Primary business: Boat-ferry service for oil-drilling platforms

Secondary business: Garbage-disposal service

Juggling MO: Offering unusual employee benefits and considerations to cultivate a loyal, dependable workforce

When one of his workers falls behind on an obligation to a finance company or an ex-wife, Peter Callais is apt to advance him the money. The CEO of Abdon Callais Boat Rentals (#405), based in Cut Off, La., is just as likely to provide money for cigarettes or shoes so an employee doesn't have to go without till the next paycheck. Callais has even been known to bail a wayward worker out of jail.

It's not merely human kindness that motivates the 34-year-old bayou boat master to coddle his workers. Callais manages not one but two fast-growing service companies that rely on the loyalty of mostly low-skilled workers. Besides Abdon Callais, a transporter of passengers and supplies to oil-drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, he also runs SWDI, a commercial and residential trash hauler in southeast Louisiana.

Cultivating employee loyalty is a particular challenge at Abdon Callais, given the rootless, restless nature of many deckhands in the industry. "We treat them like individuals," says Callais, noting that his competitors "don't baby-sit as much as we do." Callais says it's that kind of corporate commitment, bolstered by other benefits such as life insurance and a 401(k) plan, that steadies his workforce and enables him to manage two demanding companies.

Entrepreneurial zeal seems to run in Callais's family. Ever since grandpa Abdon converted his shrimp trawler 45 years ago, at least one family business has been servicing the offshore oil industry. But a severe oil-price slump a decade ago almost croaked the company. When Peter Callais took over from his brother, in 1993, his fleet consisted of a lone boat, and the annual rate of employee turnover was 300%.

Buoyed by a recovery in the Gulf's oil-drilling industry, Abdon Callais has expanded to 22 boats and now employs 120 people. The four-man crews that run its 105-foot, high-speed aluminum craft are "a different breed," observes personnel manager Av P. Verdin. "For months at a time they're on the boat. When they're off, they live in the bars and on the streets."

Competition for hired hands is keen in Louisiana, where the unemployment rate is roughly 5% and falling. So intense is the rivalry for workers that Callais's competitors sometimes lure away his deckhands, who make $60 to $75 a day, by approaching them at the dock and offering them $5 to $10 more. But by taking care of his workers' diverse, even idiosyncratic, needs, Callais has succeeded in cutting turnover by two-thirds. In addition to hand-holding, Callais has introduced benefits like health coverage--which, unlike some owners, he extends even to his deckhands. Other boat companies have likewise boosted benefits, but all struggle with rapid turnover among the younger seamen.

Callais is combining the same personal touch and attractive benefits to tame another unstable workforce: the hoppers at SWDI, who work the back end of garbage trucks for $6.50 an hour. The company recently outflanked garbage giant Waste Management to win residential-trash contracts worth $7.5 million a year. With SWDI expanding from 80 employees to a projected 130, Callais is upgrading benefits at the second company as well.

Much of the burden of running everyday operations at the two companies rests not on Callais but on two general managers, brothers Larry and Linton "Tiki" Melancon. Callais spends most of his time preparing bids for contracts, arranging bank loans, buying equipment, and doing strategic planning--when he's not writing out 2,000 checks a month.