At their company Christmas party in 2012, Mark Bolt and Damon Young had to fire 51 of the 70 roofers they employed at Wichita’s Mahaney Roofing Company. Bolt cried. He and Young considered these men family. They thought this might ruin their company.
At the party, they told the men that agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had come weeks before with proof that Mahaney was employing 51 undocumented workers.
Bolt owns Mahaney Roofing. Young is his vice president. They had worked with these men in heat, in bone-chilling cold and on days when ripping up dusty membranes of old roof covers left them feeling strung out, dirty and mean.
The two men chose the Christmas party to break the news, because it would be one of the few times they’d be able to gather all their workers at the same time. Bolt first told his crew foremen the news, and broke into tears. Then he and Young told the rest of the men. They watched sun-browned faces turn cold.
Some men had worked at Mahaney for 20 years. There were family members – brothers, fathers, sons. They were skilled craftsmen and churchgoers who took grandmothers into their homes, raised children with values. Some had worked with Bolt when he was a laborer, before he bought Mahaney in 2009.
Our immigration system is broken, Young thought.
Bolt had cause to worry about Mahaney’s future. Unemployment was at historic lows. These were the men that many roofing companies in Wichita hired because they did hard and dirty roofing work that documented citizens refuse to do, especially for what it pays.
Young dreaded what these men would say now.
One worker stood. “Can I say something?”
The man said his piece in Spanish. Young speaks no Spanish, but he saw faces change.
“The dread drained from the room,” Young said later.
“God bless Mark Bolt and his family,” the man had said. “God bless Damon Young and his family. God bless the opportunities you gave us.”
Some men felt betrayed, though, and said so later. Bolt felt sympathetic – but worse than that, in his view, was that they’d failed to comply with U.S. law.
“We didn’t know when we hired them that they were illegal – they gave us documentation that looked OK. But we hadn’t tried to find out, either.”
There were no fines; no buses lined up to take their men away. Who knows where their men went after they left Mahaney? Left behind was Bolt’s feeling that he and his company had done something wrong.
From then on, he says, they tried to follow the law no matter how painful. They would use E-verify, a web-based system that allows employees to confirm whether potential hires can legally work in the U.S.
But at that point, they were in a spot.
“When we showed up next Monday, we had four months of back orders,” Young said later. “And Mark barely had enough guys to field a basketball team.”
So they decided to seek not only survival but redemption. It’s a gospel that Young has been encouraging other businesses to follow: Investing more in workers with poverty issues is good business.
The Christmas party wasn’t the end of a story, Bolt and Young say. It was a beginning.
Six years later, Bolt employs 160 people and recently bought two small companies to absorb into the Mahaney business, which does commercial roofing and other construction.
Bolt and Young rebuilt the 125-year-old company by embracing not only Christian principles of grace but Kansas Leadership Center principles.
They’ve begun sharing what they’ve learned about helping workers with business and community leaders. Some are listening.
“If every employer in town treated their employees the way Mahaney treats theirs, we could cut taxes for social services here by a third,” says Angie Prather, vice president of marketing and communications at the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.
In the aftermath of the firings, Bolt and Young knew they needed to hire workers whom most employers would never hire.
“No one ever wakes up one day and says: ‘I want to become a roofer,’” Young said later. “It’s a nasty and sometimes dangerous job.”
The situation brought to mind the term “broken people,” a phrase that Young and Bolt had both heard in their years of study of Christian teachings. “It is God’s intention that ‘broken things can be fixed,’ “ Young said. “And that nothing is wasted.”
So, Bolt and Young made a leap of faith – based on desperation at first.
In the past, they would yell at workers when things went wrong. That’s the way they say construction often gets done. “I still had the mentality that I’ll be meaner and tougher than anybody else here,” Bolt says.
But times had changed and they told each other they hated running people into the ground.
“The sheer amount of will and effort it takes to run a business by force?” Young said later. “It wears your frickin’ soul out.”
“We didn’t want to be angry anymore,” Bolt says. “We no longer wanted to work 100 hours a week. We wanted to love the Lord. We wanted to love our families – and we wanted to see our families.”
They made two key decisions.
One: If necessary, they would hire “broken people,” often the only people available in the job market; some would have clean records. But if necessary, they’d also hire people with criminal records, addiction problems, insubordination issues, family histories of neglect. They’d screen those people but often hire them.
“Some of these guys, they get mad, and tell you to go screw yourself,” foreman Rodolfo Ramirez said later.
“You need a second or third chance?” Young told job recruits. “Join the club.”
And two: They stopped yelling.
They chose to treat people with patience, even love. They used that word. “There’s a St. Francis of Assisi quote,” Young said later. “Preach the gospel to all nations. Use words, if necessary.”
A strategy begun in desperation turned into a moral cause.
