Monday the two new guys showed up around 11:30, and they are big guys. (Big doesn’t necessarily mean buff and strong. Sometimes big just means big. These guys are just…big. I saw no discernible difference between their ability to lift heavy things and the ability of our two younger smaller guys. Strike one. – Lee) I was told they would want to work 7 days a week, 9-10 hours a day, but I was a little dubious. Most of the folks we have worked with can handle a solid 5 hour day and a couple can handle 7, but no one has been able to hack more than that. When I talked to the owner about my concerns though, he said he was working a 12 plus hour day and I just didn’t have strong enough people, and since we were also working long hours I thought, “Well, maybe he’s right.”. When they came in we had about 27 trees on the ground and after some initial introductions and orientation to our tent layout they started working.
Things started pretty well, and they processed the biggest trees, but as soon as we stood the big ones we were selling them. Seriously, Monday we sold five trees over 9′, and a 10 1/2′. Getting those out to the truck requires all hands on deck so I kept having to pull them away from processing and after a few hours I noticed everyone was getting pretty tired. The good news was Lee for once could take a more hands off approach, and he managed the process rather than performing it. I gave everyone a break, made sure they drank lots of water and got something to eat, and then the next truck came in. We received an additional 68 trees, which joined the 14 or so that were left on the ground.
At this point both Lee and I were getting concerned. We had been told two strong guys could process 20 trees an hour, but obviously that wasn’t the case. But we also understood that even though we only sold 17 trees that day it was steady busy and we did $2,700 in additional revenue. I called and talked to the owner and his second in command a bit about the situation. It was a good conversation and I learned quite a bit about managing Christmas Tree labor. Essentially, two strong guys can process 20 trees 6-8′ trees an hour if they are not interrupted. That’s pure task time. Larger trees are more time consuming and frequent customer interruptions cause a major loss of efficiency. The larger lots are able to have separate staff for processing trees versus helping customers on the floor so are able to achieve those higher efficiency levels. Because we are small, everyone does everything, hence it takes longer. I felt quite a bit better after the conversation. Not only because I learned something, but also because I firmly established with the owner that our situation as a small volume tent selling many large trees was somewhat unique.
I also spoke to the new employees at the end of the shift and asked them point-blank which tent was harder to work. They said ours was much harder, because the other tent had more employees, so this corroborated what I was seeing with my own eyes. I thanked them for the feedback and assured them I was committed to letting them completely focus on processing trees the next day and had even called in extra staff to cover the floor. I also said we might have a delivery and once the trees were processed and the delivery was done, they could take off early if they wanted to. They wanted to have at least one day off and were totally OK with that.
On Tuesday I actually left the lot in the morning for the first time since Thanksgiving to run a few errands. I had to get fingerprinted for the gate guarding job, I needed more bottled water for the employees, and I needed to stop at the bank and get some one dollar bills. It was heady stuff being out in the world, especially because I got to squeeze in a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich. While I was at the bank though I received two phone calls. The first was telling me we were getting 46 more trees in the morning and a second truckload in the afternoon. No problem. What would have been a frantic emergency a couple of days ago was fine because of the two new guys. I did try to find out when the third truck was coming though, because I needed to schedule them a day off. I was also concerned about my labor, because yesterday I ran $14 per tree, which is three times the “red” threshold, so I thought if I knew which day the next truck was coming I could give them their day off and save myself some labor hours. Not five minutes after that call the owner called me. He told me to ignore the red labor warnings on my daily spreadsheet and even went so far as to make the analogy of putting a piece of black tape on a warning light on a car. That made me laugh and I was like, “OK, no problem, but you have to tell me when to take the black tape off and start paying attention again.” He said at least through next weekend (which is the highest volume) not to worry about it, which is absolutely no problem!!
