It was a project that had Michael J. Perry more than a little nervous. He trusted his employees at HBD Construction Inc. and had a high level of confidence in their abilities. But this was something completely different from anything they had ever done before, and Perry wanted to proceed carefully.
Perry had been introduced to a Charlotte, N.C-based company that had expertise in blast- and ballistic-resistant technology, but lacked the building skills that HBD had as a general contractor in the construction industry.
“They had worked on barriers and things like that on military bases,” Perry says. “And while they had done some work on nuclear facilities, they had not done anything that was a structure.”
The two parties discussed the project and decided to put their respective skills to use to build a structure for a nuclear facility that needed it.
“It certainly took analysis and thought because we didn’t just say, ‘Oh sure, it’s a project. Let’s go for it,’” Perry says. “But we quickly adjusted. We have a great staff here, both in the field as well as in our office. We turned them loose to use their abilities and to tackle this new market, and we did it successfully.”
In an industry that had been hit hard by the recession, the project was a great opportunity for the 130-employee company. But it also reinforced for Perry the importance of doing your homework before you take on a project, no matter how much you may need the work.
“The real issue is if you’re going look at other sectors, do it in a slow, methodical way,” Perry says. “It can hurt you if you just decide, ‘I’m going to go over there,’ and you don’t know all the peculiarities of working in a certain environment. The knee-jerk reaction, particularly in a downturn, is the wrong move.”
Here’s how Perry has found ways to make decisions that both fit his team’s talents and make sense for HBD’s growth plans.
Look for a match
Perry and his team put in a lot of time talking about what’s happening in the construction industry. It’s work that takes time, but pays off when opportunities present themselves and decisions need to be made.
“We get input from all our project managers and field their opinion on where they see the market going,” Perry says. “Certainly, multiple heads are better than one.”
The idea of the constant dialogue is to measure what’s happening in the industry against their own capabilities and talent and look for matches.
“You just can’t pursue every opportunity that is out there so you try to make strategic decisions on what is the best fit for your company,” Perry says. “What is profitable work and who are good customers to work for? Our whole philosophy is customer service that ultimately yields repeat customers.”
When you can find customers who you have a good rapport with and you can build on that relationship, it can only mean good things for your business.
“We look for solid customers who are connoisseurs of construction that don’t just consider it a commodity and something to get the cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel and quickest way to get it done,” Perry says.
“Those types of relationships usually end up in adversity and struggle and do not end pleasantly. We like to work with owners who understand construction or at least want to enjoy the process and want to have a contractor who is going to be looking out for them and build the best product for them of the highest quality within their financial needs.”
The work that HBD did on the nuclear facilities is a great example of the fruit that can be gained from a strong and committed relationship.
“We had to learn and educate ourselves, but we’re good at that,” Perry says. “We’re nimble because of our size, and we were able to provide a service that the larger companies these nuclear facilities were dealing with could not provide.
“We analyzed what it would take in terms of our resources and our abilities. Is this something within our ability to do? We just decided that it was, and in fact it worked out. We have six or eight successful projects under our belt now.”
One of the underlying keys that you should never lose sight of in your pursuit of work is your ethics and your values.
“It is very easy in this recession to see people bidding out of desperation,” Perry says. “It’s very easy to take shortcuts and do things that ethically you wouldn’t have done in a better market when you’re very busy and flush with work. Those will all come back to haunt you. That’s what the leaders of our company prior to me, that was their philosophy, and that’s what we’re continuing on today.”
Perry says it’s just as important during a recession, even one as tough as the one in 2008, as it is during the good times.
“We’re not going to compromise the way we do business, and we’re not going to compromise our product,” Perry says. “If that means we might miss a project or two and possibly our volume might decrease a little bit, then so be it. We’d rather have that and be in a strong position when the market comes back.”
Know who you need
It would be easy if Perry could hire a specialist to handle each aspect of running his company. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have enough room on his payroll for that many employees, so he needs people who can handle multiple tasks.
“Our project managers have to have the ability to go out on a sales call with me, they have to be able to estimate, schedule, run the project and close out the project and have interface,” Perry says.
“We can’t have a one-dimensional employee. So other companies, bigger companies than us, are more departmentalized and so they can have a person who is just good at scheduling, just good at estimating or just good at project management. That’s not the way we’re set up here.”
So to ensure that he has as many well-rounded people on staff as he can, Perry emphasizes opportunities for employees to learn new skills and grow their talent level.
“We tend to make sure all our project managers and superintendents in the field try to get as much experience in various types of work so that they are not one-dimensional,” Perry says.
