In his 35 years leading Renier Construction Co., Founder and President Bill Heifner has probably raised his voice in the office three times.
“I can remember all three times painfully well,” he says. “And I can remember that within about 30 minutes of those events, I was back, pretty much on bended knee, asking for forgiveness for being such a jerk.”
Knowing how to treat people and cultivating long-term relationships are the keys to Renier’s evolution as a company — and a reflection of Heifner as a business leader.
Heifner certainly wasn’t expecting to head up a construction company. An industrial engineer by training, he had no experience in the industry when he started selling Butler Buildings.
“Then somebody asked me if I could put one together, like an erector set,” Heifner says. “I quickly looked in the yellow pages for metal building assemblers, and I found a guy here in Columbus, and I said, ‘I just sold this building, can you put it together for me?’ ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’”
That morphed into another client wanting interior finishes on a building, and the birth of Renier in 1980.
The company has grown to 45 staff members, who manage more than 500 contractors for various projects. Renier is as robust as it’s ever been, and Heifner has learned to not only say that his biggest resource is people, but to believe it, too.
Everybody has a role in the company, and no one person’s job is more important than somebody else, he says. And that includes himself.
“If you’ve got a big ego, you don’t belong at Renier,” Heifner says. “There’s been some people come and go that have had those egos, and I look around the office today and I don’t see those people anymore.”
Heifner says his role is to be a leader, more than a manager.
“I like to lead the troops into battle,” he says. “I just don’t want to tell them to bring their weapons with them and how much ammunition to have.”
In that leadership role, he’s found it useful to be a delegator. Heifner says you want to take the time to interview and hire talented people, and then don’t try to micromanage them.
“I know a lot of my peers over the years have gotten burnt out from trying to micromanage everything,” he says.
Like many construction companies, Renier faces a unique challenge post-recession.
During the economic downturn, drywallers, painters, concrete masons and other construction tradespeople became unemployed.
“They had to find work and they re-invented themselves as something else to put food on the table,” Heifner says. “So, a lot of those people didn’t come back to ‘the trades’ and the availability of talent out there is a challenge right now.”
The trade contractors that did survive have been reluctant to staff up. They, like many other companies today, are more fearful of what could happen.
At the same time, Heifner says Renier’s workload has picked up significantly since 2013 because there was a pent up demand for construction services that now has to be met.
Over the past couple of years, it’s been difficult to find qualified trade contractors — who often are spread too thin — that can deliver on time, he says. There are times when Renier can’t get contractors to their projects on the schedule that it wants them.
Plus, there’s been significant price escalation, because once trade contractors build up their backlog, they start raising their prices. Heifner says the contractors know they’ve got all the work that they can handle, so they won’t lose sleep if they don’t get the job.
Heifner doesn’t expect to see the supply growing to meet the demand for skilled construction workers any time soon.
He says construction isn’t viewed by milliennials as glamorous. There are construction managers getting a college degree, but a lot of younger people don’t look at being a pipefitter, electrician or plumber as a good career choice.
“It seems to me, and this is just my personal observation, that the average age of the people in the trades seems to be getting older, and I don’t see the influx of younger people coming into it,” Heifner says.
Although he says people, like Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, recognize the need for increased job training in these areas to try to put people back into the workforce, that won’t be realized in the near-term.
Delivering as promised
Renier’s challenge has been made harder by the nature of its business model — where the customer relationship is critical.
Renier is a commercial construction company that works on negotiated contracts with business owners, providing design and construction services.
Typically those business owners have multiple facilities throughout the Midwest, which is why about 50 percent of Renier’s work is now outside of Central Ohio. The company actively seeks out clients who are either expanding their footprint or continuing to upgrade and renovate their current facilities.
Heifner says the company wants to turn business relationships into personal friendships, so it commits a significant amount of time to each customer.
“Some of our competitors locally, they have a comfort zone to working in Central Ohio. They don’t want to go out of town,” he says. “And I’ve always said, ‘Well, if we have a client that wants to build on multiple sites and locations, why shouldn’t we go and take care of them to develop, again, that long-term relationship?’”
From the time Renier finds an opportunity with a client to the time it takes to work with that client to design, engineer and complete due diligence, it can be six months to a year before the construction itself starts.
