Hire Education
After 25 years of building businesses and recruiting employees, I've learned ways to seek out the best talent.
Norman Cloutier

(FSB Magazine) - I've long believed that 90% of coaching is hiring. If you start with good people, they will do good work and accomplish more, with less supervision.

In the mid-1970s I started United Natural Foods (http://www.unfi.com), a wholesale distributor of natural and organic grocery items in Dayville, Conn. Our growth was pretty dramatic. I took the company public in 1996, and by the time I retired as chairman and CEO in 1999, it had annual sales near $1 billion. Today I'm building a second company, Fairfield Farm Kitchens (http://www.fairfieldfarmkitchens.com), a $20-million-a-year manufacturer of organic frozen and refrigerated prepared foods in Brockton, Mass. In both businesses, recruiting the best employees has been critical to our growth.

I take an unusual view of what makes a person qualified for a job. It doesn't bother me if a candidate doesn't know the food business, as long as he has the skill sets I want and is hungry for opportunity. For example, I recently needed to fill a communications position at Fairfield. Rather than limit the search to someone who had done public relations work in the food industry, I sought someone passionate about sustainable agriculture and the connection between our food and the small family farms that grow it. That, after all, is part of our core mission. The woman we hired had been doing volunteer work for a related nonprofit. It was an unconventional choice, but I knew she was working there because she believed in sustainable agriculture and wouldn't want the job simply because it was a good career move or to be part of a booming industry.

When I solicit resumes, I insist on something else: a cover letter. Many companies don't put as much stock in them as they once did, but after hundreds of hires, I've found that if you have a couple dozen prospects who look equally good, the ones who write well-crafted cover letters often turn out to be the best candidates. Anyone in a management position has to be able to organize his thoughts and to sell his ideas. A rambling, disjointed letter is a big red flag. If someone can't express his thoughts when there are no distractions, how would he fare under the pressures of the job? I remember one letter where a candidate spoke of himself only in superlatives: "I'm the best manager in the history of my company." Another phrase that made me chuckle--and discard the resume: "In spite of my incredible efforts, the company failed."

Sometimes you find your best future employees when you don't have a position to offer them. In the 1980s, for example, I acquired the assets of a distribution company with a staff of about 40. After the sale closed, the previous owner notified them by memo and immediately took a Caribbean vacation, leaving me to break the bad news that they were all to be laid off. It was a terrible situation all around, but I met with each employee individually. One man I spoke with displayed keen insight into the acquired company's strategic deficiencies and really impressed me. I said in all earnestness that I would consider him for any future openings. He probably thought that was lip service, but a year later I hired him. Over the next decade he moved up through the company to become a division president.

After putting in 70-hour weeks at United, I wasn't looking for another job where I would be on call 24 hours a day. The talented people I've hired for Fairfield Farm Kitchens allow me to stay out of operations and work mainly from my home office on the vision and direction of the company. Good workers almost always mean fewer problems for the person at the top. Top of page