Jan/san distributors have a fierce fight on their hands when it comes to earning and retaining business in this competitive marketplace.

A pivotal component to winning this battle, however, can be found hustling around their warehouses and behind the wheel of their delivery trucks each day.

Warehouse managers and experts in the field stress the importance of recruiting and retaining this resource, the human resource, the most valuable asset in a distributor’s repertoire.

“Drivers get familiar with the customers and they build relationships,” says John Specht, warehouse manager at Nassco Inc., New Berlin, Wis. “When you have turnover, you never get to build relationships with customers. Drivers get to know your product, so they, in turn, can go out and act as salesmen.”

High turnover can also lead to more errors in the warehouse and poor loading of delivery trucks.

“It can be a driver’s nightmare, which could cause the driver to be cranky and ornery and be rude to a customer,” says Specht. “It’s huge to keep your workforce in place. You can throw a dollar figure out because obviously you have to go through training costs, but there are also intangible costs. You lose customers, can you really measure that?”

High turnover rates in warehouse and driver positions stem from no sense of ownership for these employees compared to other positions throughout a typical distribution enterprise, says Robert Wendover, director of the Center for Generational Studies in Aurora, Colo.

“So those individuals are more likely to leave over 50 cents or a dollar an hour, better work conditions, or a better work schedule,” says Wendover, whose center is a research firm that focuses on workforce transition issues.


One of the first ways to address a high turnover rate is to build a solid compensation strategy, says Wendover. Employers must realize that if they are going to train and pay cheap, employees will eventually move on. On the flip side, if employers pay well, they will be able to recruit and retain people on a more consistent basis.

“You got to know where you stand in terms of how you compensate and the benefits that you provide,” Wendover says. “That is the easy part. Then you have to look at the retention process in terms of what you are doing to encourage people.”

After recruitment, the first three to four months of employment is a key period of time when new employees typically decide either to stay or search for another position outside of their current place of work.

Employers that don’t have a grasp on why people are leaving typically do not perform exit interviews when warehouse workers and drivers leave, says Wendover.

“Therefore they continue to do what they have always done, which, in some cases, may be creating turnover where they are not doing anything to retain people,” Wendover says.

Another option to eliminate high turnover for those who hire warehouse workers and drivers is to bring new employees on to work in more than one position. Mark Cadell, president of Dutch Hollow Janitorial Supply Inc., Belleville, Ill., hires employees to be both drivers and work in the warehouse.

“They do multifunctional jobs so if I don’t have anything for a driver to do, they can work in the warehouse and vice versa,” he says. “If someone is out sick, instead of not having that route, I can pull a guy out of the warehouse. It gives them more variety. They learn more of the business and they are more guaranteed of getting their time and hours.”

Specht, who oversees a staff of 52 drivers and warehouse workers, says he does not have high turnover in his warehouse due to a number of factors, one of which is the cleanliness of the facility.

“First of all, the environment here is very clean,” Specht says. “The warehouse is meticulous. It is a very nice place to work.”

Another factor that seems to keep Nassco’s retention rate high is the company’s rigorous maintenance schedule on its equipment and delivery trucks. When management is made aware of faulty equipment or a repair that is needed on a truck, they address it immediately, according to Specht.

This has a positive impact on the retention rate on two fronts. First, it keeps the warehouse and trucks in safe working order. Second, it shows employees that they care when there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

“When I hire people, I stress that my number one concern is that they work safely,” Specht says. “As for the drivers, ...that they drive safely because they represent the company. If you don’t care about people’s safety, you are going to lose them and you are going to have to replace them with somebody with less experience.”

Nassco also periodically performs safety audits. During the audit, Specht attempts to sell the employee not on just doing their job correctly because it will create a safe work environment, but also for the benefit of their personal well-being.

“Years down the line, if you live correctly, it is going to effect your retirement,” Specht says. “We try to stress safety both on and off the job.”

Management also promotes nutrition by not providing junk food in the workplace. Instead of a box of donuts, a basket of fruit occasionally is provided, promoting a healthy place to work, Specht says. Employees appreciate when they are provided a safe, clean and healthy place to work and, in turn, they are more apt to be loyal to that place of employment.

Open Door Policy

An open door policy is another key ingredient to having strong retention of warehouse employees and drivers. Being honest with employees and taking time out to listen to their concerns can lead to a workforce that is less likely to be affected by high turnover, Specht says. Keeping a friendly atmosphere in the warehouse where all employees feel wanted also fosters growth and longevity.

Another piece of advice is to create a line of communication for warehouse workers and drivers, some of whom might work third shift and might not feel a part of the enterprise compared to other employees.

“The warehouse guys and drivers all have their own logins so they are part of the e-mail system throughout the company,” Cadell says. “Anytime there is an internal e-mail they also see it and they are part of it. They can see what’s going on.”

This line of communication can be used to educate these late-shifters as to the vital role that they play in the enterprise, which is sometimes forgotten throughout an enterprise.

Management should get to know every employee by name at the very least. Wendover suggests learning about their family, their interests and their life outside of work. They should take time with regularity to walk the warehouse and talk to workers. It is even recommended to ride along with drivers to get to know them on a personal level.

“It’s been my experience working with managers and watching good leaders, they get out among the troops on a regular basis,” Wendover says. “They do this two to three hours a week, maybe an hour a day. It’s a good idea to know everybody. It doesn’t work with everybody, but it appeals to a certain group of people because they want somebody to know that they exist.”

Another recommendation is to get workers and drivers involved in any change that is being considered in the warehouse process. While their ideas and suggestions may not be fully implemented, they will appreciate being heard. This input can be invaluable for warehouse managers, many of whom have never been employed as a driver or worker.

“We talk a lot and I listen to their input,” Cadell says. “If they have ideas, we will try them out if it makes the job easier or results in fewer mistakes. We have a good two-way street. It is not, ‘this is your job, do it,’ or ‘if you don’t like it get out.’ If there is something I can do to make their jobs easier and its cost effective then I’ll do it.”

Brendan O’Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.

CleanLink: Additional Info
A distributor’s success is also based on how well they can retain their sales force. Listen to Gary Bright, vice president/general manager for Mission Janitorial & Abrasive Supplies, San Diego, explain how to prevent your best sales reps from leaving in the podcast, Retaining Your Sales Staff.