I made it back to the lot before 11am when we opened and our two new guys and another employee showed up. They started processing trees, but let me know they had to leave by 1pm. Ummm…OK. Apparently they thought when I said yesterday I would let them go after the delivery that meant they had the afternoon free and had scheduled an appointment with their mother’s caregiver at 2pm. I was pretty sure I was clear that no one was leaving until after the current trees were processed, but maybe they thought they could knock them out in two hours. Unfortunately, that was not even close to being the case. (Strike two. – Lee) Even though there were no interruptions and we had a third guy, there were still 19 trees on the ground when the next truck came. This load had 45 trees and it was all hands on deck to get the trailer unloaded before they had to leave at 1pm. We all helped and thankfully Greg was our driver so we got it done and I also managed to finalize the schedule through the weekend. In order to make sure there were no more miscommunication, I scheduled them 11-7 every day, and when they asked when their day off would be I said I was sorry, but it would have to be today. Next week I promised to give them a full day off, but I simply couldn’t spare them any other day because now we had 54 trees waiting to be stood and another big load coming in on Thursday.
Luckily we finally had the slow day we had been promised. We had the longest breaks between customers I had seen to date and although we sold one 11-1/2 foot tree we delayed pickup until the next day. Since it was slow Lee and I and our third employee filled all the holes on the floor with trees, flocked several trees (I am totally caught up and completed 4 more as demos), and oversaw the pickup of the flocked trees that were completed. I was pretty happy about that. I love flocking the trees and since everyone is different you never know what you are going to get. Everyone was very happy, in particular a woman who got a Douglas which was her first flocked tree. Since the Douglass’ have very light branches I wasn’t sure how that one was going to turn out, but Lee had me practice on a littler one first and I got the technique down. It required a very very light flocking, but when it was done it looked really great. She liked it so much we gave each other a big hug and it was a great moment. I wish I had a picture of it, but she came to pick it up almost as soon as it was dry and I will always associate her look of wonder with this job. Something about Christmas trees brings out the kid in most of us, and a custom flocked tree can be very special. All in all it was a very nice day, and although Lee had to do more physical labor, we had a nice day. Of course we only sold 12 trees and made $1700 in revenue, but we were overdue for a day like that.
Oh, and in the evening a 6’4″ gentleman walked in and filled in an application. He is a former teacher who is switching careers and becoming a nurse and looking for money until nursing school starts in January. As I talked to him, I am not kidding, it was like a sunbeam shined on him, and a chorus of angels started singing. The perfect employee walked into my tent and wanted a job. I was a little cautious though. I said we would start him on a truck and see if he liked it, but wow, I couldn’t have dialed up a better fit. Since he is also incredibly attractive, Lee wasn’t crazy about me saying he’s the perfect man for the job, but hey, we all have our crosses to bear.
The next day was so much better. We received 46 more trees (including an 11′ Noble and a 10′ Nordmann), but I had lots of staff. Labor costs were $28 a tree, but the owner said don’t worry about it and I am not! Jon was everything I had hoped for as he seemed to like the work and could lift many trees all by himself. Again it was slow (10 tree sales and $1700 in revenue) so we were finally able to completely stock the floor and get most of the trees off the ground. We had 25 left at the end of the day, but we also rearranged the floor to add more trees (something we would have been hard pressed to do without Jon’s help) and we feel almost ready for the weekend. I also flocked more trees so now we have 6 ready to buy and that whole section makes me happy. I tried different styles on different trees so people can see what their options are. The only sour note for the day was when the two new employees called me and said they were getting medicine for their mom and would be 20 minutes late. That’s two lates and an early leave in a three day period which is not an auspicious beginning. (Strike three. I’m all done with these guys. – Lee) Everyone else is really getting along well though and once we get past this weekend I will have the chance to reevaluate.
So I am going to leave it here and since I feel like all I do lately is complain, I thought I would leave you with some pretty pictures of our Christmas trees. All that hard work has definitely paid off, visually at least, and I feel proud of what our team has done.
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