Tom Keckeis drives a unique culture at Messer Construction Co. Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2011
Tom Keckeis drives a unique culture at Messer Construction Co.

When Tom Keckeis took over as chairman, president and CEO of Messer Construction Co. last year, he took on a six-month initiative to visit with some of the construction company’s customers. With more than 30 years in the company, Keckeis knew the ins and outs of the business but wanted to gauge customer’s reactions to how Messer had been doing. So he went to Nashville, Knoxville and Indianapolis and met with CEOs and owners with whom Messer had worked.

“I looked at myself and said, ‘Where’s my biggest void?’” Keckeis says. “I grew up in the organization, I understand our culture, I understand our people, and I understand our building process. Where I haven’t been is been the face of Messer out in front and I haven’t been out talking to the customers, so I tried to lead with that.”

What he learned from those conversations was that customers were impressed with the company and, specifically, the culture of Messer. The culture and the quality of its more than 800 employees has been the driving force behind the $530 million company’s success.

Here’s how Keckeis continues to build Messer by listening to customers and focusing on culture.

Find your strengths

When Keckeis set out to meet with customers, he had one main thing in mind: Listen for what he didn’t know about the company and then get to work on understanding it.

“I spent a lot of time really focusing externally listening to our customers,” Keckeis says. “I thought it was a very good experience for me. What I heard was some of what I expected. I talked about our technology and all the technical tools that we use and they all said, ‘Yeah, that’s important.’ But they always came back to, ‘Your people are really what’s different.’ The culture of our company really is a little bit unique and it came out in those six months of listening to the customer.”

Because customers were impressed by the culture, Keckeis knew he had to continue to make that a prominent part of the company. When stepping into a CEO role, it is important to reach out to customers and understand what it is they like or don’t like about your business.

“You have to make sure you spend time talking to your customers and make sure you listen to them and make sure you deliver on that,” he says. “You gain a lot of knowledge by listening to the customer. You can’t just go in and say, ‘Tell me what you think.’ You have to tell them what you think is important and what you’re investing in and then let them react to it.”

Keckeis had the advantage of knowing the business well before he was put in charge as CEO and had an area he wanted to focus on. That’s not always the case if a CEO is new to the company. There are some similarities and many differences to how a CEO would look to drive his company based on where they are coming from.

“[Where to start] would vary based on where the person is coming from and what they are stepping into,” Keckeis says. “It would be a totally different concept if you were coming in from the outside. You would need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the company and the people inside the company as well as know the outside. You kind of have a double whammy there. I had the advantage of growing from the inside. I understand the strengths of the organization. The difficulty would be if I would be blinded by that, thinking that everything we’re doing is great. You’ve got to be careful with that.

“Each person would have to attack this differently,” he says. “You would say, ‘What do I know and what don’t I know?’ You need to understand your business development and how you’re selling the work and what’s valuable to your customers. You’ve got to understand that. Then you have to look at the way you’re delivering that value and whether you really are delivering it.”

Build a unique culture

Messer’s value is in the way it does business every day, and that’s a direct result of its culture and the employees that make it all possible. Messer is an employee-owned company and customers liked how the employees embrace that aspect.

“That ownership mentality came across when I talked to the customers,” Keckeis says. “They realized that our people are out there thinking about the long term — and they are — because their futures are tied to the long-term benefit of this company. Everybody has the ability to have the same ownership as myself or anybody else. If you stay here long enough in the company, you get so many shares of stock every year, and it builds up over time.”

Having an ESOP has turned Messer into what it is today, and there are numerous reasons a company would want to go down that path.

“If you’re a company that’s getting ready to go through a succession, you want to sell the company or move out, there are some real advantages,” Keckeis says. “It really is about succession planning. If you’ve got a strong leadership team that is carrying the day and they are interested in taking on that role and responsibility of owning a company, there are some real tax advantages for the person that wants to sell the company and there are tax advantages for the people that are buying the company.”

An ESOP, if it’s 100 percent owned by the employees through an S corporation structure, allows you to be tax exempt from federal tax. Taxes would be due when retirements are paid out. An ESOP can also be a big help to forming a stronger culture and can also help boost morale and job performance for the employees who have ownership. Customers liked that about Messer.

“To have an opportunity to own a piece of the pie and be able to set your own futures based on what you do every day is huge for morale because you can take the charge with it,” he says. “It leaves your company intact and leaves your employees intact to be able to carry on the day, and there’s a lot of pride there.”

An ESOP isn’t for everyone, but once employees understand it and realize the potential it has, it can be very beneficial.

“People that start with our company, we sell the ESOP and tell them what it means, but until they get in here, it usually takes about five or six years before they build up an account and realize that everything they do helps drive the bottom line and start to feel that,” Keckeis says. “I think people that would be buying the company would realize, ‘Wow, I’m going to own a certain percentage of this company and my future is tied to what I do every day.’ Not everybody would be into that, but the people that are leading the company surely would be.”

