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Sunday, February 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Carol Kleiman / Syndicated columnist

Smart companies help workers flex their time

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Marsha Serlin, chief executive officer of United Scrap Metal, a metal-buying and recycling company based in Cicero, Ill., is an enthusiastic supporter of flexible hours. But the transition three years ago to true believer wasn't easy for Serlin, who founded her firm in 1978 with $200 and made it a success with hard work and long hours.

"In 1998, the industry was consolidating, companies were being bought up, more personnel was needed - and I saw my employees weren't engaged," said Serlin, whose company has annual revenues of more than $40 million, 100 employees and a branch office in Chicago.

A savvy businesswoman who is energetic and committed to good management, she says she used to run her company "with an iron fist and insist on set hours. But after I lost two managers and an assistant because of work-life issues, I asked myself, 'What's wrong with this picture?' "

The answers, Serlin found, were that "employees didn't want to be watched every minute, they had family demands in addition to work responsibilities - and it's not the hours, it's the quality of work."

The CEO introduced flexible hours to her office and supervisory staff of 40 people.

"Today, the company is doing great, turnover is low, and employees are excited and loyal," she said. "We've learned how to treat our employees."

Serlin, now a zealot about maintaining work-life balance, emphasizes to other businesses - small and large - that "workers are looking for more than a paycheck."

All businesses should examine their work-life policies, said V. Sue Molina, national director of the women's-initiative program for global consulting and accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, based in New York. It has revenues of $11 billion annually and 90,000 employees.

"For the last five years, everyone has been fighting for the best employees out there, and companies that want to be the employer of choice have to be better than their competitors, with both their customers and work force," Molina said.

Since flexibility was offered as part of a package at Deloitte & Touche to retain female employees, the difference in turnover between women and men at the firm now is two percentage points, compared with 10 points eight years ago.

"It's extremely important for employers to understand that flexibility is the No. 1 issue and concern of employees," Molina said. "But implementing it has to come from the top."

E-mail questions to Carol Kleiman at ckleiman@tribune.com.

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