Last year, Bill Heifner was on a 3,200-mile, cross-country trip on his Harley -- which he calls his "self-propelled battery charger" -- when he joined several motorcycle friends at a late morning stop for food.
The eating establishment grew strangely quiet when a 6-foot-8-inch man -- towering over Heifner's 6-foot-3-inch stature -- entered. He had massive biceps covered with tattoos and wore a black vest and a black hat pulled down almost covering his eyes.
"He was the kind of guy who'd be your worst nightmare to see in a dark alley," says Heifner, president of Renier Construction.
"There were eight of us and one of him, and we were all sticking together," Heifner says.
Heifner gathered up his nerve and gave the man a hearty "Good morning."
"He said, 'Well good morning. How are you?' right back," Heifner remembers, mimicking the jovial voice.
In the ensuing conversation, Heifner learned the man had a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's in computer science and worked from a virtual office in Estes Park, Colo., as a computer hardware designer for Compaq.
"I said, 'I have to tell you, you can't judge a book by its cover,'" Heifner says.
The incident was no oddity for Heifner, who says he enjoys meeting people and has plenty of opportunity to do so both in his motorcycling hobby and his commercial and industrial general contracting business.
In fact, he credits a lesson his father, owner of a small retail store, taught him about dealing with people for the success of Renier, whose revenue exceeds $25 million.
"He would continually drill into my head the most important person in my life was that customer walking through the front door," Heifner says, noting the second half of his father's advice: "If you don't take care of your customers, they don't come back."
The lesson apparently paid off, considering that in 1999, 40 percent of the sales at Renier came from repeat customers. Clients of the 50-employee company include Dayton Freight, MPW Industrial Services and A.D. Farrow's Harley-Davidson -- where he found his interest in motorcycles.
Heifner uses the same philosophy of integrity with the subcontractors who do work for his clients. In fact, in 1999 the American Subcontractor Association named Renier "Contractor of the Year," which told Heifner the subcontractors realize his company values its relationship with them as much as with its clients.
Denny Griffith, president of the Columbus College of Art & Design, where Heifner serves on the board, says Heifner leverages confidence with wisdom and analytical caution, yet he's also a good listener and quick to offer words of praise to others.
"There's almost a proprietary enthusiasm and glee he gets from getting people together and kind of stirring the pot," Griffith says. "He's not a real exuberant leader -- he's a quiet leader. But in social settings, in the board setting -- and we can extrapolate from that, in a business setting -- he really cares about people very deeply and likes to bring people together and really embellish their strong points."
Heifner is especially fond of boasting of the accomplishments of his wife, Sandy, an interior designer, and his daughter, Alexis, a sophomore studying international business and Spanish at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
Heifner's people skills extend to his ability to join others on a mission to solve problems.
During Mayor Greg Lashutka's administration, Heifner was asked to serve on a committee to help streamline the city's building and inspection procedures. Concerned that after their job was finished things might regress, the members stayed on and now meet monthly to monitor the changes.
"It's amazing the cooperation there's been on that," Heifner says of the city and private industry. "It's a storybook tale of how you can work together on the private side and the public side if everybody takes down barriers and works together toward a common goal."
Heifner, who also serves on the boards of Columbus Academy and Rahal Columbus Charities Pro-Am, says he doubts he could have been as successful in other cities as he has been in Columbus.
He often reflects on his own company's success with the help of a tattered manila folder he keeps in a credenza behind his desk. Inside is a ledger sheet with a business plan -- handwritten when he started the company in 1980.
He notes the $1,500 office equipment line item was a significant investment at the time -- especially considering he'd just quit his job at a large company and his wife was pregnant.
"In 1981 if you looked at our tax return, we could've qualified for food stamps," he says. "When you're in that situation, it forces you to get things in perspective and makes you work all that much harder." How to reach: Bill Heifner, Renier Construction, 866-4580 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Joan Slattery Wall (email@example.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.