In the late '90s, he says, the Internet and telecom industries were booming, so the utility construction company's executives took the time to do some strategic planning. Their goal was to leverage the skills and experience of the company and its employees and make the most of numerous opportunities on the horizon.
"Our customers would call us and say, 'Here are all the projects we plan to do in the next two years, pick what you want,'" says Phillips. "The industry was growing so fast we needed to do some planning to identify what we could do to grow and handle the opportunities in the near future."
So Phillips and his management team spent the year 2000 talking to industry experts, customers and teammates -- the name Fishel Co. calls its employees --about the direction the company was headed. The result was a new strategic plan and vision the company rolled out in April 2001.
But shortly after that, the bottom dropped out of the market, and Fishel found itself facing unexpected financial challenges.
"The stock market dried up, and most of our customers experienced financial difficulties," says Phillips. "By the summer of 2001, we were in significant financial turmoil."
Nineteen of the company's top 32 customers declared bankruptcy.
"We were writing off significant receivables," says Phillips. "The telecom industry was a train wreck in 2002."
But Phillips was no stranger to handling these kinds of financial challenges. After working for Deloitte & Touche for two years, he joined Team Fishel in November 1983 as its corporate controller and was promoted to chief financial officer in 1989.
"We went from the penthouse to the outhouse in a short period of time," he says.
Fishel survived, thanks in part to Phillips' ability to cut costs across the board and react quickly to the rapid changes in the marketplace. He and his management team didn't throw out the company's strategic plan and start over. Instead, they used the same basic plan and strategic planning process to refocus company resources where they counted most.
Says Phillips, "We identified 14 markets where we could play a major role with our skill sets."
Back to basics
One thing Phillips continues to believe in is the telecom industry.
"For us, the communication industry has been a historically better market," he says. "Ken Fishel started out in 1936 as an AT&T communications contractor, and it has always been our stronger market, our core." Energy and cable companies are also bread and butter markets for Fishel Co.
"Power utility companies are just getting their feet on the ground after Enron. They are starting to look at how to upgrade their systems, especially after last year's blackouts."
But Phillips has learned not to depend too much on any one industry.
"We are diversifying to spread our risk," he says.
The fiber optics industry is one of the most promising in those 14 markets Fishel is targeting.
"Fiber optics to the home is a big opportunity for us," Phillips says. "Verizon is the most aggressive player in that field. They plan to have 1 million homes completed by the end of the year."
Another potential market for Fishel Co. is the WIFI (wireless fidelity) industry, which is just beginning to emerge across the nation. the city of Dublin hopes to be the first in Ohio to go wireless, enabling all who use computer devices to access the Internet and communicate without the need for plugging in.
The $1.5 million project is still in the planning phase, says Phillips, and the city has turned to Fishel Co. for direction.
"The city is purchasing material from us and using as consultants to develop a Request for Proposal for the project," he says.
And he's not ruling out the possibility that the company will be chosen to complete the project.
"It depends on where we come in with the RFP," he says.
The growth potential of Fishel isn't limited to new industries; it also encompasses geographic locations, although the company considers itself conservative when it comes to expanding its boundaries.
"The mantra in our industry and business is that volume kills, profit thrills," says Chairman Jeff Keeler.
If anyone at Fishel understands this, it's Keeler. He joined the company in 1967 and learned the business from the "underground" up. Keeler says because of the risks involved, it pays to grow slowly.
"In our business, you can bite off more than you can chew," he says. "If you try to do too many projects, you can't manage them properly and you end up with losses rather than profits."
That doesn't mean the company is choosing not to grow; Fishel does business in 27 states out of 22 offices, and recently launched operations in Richmond, Va.
"As opportunities present themselves in the right geographic areas, we will consider them," says Phillips. "But we feel it is wise to leverage our current areas."
However, identifying industry and geographic markets alone won't bring in the business that Fishel is looking for. What lands the jobs, say Phillips and Keeler, is the value the company brings its customers.
"It boils down to operational excellence," Phillips says, "being the low-cost provider of quality service."
And both men believe that Fishel can be that low-cost provider because its teammates are always looking for ways to reduce the costs of jobs, which saves the customers money.
"We constantly work at finding ways of doing things quicker, better and faster," Keeler says. "We do believe time is money, and we watch our labor and equipment costs.
"We are able to get more done with fewer man-hours, so we make a profit. We think profit is a beautiful word."
Music to their ears
When Keeler says the company believes in making a profit, he means it. Every employee who has been with the company for more than one year shares in a split of one-third of the profits before taxes on a quarterly basis through its profit-sharing plan.
Keeler developed the plan to foster team spirit, and it has worked.
The plan has been in effect for more than 20 years, and Keeler and Phillips say it continues to provide benefits that have helped the company survive.
"I would say our customers and our teammates are equally our greatest strengths," says Keeler. "Our teammates feel like shareholders. They have an interest in our success. They feel empowered - even though that's an overused word."
Keeler says the company's employees look for ways to cut waste as well as to improve efficiencies, and they scrutinize the company's expenditures carefully.
"Even though we are a privately-held company, we are an open book company - we post our financial results on a monthly basis," he says. "The teammates see how much we made or lost. When we make money, I use green paper, and we use red for losses. Generally, we have two or three of those [red] letters in the wintertime."
Still, Fishel Co. teammates have enjoyed an average of about six-and-a-half weeks' extra pay each year.
"The highest was 26 weeks' additional pay, the lowest was one week's, the first year we started the program," Keeler says.
Thanks to Fishel's ability to get through the tough times, Keeler says many of its customers have stayed loyal to the company.
"We have a lot of long-term customers in the energy and information industries," Keeler says, "as well as telephone companies, electric and gas companies. The customers are the same, although what we do for them may be different."
But in the end, it is Phillips' and Keeler's focus on the company's customers and teammates that remains the one company constant. Both men say they have learned that the rest of the company's strategies need to evolve as it works to meet new challenges.
"Keeping pace with technology in relation to serving our customers is a big challenge for us," Keeler says. "We will alter our service offerings to provide what our customers need. And maintaining a quality, trained work force is also a challenge. We need to make the construction industry more attractive to potential teammates."
Explains Phillips, "Developing our strategy and vision is not a static process. It is an ongoing process, and we will continue to give it our best shot."
How to reach: The Fishel Co., (614) 274-8100 or www.teamfishel.com