Elford Inc.’s Jim Smith and Mike Fitzpatrick focus on what they can control

Short-term-ism certainly feels necessary now, given the disruptions companies are facing in the market. But survival isn’t just about how well a company attacks its immediate problems. It’s also about the long view and laying a foundation on which the future company will stand.

Jim Smith, CEO of Elford Inc., says the company had great momentum in every one of its customer segments headed into this year, and that wasn’t just by chance.

“That had evolved over a number of years as we’ve developed our strategy, because we have to plan for the long term,” Smith says. “There are all kinds of things that can disrupt business. So, we’re always listening and focused on our customers’ needs.”

Elford is taking that approach, in part because lessons from past crises have taught it to worry only about what it can control.

“Everybody talks about, is this a V recovery, is this a W, is it a U? Nobody has the answer,” Smith says. “And that’s the conversation we have here a lot is there isn’t a crystal ball. There isn’t an answer.”

As a 110-year-old company, there might be some comfort in its longevity. But Mike Fitzpatrick, president at Elford Inc., says leadership is really focused on what’s next and how the company will adapt, grow and change with the needs of its customers.

“There are a lot of things in the economy as tax laws change,” Fitzpatrick says. “What’s the impact of the presidential election, what’s the impact of interest rates? And while we certainly follow and study those things and want to know how they’re going to impact our business and our customers’ decision-making, at the end of the day, we found a lot more success focusing on what we can control, and our customers and the attitude and intensity and effort we bring to the table every day — how we collaborate, how we communicate, how many customers we have, how many different types of markets we compete in.”

Long view

For Elford, 2009 was a busy year, even when the stock market hit its ultimate low and businesses were hanging on by a thread. But the future work that the company was able to secure in 2009 was slim.

“No one had opportunities,” Smith says. “No one wanted to invest in capital projects unless they were absolutely necessary to the daily operations.”

While the company experienced some lean years through the recession, it ultimately walked away with important lessons on how to conduct itself through uncertainty, sharpened its approach to strategic planning and brought its focus to the long view. It moved to grow its customer base and diversify its product type by dollar size, by geographic market, by vertical market — all things the company can control.

“We have great optimism in the future and that there is an end in sight, that we’ll all find that end together and manage the risk along the way,” Fitzpatrick says. “Keep that eye on the long term, do what you need to today to adapt and drive your success, but not at the expense of our future. Our whole organization, our team, our board of directors are always focused on the long term, and that’s the long term of our team, our organization, associates and also those long-term relationships with customers. That’s really been the driving component and foundation for our success, that repeat business and the attitude and effort that we put into building those partnerships.”

While the long term is certainly on leadership’s mind, it’s gotten away from a model of strategic planning that had leaders leaving a grand planning meeting with big binders that are ultimately put on the shelf to collect dust.

“Times have been pretty volatile for a number of years because of the global economy and the uncertainty and the turmoil that happens around our world,” Smith says. “Any of those geopolitical actions can disrupt our economy. So, we’ve created a very dynamic evaluation of where we are and what the next 12 to 36 months look like.”

Develop focus

The speed of change seems much more evident in today’s world. As Elford’s customers find they need to more quickly change the way they operate in order to adapt and survive, Elford has had to keep pace.

“We can’t have a stagnant product strategy,” Smith says. “We’ve got to be continually evaluating what our customers’ needs are and where they’re headed.”

This has changed the company’s conversations with its customers to be more reflective, with deeper communication. It’s become about developing, nurturing and growing relationships, which takes time. To that end, Smith says it’s important to hire the right people, put them in the right position and develop them so they can learn and understand the customers in their sectors.

“Our job is to understand their needs,” Smith says. “As we say, ‘It’s not about us.’ We’re a service to them, so that process has to be dynamic.”

While leadership can say the company’s goal is to hit a certain growth mark in a certain market, if that market experiences an unexpected disruption, the company has to adapt at that moment. That’s why it’s important to have people within the organization focused on specific sectors.

Smith says that Elford has corporate goals, and each market sector has a strategy group that develops focused strategies in all its individual customer sectors.

“That’s one thing we’ve done is we’ve broken it down into smaller groups and it’s had a broad reach across the company — from superintendents or estimating pre-construction or project management, business development, executives — there are a lot of people who have a voice in this,” Smith says. “They’re out in front of our customers every day.”

With individuals within each customer segment focused on strategy in that sector, they’re able to look out into the market and identify trends without being distracted by things that are happening in other sectors.

Ready as a team

While much of the strategy is developed within segments, the company’s overall strategy is a collaborative effort from different stakeholders, Fitzpatrick says. It’s a coming together of people from different levels of the organization, from different age groups, to offer different perspectives that focus on more than just financial goals.

“It also isn’t just business development,” Fitzpatrick says. “A lot of times each of those groups has a development goal, a sales and revenue goal, but we have relationship goals with all of our current customers in those market segments. We’ve got schedule and quality goals for the project we’re doing, we’ve got development goals for the talent that serves those markets and what kind of career development we do because our success for those customers is a direct outcome from the people serving them.”

He says at the end of the day, it’s people who build buildings, not a company.

“It’s who’s my project team, who’s my superintendent,” he says. “But the talent you bring to a project and the chemistry and culture that project team creates, I think, is really unique in our industry.”

Fitzpatrick says the company spends a lot of time focused on learning about its customers, their mission, their values, their goals for their project, even the best way to communicate with them. For Elford, it’s all about investing in the relationship to drive customer outcomes.

“We’re not looking at the scoreboard,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’re looking at how we prepare so that when the game comes, we’re ready to play as a team.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • Markets are dynamic. Your strategy should be, too.
  • Put the customer at the center of your world.
  • Segment your focus but move as a team.