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Growing the workforce: Pay attention to what you are doing for employees, North Bay CEOs say

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Seven North Bay business leaders from diverse industries shared their thoughts on recruitment, staying relevant, and the challenges they face during the Business Journal’s second-annual North Bay CEO Roundtable event, held Nov. 29 at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country.

“We’ve got a real challenge in the construction industry,” said Mike Ghilotti, president and owner of San Rafael-based Ghilotti Bros. Inc. “Everybody knows that they want their kid to go to college. Everybody knows that that kid wants to be (doing work) behind the computer. At the end of the day, we need people that are going to build.”

Ghilotti is meeting the challenge head-on.

“One of the things we are doing as a company is we are underwriting a program in Marin County that will take high school seniors and teach them the trade,” he said, referring to the North Bay Construction Corps. It’s a program taught by local industry professionals that includes hands-on learning, a boot camp and a good chance of getting hired.

In the nonprofit sector, Kitty Whitaker, CEO of Hospice by the Bay, said there are about 1,400 nonprofits just in Sonoma County, and that CEOs of these organizations must stay on top of fundraising efforts.

“It’s really important to be paying attention to the business of their organization just as much as they’re paying attention to their mission,” Whitaker said. “Donors want to give you money, but they want to make sure (your organization is) going to be around for another 20 years.”

Marcus Benedetti, chairman and CEO of Clover Sonoma, noted how the third-generation family dairy processors have had to evolve and rebrand over the last 40-plus years.

“In 1975, Americans started drinking less milk and that has continued every year,” Beneditti said. “So while our whole start and focus was fluid milk, we’ve had to really expand beyond (that) and stay on trend with relevant products that are certainly dairy-based because that is our business; that is who we are.”

Beneditti talked about purpose-built companies, meaning that business owners need to treat all of their stakeholders as the vital fabric of their success.

Also participating in the CEO Roundtable was Deana Kay, CEO of Petaluma-based Torn Ranch, who spoke about the challenges of finding the right people and talent while simultaneously trying to manage a growing business.

And Rick Tigner, CEO of Jackson Family Wines, which roots itself in the environment and sustainability, said the family winery is working on how to bridge that benefit to the consumer, particularly millennials, who he said are all about authenticity.

Blair Kellison, CEO of Sebastopol-based Traditional Medicinals, a maker of wellness teas, said the company’s purpose is to connect people to the power of plants, which he said has been a viable business model.

“We invest about $1 million a year in the communities that grow our herbs that better the lives of the growers,” Kellison said. “Some people look at that as, ‘Well, you could make a lot more money if you didn’t do that,’ but that’s actually what’s powering our company.”

Joe Madigan, 14-year CEO of recruiting and staffing firm Nelson, said that in just over a year, the North Bay, as compared to other counties of a similar size, has increased wages for lower-end jobs.

“The North Bay is also continuing to produce, so production and manufacturing and new jobs are growing at a staggering pace,” Madigan said. “You’re creating jobs, you’re creating a wonderful culture, but what we’re not seeing year-over-year is new faces coming into the North Bay. So that’s the one number that’s actually going backwards.”

Madigan points not only to the housing shortage as a reason, but also to wage increases not keeping up with inflation.

“We have a market that is very much an employee-driven market and not an employer-driven market. … So I encourage everyone to relook at what they’re doing for their employees,” he said. “We’ve got a housing issue and we’ve got a getting-into-the-town issue on our highways, but if can correct (these) things, we can have a Renaissance in the North Bay.”