These kinds of working relationships aren’t formed over a lunch or casual meeting in somebody’s office, he says. In fact, the company has two clients that returned after going elsewhere and realized the value that Renier provides.
When you don’t focus on the transaction, but on a long-term relationship, Heifner says you have to consistently deliver — regardless of how difficult it is to find talented contractors that can meet your schedule.
“We have a staff meeting on Monday morning, and we review all of our current projects in the field,” he says. “The first thing I want to know A) ‘Is the customer happy?,’ B) ‘Are we on schedule?’ and C) ‘Are we on budget?’ — in that order. A lot of our competitors put it the other way around.”
Doing the due diligence
With the supply of skilled contractors unlikely to change in the short term, Renier has had to adjust how it operates and put in more work upfront. Heifner says they are doing a much more thorough job of screening the trade contractors, especially those outside of Ohio.
“We’re spending a lot more time understanding their business, their backlog, their availability of manpower, and we’re not going to award a contract to somebody that hasn’t demonstrated to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have the manpower and the wherewithal to complete the project on our schedule,” he says.
At the same time, it’s important to check out the contractor’s financial wherewithal. If skilled contractors are already overworked, you don’t want to work with companies that don’t have a preferred background check, or are involved in liens, litigation or lawsuits.
Your reputation will be a reflection of what they do, so even though it’s harder to find talent, you can’t relax your expectations.
It’s a matter of being vigilant at all times, he says, and recognizing the amount of time and effort that is required to address the problem.
“It’s like when the banks all went through Sarbanes-Oxley and they had to put on staff to manage compliance,” Heifner says. “We have twice as many estimators as we had five years ago. Well, the workload has increased somewhat, but the amount of screening that we’re doing to try to find good trade contractors has increased significantly.”
Network to the right people
Another key to finding good talent is using your network contacts to point you in the right direction.
When you go out of town, you don’t know the landscape of the local tradespeople, and you are often looked at with a high degree of suspicion, Heifner says.
He’s noticed this same scenario in his home area.
“We’ve seen people come and go in Columbus, and they are an out-of-town company that came in here and did work and maybe they didn’t pay everybody or they left some work unfinished,” he says.
When Renier goes to a new city for a project, the estimators will pick the brains of the local Butler Building companies. Butler manufacturing has a large Butler Builder network throughout the U.S., and Renier still sells and erects these pre-engineered building systems, as one of about 700 builders across the U.S.
The company also talks to the area’s material suppliers. These are the businesses that supply the contractors who in turn work in Renier’s sites. The material suppliers know who pays their bills on time and has a good reputation.
“It’s like anything else; you have to check out their references,” Heifner says.
The best business lessons often sound like a broken record because you hear it all the time, but bring on good people, compensate them well, delegate authority and promote those who work hard.
“It’s a pretty simple equation,” he says. “It’s a people business, and that’s how I look at it.”
- Know your role, and delegate what’s not part of that.
- Be vigilant about a problem; recognize it requires more time and effort.
- Use your contacts to find talent in an unfamiliar environment.
The Heifner File:
Name: Bill Heifner
Title: Founder and president
Company: Renier Construction Co.
Born: Newcomerstown, Ohio
Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from Ohio University
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked in my father’s sporting goods, wallpaper and paint store in Newcomerstown, as a stock boy and clerk. My father was a great mentor to me.
Really in a small town, it was about customer service. He taught me the values of customer service and the importance of the person that walked into the front door of our little store — that was the person that was going to put food on the table that evening.
And it always stuck with me.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? One of my passions and pastimes is motorsports. I do a limited amount of amateur racing. I got into it late in life, but I have two racecars that I drive in a series that’s here in the Midwest.
If it doesn’t burn gasoline, I don’t have much time for it. Somebody asked me if I play golf, and I said, ‘Golf — no noise, no speed, no fun.’
If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? Honestly, probably, Lee Iacocca, the former chairman of Chrysler. He got them back out of bankruptcy. I’ve read his books. Or, I’d want to meet Bob Lutz — either one of the two.
They were great visionaries. They were tremendous leaders; I wouldn’t say they were good managers. A lot of our work is automobile dealerships, and we’re pretty well tied into that industry.