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Executive Roundtable

People are their first priority

This year’s Top Places to Work roundtable brought together executives from three very different industries: residential real estate, grocery, and Internet security. But Carol Bulman, chief executive of Jack Conway & Co.; Gary Pfeil, president of Roche Bros.; and Mike Tuchen, chief executive of Rapid7 do have something very much in common: Their companies have made regular appearances on our Top Places list. They recently met at the Globe to share insights into hiring and retaining employees, as well as where the economy is heading. Below is an edited conversation with Globe business editor Shirley Leung:

Globe: Gary and Carol, you’re not rapidly growing like Mike’s company, but you have a lot of turnover. How do you handle that?

Pfeil: Roche Bros. hires about 1,000 associates a year. Probably 90 percent of them are part-timers and a lot of them are for summer jobs — the high school kids working as cashiers or baggers, and a lot of those kids come in, and they work for probably six months for us, and then they go on.

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About 10 percent of them are full-time associates, management people. And those people tend to stay with us for 20, 30 — we have some people with 40 years service with us.

From no experience to lots of experience, it’s still the same thing. Friendly people are going to be good with customers.

Bulman: We have just over 600 sales associates right now, and to keep that number up we have to bring in about 100 people a year. It would be wonderful if they all stayed. But real estate is a unique business. It’s not suited for everyone. People sometimes will come into it thinking that it’s something that’s very flexible, that it’s easy money. They show a house, they get a paycheck. There’s so much more to it, especially today, with short sales, foreclosures, a lot of complications.

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A lot of real estate today is tools and technologies, and people come in with different skill sets when they join us, so we need to match our training with their skill sets.

Globe: Mike, your hiring is just pure expansion, right?

Tuchen: We’re going from about 200 at the end of last year, and we’ll be about 300 people by the end of this year. For us, it’s about hiring really great talent so we can continue that kind of growth.

Globe: I know it’s difficult to hire certain kinds of tech workers. You even hear about $10,000 bounties to find some talent.

PFEIL: “We’ve gotten better at the business because it’s a poor economy.”

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Tuchen:We haven’t seen that. What we’ve seen is that we have a great story to tell. It’s one of the fastest growing places in Boston. It literally is an almost, an electric atmosphere — just full of passionate, high-energy people. You feel it as soon as you walk in the door. And so the right people walk into the environment and just say, “I want to work there.”

Globe: What about retaining talent?

Bulman: Success really comes from a feeling. I hear my agents say that they love working with Jack Conway Co. because there’s a family feeling, so much so that I’ve started to ask them to define what that means. What I’m getting from them is that working for people who care and are willing to take the time to listen to how to get better from their perspective. Honestly, if my agents aren’t happy, then our company won’t survive. Our agents are our front line.

Tuchen: We’ve focused on making sure that we have a great environment for people to learn and grow. Because, particularly for people early on in their career, that constant sense of being challenged and learning to do something you couldn’t do the year before and really making sure you’re growing at the fastest possible pace is just so critical to your ultimate success and satisfaction.

Globe: The recession’s in the rear-view mirror — fingers crossed — did any good come out of it for you?

Pfeil: Pretty much every technology system we’ve replaced in the last five years, from front-end scanners to payroll systems. It really gives us an edge in controlling, whether it’s payroll or products on the shelves. We’ve gotten better at the business because it’s a poor economy, and in order to keep our profit margins intact we had to operate as a better business, and that’s been a big plus.

Tuchen: I came [to Rapid7] in mid-2008, and of course in September, October, choose your favorite day, the world fell apart. We just completely revamped how we did a whole lot of things. We brought in processing systems and metrics, we brought a whole new exec team in, and really put the foundation that’s driven the growth for the next stage of the company.

Bulman: I came on as CEO of Jack Conway in year three of the six-year downturn. Our companies are all very unique, but hearing your stories, it’s very much the same thing. Basically the expression “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger“ absolutely fits here because we had no choice.

We had to react quickly. I had to be able to respond with cuts and more efficiencies and consolidations. Consumers were shifting their way of doing business to the Internet and that allowed us to cut back in some of our print advertising, which was overwhelming — our hugest expense besides payroll. We revamped our website. There was a real shift in how we did things over the last few years, and it’s working.

Globe: If there is another recession, how will that affect your company, and how will you respond?

Pfeil: We try not to think about that too much. We try to be positive. But if there was another recession, we’d continue to tweak the model. In many respects, it may be an opportunity. It may drive people to eat at home, which is a great opportunity for us.

Bulman: We’re positioned at this point. We’ve got ourselves working so efficiently.

Tuchen: We’re fortunate to be in a market that has different dynamics. What’s happening in the [online] security market is there are so many different attacks out there. People are finding that they have to spend money on security.

Even at the depths of the recession — which I would have put as 2009 — that was our slowest growth year in the company history, and we grew in the low 30 percent range.

Globe: Does it feel like 1999 again? We’re approaching a tech bubble, and one day we wake up and “poof”?

Tuchen: Having been in tech in 1999, I knew what that felt like. There was a feeling that if it had the word “technology” in it, or, even more, “Internet” in it, it must be good, and valuations were incredible. Even with no evidence of an actual business or no evidence of a plan where you can take it, all kinds of crazy stuff would happen.

What we see in the market now is actually a very discriminating market. For companies with high growth and a disruptive business model, there are great valuations. On the other hand, for companies that don’t have that, they’re struggling to get a lot of respect in the investment community.

Globe: Carol, your father and company founder Jack Conway recently passed away. What will the next half century be like for the family business?

Bulman: My first job with my dad was when I was 14. I learned a lot about my dad working with him. I probably learned more after he died. Reading just the volume of notes, e-mails, Facebook postings — just incredible accolades of who he was as a person. Not necessarily as a business person — as a person. And I learned a lot about business by reading those notes.

The key here is, it’s not all just about numbers. It’s about their families and listening to them and valuing people’s opinions, and doing the right thing for your community.

I have the great opportunity of taking this company that he’s built and bringing it more into the modern age. I’ve got a number of my family members involved, and it’s great to be an independent real estate company. There are few of us left of our size. And we bring something special to the market, and that’s my plan — to continue bringing that something special to the market.

Globe: Many companies want to be on our Top Places list, which we started in 2008. Roche Bros. has been on the list all five years. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to a company that wants to get on the list?

Pfeil: It’s exactly what Carol just said. Roche Bros. is celebrating 60 years in business, our cofounder, Pat Roche, just passed away recently, much like Carol’s. It is largely about the person, not the business. That feeling that we talked about, that’s really special, and it’s part of belonging to something that’s more than a business. It’s almost like a family.

Bulman: It’s an honor to be part of this list. When we’re in real estate sales — that’s a really tough segment of the market right now — it makes it even more special. People don’t want to be stagnant, and we spend far too much time in our jobs to be bored and unfulfilled. If people are feeling fulfilled, appreciated, valued, and they’re making some money at the same time, then that’s it. That’s the secret sauce.

Tuchen: The most important thing that every company has is its people. Certainly technology companies get confused and say, “I’m a technology company,” and yeah we are, but ultimately, you’re actually a people company. You do the right thing with the right people, all that other stuff will not only take care of itself but it will blow you away every day with what happens.

Note to readers: This story featuring Rapid7 chief executive Mike Tuchen went to press before Tuchen stepped down from that role. He is now an adviser to the Boston technology firm.

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