Character, n. ["to cut, engrave"]: The stable and distinctive qualities built into an individual’s life which determine his/her response regardless of circumstances.
The Costa Group has gone through a remarkable period of growth in the past few years, and today is the largest provider of perishable logistics (fruit and vegetables, as well as other temperature-sensitive foodstuffs) to the two major supermarket chains.
Uniquely amongst Australian companies, the Costa Group has embraced a personnel management program “Character First!” (see www.characterfirst.com). The company’s motto is “We hire for character and train for skill”, a remarkably refreshing departure from the more common policy of looking for an exact match when filling vacancies.
The company policy goes on to say: “Our Character First! program recognises the importance we place on the character of our people, acknowledging that professional skills and personal character need to be equally developed in the workplace.
“Throughout the Costa Group, our focus remains firmly on the development and recognition of great character in all whose lives touch our business. From recruitment to management development, character is the foundation of our success. We hire for character and train for skill, giving absolute priority to ensuring we have people of outstanding character representing us at all levels across our business.”
Character First! teaches 49 specific qualities that make up an individual’s character. Every month workers gather for an hour, in split teams if necessary, to discuss one of the character traits, such as friendship, hospitality, orderliness and others. At the meeting, employees whose anniversary in the company’s service comes up in that month, are recognised with a character award that most suited their work ethic in the preceding 12 months.
When I attended the Sydney meeting earlier this year, Arnel Casinto, a five-year employee of the company was recognised with “Determination” for his efforts in making sure the branch met its targets and goals.
“It’s good to get the award, because you come to work, you do your job, you do it a 100%, if not more, and by them [management] giving you that award, it sort of makes you feel good. You know that you have done a good 12 months’ work. It’s a pat on the back, it makes you feel good inside,” Arnel told me afterwards.
Another employee received the ‘ABCD Award’ at the same meeting, which stands for “Above & beyond the call of duty”. On this occasion the award was given to recognise the employee’s efforts in assisting with the closing of the old Altona warehouse as Costa was moving to the current, modern premises.
Team building and participation seem to be the key words, as the monthly meetings go beyond the award-giving process. It is also a chance for employees to come together as a team, learn about the company’s progress, new initiatives, births, deaths and marriages, and general information sharing. “It brings us together once a month, we find out what is doing well what’s not doing well, so we know where we are heading,” said David Mazzolo, a leading hand with eight years of service. “We find out where we are opening new warehouses, you can ask to go and work in the new warehouses if you want to. They also tell us about marketing campaigns and promotions, OH&S initiatives and the like. We have team meetings almost every day, and the monthly meeting gives us a chance to catch up with the rest of the company.”
The meetings are indeed the venue for all employees to be brought up to date with company news. This may include acquisitions and new brands, a visitor from another branch of the company giving a brief on their area, news on such initiatives as health insurance discounts, details of upcoming promotions and marketing campaigns, such as a new in-store display pack, and, on this occasion, a new variety of lettuce being introduced.
The company literature goes on to say: “Regular praise and encouragement for the practice of good character are an expectation throughout the Costa Group. It is character that defines who we are; it is character that determines our responses and provides every member of our team a clear understanding of our mission as an organisation.”
In addition to the remarkable performance standards achieved by the group, as detailed in the article “Is perfection possible?” in the January-February issue of MHD, the Costa Group has also improved its workforce retention rates considerably. And in these days of acute skills shortages, this is a considerable achievement that, if quantified, would amount to millions in savings.
David and Arnel recounted the names of several employees who have been with the company for close to, or more than 20 years, and they both agreed that the workforce was stable. “We don’t have a high turnover,” David said. “I have worked in worse places, but I don’t know of a better one.”
The 49 character qualities