They hired young men who didn’t know what a pair of pliers is.
They hired homeless military veterans desperate for work who had failed previous employers. They hired men with tattoos, piercings and jail records – angry men, undependable. They gave them third and fourth chances after they walked off cursing.
There are times when Mahaney human resources manager Morgan Cabral interviews a job recruit and knows the man has a history of violent crime.
“That does not rule them out here,” she says.
Bolt and Young increased starting pay from $10 to $12 an hour. They gave full family health benefits to foremen and all other supervisors, and while some other roofing companies hired part-timers, they paid roofers for full-time work with individual health benefits.
They provided vacations. They began teaching broken men life skills to become better fathers.
They started paying foremen such as Ramirez extra, for time when he had to drive men home from work and when he stayed late to fill out payroll.
Employees received gift cards on the anniversary of their hiring. Mahaney offered English classes for workers who didn’t speak the language.
They paid bonuses to everybody for each job – and used bonuses to modify behavior.
“We used to yell at people if they built a roof with a leak,” says Chad Naylor, Mahaney’s field operations manager. “But now, we tell people instead that they’d lose their bonus if they leave a leak.
“After that – no more leaks.”
And Bolt still climbs ladders. “A couple of weeks ago, Mark was up on the roof, bringing us buckets of screws, laying out Sheetrock, moving insulation out of our way,” Ramirez says. “In the dark, at 6 o’clock in the morning.”
Bolt and Young began listening to employees as never before. Victor Martinez, who says he was hired “not even knowing what a flat roof is,” now supervises a dozen men doing roof service work – and says Bolt’s company “treats us all like family.” Martinez is going through a divorce and says his bosses make time to talk through that personal difficulty, as though they’re talking to brothers.
“Little things mean a lot,” Naylor says. “Sometimes all you do is ask a guy how he’s doing – and listen for 10 minutes at the end of the day. Doesn’t matter if it’s about work. In the end, people just want to be heard.
“No other construction companies I worked for ever did that,” Naylor added.
“There’s no set hours,” Martinez says. “I’ve never been in another company that gives you freedom to work and not worry about ‘oh, you’re past 40 hours, you gotta go home.’“
They taught a radical shift in supervisor behavior.
“Sometimes you come in the morning and there are guys here who don’t like you,” says Jose Arguelles, who supervises 85 Mahaney workers. “They look like they want to beat you. And Mark and the rest of them trained us that you ignore that – walk away. ‘It might be better the next day.’
“That’s hard to do.”
Martinez is sure treating employees with dignity helps Mahaney’s bottom line.
“It’s costly to train people,” he says. “This work is hard; there’s a lot they have to learn. But you treat them right, they want to stick around, and they will work long hours for you.”
Since that Christmas party, Mahaney has grown from 19 employees to 160. Bolt and Young have made money. For more than five years, they’ve tried benevolent leadership even though men still get mad and quit.
And here’s a twist:
“We don’t know if our growth is because of how we treat employees,” Bolt said. “I think we’re only 40 percent along in writing a story where we don’t know the outcome.”
The growth might have come in part because customers kept ordering new roofs, with Young and Bolt scraping together just enough new hires. When new hires quit, they’d find more.
One boost came in early 2014 after Bolt hired Heidi Perez – someone he knew from church – as his new chief of operations. She brought a leadership acumen that Bolt says he’s never had. That may have grown the company, he says.
“It was chaos here until Heidi came in,” Martinez says.
So, if they still don’t know whether becoming benevolent helped the bottom line, why do it?
“Because now I can sleep at night.”
Perez took Kansas Leadership Center training, and began layering in KLC principles to Mahaney management, along with the teachings and books of leadership guru and author John Maxwell. (Editor’s note: Shortly before the publication of this story, Perez left Mahaney to oversee the operations of a growing technology company that offered her a more flexible work schedule. Young wrote on LinkedIn: “In this day and age of pressure to maintain work/life balance, we are excited for Heidi and wish her all the best. It has been a great privilege working with Heidi over the last 5 years and the imprint she has made on our culture of leadership will be lasting.”)
Perez, Young and Bolt began handing out Maxwell’s books and discussing them at weekly 6:30 a.m. foremen meetings, where those in attendance were paid for class time.
A couple of years later, Young started taking what turned out to be more than 100 hours of KLC training.
He began to layer KLC principles into nearly all management and employee conversations. Diagnose each situation. Don’t make statements – ask questions. Give the work back – teach your skills to others so they become leaders, too.
“After we started that, Mark and I would sometimes look at each other: ‘Wow, that crap really works,’“ Young said.
Bolt never took KLC training, but he reads a KLC “Redefine Leadership” pocket card while sitting in his truck every morning before he starts work.
Using new principles didn’t always go smoothly.
