Yacht builder charts a new course for recruiting workers

2007 Virginia Small Business Success Story of the Year, Hampton Roads Finalist

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by Phaedra Hise

Chris Adams knew a little bit about boats when he gave Zimmerman Marine Inc. a call about a job. “But when I say boats, I mean 20-foot boats. Really small,” says Adams, who had been repairing outboard motors for years as a hobbyist. “Not the million-dollar yachts Zimmerman makes.”

At the time Adams was working as a machine operator at the Canon plant in Newport News. It was a noisy, messy job repairing manufacturing robots. Getting to work required a three-hour commute from his house in Mathews County, home of Zimmerman Marine. Adams was ready for a change.

“When you stand back and look at it, anyone would pretty much say that my skills wouldn’t transfer,” says Adams. Yet, Zimmerman jumped at the chance to hire him three years ago. Attracting skilled workers to the tiny town of Cardinal (population 416) on the East River of Mobjack Bay had been the yacht builder’s biggest obstacle to growth. Not any more.
For several years, Zimmerman Marine has recruited workers from automotive, airline and other manufacturing industries. It’s an innovative approach for a company that repairs sail boats and powerboats and builds posh cruising yachts that can cost more than a million dollars.

“We’ve always had demand for our services,” says owner and President Steve Zimmerman, who started the company 25 years ago. “But the cap on our growth has been hiring skilled people. We’re not a manufacturer just stamping stuff out, these are crafts people.”

For instance, consider a yacht’s intricate cabinetry. At Zimmerman, employees design the job, make all the parts and then fit them together using hand tools. 

At first, the company tried to fill openings through a traditional hiring approach, placing newspaper ads for skilled boat makers in marine-friendly cities such as Portland, Maine, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But the ads barely generated enough hires to keep up with attrition, much less fuel growth.

Then Zimmerman began thinking about widening the pool by including workers with similar skills from different industries. To figure out exactly what he was looking for, he took steps to benchmark his top performers.

With the help of a hiring and testing firm, Zimmerman learned that his employees share several common characteristics. For example, they pay attention to detail and exhibit patience — important qualities in the nearly yearlong process of building a custom yacht. Zimmerman began advertising online and rating new candidates based on the personality traits identified by the testing. He says the cost isn’t prohibitive; the company buys the tests in batches of 25 at a cost of $800, or $32.00 per test.

So far, the new approach has worked as smoothly as a sail. Since starting the program last year, Zimmerman estimates the company has hired 25 percent of its current 34-member staff. The successful recruiting and hiring, he adds, has boosted productivity, and the company’s annual revenue has grown from $2.9 million to $3.8 million. Plus, with increased staffing, Zimmerman Marine plans to pursue an entirely new line of work this year — outfitting custom motor coaches.

Another good example of what can happen when people think outside the boat. 

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