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Don Hoodes Has the Answer to Blue-collar Blues—run the Plant Like a Country Club

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Pump that air, pump that air, pump that air for old Sullair, as those compressors go rolling along.”

The office chorus warbles along as the ad manager plunks out the melody on his ole banjo. Then company president Don Hoodes, 49, fortifying himself with another Chivas Regal, rises to accompany Whistle While You Work on his police whistle.

It is the noisy climax of yet another Monday afternoon office party at Don Hoodes’s Sullair Corp. in Michigan City, Ind. It is a plant that manufactures rotary screw air compressors, which Hoodes runs like an exclusive country club. For instance, a full-time tennis pro at the plant gives free lessons to any employee on two indoor and two outdoor courts. On the premises are a basketball court, squash court and a sauna. The rifle range is down the road. The office pub is unlocked at 4 p.m.—and on bad days, sooner. Any excuse will serve for a party. And on a hot Friday, Hoodes orders his 400 employees to knock off work. “Get your suits,” he booms over the intercom, and it’s everybody into the Olympic-size swimming pool.

“Eat, drink and make money,” is the philosophy of capitalist Don Hoodes, who founded Sullair 10 years ago after he was fired for insubordination from the company which is now one of his biggest competitors. He must be doing something right, because last year sales were $49 million, up 17 percent, and 1976 looks even better. “We’ve grown very fast against unbelievably entrenched competition,” Hoodes says, adding, “if people have the right motivation, you get high productivity.”

Hoodes believes his maverick brand of management is the answer to the blue-collar blues that plague big-company assembly lines with attendant absenteeism and sloppy workmanship. “No boss can determine the production of a worker,” he says. “If you push people to work, you end up with quality problems. Everyone has to work at his own pace.” So at Sullair, employees vote in groups on their hours. Most put in 10 hours a day, four days a week. Breaks are unsupervised; there are no plant foremen, no time clocks and employees get an extra month’s salary a year in profit sharing.

As a result, Hoodes figures his employees outproduce his U.S. competitors almost three to one. Absenteeism is down to near zero. “Mondays are no problem,” Hoodes says. “Monday’s compressors are as good as Wednesday’s.” His plant doesn’t have a personnel department and has no need for one since new employees are recommended by friends who work at the plant.

Hoodes himself sets the merry pace. He has been known to ride his bicycle around the plant and careen up and down the aisles. Benefits at the “dream factory” go beyond fun and games. Gas is sold at the plant for 35¢ a gallon (cost to the company, about $3,000 a month) and three-course meals cost 80¢ at the company’s Café La Bastille. Nearby supermarkets and a dry cleaner offer 10 percent discounts to employees, who also get cut-rate movie tickets, school tuition grants and free medical and insurance plans.

Hoodes doesn’t neglect his own welfare either. On his $143,503 salary, he and his second wife, Lois, a blond former photographer’s model, own a lakeside home in Michigan City, a fishing lodge (also open to employees), a pad in Palm Springs, an apartment in Chicago and two condominiums in Vail.

“God knows,” Hoodes concludes, “in the long run companies are going to have to adopt these approaches because of the revolution the kids created in the ’60s. You can’t ask men who are graduated from high school or college to follow arbitrary rules. You can’t run an overorganized or overdisciplined company in this, or maybe any other country.”