“If you take a superintendent who has always done new work out of the ground and has never done a renovation project, he is somewhat limited and unavailable for renovation work. So while we do have folks who have more experience, and we will strategically place a guy in his best position, that doesn’t mean he can’t be trained.”
Encourage your people to continue their training and give them the time to learn new skills that can help them be better employees for your business. When you’re looking for new employees, look at their desire to learn and go after the ones who have the energy to broaden their abilities.
When you do that, you end up with people you can count on.
“My guys that I have here — I feel confident I could put them on almost any type of project,” Perry says.
Set employees up for success
If you have a project on the table that you feel your employees would have trouble completing, you’ve either got to find a way to train them or turn down the project. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very frustrated group of workers.
“You don’t want to set up an employee for failure,” Perry says. “As a leader, if you know an employee is weak on a certain thing, you try to shore up his weaknesses and show off his strengths. You don’t want to send a person into a task that you don’t believe they are up to.”
If you choose to train people, you’ve got to take a firm, yet patient approach to get good results. Perry says this has been particularly necessary when it comes to the influx of technology into the construction industry.
Instead of presenting changes as a burden or something else that a person has to do, present it as an opportunity to make their jobs easier to perform.
“The dawn of the tablets is a pretty good example,” Perry says. “We’re integrating the tablets out into the field now. Our guys, probably our biggest hurdle was getting field people used to computers period. That was a big learning curve and was met with some frustration. But to a man, everybody that gets over the fear of doing it can’t believe how they could ever do without it.”
The frustration that comes about when learning a new task or a new piece of equipment is natural. If you try to force someone to get up to speed quickly or make a sudden change in the way they do their jobs, that frustration is only going to grow.
“We have some new technologies that we are utilizing and admittedly, the young guys tend to take to it faster than the older guys,” Perry says. “That’s great because we have a good mixture in our office or young and experienced guys.
“The younger guys are helping us older guys with some of the new tools and so forth that are out there. Not forcing everybody on something immediately gives a little more time and somebody that maybe would be more anti-whatever, they’ll look over and see someone else doing it successfully and it makes it easier to implement.”
It really comes down to working with your team rather than fighting with them. You’re the boss and there are things that they need to do that aren’t optional. But if you proceed with that attitude, you’re just going to turn your people against you.
“It’s a communication business,” Perry says. “When you’re running a business and you have employees, the key with your employees is to communicate with them. Hear what’s on their mind, what’s worrying them, how they are doing personally and in their business environment, how they view you and how you view them.”
One of the ways business has changed over the years is the tilt toward more acceptance of work-life balance in the workplace. Perry says it’s something he accepts and has integrated into the way he runs HBD.
But he makes it clear that whatever culture you want to have in your business, there is no substitute for hard work.
“In the construction business, there is not an easy short cut to hard work,” Perry says. “It takes long hours, it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. There’s not a way to hit the one big home run. It’s not like picking a lucky stock and you win big. It’s a lot of projects, a lot of time and that, I don’t see changing. So if you’re looking to click your mouse, do your thing and go home in a short work day, there are jobs that can answer that. But that’s not the construction business.”
How to reach: HBD Construction Inc., (314) 781-8000 or www.hbdgc.com
The Perry File
Born: St. Louis
Education: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, University of Missouri-Rolla in Rolla, Mo.
What was your very first job?
I had a little grass-cutting business that evolved into construction. That’s really what I did all the way through college, just about any kind of handyman work that you could think of. Building out basements, porches, fences. I always enjoyed building things with my hands. I do kind of miss that because I don’t have much chance to do that anymore.
What project stands out that you helped build?
When I was at the tender age of 14, my uncle had a very large house in a wealthy area of St. Louis. He turned me loose on his entire basement to design and build it out. I brought in one of my buddies and we single-handedly over the summer and into the winter did that. That was the first soup-to-nuts turnkey project that I did and that evolved to doing other things around his house.
Perry on having pride in your work: I can remember working on that basement and toiling for hours and hours wondering what it’s going to look like. It’s the same thing today when we cut the ribbon on a project that we just completed. It’s the thrill of having a happy customer and being the one who put the whole project together.
Who has been the biggest influence on you?
Without a doubt, my father. What he was able to instill was being fair with people that you deal with, both from the subcontractors beneath us to the owners above us. He always did that and always had a great reputation in St. Louis and I’m hoping to have the same.
Look for the right opportunities.
Don’t compromise your ethics.
Build relationships with your customers.