As a third-generation CEO of The Ruhlin Co., Jim Ruhlin has the construction business in his blood, sweat and tears. After nearly a century, the pressure remains to keep the family business running, passing the leadership from son to brother to son since 1915.
“It’s always tough having your name be the name of the company,” says Ruhlin, who became president and CEO of the construction services firm in 1996. “There’s a different set and level of expectations for you. I have a son in the business, and I think he understands that too. Because your name is Ruhlin, you’re watched a lot more closely.”
The Ruhlin Co.’s family culture is also one of the reasons Jim Ruhlin feels such a strong personal responsibility to the health, safety and well-being of his 350 employees — a sentiment that was demonstrated when an accident shook the company to its core in 2006.
“We had a death, a very unfortunate death,” he says. “You start to look to yourself, what you have done as a leader and what the company is doing. You felt like you had a good plan, but with something like that, when you take a hard look at it, you learn that your plan isn’t really very effective. That was the impetus to starting the safety program in terms of that’s a very hard lesson to learn.”
The incident didn’t just change Ruhlin’s attitude toward safety. He took it as a call to action to renew the company’s commitment to safety from its Sharon Center, Ohio-based facility to its general contracting, construction management and design-build teams across the country.
Smart Business spoke with Ruhlin about how The Ruhlin Co. has redeveloped its safety culture and the importance of holding employees accountable to safe work practices.
SB: Tell me about the genesis of The Ruhlin Co.’s safety best practices.
JR: My grandfather, my uncle and my father who preceded me were very concerned about people’s safety. The company was one of the first construction companies in the country to hire a full-time safety person, back in the early ’70s. So it has always been a part of our culture. As with everything, you have to grow it. You have to continue to move it forward with changing government regulations. But primarily you want people to go home safely at the end of day, every day. Injury-free is the key.
What we’ve done to grow the culture is we continue to raise its level of importance with all our employees, with our subcontractors and our suppliers. It’s a lengthy process. It’s not something that you can do overnight, and we understood that when we embarked in a different direction in 2006. It’s got to be a combination of things.
SB: What steps do you take to get people refocused on safety?
JR: The value of safety is individual to each different person. What we try to communicate is that we want people to be safe. We don’t want them to have any excuse not to be safe.
First off, you have to have a strong plan in place for how you’re going to execute the safety culture that you have. You have to have accountability. Without accountability, all the rules and regulations and pieces of safety equipment that you have out there aren’t going to make any difference. It doesn’t need to be draconian, but there has to be accountability.
And finally, the third piece of it, which really is the most difficult piece for any company, is you have to have the personal involvement of the people. It has to be behaviorally based. It can’t just be rules, regulations and days off or fired. You have to get into people’s heads to change their behavior.
SB: What are the keys to developing an effective safety plan?
JR: The most important thing is involving the people that you work with. It’s not a one-person thing. In 2007, we started an internal safety committee. It involved not only the management team in the company but our hourly field force. We as a group also work together to fashion the plan and to modify the plan.
Some of the best ideas sitting around a table, when you actually try to take them out and put them in place in the field, are terrible ideas. So it’s a collective effort of the team in how to keep people safe, how to keep them focused on hazards and the correction of hazards.
SB: How do you incorporate feedback from your team to make sure that your safety plan is relevant and effective?
JR: In terms of other hard knocks down the road, things change. You learn that ideas that you have aren’t practical in the field or are practical if you modify them slightly so that the people in the field can physically do what you’re asking them to do.
We actually have a program that if you send in a safety suggestion, you get put in a pool where we have a drawing every month. We give away $200 and $100 cash prizes and we have a quarterly drawing for a trip.
But you have to submit safety ideas or have a safe act to get into the plan. So it’s proactive. You don’t participate just by being here at the company. You have to involve yourself. And it’s worked very well. It’s given us a lot of excellent safety solutions and safety ideas over the past several years.
SB: How do you measure your progress?
JR: There are several safety measurements out there. The one we use primarily is the RIR, which is the recordable incident rate. It’s based on your number of incidents per 200,000 man-hours. We use that to judge our progress on how we’re doing. It’s also an industry standard. There are several companies that want you to have a certain RIR or lower before they will even let you work for them.
