Know your customer’s customer

For Allen Crowley, best practices means encouraging his employees to visualize beyond the normal scope of a building project.

“We think outside the box all the time,” says Crowley, a partner at Lawler & Crowley Constructors LLC. “We don’t let anybody stay in a box.”

His full-service commercial construction firm offers design/build, general contracting and construction management services. Crowley says Lawler & Crowley’s sales revenue grew by nearly 358 percent from 2001 to 2004, and he is projecting 2006 revenue of $20 million.

Smart Business spoke with Crowley about how he promotes a problem-solving mindset among his employees.

When did you implement the ‘knowing your customer’s customer’ philosophy and why?
We’ve had this philosophy since May 1999, when the company was formed. It tells the customer that we are trying to make sure we’re doing our best so that his customer is being treated the best. We’re like an extra set of eyes to most of our projects.

It means when I’m building a project, I need to understand what the store’s shoppers are going to be running into when we’re doing a renovation. When we do a church addition or a sanctuary, the pastor is saying, ‘I want to do this and this.’ Part of what we do, which has helped our growth, is during the design process with the architects and the owners, we think about, what are the congregants going to think? How can we help give input to the design process?

We offer a tremendous amount of information, and because most of our clients engage our services either before the architect or concurrently with the architect, we’re able to help the client save money because we’re giving him budget feedback every time the architect makes a line on the page.

How does technology play a role?
Our project management software is Web-based, so when an architect makes a change, we get that by e-mail and then we can load that into our system. We can see the differences in the last document that the architect sent us so that we can more effectively communicate to our field people.

All of our projects have laptop computers, and our field people are in the loop pretty quick, so we can manage changes that happen in the construction process. One thing that will never change in our business is change.

How does innovative thinking help your client’s budget?
We do a thing called value engineering. Value engineering is when you look at a project (to determine) how you can get substantially similar performance with either a different material or a different functionality. If a project has a slate roof but the project can’t afford a slate roof and it’s over budget, you look at different roofing options.

We’re doing a project right now that requires a fire door. One of our newest employees, a former co-op who just graduated from the University of Akron, was looking at it with us. He said, ‘What if we do this and this?’ Just an extra set of eyes suggested to the client, the architect and the project manager to change the type of door. We achieved the functionality that the tenant needed, complied with the fire code that the architect needed, and we saved the client about $1,100.

How do you recognize and reward that kind of innovation?
We empower our staff with authority and responsibility. The people who work for us respect us and will jump for us when we ask them crazy things because one, we pay them on time, and two, we treat them fairly.

Here’s a great example: We work for a developer, whose tenant is out of Chicago. The tenant’s accounting department is extremely detailed in what they require in order for payments to be processed. Through no fault of ours, our customer’s customer held up the payment for two months on a project.

Our accounting person redid some paperwork and called every subcontractor — we’re talking about 50 transactions. She got it done in three days, something that normally takes several weeks. She knew it had to be done, and she said, ‘I’m going to get it done.’

We broadcast it in an e-mail to the entire company, … and said, ‘She did above-and-beyond the call of duty, and she gets a set of zoo tickets.’ We have Cleveland Indians tickets, zoo tickets or tickets to the Palace Theatre, and we dole those out when somebody gets an atta-boy. We show (our appreciation) because we walk by and pat them on the back and say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and we give them a little something.

HOW TO REACH: Lawler & Crowley Constructors LLC, (216) 231-1100 or