W100 Profile: It pays to be nice

Written by Rebecca Gardiner
“I say if you’re not willing to do the chicken dance, you can’t join the company!” That may seem like an odd, even alarming, expectation for a president to have of job candidates. But Sandra Wilson figures if you don’t consider it fun to stop the production line and cluck your stuff, you probably won’t fit in at Burnaby, B.C.-based Robeez Footwear Ltd.Wilson takes pride in the fun and caring atmosphere that Robeez, a maker of soft-soled leather footwear for kids four and under, fosters for its staff. She says she moulded the culture around her own values of being “open, approachable and not into bureaucracy” simply because she believes in them. But Robeez’s stellar results—impressive staff retention, a workforce that contributes business-building ideas and a blistering growth rate—suggest that even entrepreneurs who don’t share Wilson’s values could profit by adopting them.

Since its launch in 1994, Robeez has grown from three employees in Wilson’s basement to 540 staff in four facilities. It ranked 27th on this year’s PROFIT W100 list of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs, with 2004 revenue of $14.5 million, and its three-year growth of 1,200% led the pack. It also placed sixth in the PROFIT 100 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

Wilson says Robeez’s relaxed, supportive culture is vital to its growth. She points to low staff turnover, which year to date has been 22% for hourly employees, versus 40% at the average B.C. manufacturer. And she says staff feel comfortable enough to propose new ideas. A receptionist came up with the concept and design for Robeez Booties, a leather boot with a warm, plush lining that now yields 10% of revenue.

Robeez takes great pains to maintain its culture amid hypergrowth. It starts by enlisting staff to find recruits who will fit in. Robeez pays $100 to $1,500 for each referral leading to a hire, depending how much it would have cost to fill the job otherwise. Orientation sessions for newbies run two full days, including a two-hour presentation by Wilson on the firm’s history and values.

Robeez weaves fun and training into the routine, a break from the monotony of many of the sewing jobs. It runs social events such as “Crazy Hat Day” and a jack-o’-lantern carving contest. And it allocates a hefty $1,500 per employee—about 5% of annual revenue—to training programs, from lunch-and-learn sessions on financial planning to English-language courses (70% of production staff are Chinese-speaking).

Then there’s the chicken dance. Each production line stops once a shift while music plays and staff stretch and dance. Wilson says her interviewers don’t actually ask prospects whether they’re willing to dance, but do observe their reaction when told about the ritual.

Wilson spends 50% of her week on human resources-related issues such as chatting with staff on the production line, participating in many job interviews and hosting “Coffee with Sandra” every Friday with half a dozen staff. But she considers sustaining Robeez’s values worth the effort.

Wilson’s belief in her culture explains why Robeez’s European headquarters consist of a home office in Wales, where a Welsh mother with a passion for Robeez’s values has been promoted from fulfilling website orders part-time to heading the cross-Atlantic expansion. “People ask, ‘What the heck are you doing in Wales?'” says Wilson. “Well, that’s where the right people are. We felt it was really important to get the people first, then do the business.”

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