Local grad school teaches power tools

Drills: Black & Decker University teaches recent college graduates how to use power tools.

October 13, 2002|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

Every year, Black & Decker Corp. hires a fresh crop of eager college graduates to help the world's largest power-tool maker get its products into homes and job sites across the country.

But what if the company's new hires think a do-it-yourself project is tacking a poster of a favorite basketball player onto a dorm-room wall, or that construction work means using a screwdriver to assemble an IKEA bookshelf?

How can they, with any self-respect, travel to building sites and talk tools with seasoned workers who rely on the products for their livelihoods? How can they chat up the virtues of the brand with sales associates at retailers such as Lowe's and Home Depot if they can't tell a miter saw from a jigsaw?

The ink on their diplomas may still be wet, but it's time to head back to school.

Towson-based Black & Decker's training program has evolved from a scattershot method decades ago of distributing a few three-ring binders and giving an informal introduction to using tools into a sophisticated combination of classroom lectures, online courses and a training floor where new hires get a crash course in construction and tool use.

It's not a new idea. Black & Decker University, formally created three years ago, joins the ranks of Disney University, McDonald's Hamburger University and the Men's Wearhouse Suits University.

"It's making sure your employees have the right tools for the job," said Matthew H. DeFeo, Black & Decker's vice president of training, recruiting and sales services. "Without the right guidance, you can hire people but you will not get results."

The company typically takes on 100 to 200 new sales and marketing employees every year. Their starting salaries are in the mid-to high $30,000 range.

They spend their first two months playing host to Black & Decker events, such as booths at NASCAR races (the toolmaker sponsors driver Matt Kenseth) or screw-drilling contests and other promotions.

Then they are flown from across the country to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, put up at the Sheraton in Towson and for a week are given a crash course on the world of tools.

They first take an online class to learn the four basic applications of tools: cutting, removal, fastening and making holes. Then the bulk of the week is spent in the 11,000-square-foot product training area, which looks and smells like a deluxe version of a junior high shop class.

To help make inroads with construction workers, whom the students will later be trying to convert to Black & Decker's professional-grade DeWalt brand, the new hires must use the tools to build things such as roofs, moldings and stairs.

The training also prepares them to go to retailers and explain the features and benefits of the DeWalt and Black & Decker brands so that store sales associates can pass the information to customers and, the company hopes, to boost sales.

Emily Rhiner, a 22-year-old recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, started at Black & Decker in mid-July knowing nothing about power tools. She recently completed her first week at Black & Decker University.

"The training can be a little overwhelming," said Rhiner, who was recently promoted to territory manager for the Cleveland area's Lowe's stores. "But we've been given a lot of knowledge and experience."

The company, which had a net profit of $108 million last year on sales of $4.3 billion, spends about $3 million a year on the university, which has a staff of 15.

Black & Decker just started a formal program to evaluate its effectiveness in terms of beefing up earnings. But DeFeo said the company is confident that its well-trained sales force translates into less turnover and better earnings.

Retailers seem to like the results.

"It used to be that [Black & Decker] product reps or manufacturing reps were interested in getting product to you and on the shelves and making sure it was in stock," said John Simley, a spokesman for Home Depot.

"They have developed greater sensitivity to what it takes to actually sell that product now. It's one thing to put something on a shelf, it's another thing to sell it."

Lowe's said it has a policy of not publicly comparing vendors, but said Black & Decker is especially strong in the area of training Lowe's sales associates.

"They have great product knowledge and field experience, and very motivated teams," said Lowe's spokeswoman Chris Ahearn.

In addition to the introductory training for new hires, Black & Decker University has courses, such as in the areas of negotiations, management style and financial data, for employees during their first decade with the company.

Many executives are reluctant to support corporate "universities" or any type of extensive training because they fear the employees will absorb the knowledge, then quit and use the information elsewhere, said William J. Rothwell, a human resources development professor at Pennsylvania State University.

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