Building success Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

When Primus Builders Inc. started growing, Richard O’Connell faced the difficult challenge of transitioning the design-build engineering and construction firm from a small business, where he could do everything himself, into a larger organization. For the first time, he had to come to terms with the fact that other people would do things differently than himself, but their way could still be successful.

“I’m satisfied with the results, but everyone has different processes to get a task done,” the president and founding partner says. “That’s been tough, because the company for the first two or three years was just a handful of people, and it doubled and tripled and quadrupled, so obviously you just can’t do everything and be everything to everybody.”

O’Connell has adapted, and today, he has 36 employees whom he’s learned to trust, and the team collectively has made the firm a roughly $65 million business.

Smart Business spoke with O’Connell about the principles that have helped him successfully grow his business.

Focus on your customers. It is important how you deliver a project and how you service your customer and the quality product that you put out. There were some expectations along the way to meet standards, so it wasn’t a total hand-off-the-wheel approach of just get it done on this date and under budget and we’re satisfied. We place a high emphasis on our customers. One of our strengths is we seldom or rarely ever lose a customer and that’s been a big key of our growth.

We’ve developed these customers over the years and it’s our job to make sure they’re getting exactly what they expected and getting the level of service they’re expecting.

Don’t take the customers for granted. Be your customer’s advocate inside your office. It’s easy for people to get off track in what’s important for the customer. It doesn’t hurt to go out and take them to lunch once a month. You’re in the area, you’re making a sales call, so you’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m in the neighborhood — do you mind if I come by and I take you out to lunch?’ Be there when they don’t have projects going on, as well. Just don’t take it for granted. Communication is key. We just want to always be providing a service.

Create accountability with employees. You need to make people accountable. If you’re going to assign a task, you need to hold them to deadlines and get that implementation done. If you let it hang out there, it usually just hangs out there, and there’s no follow-up on it, and it’ll be frustrating. We struggle at times with it, but I think holding people to deadlines is crucial. People don’t want to fail — they’ll find a way to succeed because we’re always too busy in the day to day to do anything outside of what we do day to day.

You can take their paycheck away, but that doesn’t work. The ultimate goal is you want everybody to feel like they’re a partner in the business and they’re a part of something and their contributions are recognized and rewarded — and that if they do the job, they can make a true difference, and it’s not just getting bundled up and somebody else taking all the credit. We try to pass the credit where it’s appropriate, and I think most people do not want to fail. As long as they have the tools and they can see the reward and get that job satisfaction, I think they’re going to be somewhat accountable for their actions and for the end results.

Have a family atmosphere. People work hard, and they’re recognized for it. I try to run it that way but the bigger you get, it does get harder to keep that family atmosphere.

A couple years ago, one of the fellows turned 50. We had a surprise birthday party for him in Wilmington, N.C. We took the whole company to Wilmington. We’ve had Labor Day lobster festivals at the lake houses. The Christmas party, we’ve had it at my house the last two years, and we invite outside vendors and customers. We just hold them in high regard because they’re going to make a difference for us.

Don’t take your people for granted. We’re selling a service, and it’s our people. If you take people for granted, it just becomes a job to them, and they’re punching a clock. I called my employees at Thanksgiving — I called every one of them and wished them a happy Thanksgiving. Some years, I call on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, but I like to reach out to them and let them know I’m thinking about them and I appreciate all their hard work.

Get buy-in for goals. If you keep pushing the theme, you start to see people buy in to it by actions. Actions speak louder than words. We’ve pushed a couple of agendas recently with getting LEED certification, and we’ve got several people moving in that direction. We had to incorporate new software, and one of the operations managers took point on that, and that was a little painful because people were used to doing things one way, and they had to learn a new system, but we felt like in the long run it would be best for the company. I’ve had to take point on certain agendas I’ve wanted to promote and they were tasked with pushing it through and getting people to buy in and execute for that plan.

We haven’t done a lot to get people excited about it. These are tools we need to adapt to be more successful in our business — that’s how I promoted it. That’s just what we need to do, and for the most part, it’s worked OK.