How Kent Companies is Growing Talent Outside of the Family Tree

Attracting and retaining top talent is important to your business—after all, turnover comes at a high price. When it comes to attracting and retaining employees, family businesses that brand themselves as such have a leg up on the competition. In addition to the family culture, many jobseekers like the sense of stability and longevity associated with being part of a family business.
Recently, we caught up with Family Business Alliance member Chris Fennema, Vice President of Kent Companies. Putting their people first is at the heart of Kent Companies brand. Here’s what we learned from Chris.

FBA: How do you talk about Kent Companies as a family business?

Chris: Family has been a part of our story for three generations, and it’s an important part of our operations. Every decision we make is governed by the advice of our founder, John VanderLaan. He emphasized the importance of putting our people first, and that’s what we do every day.

In our external marketing, being a family-owned business means that we operate by a different set of values. We’re not just chasing the bottom line; We’re creating opportunities for people to build careers and to improve themselves. We’re creating value in our community by giving back.

Internally, the family side of the business appeals to employees in a lot of ways. Family takes care of each other. Family looks out for each other. That’s particularly important in the construction industry because we make safety our first hallmark. We emphasize that “we are our brother’s keeper” and that we must keep both ourselves and those around us safe.

We continually talk about this in all-hands meetings, in digital communications and in the social realm. We follow through on our promises by investing in training, tools, and resources to help our people be successful in their work.

FBA: Has it been hard to maintain the feeling of family as you’ve grown to work in different parts of the country?

Chris: As Kent Companies has grown, we’re very aware of the challenges that exist in creating a cohesive culture across multiple offices. We want to align our offices with a culture based on family values. Yet, that can be difficult when there isn’t necessarily a member of the family ownership living in each geographic market we serve.

We begin with our “people first” commitment in all we do. We use every opportunity possible to gather the team and talk about the mission and values that guide our company.

Equally important is the art of listening. We developed a series of leadership breakfast events that we host in every office across the country. We invite 8-10 members of our field team to a small, intimate breakfast with an executive leader. We conduct these events every 8-10 weeks. It’s an opportunity to learn about each other on a personal level – and to really listen to employees. These events have uncovered challenges and creative solutions to those problems. Often the people most qualified to solve a problem are the ones who face it on the front lines every day. That’s why we work to flatten our organization by intentionally creating opportunities to connect our leaders with our team.

FBA: How has being a family business helped you attract top talent?

Chris: We can point to multiple multi-generational families within our team. This speaks volumes to prospects because it shows the consistency, credibility, and staying-power of the business over the long run. It’s an invaluable endorsement when a team member spends their career with us, let alone encourages their own child to do the same.

As a family-owned business, we provide comprehensive benefits packages that are designed with employees and their families in mind. We attract new talent through story-telling. We love to find stories among our team from individuals who have risen through the ranks, developed new leadership skills or made an impact on others.

FBA: What are a couple of things you do to help your employees feel like part of the family?

Chris: One of the most important things we do is to recognize that the people we work with have more going on in their lives than what their job description entails. We understand that our people are so much more than employees – they have real lives and challenges outside of work. Empathy for others is essential.

We never forget the soft side of the business and the emotional quotient that is essential when working with other people. We want them to know how much we care, so we ask, we listen and we act whenever we can.

Second, we pledge transparency in all of our communications. We want our team to be comfortable asking any questions they have, and we want them to trust in our answers. Trust is hard-earned and we recognize we must be stewards of our employees’ trust every day.

Thanks to Chris and the team at Kent Companies for sharing their insights with us!

Something to consider: Is family business part of your brand? How are you using it to attract and retain top talent?


Marci Schafer, Interim Executive Director of Family Business Alliance. Marci can be reached at or (616)771-0574