his namesake business.

This year, going against the grain meant completing $50 million in new facilities. It’s that kind of thinking that has allowed Chambers auto dealerships to grow while other dealers are struggling or even closing down.

That sits well with employees, especially in the high-pressure world of auto sales. “I think it gives our people a great deal of confidence,’’ Chambers said. “They feel good about our company. They believe they are in the right place.’’

One after another, Chambers employees surveyed for Top Places cited the boss himself and the company’s growth as reasons for their satisfaction.

Not that Chambers has escaped the recession entirely. Sales are down 19 percent this year compared to last year, when the expansion was planned. But national numbers are down even more: from 30 to 34 percent.

“We never had a doubt about the future,’’ said Michael Hannafin, service director at Flagship Motorcars, a newly refurbished Chambers dealership in Lynnfield. “He’s a guy who believes in what he is doing. That trickles down.’’

Hannafin said Chambers recently pulled aside a manager who had reorganized a parts department, saying he wanted the rest of the company to copy the system. “You can’t measure what that does for an employee,’’ Hannafin said. “That guy was on cloud nine and the rest of his team was motivated, because he was singled out in a positive way by the CEO of the company.’’

Staples: Early on, Staples founder Thomas Stemberg started a tradition of going from store to store to ask workers what they needed. The office products retailer has expanded far beyond its original location in Brighton and now keeps in touch with employees via video or the Web, but chief executive Ronald Sargent works to ensure the principle remains the same.

“We feel that without communication, you don’t know what direction you are going in,’’ said Doreen Nichols, vice president of associate relations and global diversity, adding that managers think of employees as customers to be served.

A companywide program called Stake in Staples creates a dialogue about what’s going right and what isn’t, new products, and the impact of major changes such as last year’s acquisition of the office supplier Corporate Express, which is based in the Netherlands.

Gursher Gill, a project manager in emerging markets, joined the company in 2006 as an assistant store manager, was promoted to manager, and then moved into the international department, where he explores opportunities in India, China, Taiwan, Brazil, and Argentina.

“I have grown with the company,’’ he said.

Consigli Construction Co.: When Anthony Consigli talks to his 89-year-old uncle about the Great Depression, it puts the current downturn into perspective.

“You can’t stop training, you can’t stop doing all the right things just because a recession hits,’’ he said.

During the recession, which took a toll on construction jobs, the 104-year-old company added three military projects to its traditional academic and health care portfolio. It also acquired a Hudson River Valley construction company to broaden its base. Both send a message of stability in a company with high-end projects and low turnover.

“We want to be doing everything we can to make sure we create an environment for our employees to want to do the absolute best work that they can do,’’ Consigli said.

Jeff Navin, a project executive who has been at Consigli for 11 years, said turnover is low at the company because people who work there take their cues from Consigli himself.

“They’re well-rounded, they’re motivated, they always want to do better,’’ he said. “They work hard, and they play hard.’’