IT'S 5:30 A.M. AND YOUR EMPLOYEES, WILLINGLY or unwillingly, are downing their coffee and getting ready for the day. Keeping them excited about coming to work can mean the difference between keeping them at all and having to—yet again—train another worker. Most builders have come to realize that their biggest asset is hardly in the amount of land they've amassed or how much revenue they've generated this past year—it's their employees who make a difference. These builders know that keeping their employees happy is the key to strong, sustainable growth. To retain their top talent, builders are pulling out the stops, offering competitive salaries, team-building initiatives, creative bonus structures, generous benefit programs, and morale-boosting events such as exotic trips abroad.

MON OF THE PEOPLE Technical Olympic USA is one builder taking big steps to keep its workers happy. Four years ago, TOUSA was practically unknown, a no-name home builder with deep pockets. But the company strengthened its brand and bolstered its business through a series of acquisitions—purchasing hefty regional builders throughout Florida, the Mid-Atlantic, Texas, and the West. Now, TOUSAis ranked the 12th largest builder in the nation.

With several builders under its core umbrella, TOUSA still somehow accomplished the unthinkable—a companywide turnover rate of less than 4 percent. How was it able to do that?

“It's one of the toughest challenges,” says Clint Ooten, vice president of human resources and administration. Acquired companies are often fearful of the unknown and where they stand in the company. “Integration is difficult in any business,” he explains. “It's usually met with resistance because it's change.”

To ease the transition process, Ooten says that TOUSA's executive team, including CEO Antonio Mon, often visits with the newly acquired company and gets comfortable with the management team. Mon welcomes the company and gives a presentation of what TOUSA is all about and where it's headed in terms of growth. “People like it when the CEO takes time to personally shake everyone's hand,” Ooten says.

The builder hopes that getting to know the companies right from the starting gate, and explaining what the goals are, will foster trust.

TOUSA also puts great effort into creating a fun working environment for all of its employees. For example, some meetings are held at Disney World. One such meeting permitted some fun at the expense of an executive. “We had Mickey Mouse make a surprise visit in the middle of our CFO's financial review. Our CFO was in front of this huge national group from TOUSA, being very serious, and he turned around to find Mickey mocking him,” Ooten says. “The audience erupted with laughter.”

On a more serious note, the builder has developed employee training programs for recruits, managers, and those it's identified as possible future leaders. Ooten says TOUSA believes strongly in promoting from within; the builder even has an internal recruiter. But it also makes hires from outside the building industry. This brings in fresh ideas on how to grow the company, Ooten says. Some of its executives came from Fortune 500 companies such as Sara Lee and Ernst & Young.

TENURE AND COUNTING Ryland Homes is another builder that works to keep its employees from searching for greener pastures. Many older divisions—such as its Atlanta and Indianapolis operations—have workers who've been with the company or its subsidiary units for more than 20 years.

Greg Byrne works at Ryland's Atlanta office as its purchasing manager. He's been there for 32 years. Byrne says he enjoys working at Ryland and sees it as a very fair and ethical company. “There's a sense of unity within our division, and everyone gets along really well,” he says. “We make a decision as a group, as a team.”