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The role of the crew chief

Features, Management | August 1, 2007 | By:

Crew chiefs do more than just make sure a tent is installed correctly—they’re the employees you can’t afford to lose.

Anyone running a business these days will tell you that good help is hard to find. Owners of tent rental companies regularly face this conundrum in hiring and keeping high-quality workers, particularly when it comes to crew chiefs. After all, the role of crew chief is considered one of the most integral—yet often the toughest—in the tent rental business.

“You expect them to deal with the fire marshal and safety codes, keep the crew safe, drive the $50,000 company truck to and from the site safely, and stand there during the event in the pouring rain. It’s a really tough job,” says Kevin McBride, owner of P.J. McBride Inc. in West Babylon, N.Y. “You do not need owners, administrative staff, sales and accounting unless they have crew chiefs who are willing to do the work. Without them, tents don’t go up. Crew chiefs are some of the most important people in the company.”

Like McBride, many owners and managers in the tent rental industry understand the value of crew chiefs. Here, they discuss the role that crew chiefs play, common challenges they face in the field and—perhaps most critical—how owners recruit and retain these leaders in a budget-conscious, competitive market.

Defining the crew chief’s role

As the person overseeing a tent installation, the crew chief shoulders much of the responsibility on a job site. Crew chiefs need to be prepared for a job before they even head out the door, says Dan Chase, co-owner of Chase Canopy in Mattapoisett, Mass. “Before they leave the shop they have to make sure the truck is loaded properly with everything they need. I don’t want tent poles flying down the highway,” he says. “They need to ensure crews are dressed properly and have everything with them, including their lunches. They need a map or written directions so they know where they’re going.”

Another important aspect of the crew chief’s job is understanding the site. This often entails a site visit and assessment from the crew chief or another member of the tent rental company before the job starts. At Chase Canopy, if a crew chief does not visit a site beforehand, he is still equipped with the proper information. “Many times we’ll include a photo of the site with the delivery ticket,” Chase says. “You save a lot of headaches down the road.”

Crew chiefs are also responsible for worker safety. That means making sure they train their staff and that their crew is wearing the proper gear, including hard hats, gloves and eye and ear protection. “If someone gets hurt, I’m not going back to the installer. I’m getting the crew chief in my office,” says Brian Richardson, president of L & A Tents in Hamilton, N.J. “I’m asking why the worker was climbing on top of a tent [when he wasn’t supposed to] or why he was wearing sneakers instead of steel-toed boots.”

Because they work with crews on a daily basis, crew chiefs act as liaisons between the site and the front office, says Bob Binns, operations manager for A Rental Connection in Canoga Park, Calif. “Crew chiefs need to communicate any new issues or information to us that has passed from the client, whether that be a change in delivery or pickup time or change in location layout,” he says.

Similarly, managers and owners depend on crew chiefs to communicate concerns they have with the crew. “Another crew chief responsibility is to report back to us about how an employee is doing as far as training, treatment of property—both the customer’s and rental—and efficiency,” Binns says. “They don’t directly write up employees, but when we’re giving reviews, we talk to the crew chief about how that person is performing.” If a crew chief says that a person works hard, that worker will be rewarded with higher pay, more available work or other incentives, such as sweatshirts or jackets, Binns adds.

Perhaps the crew chief’s most important task on a job site is to interface with the customer. “They are ambassadors for our company and play an important role in maintaining the working relationships we hold within our industry,” says Peter Cook, general manager of L.H. Woodhouse & Co. Ltd. in Nottingham, England.

“I expect our crew chiefs to have great customer relations,” Richardson agrees. “The client is making all sorts of last-minute changes and additions. They have to interpret what the client wants.”

Overcoming challenges

With such responsibility comes a number of challenges. For starters, all the aforementioned tasks must be performed on time and under budget. “The problem we run into with ineffective leadership is cost overrun,” McBride says. “I’ve had people who were spectacular from a skill standpoint but could not effectively get the crew going in the right direction. In those situations, the cost overruns get out of control.”

“Crew chiefs have to be able to adapt quickly by keeping the client happy and watching the profit line at the same time,” Richardson adds. “Not only do they have to answer to clients, but they have to answer to me.”

