By Pat Curry. When Pulte bought Minneapolis-based Marv Anderson Homes to start its Minnesota division in 1990, Gary Grant knew it would be a significant transition. He had been with Marv Anderson for 26 years and was Pulte's vice president of construction in Minnesota.

To help the company achieve its goals and help its trade contractors adjust to a new way of doing things, Grant decided to form an advisory board he called a partnership council. He wanted their input on critical areas such as construction processes, jobsite safety, quality, and customer satisfaction.

"It was an idea I had to get them involved, so we could not only use their muscle but their brain," Grant says. "Everything a builder is concerned about, you can be sure suppliers are just as concerned."

The results have been impressive. Division president Tom Standke says that when Pulte bought the company it was building 30 homes a year with 25 employees. In 2002, it built 850 homes with 89 employees. It also topped the Minneapolis market in the J.D. Power customer satisfaction surveys in 2002, the first year the market was surveyed, and took a silver award in the NAHB's 2003 National Housing Quality Awards.

Setting up the council was a simple matter of asking for volunteers from among the more than 150 trade contractors that regularly work with Pulte, Grant says.

"I told them our goals -- growth, quality, and customer delight," he says. "I got seven volunteers. Three to this day are still on the council."

The council currently consists of 12 people, including Pulte's construction and service managers, who are standing members; the remaining members roughly represent the various trades and supplier categories.

The members stay on for as long as they want, meeting every other month as a group and about once a month in one of four subcommittees -- framing standardization, safety, training, and customer satisfaction. Other subcommittees come and go as the council deems necessary.

The Extra Mile

While Grant has since helped other divisions start councils, he adapted an idea he got from the Chicago division to help boost customer satisfaction in Minnesota. Pulte employees are encouraged to submit the names of trade contractors for Pulte's ABCD Award, short for "Above and Beyond the Call of Duty."

Once a quarter, all the nominees are recognized and three names are pulled from a hat for awards of $1,000 each. Typically, workers are nominated for going the extra mile to help a home buyer, Grant says. A recent nominee was a painter who took time on his lunch hour to hang a picture in a two-story foyer for a home buyer who didn't have a tall enough ladder.

At the quarterly partnership breakfasts, senior management tells the contractors and suppliers about the previous quarter's sales, the number of closings, new land opportunities, the status on new communities, and upcoming training opportunities. Partnership Council president Warren Eck also gives a presentation on what the council is working on. The goals and minutes from such presentations are posted on Pulte's contractor Web site.

The council's areas of emphasis are standardizing the building process, contractor recognition, and customer satisfaction. Eck says the council developed a "very strict regimen" of how contractors serve the homeowner after move-in. Calls are returned within 24 hours; meetings are scheduled within 48.

"Once they turn over the keys, the contractor represents Pulte," he says. "We're all the Pulte they know. We're all trained on that. The bottom line is that's why Pulte ends up with the J.D. Power award."

To celebrate the award, Pulte took every employee and a guest to Las Vegas for three days. The members of the partnership council and their guests -- 24 extra people -- were included.

"The council was really surprised when we invited them," Grant says. "It wasn't even a question for us. They're on the team. If we're going, they're going. When we set our quality goals and our customer satisfaction goals, they're part of it."

Two-Way Benefits

Eck says the council gives the trade contractors a voice in how the jobsite is run.

"We've gotten things to the point where people think they're being heard at the job superintendent level," Eck says. "There are no big brewing issues going on."

They've also taken advantage of the free training Pulte offers to help them run their own businesses better.

"We're a whole different company than we were five years ago," Eck says of Harkraft. "They take us to trainings and bring in consultants to do process flow training. It's just wonderful. Our entire process is mapped from the time the order is sold until it's completed. We have the screws down so tight on that process that we know where we're dropping the ball."

Grant notes a long list of benefits that Pulte has received from the council. It helped the company re-evaluate its construction schedule to ensure smooth progress, spent several months rewriting Pulte's specs for the purchasing department, and helped write general specifications for home maintenance.

Most recently, the council has been reviewing the Pulte Preferred program that the division uses to evaluate contractors and suppliers, making sure the evaluation criteria are up to date.