SB: What qualifies as an incident?
JR: For a RIR, it’s almost anything. It’s not a first aid. So if you get a cut and you can walk in and put on a Band-Aid, that doesn’t qualify. But a RIR is anything that had an injury where someone went to the doctor, received a prescription, had time off, had to have duties reassigned. So it’s those kinds of things that make it recordable.
SB: How do you keep people accountable to the safety culture?
JR: One thing that’s really new and excellent is what we call a ‘safety timeout.’ Our management team on the projects throughout the day, once a day, has to go and stop someone and talk to them about their safety concerns, about any safety suggestions that they might have.
It’s not a punitive thing; it’s simply, ‘Let’s spend a few minutes talking about safety.’ They approach not only our workers; they can approach the owners, representatives, subcontractors, truckers. Then that information every day is reviewed by the management team on the job.
It does a couple of things. It raises safety awareness, and also it’s brought some good safety suggestions in or things that need to be corrected on the job. That’s done on a daily basis and an almost instantaneous basis.
SB: How have you set expectations for the safety culture as CEO?
JR: I was talking to a group of workers not too long ago when we did what’s called a ‘safety blitz.’ We got the entire management team to spend a week going to all our projects, which covers a couple of states. It’s a lot of traveling, but we go out and talk to the workers. I said, ‘I hope you guys understand we pay you to be safe. We’re paying you a wage, and we want you to work safe, and so we’re willing to pay you your hourly wage to be safe.’
I think if people understand what that really means, they’ll start to get it. It’s not an expectation of production, production, production. Don’t get me wrong, if we don’t produce well, we don’t stay in business. But that production with safety is what we expect. We do [the safety blitz] twice a year, in the late summer and at the end of April.
SB: How does safety benefit your company in addition to creating a safer, healthier workforce?
JR: It raises our capital in the eyes of the workforce and the owners. That’s very important. It makes me sleep better at night. Obviously, it lowers our costs and has an effect on our insurance rates and our workers’ compensation rates, and the people that work here respect this company more because it does place safety at such a high level. The benefits, while you may not be able to measure them all, are many. ?
How to reach: The Ruhlin Co., (330) 239-2800 or www.ruhlin.com
The Ruhlin File
President and CEO
The Ruhlin Co.
Born: Akron, Ohio
Education: University of Colorado
Coming full circle: We started in 1915 and we built our first building as a schoolhouse out in Creston. That job was built by my grandfather and his brothers, and we have started demolishing that building. So it’s been in service for 98 years and we had the honor of rebuilding the school system, the Norwayne School District. They’ve moved out of that building, and so we’re going to tear it down 98 years later. It’s a very unique thing that not many companies get to experience.
Biggest market opportunities: heavy civil construction, larger projects, health care and education building, hydroelectric power
Ruhlin’s commitment to sustainability: To me it’s almost a logical extension of where we’ve been going as an industry and a world: Things need to last longer, work better, use less energy, and be less harmful to the environment. It’s been brought together under the collective name of sustainability, but in my opinion we’ve been moving there for a long time.
Best piece of business advice: Treat everybody the way that you’d like to be treated. I don’t think that there’s a better mantra out there. If you think about how you’re treating someone and you think would I like it if they were treating me this way, that’s about the best litmus test you’re ever going to get.
Where would you like to go that you’ve never been?
Being involved in this industry, I have had ample opportunity to travel. There has never been a dull moment, which is one of the things I really like about what I do. While I can’t name a specific place I would like to go I haven’t already seen, I can say my favorite place is being home with my wife, Susie.
What’s next for Ruhlin? My grandfather and my father and uncle handed me a company with an excellent reputation, and my job’s not to screw it up … I think we’re positioned to grow. We’ve grown some in the down construction economy. We’re adding onto our building. I’d like to continue to grow the company and move into some of the marketplaces that we haven’t been in that we’re getting a toehold in today. We’ve got an exciting five or 10 years ahead of us.