Language barriers can potentially create problems, but established companies have found ways to communicate with a non-English-speaking labor pool. For example, P.J. McBride prints its work orders in both English and Spanish. “Crew chiefs also carry keyword documents,” McBride says. “We do have some who have learned Spanish over the years, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be a good crew chief.”

The evolving nature of the tent industry, including enhanced safety regulations, is another challenge. Because most crew chiefs are in charge of on-the-job training for their workers, they need to be properly trained themselves. Tent rental company owners make sure that the crew chiefs receive appropriate training by sending them to trade shows, seminars and classes, as well as providing a series of in-house refresher courses. Cook has found that regular training for his company’s foremen not only better equips them to train their workers, but it has become a necessity. “Health and safety responsibilities have increased for everyone within our industry,” he says. “This is the biggest ongoing challenge we face.”

Richardson sees a similar trend with his business: “There’s a much more safety-conscious environment than when I started 25 years ago because of the cost of insurance.”

The advances in tent structures themselves also keep crew chiefs on their toes. “I think the role of crew chief has changed because the business has changed,” Richardson says. “The number of products has quadrupled. We’ve gone from simple pole tents to frames to tensioned tents to clearspan structures. Just the knowledge of all the different product lines is crucial.”

A savvy, quick-thinking crew chief should be able to handle most of these challenges, but even the most experienced ones find themselves dealing with the unexpected. Chase recounts the time when his crew arrived at a waterfront parking lot to install a tent, only to discover that people had moved the crew’s ropes so they could park their vehicles and go fishing. “We had our best-laid plans, which did not include waiting for cars to be towed,” Chase recalls. “These types of situations cause havoc and force us to work longer hours.”

Retaining good help

Because of the invaluable services that crew chiefs provide, owners and managers recognize the importance of recruiting, and ultimately retaining, good-quality leaders. But the trouble is that in today’s market, it’s not always easy to do. McBride believes that the tent rental industry has backed itself into a corner. At the core of the issue, he says, is that customers no longer appreciate skilled labor. They will pay top dollar for a plumber or electrician, but when it comes to installing a tent, people want it done for as little as possible. As a result, the tent industry, by continually succumbing to the cheapest bid, contributes to the problem of crew chief retention.

“We’ve forced ourselves into a scenario where it’s getting harder and harder to retain people because we can’t pay them enough. That’s a result of the necessities of the economy,” he says. “You’ve had to lower your prices to make your business run. I’ve been very fortunate. We’ve taken the time to train new people. I know in my heart that this company would not exist if the crew chiefs were not here, so we deal with the finances of it.”

A Rental Connection tries to retain its crew chiefs, which currently number 10, through an attractive salary and benefits package. “We pay a good salary and provide medical, dental, vision, retirement profit-sharing and paid vacations,” Binns says. “This is labor-intensive work; there are easier jobs out there. It’s very important for us to retain experienced employees and give them incentives to stay, such as showing them loyalty by employing them year-round, not just during the busy time.”

L & A Tents, whose four full-time crew chiefs include college students, uses flex time as an incentive. “You have to be pretty creative now to get quality employees, and you have to pay more,” Richardson acknowledges. “But that’s one of the costs of doing business.”

From a recruiting standpoint, many tent rental companies find that employee referral and word of mouth are the best tools. “The biggest thing with new people is trial and error,” Binns says. “It doesn’t take long for workers to figure out if this is the business for them. There’s a lot of pressure to get tents installed on time. I hire three or four drivers/crew chiefs at a time to see if one will stick.”

Most owners and managers will agree that crew chiefs are worth every penny, as Binns recently experienced. A Rental Connection and another tent rental company were both working a large-scale event. The client approached the staff of the other company about the possibility of obtaining more equipment, and they told the client they had fulfilled their obligation and were done. The client then spoke with A Rental Connection’s crew chief, who found out from the home office that the equipment was available. The crew chief not only provided it, but did so on time.

“There were no salespeople involved, just our lead and the other company’s lead,” Binns recalls. “It came down to customer service—the fact that we were flexible enough to do the extra work to make the event right. And the difference between their crew chief and ours has led to us quoting three more jobs with that client.”

Holly O’Dell is a California-based freelance writer.

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