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PERC staff given high marks in assessment by outside firm

February 9, 2011 By    

Our wounded economy has driven most every American business to do more with less. Downsized staffs, employee givebacks and slashed budgets are lingering scars for most that survived.

So I was intrigued when the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) last summer said it had hired an outside firm to assess its own staff.

For a dozen years, PERC freely set the agenda on industry investment in marketing, research and development, safety and training. It spent tens of millions of industry-generated dollars to launch scores of programs to stake propane’s claim as a safe, reliable and versatile fuel. As its budget surpassed $50 million, its staff steadily grew to handle the increasing workload.

But the pattern ended in 2009. New home construction already was comatose when the feds whacked the high-profile consumer education campaign that PERC had spent $15 million to $20 million a year on since 2001.

Meanwhile, a critical U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was auditing PERC’s spending patterns. Its findings noted that PERC has 31 staff members, a 21-member national council and five advisory committees. Comparatively, the National Oilheat Research Alliance, which runs a similar check-off program for the heating oil industry, operates with just two national staff members, an executive committee and three advisory committees.

Under the scrutiny of GAO and without a big-ticket ad campaign, the council chose to reduce its assessment rate. The decision cost PERC $5.5 million in revenue, dropping its budget below $40 million for 2010.

Now the silent question was whether a slashed budget should necessitate a smaller PERC staff. It was an unnerving issue that had even senior employees questioning their future.

David Belden of ExecuVision International was hired to answer three basic questions:

■ Given the mission of PERC, does it have the appropriate structure?
■ Assuming it has the right structure, does it have the appropriate staff?
■ Is the staff size appropriate to the mission?

He spent months interviewing each employee about his or her values, duties, work styles and insights. He filed his report last September.

I should confess that 30 years in journalism has made me an unwavering cynic. When my repeated requests to see Belden’s report were rebuffed, I sensed the news must be ugly. I figured someone with clout must want the critical assessment hushed.

I was dead wrong. Belden’s report lauds the PERC staff, organization and management. Among his observations:

■ “PERC has a modern structure which would be the envy of many for-profit enterprises with which I work. It is significant to note that only 1.5% of all businesses in the USA exceed $25 million in revenue. PERC administers $35–$40 million. To accomplish the work designated to them in house would normally require somewhere between 150 and 200 people. PERC has gone an entirely different direction. Rather than perform all tasks in house with a large staff, office and infrastructure, PERC has hired highly competent, in-house employees to manage external resources. This is a trend many private companies are emulating.”

■ “PERC is appropriately sized for the work it performs. The staff is young, extremely well-educated, and surprisingly dedicated.”

■ “In the work I have performed over the past 11 years with over 200 organizations, it is typical to find 25% of any staff who would be classified as “D” players – people who actually detract from the energy of the company. I usually also find that companies are overstaffed by approximately 30-35%. At PERC, I found neither “D” players nor overstaffing. This is a noteworthy accomplishment, and the executive management of PERC deserves significant credit for these results.”

■ “My overall conclusion is that PERC is an effective organization with an appropriate and flexible structure. The staff is probably the right size for the activities.”

■ “It is, in my experience, unusual to find an organization with the high number of well-educated and motivated young staff. This bodes well for the future of PERC.”

I don’t know if this means everyone’s job at PERC is safe in these challenging times. But it’s reaffirming to know that a professional outsider believes that our industry’s premier business development tool is working efficiently on its behalf.

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