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.”

Be a problem solver

One of Ruhlin’s primary responsibilities as president and CEO is managing work flow at a high level to ensure that the company is maximizing its resources. The company has four operating divisions and Ruhlin works with each department head to keep everything moving most effectively.

“They have profit/loss responsibilities and a good idea of what type of volume they need and the kind of projects they need every year to meet their goals,” Ruhlin says. “We work together to set those goals and I work together with them to make sure the resources they need are available.”

Things don’t always go according to plan, of course, so effective leaders are adept at handling problems without attacking the messenger or person who is caught in the middle of the challenging situation.

“The real key is helping people solve their problems,” Ruhlin says. “If they come to me and I yell and scream, that doesn’t create an attitude or a space where somebody wants to be. When people come in with a problem, it leads to a discussion. ‘Tell me what the problem is. Help me understand it.’ Often, when someone explains a problem and you ask questions, they can solve it themselves. You can start to see the wheels turn. ‘Yeah, OK. I think I’ve got this.’ I’m more of a facilitator.”

Another aspect of work flow management is determining what jobs to take, which to pass on and how to manage your capacity to get things done.

“We write an annual plan and the managers sit down and go through it,” he says. “And right there, you have a set of goals that you need to meet for the year. We’ve already identified potential opportunities for the year to fill that plan out.

“People already know the expectations and they know how to move forward because we’ve sat down and said, ‘This is a good plan for the civil division. This looks good for building.’ It doesn’t mean they don’t change. Any plan that is written is only good for about 20 minutes. But it’s a starting point.”

In terms of being aggressive or conservative, Ruhlin says his mindset varies depending on the situation.

“If somebody is hesitant to do something that is really one of our strengths, I will be more forceful and push it,” he says. “I’ll say this looks like a really great opportunity. Look at the people we’ve got and equipment we have. It fits very well. It’s more of a conversation. If it’s something a little bit outside our normal wheelhouse, I can be more conservative. There have been times people have come in with things that are pretty far out and I just look at them and think, that’s not a good idea.”

Ruhlin typically has a good handle on what his team can do, Rife says.

“There aren’t a lot of construction companies that have been around for 100 years,” Rife says. “Jim can really analyze and determine is that something we can do well and is it going to be successful? A lot of people are hungry and they’ll take in whatever they can. They hope to work it out along the way.

“We’ve had enough practice knowing what we do well and the people and equipment we have in place. I bring up stuff and sometimes it’s a sales job from my job to get him to see that this is something we maybe need to look at. But ultimately he makes the decision based on whether it’s the right decision for the company and do we have the resources and the capability to do it.”

As Ruhlin looks ahead, he sees a company poised to continue doing great things that reflect well on his family’s name. His growth in being able to delegate and let people do their work is a key reason for his confidence.

“If you hired them to do it and they can’t do it, you shouldn’t have them there,” he says. “You have to learn to trust in your team that they are doing the job they need to do so that you can do the job you need to do. I have to do my job and I have to do it well. The best leadership advice I can give is know you’re being watched and do the right things when you’re working and treat people the way you would want to be treated and your company will run pretty well.”

Takeaways

  • Make listening a priority when you meet with customers.
  • Build a culture of trust with your employees.
  • Know when to push and when to slow it down.

The Ruhlin File

Name: Jim Ruhlin Sr.
Title: President and CEO
Company: The Ruhlin Co.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, University of Colorado. My major was heat transfer and thermodynamics, which doesn’t have a lot to do with construction. So I went into the aerospace business. I went to Colorado because it had mountains. I had family out west and that school, it’s right there at the foot of the Rockies, I decided that was where I wanted to go.

Who has been the biggest influence on you? My parents for the most part. They instilled a great work ethic and taught me how to treat people fairly and well. They gave me an education with everything I needed to go forth and have a good life. I’ve had some mentors in the company over the years. Most of them are gone because I was a young buck and they were helping me through.

Who would like to meet? Mark Donohue. His nickname was Captain Nice. He was an amazing race car driver, a mechanical engineer and just a masterful person. Since I was in mechanical engineering, that’s always been an interest for me. He was also a very good person. Unfortunately he died on the race track. He understood a lot of things that a lot of people didn’t. His last series was in what they call the Can-Am. My dad raced cars too, so that was how I got involved. He understood how to design and build and tune a car, but he also knew how to drive it. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d have been a race car driver.