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SMALL BUSINESS | THE LEARNING CURVE

For Apparel Firm, Every Player Counts

September 17, 1997|Karen E. Klein.

Courtney Sapin started ChefDirect out of a spare bedroom after working for a company that manufactured oven mitts. This year he will expand from the restaurant market into retail sales. He manages and motivates his factory employees in the same way he coaches his son's baseball team--and says the important thing to remember is that every player counts. He was interviewed by Karen E. Klein.

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When employees are hired here, they are told right off what our expectations are. That way they can predict what their jobs will be like.

The first day on the job, the employees get business cards and a 50-page employee manual that I wrote myself. It gives them all the rules of the road--rules about vacations, sick time, supervisors, everything. Supervisors go over it in Spanish for employees who don't speak English.

This way, if you're a sewing operator, you know you will have to clean your machine every day. You will not have food at your workstation and you will not leave it in a condition that would create a safety hazard.

The employees are also told that they should think for themselves. If they have a problem or they believe something should be done differently, they are expected to change it or tell us. Just because they run a sewing machine does not mean they don't think.

The last company I worked for went through a traumatic labor-organizing experience. I saw that the company had not paid attention to their operators or allowed them to give input.

We pay our employees well and they get excellent health benefits. We also give large bonuses in June and December that are tied directly to the profits of the business.

But everybody here has to work very hard. If they are going to be paid $20,000 to $40,000 a year, they have to work for it.

We treat them well. We know their families. If they have problems, we will work it out. We close one week every year so we can all take time off.

We all went to opening day at Dodger Stadium, with me providing the tickets, snacks and transportation. I planned on giving them the day off without pay. But they decided on their own to come in at 6 a.m. and work until 11 because they knew there was work that had to be shipped.

Every month I hold an Employee of the Month lunch. I talk to them about the great things the employee has done that month and that employee gets $20 and their picture up on the lunchroom board.

I have had a very low turnover rate. We have only lost two people in the last 24 months, and I got notes from both of them saying how sorry they were to leave.

I liken my business to a baseball team. When we started out, we were playing T-ball--making errors all the time. Then we moved up to Little League and we started making some outs, but we still threw a lot of errors. Then we graduated to high school ball and now we are in the minor leagues.

I knew we were playing professional ball when an order came in for 20 samples, all very complicated. When we got the fabric we needed, there were only four hours before the deadline.

The whole team dropped what they were doing and pitched in. Every employee had a piece of that order--sewing, trimming, cutting and shipping. They had it ready to go in two hours. The following Monday we got a $21,000 purchase order from that client.

I think the employees have learned to pull together. They get a sense of belonging, knowing how much we trust them.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

At a Glance

Company: ChefDirect, a division of Health Line Products Inc.

Owner: Courtney Sapin

Nature of business: Manufactures and distributes kitchen textiles, uniforms and chef apparel.

Location: 100 N. Santa Fe Ave., Los Angeles

Founded: 1990

Employees: 15 full-time, 2 part-time

Annual revenue: $1.7 million

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