Inside Track: 'Leading from the heart'
Elzinga & Volkers COO Tony Roussey stresses importance of creating a culture of safety in construction industry.
Elzinga & Volkers celebrated 12 years of no lost time due to accidents earlier this month. Not coincidentally, it coincided with around the same time Tony Roussey first stepped through the doors of the company. As chief operating officer and safety director, he has used safety as his base to achieve excellence in his profession.
Roussey was virtually born into the construction industry. His father started a general contracting business in Fort Worth, Texas, shortly after World War II. Before Roussey was 3 years old, his father moved the business to Bronson, Michigan, where he ran it for 37 years.
Back then, safety standards were nonexistent, Roussey said. Even as a child, he often worked on construction sites before child labor became illegal.
“I graduated high school in ’72, and OSHA was developed by the federal government in ’71, so I’ve seen the evolution of safety in our industry,” Roussey said.
Even with elevated safety standards, job sites still can be dangerous today, but during Roussey’s youth, safety was the responsibility of the individual. Besides that, there were little to no safety parameters discussed among the construction team.
Minor accidents were much more prevalent, but Roussey also witnessed serious injuries and deaths at a young age, which shaped his current stance on safety.
Once on a job site, Roussey saw a roof collapse, and he immediately ran to the site trailer and told other people to look for help.
“I ran into the trailer, and there were no communication devices back then,” Roussey said. “You had to call 911 — if there even was 911 at that time — fully expecting to come back out and find dead people, up to three or four.”
Fortunately, though, all the workers involved in the accident survived, mostly uninjured. Other people Roussey knew wouldn’t be so lucky.
Roussey knew a man who was spending his last day on a project in Denver before he was about to move to another one in Boulder, Colorado. Both were 28 at the time, and they were sharing their family lives and experiences in the industry. The next morning, he had fallen to his death at the Boulder project.
“Within 14 hours of he and I having that hour-and-a-half conversation, he had fallen to his death,” Roussey said. “I went to the visitation and the funeral, and it had a huge impact on me.”
Roussey was convinced if the present regulations for fall protection were in place then, the worker still would be alive.
About 25 years ago, Roussey had the opportunity to really have an impact on worksite safety. He took on the role of safety director as part of his director of operations role at a company he worked for at the time, DVK Construction in Caledonia.
“I knew then I didn’t want something like (the fall) happening on my watch,” Roussey said. “I’m very motivated for a high level of performance. It doesn’t matter what we’re doing, whether it’s safety, or it’s quality or whatever.”
Without any precedent for worksite safety, Roussey went with what he knew and developed a safety program for DVK from scratch.
Roussey spent 16 years at DVK. Under his leadership, the company achieved an injury-free workplace for the last four years he worked there.
Roussey also is a strong believer in helping create a perception of professionalism in an industry not normally known for professionalism, he said.
“The construction worker has a perception that he’s the guy with dirty hands, a foul mouth, all that kind of stuff, so I quickly established some guidelines for professionalism,” he said. “It was the way we dressed, the way we acted, the way we hired.”
Aside from establishing and enforcing safety guidelines on a worksite, Roussey still is a believer in the importance of individual character to maintain excellence. He made a rule for himself to hire only people he thought had great character, something he had done his entire career but didn’t realize until then.
He said his baseline was people with whom he wouldn’t mind spending a day in a fishing boat.
“In sports, you hear the term, ‘he’s coachable,’” Roussey said. “The person you hear is coachable, that’s a person with great character, that listens to the coach, buys into what the message is and carries it out … that’s the person I always try to get on my team.”
Hiring such people involves creating a work culture that attracts them, Roussey said.
“Maybe you’re a plumbing contractor, and you saw what it was we were doing,” Roussey said. “And let’s say you had a brother, cousin, friend from college who’s looking for work … what you want is people saying, ‘Hey, call Tony over at E&V.’”
When Roussey came to E&V in 2007, the company already had a good reputation, but it had what he saw as weak leadership almost immediately below the top level. Roussey told President and CEO Mike Novakoski he had a great vision, but it couldn’t be achieved with the current staff.
“I don’t believe in being a hatchet man and going and firing and bringing your own people in,” Roussey said. “If there’s one time a recession helped me, it was that time.”
Coming out of the recession, Roussey was able to bring in some truly great people, he said. Within five years, E&V was in good shape in terms of personnel.
“Probably in the last three to five years, I feel we’ve had as strong a staff as anybody in our industry, anywhere,” he said.
Even with the strain the 2008 recession put on the company, Roussey refused to settle for less than great character. One hire stood out in particular for him.
About five years ago, Roussey called a Ludington man who was living in Colorado but had applied to work at E&V so he could return to West Michigan. Roussey was impressed with the man’s résumé, but based on the man’s schedule, he couldn’t fly out to Holland until about two weeks later.
“I didn’t want to wait two weeks, so I said, ‘What are you doing today? Jump on a plane, and I’ll pick you up at the airport this afternoon,’” Roussey said.
The man made arrangements with his fiancé and was able to book a flight to Grand Rapids the following day. Speaking face to face, Roussey decided he liked him even more and hired him on the spot.
“He is still with us, and he’s a great young leader,” Roussey said. “But it was worth me taking that time to make that work.”
One of the first things Roussey did at E&V at the operations level was start a safety committee. The committee was put in place to start a culture of safety instead of a program.
“In safety, if you’re going to be successful, it has to be a culture,” Roussey said. “It can’t just be a book that you hand somebody and say, ‘Make sure you follow this.’ It has to be what we call leading from the heart.”
Leading from the heart also spills over into a company’s relationship with its employees, Roussey said. If employees recognize their employer cares about their safety beyond simply wanting to avoid lost time or MIOSHA violations, they have a higher rate of buy-in to the company culture.
“Never ask what something costs when you talk about the cost of safety,” Roussey said. “Never let them hear you put money in the same sentence, or paragraph even, of safety. Your employees don’t care what it costs. They just want to be safe.”