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Last Update: Saturday September 18, 2021

Key Idea: Hire Attitude, Teach Skill

To train a new person takes a big commitment, but, it is has always paid off for Leonor.

Key Question:


Stanley Marcus said he looked to hire smart people with a degree in liberal arts then he could teach them how to be merchants. Leonor does the same thing. She looks for people who are willing to learn, then teaches them how to deliver the special service Leonor believes is unique to her company. She has found her small company, only 14 employees, works like a well-oiled machine because after 15 years in operation she has many veteran employees who all learned the business from Leonor.

Leonor finds it is much better to spend time teaching the right person the brokerage business rather than hire the wrong person who knows the business.

Q: Even though it might not make sense at first, why do you think this philosophy is so effective?

A: Once the knowledge is attained, the single most important quality of a service provider is a their ability to make people feel good which happens when the service provider listens, is empathic and then can solve problems for the customers. A knowledgable person who isn't interested in serving the customer can do more harm for Leonor than good.

For example, if a customer brings a new problem to Ferrer Brokers and they don't have the creativity, energy or interest to solve the problem, Ferrer can loose the account.

Q: What is one technique Leonor uses to make sure she has the right person hired?

Every new employee comes in on a six-month probationary period. This gives Leonor time to evaluate the attitude of the person. In an interview, or even in a series of interviews, it is difficult to access attitude. You can administer tests which measure aptitude such as math and verbal skills, but, there is no test for measuring someone's willingness to learn, their real-life problem solving skills and their ability to fit into the group.

Note: Many companies who have a job opening fill it with a "temp" and if that person fits the job and the company they are hired permanently. This is another way the "audition" a person before you commit to full-time employment. The reason this is so important is employee costs are in many service organizations the single largest expense item. People are expensive to hire, teach and sustain so you want to find and keep the right people for your company.

Q: When Leonor says she wants someone fresh out of school who doesn't have to unlearn bad habits, what bad habits do you think she is talking about?

A: Two categories of bad habits: first, the way paperwork is handled and the details of the work executed; and second; the attitude of employees toward each other and the customer. For example, in Leonor's mind, no customer is too small and no job too small for her company to handle. If an employee who had worked in a big company was used to putting the "little guy" at the end of the line or not treating that person with respect, Leonor would have to intervene. The customer at the beginning of the tape is an example of a very small business and Leonor's staff was handling him with grace and enthusiasm. 

Leonor recognizes the individuality of people and works to put the right person in the right place.

Q: What employee did she refer to when she said, "we just leave her alone."

She was talking about Sylvia who wants to be left alone with her computer. This is great because Leonor has to have someone in the organization who loves technology and who would rather be alone with her computer than work directly with a customer or go to customs in person to discuss a problem.

The reason Sylvia's focus on the computer is so important is that the U.S. Customs Office requires every broker to provide complete transaction data electronically. This means, legally, Leonor needs someone to make all the electronic reports to the government accurately and in a timely fashion.

The ability to see the value in each individual's unique contribution is an important leadership skill.

Think about it

Are you a good teacher?  Are you willing to teach?  Are there people on your team who could become official teachers/trainers?  Do you have a lot of turn over? 

Clip from: Ferrer Brokers

Otay Mesa, California and Tijuana, Mexico: Leonor Ferrer is the first Hispanic customs broker in the greater San Diego area and she is leading the way. She is president of the San Diego Chapter of National Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association of America. You can sure that she and all of the leading thinkers among the import/export business are eager to help you begin to go global.

Leonor learned the ins-and-outs of this business working for somebody else. When her boss said that he was not interested in handling small businesses, people who only had small shipments to export or import, she struggled with herself, "Should I break away and start my own business to service these small accounts."

And, of course, she did. Ferrer Brokers has nine employees and a building across from the commercial border crossing. She is in Otay Mesa, just south of San Diego, California. Her offices are less than 100 feet from the Tijuana border. As all the 18-wheel truckers cross the border, they have to turn right or they would end up in her parking lot!

Ferrer Brokers

Leonor Ferrer, Founder

9840 Via De La Armistad
Otay, CA 92154

Visit our web site:

Office: 6196616755

Business Classification:

Year Founded:

Hire Attitude, Teach Skill

HATTIE: How did you feel when you got that first employee when you had to let them take care of one of your customers that you had nurtured along?

LEONOR: One of the things that I do when I hire somebody is take into consideration how much willingness they have. We call it in Spanish, ganas. You know, how much willingness they have to learn. I'd like to train people from the start, which is the completely different philosophy in this business. That's something that I do different than anybody else here. Most everybody likes to get somebody that has been trained by somebody else. So it's very hard to get an entry-level position in this type of business. What I like to do is I looked at their--first of all, they have to be bilingual. And when I interview them I, you know, try to use my--How do you call it?--intuition. I'm a firm believer that women have a lot of intuition, so I like to use that, and I see how much willingness they have to learn and how much--what their attitude--what their work ethic is. Once they start working here, they're put in a trial basis for six months.

HATTIE: OK. So they know...

LEONOR: So that--yeah, they know.

HATTIE: ...for six months, I don't know if I have a job forever...

LEONOR: Right.

HATTIE: ...because Leonor's gonna look at what I learn and how I do.

LEONOR: Exactly.


LEONOR: And then after six months, you know, you have a pretty good idea if they're gonna be a part of your philosophy. And that's the way we are and we're a close-knit group. And I also--I like to know about their personalities. For instance, Sophia loves her computer.

HATTIE: Why do you like your computer so much?

SOPHIA: I don't know. I like it, to work with the...

LEONOR: (Voiceover) She will not--she does not like the direct contact with the clients. She's very good. She doesn't like to go to customs, but she is great with her computer. As long as we leave her alone with her beloved computer, she's happy.

HATTIE: You mean, she loves her 10-year-old system 36s.

LEONOR: Right. And she knows she's the expert. And she can take it--she can solve any problem there is.

HATTIE: So if I'm importing something, everything I'm importing is listed on this document. And you enter that into the system. And that way, in Washington everybody in Washington knows what comes across the border. And not just here, but every border.

SOPHIA: Everywhere.

LEONOR: I would rather have somebody that's fresh out of school, that has no experience and has absolutely a blank mind, and then I like to train them in--with my philosophy of work and the way I like to do things. And so that's why I have such a, you know, low turnover, because they know exactly what I expect from them.

HATTIE: Well, you don't have to, then, undo the old habits...

LEONOR: Exactly. Yeah.

HATTIE: ...that some other broker...

LEONOR: You know, one time I hired a person from another broker, and she spent three months telling me how the other broker did things, and I don't do that well.

HATTIE: I love Leonor's hiring philosophy.
Lightbulb HATTIE (In the Studio)Stanley Marcus of the Neiman-Marcus retail chain has the same theory. In fact, he wrote over 20 years ago in his book that he looks for smart people who are not necessarily merchants. Leonor just said she looks for people who are interested in learning, and she doesn't want them to know anything about being a customs broker. These two entrepreneurs have learned that attitude and aptitude are more important than experience at a specific job. If you hire a smart person who wants to learn, you'll have a better long-term employee than one who is simply trained at a specific job. Now the problem with this is you'll have to spend more time up-front in training, but Leonor has discovered that that up-front commitment pays off in the long haul. She has almost zero turnover of her employees and a smooth-running office.

Leonor has another great hiring idea. She brings new people in on a probationary period, and after six months, they're either hired or not hired. Other small business owners hire a temp, and if they're happy with that person, recruit them permanently into the company. Try Leonor's idea. It's working for her. Hire attitude and aptitude, not skill.

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