He “was an executive for a pharmaceutical company here in Indianapolis,” says Skillman, chairman and CEO of The Skillman Corp. “He had a good job. He was the most ornery son-of-a-bitch I ever saw in my life. I asked him one day, ‘Bob, what’s your problem?’
“He said, ‘I hate my boss; I hate my job.’
“Why don’t you leave? Life’s too short.’
“The compensation package is too good. I can’t go anywhere else and make the kind of money I’m making.”
At that moment, Skillman knew that was no way to live a life or run a business.
“It had to reflect in his job,” he says. “It reflected in his family relationship, his neighbor relationship.”
Skillman didn’t want employees who were miserable and felt trapped in a job they couldn’t leave. So he created a working environment that both he and his employees could enjoy while still being successful.
It’s one example of how he sets priorities to grow his company; his other keys to growth are communication and building relationships. Using these keys, he has built the company from nothing into one that provides about $300 million a year in administration and construction management services.
“If you don’t think in terms of growth, you go backwards,” he says. “When you get complacent, you feel like you’ve got everything going for you, and you don’t have to do anything else. The next thing you know, you’re losing market share, you’re losing people, you’re losing enthusiasm.”
From his first day running a business, Skillman was aware that the company could take over his life if he let it.
“Your business becomes your mistress,” he says. “It’s hard.”
Skillman maintained that delicate balance by devoting himself to the business during the week, but weekends belonged to his young family.
“You have to establish priorities in your life of what is important to you,” Skillman says.
Working weeknights was part of his job, but the work didn’t spill over into the weekend.
“I didn’t go play golf with the boys; I didn’t go fishing with the boys,” he says. “I spent my time with my family. That was what was most important to me.”
What made it easier was having a sounding board, a peer who understood what he was going through and could offer advice, or at least empathy. When Skillman started, that peer didn’t exist because his company basically pioneered the construction management services industry. So he found a substitute.
“My wife was the greatest sounding board I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. “Our corporate success today, I link 50 percent to her or more.”
Wanting to save others from facing the same problems he did early on, Skillman became a charter member of the Construction Management Association of America when it was developed in 1982.
“I just felt like it was great to have somebody you could talk to that shared the same problems, shared the same experiences, and that was part of the reason for doing it,” he says. “At the same time, we were trying to build some support for some legislation that we needed to get passed. It’s much easier to do it with a group of people than one firm. If you’re doing it as an organization, you have a little more clout than as one corporate entity.”
For Skillman, everything begins with communication. If the company is going to grow, everyone must be working from the same script.
“It starts at the top,” Skillman says. “You communicate that to your management team all the way down. Over the years, I’ve tried to project that to the guys below, personally going out (into the field) at times.”
Several times a year, Skillman or one of his senior managers visits each of the company’s five outlying divisions to convey and reinforce the company vision.
“We do quarterly site manager meetings in our regions,” he says. “I push very strongly, because I think it’s very important for our senior management to participate in those meetings and take our stories again and again and again and again and again back to (workers) and talk to them about it.”
Skillman also uses those meetings to find out what’s on the minds of his employees.
“The communication needs to go down as well as it needs to come back up, so you know what people are thinking,” Skillman says. “We go to those meetings with the idea that we’re going try to give them as much information as we think they need to have to do a great job. (We talk) about where the company is going, what the marketing plan is, about our long-term plan, what we see in the marketplace. At the same time, we want input back from those people about what their concerns and wants and needs are.”
That two-way communication isn’t always easy.
“Sometimes it’s real difficult to get people to talk,” Skillman says. “One of the things we’ve instilled is an open door policy. I’ve had it ever since we started the company. No matter who you are, I don’t care what your position is, if you don’t think you can talk to your superior and get something (resolved), my door is always open. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do what you want. It only means I’m going to listen to what you say.
“I get letters from people who felt like they were treated unfairly. As a result of that, I set an appointment, they come in, and we talk about it or I go visit them and we talk about it.”
Whether it is delivering the message to employees or listening to their concerns, communication is a constant struggle for any executive team faces. And it’s something Skillman refuses to allow himself to be lazy about.
“Communication is the greatest tool in the world, and you’ve got to keep doing it,” he says. “It’s hard work. It’s real easy to say, ‘We did that.’ You’ve got to keep doing it on some kind of a periodic basis, all the time.”
Skillman never wants his employees going home at the end of the day unhappy, and he certainly doesn’t want a poor attitude conveyed to customers. As a result, building relationships with employees and customers has been key to his success.
“You’ve got to treat people the same way you want to be treated,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve always looked at it.”
Skillman can express that message to his managers, but it takes the right kind of person to be able to deliver it.
‘I think subjectivity plays a big role in that,” he says. “You look at people as best as you can. (You look for) someone who has the same kind of philosophies you do, treats people the same way you do. You know you’re never going to find anybody perfect. Our company started out with one person, me. It’s grown to a company doing in excess of $300 million of construction a year in 34 years. And we’ve done it with people. People made the company.
“I look for quality people who can delegate, who can look to people and treat them fairly, who have an understanding of our business.”
But no matter how good the people are, they will make mistakes.
“Everybody has subjectivity,” Skillman says. “If a guy’s got 40 site managers working for him and 10 project managers, they’re not all going to be treated equally. I know that. Somebody may get their feathers ruffled at times.”
But it’s not just the relationships among employees that Skillman worries about. One of the reasons he wants his people treated fairly is so they will treat customers well and strengthen that bond.
“We don’t build buildings,” Skillman says. “We build relationships, and as a result of those relationships, we build buildings. We try to emphasize that all the way down the line to our site people. We think our site people are the greatest marketers for our next project, because they are keeping our clients happy today.”
Relationships lead to repeat business, a key driver to Skillman’s long-term growth.
“If you look at our present workload, probably 70 percent of our business is repeat business,” Skillman says.
Happy customers require less of a sales job because they’re more comfortable with the company.
“The best salesman you can have is a happy client,” Skillman says. “He talks to his peer groups in their conferences and meetings, over the lunch table, wherever it might be. Somebody says, ‘I’m getting ready to build a building. Who should I talk to?’ and (the Skillman client) says, ‘We’re using Skillman,. We think they’re the greatest in the world.’ I can’t put enough marketing people in the street. That’s why it’s so important.”
And sometimes, building relationships means saying no.
“We did that with one of our clients,” Skillman says. “Eli Lilly came to us and they had two projects. Between the two, it was something like $36 million worth of work. They came to us and said, ‘We want this person, this person, this person and this person for these two jobs.”
If Skillman agreed to the request, the job was his.
“We came back and looked at the people they demanded,” he says. “They were all tied up for that period of time on other projects. We went back to them and said, ‘The people you want are not available, and we will not pull them off in the middle of a project. That’s not fair to that other client. If you’ll consider some other people, we’re very interested. If not, we’ll have to pass.’”
Skillman walked away without the job, but he gained something in the process.
“We built a lot of credibility with them by doing that,” Skillman says. “But you never know what the reaction is going to be. That’s the kind of decision you make in top management as a CEO. You hang your corporate reputation on the line.”
HOW TO REACH: The Skillman Corp. (317) 783-6151 or www.skillman.com