Q+A with Kevin DeVries

Exxel Pacific employees (left to right in the photo): Adam Bravo, Brian Proctor, Mike Shafer overseeing construction of the new Bellwether Apartments

Kevin DeVries has Passion for Curating Positivity in the Exxel Pacific Workforce

Interview by Mike McKenzie

Growing up among seven children on a farm near Pella, Iowa (pop. about 10,400), Kevin DeVries developed a sense of “family, hard work, and respect for others.” He applies those core values in hiring at Exxel Pacific, the company he leads with 240 employees. He attended Dordt College on a “crazy little leadership scholarship,” majoring in psychology, and after graduation in 1986 he came to Bellingham to visit a classmate. And stayed. He co-founded Exxel with Sid Baron 30 years ago. Creating a positive, caring work environment “is what gets me excited in the morning to go to work,” he said, crediting his Christian upbringing for his approach to “hiring the best possible people you can find, and all have a common goal—wanting to be the best. It drives us.”

What drives you in staffing Exxel Pacific?

Our leadership is very passionate about what it takes to run a company and make it very successful. Truly and simply, it’s your people. We stay focused on having the right people and helping them become the best they can be.

What do you look for in an employee?

What kind of messages do they convey? Will they contribute in a way that builds up people around them and encourages everyone to be the best they can be? We look for passion in what they do—that this is something more than just a job to them. When they’ve bought into our goals as a company then compensation and benefits are less of a factor than those who want to talk about salary before they even know what “the job” is.

How do you approach the labor market?

The depleted labor pool continues to be a big issue. Exxel Pacific works very hard to provide a high-quality place to work. Our success in adding people to our organization is a tribute to the people we have. It’s important to identify people who enjoy and contribute to the teamwork and camaraderie. We also seek people who sustain a balanced work environment. A key factor is whether we have something to offer that is perceived as extra special and that other companies don’t have.

What’s at the heart of your hiring?

From the beginning, our focus has been on highly skilled professionals who also are good people who have strong character. People do business with people; and if they don’t like you, they won’t work with you.

What’s the hiring process?

We do a lot of peer hiring. Respect and trust from peer workers is a big thing. Everyone needs to earn that respect of others in their roles in the company. We’ll put prospects into multiple positions, let them meet our people, get a flavor of what our people say—and vice versa. We don’t really have a sales pitch for new people, just our workplace culture that we think is special. We are not perfect, but every one of our leaders and managers believes that what we do is the right thing—even when it might cost money to do so.

Name a favorite characteristic you look for.

People who take ownership of their position, which goes to the base integrity of the individual. If they had to write the check themselves, would they make the same decision to do it? Would they say, “I screwed up, and it’s going to cost us some money,” or do they immediately try to deflect the problem to somebody else?

What’s the greatest factor in managing staff?

Mutual respect. How we treat each other is absolutely at the top of our list. If you are not respected as a leader, then you won’t have many people follow you. As managers, we are only as good as those around us to support our efforts. It is a two-way street.

How has the employee pool changed?

With younger people coming into the construction industry it’s a new day. The workforce is much different; job change and transition is a positive. That goes against the old approach of having employees for 20 years. This generation looks for constant feedback in their roles, and their compensation and benefits are more immediate concerns. As leaders, we try to look at their point of view, which is very hard to do sometimes, but management also needs to adapt. As a construction company, you still need people who know how to build the project and do the work.

How do you deal with that?

We spend much more on training people in the ways we feel can be successful for all parties. It’s expensive, but we work hard to get new hires who want to stay a long time. We believe that our new Employee-Owned concept helps, although base salary still has a tendency to be very important because that’s usually what’s discussed with their peers in the industry.

Do you need a college in your business?

We have a lot of people with construction-management degrees, but we also have a number with no college education. We want to know who you are, not what major you have. These days you hear, “I don’t want go college, don’t want to spend the money, don’t know what I want to do.” We encourage attending college. We have a number of fantastic people (without degrees) who work very hard and are very proud of what they do. We all need each other in this business and it takes a wide variety of people to make a company successful.

What criteria carry the most weight in your hiring?

We make sure we hire people who are grounded in their communities, who give back, and who believe in something more than just going to work on a job. I’ve truly enjoyed working with young people who don’t expect a handout and who work because they enjoy it. If you give them the tools to succeed, they’ll exceed your expectations.

Do you have time clocks?

No. We never have had them. If we have to worry about whether an individual is putting in their time, we probably shouldn’t have hired them and they will eventually work themselves out of the company.

Do you have titles?

We do, and I think more emphasis has been placed on titles than necessary. Titles are only as good as your leadership characteristics. If you are respected as a leader, you can have any title you want. If you are not respected as a leader, a title won’t make a difference. People need to trust us as leaders in the same way we need to trust them to do their work—a way that meets our goals for the project and client.

What’s the future for Exxel?

It takes a lot of capital to operate a construction company. Our partners have found that the best future for the company is to walk the talk and always do the right thing for the people we work for and with. We put our faith and trust in our people. We decided to go to employee-owned last December. We believe that employee ownership goes to the base of our culture and can provide for long-term sustainability of our workforce.

Sum up Exxel Pacific as a workplace of choice.

Numbers and longevity speak well for us. We have a few hundred employees, and many have been with us a long time—up to 25 years or more. When someone new wants to come on board I hope they hear from our work family that this is a great company to work for, with great benefits, that’ll provide everything needed to get the job done, that the company and leadership care for you as an individual.

And that we like to have fun and no drama.

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