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Planned Cos. Sends Employees to the School of Growth

March 22, 2010

Career training often is a low priority at family-run companies, whose owners spend most of their time concerned with economic survival. Robert Francis refuses to engage in such short-term thinking at Planned Cos., a real estate services firm based in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Francis is the fourth generation of his family to run the company, whose customers include owners of upscale rental properties, including apartments and high-rise office complexes. Planned Cos. was founded by his great-great-grandfather, Bernard Francis, in 1898 and has survived the Great Depression, two world wars and the death of the Industrial Age.

The company has remained small and independent in an era of mergers and consolidation. But it is not afraid of using new technologies to advance employee learning. Recently, the 112-year-old firm launched the Planned School of Professional Development, which celebrates its first anniversary in May. The learning center provides online career training to employees whose jobs, while unglamorous, are pivotal to Planned Cos.’ success.

It provides guidance and training on more than 3,000 programs and professional development services. The content ranges from tutorials on using basic computer programs to more strategic business skills. People in jobs ranging from janitorial services to customer service are able to pursue courses that could put them in line to grow with the company.

Whether it’s polishing their computer skills, learning a second language or pursuing professional credentials, the objective of the program is the same.

“It’s a retention tool as well as a way for us to tell employees, ‘We value your individual contributions, whether you’re a janitor or a concierge at a high-rent building,’ ” says Francis, the company’s president and CEO.

Planned Cos. provides building management and tenant services to 330 residential and commercial properties in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The firm consists of three divisions: Planned Lifestyle Services, which provides concierge, front desk and doorman services; Planned Security Services, for residential and corporate customers; and Planned Building Services, a janitorial and maintenance unit.

“We’ve been fortunate to grow year over year, even in these crazy times,” says Francis, whose company posted record revenue of $40 billion in 2009.

The school originally was intended for about 65 employees in operations, administration and managerial roles. The purpose: Supply managers with skills—including change management, conflict resolution, negotiation and leadership—that they’ll need to emerge as effective leaders.

Among the early participants is Shawn Walsh, a regional manager who supervises about 100 employees.

“Employee morale is great, we’re keeping a lot of staff, and I think it’s [all] because of the school,” Walsh says. “The training really guides us on how to become more professional as managers and to help our associates working in the field.”

Those in management are not the only ones to benefit. The program is being rolled out in phases to the company’s 1,250 other employees this year. All employees eventually will be expected to pursue at least one course a month until they satisfy a 12-course core curriculum.

In addition to workforce-wide training on customer service skills, each group of employees will receive content that is specially geared toward their job responsibilities. “They’re going to have courses that are really applicable to their day-to-day activities,” Francis says.

The company this year plans to roll out specialized learning programs for various job families, including concierge and front desk, maintenance and janitorial services, and security.

“Education and training is a daily event in our business,” says Michael Hynes, a project manager with Planned Building Service who joined the company 14 months ago. “Having the resources at our facility will be an asset to our associates, to myself, and mostly our clients, who are paying for our knowledge and experience. This is a large step in the growth potential of Planned Cos.”

Hynes says he plans to pursue management-level classes such as time management, which is a key skill to master when overseeing teams in charge of managing a property. He also points to a longer-range benefit of preparing people to lead the company.

“It also gives the company the opportunity to help, train and groom the ‘A’ players and emerging leaders,” Hynes says.

Learning exercises include video simulations of likely business situations and other interactive presentations. Participants are prompted to answer a series of multiple-choice questions, thus getting instant feedback. Courses typically conclude with a 10-question self-assessment test.

As employees take each course, Planned Cos.’ executive team asks them to evaluate the material. The ultimate aim is to tailor the offerings to ensure people follow a more scripted career path.

Francis credits the school, coupled with other training and employee recognition, with helping Planned Cos. reduce employee turnover by 10 percent during the previous two years.

“Ours is a retention-based business. If you can get people to stay, then you’re winning the game” of client retention as well, Francis says.

Employees are encouraged to learn for their professional enrichment, even though Francis acknowledges that could lead some to leave the company for other opportunities. It is an unusual stance for a CEO to take, especially in an industry where high turnover is the norm.

In fact, the building-cleaning services industry will experience fierce competition for workers during the next decade. By 2018, projected employment will grow by 5 percent to more than 4 million workers, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which is produced by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of those job openings reportedly will arise from the need to replace the high number of people who leave the occupation annually.

Employees at Planned Cos. this year will begin putting their learning to practical use. Francis says the intention is to have each employee start working on a career path that includes interim and long-range professional goals.

“First, we want to identify associates who wish to be promoted from within—our ‘A’ players that have a desire to lead or manage different divisions,” Francis says.

Along with the professional development school, Planned Cos. this year is building a 200,000-square-foot educational facility that is slated to open in August. It will enable employees to get training on concierge and front-desk procedures, environmentally friendly cleaning and maintenance techniques and the basic functions of elevators, landscaping, pools and roofs. Employees in relevant jobs will be able to pursue accreditation in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a “green building” practices and principles certification program.

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