After she arrived, Perez proposed firing field operations manager Chad Naylor, a key employee.
She regrets it now.
Since then, Naylor has become an indispensable boss who has helped turn dozens of ex-cons, malcontents and ne’er-do-wells into skilled workers, she says.
But when she first arrived, “He was a leader of a two-man crew – kind of a renegade service foreman who talked about people with the f-word embedded in nearly every sentence.”
Naylor had never hidden his past. He had served prison time on drug-related charges stemming from his teen years.
Perez didn’t know what to make of him. “I’d pull him in … have conversations about how we talk with people and how we believe in people. And yeah, I’m ready to ax him – fire him.”
Young and Bolt refused. What about second chances?
Soon Naylor embraced “fixing the broken.” He got more work from those he supervised and lifted spirits. Worker retention improved; roof quality improved.
And though he doesn’t share his legal past with everybody, he does so occasionally with an ex-convict employee if sharing might help the worker understand how second chances can lift a family.
“There is no way Mark and I could be working on higher level vision and strategy without Chad’s eye and hand on our field operations,” Perez said.
“Today I want us to really dive in,” Young told hundreds of members of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 12.
“And I want you to bring your head.
“And I want you to bring your heart.”
When Bolt decided to do another daring thing – encourage other companies to address poverty among their workers – he told Young to become Mahaney’s public storyteller.
The chamber gave Mahaney the 2017 Small Business Award. From the story of how that happened, other company leaders learned that Mahaney trains workers to become better workers and better people.
Young has been a popular chamber speaker, and many members know him because he worked on the governmental relations and political action committees. He’s also a chamber board member.
“Damon’s message, along with the challenges faced at their companies by a lot of our members, resonated with a lot of people,” says Karma Mason, president of Integrated Solutions Inc. “It’s such a good story, such a success – and if I can emulate that at our company, I will.”
“Are we happy with the status quo?” Young asked at that December gathering. “Is this our best?”
Business people have listened.
“Who they hire, how they give them second chances, the way they treat their employees – it’s often the first time anybody ever told these people they have worth,” says Angie Elliott, vice president of business services at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. “Their story piqued a lot of business interest.”
Mahaney does not intend to tell others how to run their companies, Young said later. But he thinks what his company has learned is worth passing along. He suggests to other companies that they have a larger responsibility to the community. In an opinion piece he wrote last year for the Wichita Business Journal, he explained:
“When the development and real estate communities dream big and take risks through investment in our community, the truth is they are investing in more than real estate and property,” Young wrote. “They are investing in those who perform the ‘sweat’ and skilled workmanship which it takes to turn their dream into a reality.”
Until they changed their behavior as bosses, Young told the chamber members in December, supervising people with poverty issues at Mahaney “was like hitting your head against a wall, over and over and over.”
“So, you just keep hiring them.
“And then you hire them more.
“And you keep blaming them. ‘They are the problem. If they would only get their heads on straight, we could get a lot of work done.’
“But maybe that’s the wrong lens.
“Seventeen percent of people in Wichita are below the line of poverty.
“So, when we think about poverty … it begs the question: Do things like trauma, poverty, addiction, mental health issues – do those things stop when someone clocks in at work?
“So, I began to think about how many of those people are at Mahaney Roofing Company.
“What if we stopped thinking about them as the problem, and started thinking how to help?”
As that Christmas party faded in memory, Bolt began to embrace more than mere compliance with the law. Young, as the company’s chief salesperson, began telling customers that buying a Mahaney roof means getting quality work while investing in an all-legal workforce that Mahaney is training in citizenship and family values. Nurturing workers became a selling point.
“Customers really liked all that,” Young says.
So did workers.
Because of Mahaney, Jose Arguelles owns his own car and home, where his wife stays to raise their seven daughters.
Rodolfo Ramirez owns his own home, too, where his wife raises their three children.
No other employer offered similar opportunities or treated them with the dignity Bolt insists on.
“It’s family here,” Arguelles says.
Some business leaders think there’s little doubt that its operating philosophy has improved Mahaney’s bottom line, in spite of Bolt’s doubts.
“They’ve cut their turnover rates a lot, and that’s big for business,” says Gary Mason, CEO of ISI Environmental.
“If they’ve got more employees, if their ownership feels happier and more content, then they’ve obviously improved.” says Walter Berry, CEO and president of Berry Companies., which sells construction equipment. “Not every success in business can be perfectly measured with financial numbers.”
But Bolt remains skeptical.
“Men still walk out on us,” he says.
“Did it help with employee retention? Probably.
“But did it help our bottom line? I don’t know. I really don’t.
“But we didn’t do it for the bottom line. We did it because we wanted to love the Lord – and take care of these men and their families.”
A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/1yrgiftsub.