Build empowerment

Messer’s employees are very in tune with the company and realize what their actions can make or break. Keckeis empowers his employees and makes sure what they do every day translates into the results that the customer wants.

“I think you’ve got to make sure that what [employees] do on a daily basis ties together with your metrics,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure that you measure the right things and publicly say what you’re measuring and how you’re doing on it. Make sure the things that you measure tie directly to what you want to be successful on. You have to allow employees to see those metrics on a regular basis.”

Allowing employees to see how their efforts play a direct result in driving what customers are looking for will help performance. It is crucial that you are making sure the right metrics are being measured.

“You have to ask yourself if you are measuring the right things that drive value for your customers and are they things that people can feel on a daily basis?” Keckeis says. “Finding a way to connect the things that you measure with what people pay attention to is very important and as a CEO you’ve got to pay attention to those things.”

Making sure you’re doing what customers have expressed interest in is critical, but you also want to make sure that what you’re doing is helpful to your culture and your employees.

“You also want it to be something that ties to what the employees do every day so they can see that what they are doing affects that metric,” he says. “You have to make sure what you’re measuring is going to drive performance.”

Empowering employees is a big part of increasing morale and making corporate culture stronger within your company. Keeping culture at the forefront of your business and making sure you have people who believe in the company is crucial.

“Your culture will beat everything else if you’ve got people that care and want the company to grow,” Keckeis says. “Empowerment and culture is critical if you want to be different in any industry. You have to focus a lot on your culture. You have to communicate with your people regularly about your bottom line, your finances, what you’re doing. You have to get them involved in all of that and get input back from them.”

You have to make sure that you pay attention to your employees in order to keep corporate culture strong.

“You have to listen to your employees first,” he says. “You need to focus on your people and you need to care about your people … that are doing the work on a day-to-day basis.”

Communicating with more than 800 employees can be a tough task, but it is vital to keeping the culture united. Messer has a group of 108 senior managers who act as a system of communication from the executives to the employees.

“We created a system of responsibility to make that communication,” Keckeis says. “I obviously cannot talk to 800 people. We created the senior management position that is the voice and the direction for the company directly. They share that and drive it out to the rest of the organization.

“You’ve got to have a leadership team that you trust and you’ve got to be able to communicate and then you’ve got to be able to have a way that the word gets out. If you’re a small enough company and you’re just in Cincinnati, you can pull everybody together and talk to them regularly. In our case, we can’t do that. You’ve got to create a way where the leaders of the company are identified and are helping drive that and listening to the employees.”

It can be very easy to get tied up with numerous daily tasks and other things on your agenda, but if customers find your culture helpful to how you do business, you have keep track of it and you have to care for your employees.

“Caring is a tough thing,” he says. “It isn’t looking down on them, it is actually feeling every day what they feel so that you can understand that. It’s easy for a CEO to step back and say, ‘Well, I’ve got different problems and I’ve got different issues that I’ve got to deal with. They’ve got to worry about their own problems.’ If you do that you’re going to be in trouble.

“You really do need to understand that what’s driving you isn’t you at the top, it’s the group of people that are there doing the work every day,” he says. “If you can figure out how to stay in tune with that and help nurture it and be attentive to it, I think you’ll be successful no matter what the business. You’ve got to know that they go home and they have kids and they have families and the way you’re treating them makes a big difference. You need to inform them, you need to communicate with them, and you need to make them feel like they are empowered. That’s what you have to create. We spend a lot to create the culture. It isn’t something you just go out and get.”

HOW TO REACH: Messer Construction Co., (513) 242-1541 or

The Keckeis File

Tom Keckeis

Chairman, president and CEO

Messer Construction Co.

Born: Cincinnati

Education: Attended the University of Cincinnati, degree in civil engineering. He went to work at Messer straight out of school.

What was your first job, and what did you take away from it?

My very first job was working for a flooring contractor. I was 15 when I started. I was a laborer, cleaning up and helping scrap and lay floors. The one thing I got out of it was the person I worked for was a true craftsman. That instilled in me a lot of respect for what a craftsperson brings to the job.

What has been the hardest part about being a CEO?

Being disconnected at times, yet still wanting to drive the organization in a direction and how do you make that connection. I feel one step removed from where I was.

What has been the best part about being a CEO?

Seeing the growth of the people. The people who have stepped into my role and other roles and watching them grow has been fun and inspiring.

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you ask people to do things you want to be able to make sure you would do them yourself.

If you could do something dangerous one time without consequences, what would you do and why?

I have always wanted to be a pilot and fly a plane or maybe skydive. I always wanted to be able to feel that freedom.