How Jim Ruhlin has The Ruhlin Co. poised for another 100 years of construction excellence

Jim Ruhlin Sr. didn’t grow up with a plan to one day become the president and CEO at The Ruhlin Co., a business started by his grandfather, John G. Ruhlin, back in 1915.

“My first job here was mowing all the grass,” Ruhlin says. “I’ve learned the company from the bottom up. But I spent five years in the aerospace business after I got out of school before I decided to come back and get into construction. Some people call me a rocket scientist and I say, ‘I was at one point, but not any longer.’”

As it turns out, being a rocket scientist isn’t all that exciting, at least not for Ruhlin.

“I left the aerospace business because I was bored, if you can imagine that,” Ruhlin says. “What I’ve liked about construction for 35 years here is I’ve never had a day where I was bored. They haven’t all been good days, but I’ve never been bored. It fits my personality to constantly have something to do.”

When he came back to the company in 1980, his desire was simply to be part of the family business. He worked as a project engineer, a field engineer, a superintendent, a project manager and even did marketing for a couple years. He learned a lot, but also felt the responsibility of being a Ruhlin.

“There are challenges internally with employees with being a Ruhlin,” he says. “It was probably more of a challenge when I wasn’t president. People wanted to know why I wasn’t running things. You get treated differently. People approach you differently. You’re not going to be included in certain levels of gossip. There is a definite difference when your name is on the company banner.”

When he became president and CEO in 1996, Ruhlin set out to continue the legacy of construction excellence and integrity that his family has established. The company has 94 employees and 275 trade workers, on average, and does an average of 22 projects per year.

“I always felt like my grandfather, my father and my uncle handed me a company that had a great reputation and a lot of great people,” he says. “My biggest job was to not screw it up and keep it moving forward.”

Build an inclusive team

The Ruhlin Co. recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and one of the keys to that enduring success is the company’s ability to listen and work with clients to help them arrive at a project that can meet, if not exceed their expectations.

“We’re good listeners,” Ruhlin says. “We have a more low-key approach than some of our competitors. Some people want someone with a bigger ego. It’s not that we don’t have an ego, but we don’t go into a meeting saying, ‘We’re the ones that know how to build this. Turn it over to us and we’ll let you know when we’re done with it.’ We focus on listening and having a dialogue or conversation with clients to learn what they want so we can help develop the idea in their minds and then provide it for them.”

It takes a strong team to manage $200 million of annual construction volume in the areas of general contracting, construction management and design-build services. You need people who work well with clients and can work through challenges and the occasional disagreement to manage a project to completion.

The transition of The Ruhlin Co. to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) has been a crucial piece in that effort and in the company’s long-term success. The Ruhlin Co. has been an ESOP since 1977 and the move has paid huge dividends in building employee loyalty.

“The most important thing we did as a management team was to become inclusive, to start bringing all the employees into not necessarily all the decision making, but here’s what we’re doing as a company,” Ruhlin says.

“Here’s where we’re going. Do you have comments? Do you have thoughts? It was the company’s way of saying, ‘As you the employees work and build the value of this company, your piece of the pie grows. You get to share in the wealth. That’s been a philosophy ever since they took over and I’ve tried to make sure that continues forward.”

When you build a culture of inclusion and respect, the beneficiaries are both your employees and your customers, says Don Rife, the company’s director of business development.

“They’re not just focused on making the most money on that job,” Rife says of company employees. “They have a vested interest in getting it done right so we get to work with them again. It’s not a one-and-done every time. You’re starting to form a relationship with someone you want to work with 100 years from now.”

Clients will sometimes come in with big ideas that don’t necessarily fit in with their budgets, Ruhlin says.

“You’re helping to guide them to the best product they can achieve for the value they think they can afford to build that product,” he says.

“We love getting an opportunity,” Rife says. “When you have a 90 percent repeat client base, every new client you get, you hope it’s somebody you’ll get to work with for a long time. The hardest client to get is the new one. After we get them, we usually get to work with them again.”