Jaime Smith, Human Resources Manager

Years with Birkey’s: 8 (3 years in her current position).

Role: “As a company, one thing we reinforce consistently is the value of human resources to our employees,” says Mike Hedge, CFO. “We’ve tried to be much more proactive with that. We have beefed up our HR department, and Jaime is a perfect fit in that role. She is a highly people-focused person and a very positive, energetic and upbeat individual. She puts a face on how we as a company care for our employees.”

There’s a card on Jaime Smith’s desk that reads, “With appreciation for everything you do to help people reach important goals. HR is about maintaining a healthy working atmosphere, but most of all it’s about helping people succeed, good times and bad.” These words summarize the daily mantra of Birkey’s Farm Store’s human resources manager.

The California-raised Smith and her Illinois-native husband met in San Diego and made the move to his home state in search of a less expensive way of life. It became the path to her current position.

With no “HR background at all,” Smith’s path may be a bit non-traditional, but after starting in accounts receivable, moving to wholegoods and then spending 2.5 years as office manager of the Birkey’s Gibson City, Ill., location, she brought perspective and a familiarity with the culture of company that made her uniquely suited to the position.

“I came in with a good understanding of the stores. I know the dynamics and how busy they are. Plus, I’ve been in their shoes and can relate well to the employees. Anyone coming from outside would have a harder time building that trust.”

Smith has fully embraced her new role. She’s undergone a Human Resource certification process and is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization for HR professionals that allows for networking, sharing of best practices and continuing education.

Policies & Procedures

Working from the administrative offices in Rantoul, Ill., Smith oversees HR responsibilities across all of Birkey’s locations, but each store manager is responsible for hiring and firing at their location. “They use me as a resource,” she says. “If they want me to be there, I’ll be there. If they want help with documentation or anything else, I’ll support them in whatever they need me to do. But they have the ability to do everything on their own as well.”

All of Birkey’s employment forms, handbooks and policies originate from its Rantoul office and are disseminated to the office managers at the individual stores. But things haven’t always been centralized.

Over the 3 years that Smith has been in the position, the company has continually progressed toward uniform policies across the business. While Smith acknowledges special circumstances arise, and that each location has its own personality, the administrative office institutes general policies and procedures that are adhered to across all locations.

Each employee receives an annual, standard evaluation conducted at a specified time each year. Smith helps train managers at each location on the importance of evaluations, and how they must be conducted. HR prepares documentation with the individual employee’s name, hire date and when the review should be conducted so all the store managers need to do is to make sure the evaluations happen when they need to.

Maintaining a corporate culture many years in the making across a number of locations isn’t easy, but Smith credits a highly visible management team with fostering an entrepreneurial spirit throughout the dealerships.

“Birkey’s as an organization is very good about being down-to-earth, good people — from Ron Birkey and down throughout the company. They’re easy to talk to. You know them and you see them. They’re people just like the rest of us and it’s important that they make the time get out to the stores. The employees recognize that.”

Establishing the Culture

Culture is paramount when Birkey’s acquires a new location. It can be difficult integrating a group of employees with an established workplace background into another corporate culture.

The transitions are helped by an upper management team establishing a physical presence at the new location to ensure things are running smoothly. Smith will also be onsite to “walk through policies and procedures, be around for questions and, most importantly, try to make the new team members feel at home while removing as much of the uncertainty as possible.

“They’ve had their way of doing things in the past, which may be different from the Birkey’s way. That change can be hard. People respond differently to change, but for the most part integrating a new location goes pretty smoothly.”

Birkey's Beacon, company newsletterSmith helped launch a company newsletter last year as an important coomunication tool for employees throughout the organization.

The key to success as an HR manager, as Smith sees it, is timely and effective communication. When asked if there’s a recurring theme in the conflict her department helps resolve, Smith points to communication breakdowns.

“I believe everything in life stems from effective communication. One person says something but another person hears something different and that’s where problems arise. Our role is to step in, get everyone to take a quick timeout to really examine the situation so we can get it resolved to get back our focus and move forward.”

Being as spread out as the various locations of Birkey’s are, communication can be challenging. To help improve it, Smith and Quint Campbell, marketing manager, launched a biannual company newsletter last year. It allows the corporate office to share news company-wide, provide wellness and safety tips, and promote its Employee Assistance Program and other services that employees may have forgotten were available to them.

“In HR, you need to be someone that employees feel comfortable talking to. Being approachable is the most important trait I need to have,” says Smith. “Employees must know that they have my ear and management needs to trust that we’re compliant. So you walk between what employees want and what management needs. Hopefully, we connect in the middle. It’s not always easy, but I think that’s what HR’s role is all about.”

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