The long haul Featured

10:26am EDT July 29, 2005
Some business owners are just looking for the quick buck, but not Andy Shiel.

The co-owner, chairman and CEO of Shiel Sexton has his eye on long-term success, and he’s building his commercial construction company as carefully as he builds buildings.

That strategy has paid off — since he took partial ownership of the company in 1983, sales have increased from $15 million to $180 million today.

“What has made us successful is having the long term in mind,” Sexton says. “We are constantly looking out for the long term. We’re not always right, but we’re looking. When I took over the company, it was small but there were terrific opportunities for development. I was ready to try new things, and we were able to grow a lot.”

Sexton hired people to develop more sophisticated systems, brought in growth-minded partners, invested in technology and extended the company’s target market to include things like schools.

“I knew we’d be successful,” Sexton says, “but we’ve exceeded my expectations.”

Sexton said it hasn’t been difficult to build on the foundation laid by his father, Richard C. Shiel, and his partner, Timothy Sexton.

“We had a good reputation and a strong client base,” Sexton says. “I continued the legacy started by my father and achieved careful and continual growth over time.”

One of the first things Sexton did was to formalize the company’s guiding principles — operate with integrity, cultivate relationships, strive to become experts and operate professionally, and work should be fun. And to make these things happen, it was vital to have the right people employed in the right positions.

“Everything we do won’t be successful without the right person in charge of it,” he says.

First, Sexton added partners Michael T. Dilts, president and COO, and Brian J. Sullivan, executive vice president. CFO Richard E. Hennessey came on board as a partner in 2002.

“These new partners were expecting growth and were more in a position to help make it happen,” Sexton says. “It was their ability to think outside the box and not look at the same old, same old that led to our growth.”

In addition to the partners, Sexton hired a safety director.

“In the last 10 years, in order to be successful, you have to have a culture of safety and buy-in from employees,” Sexton says. “That is a huge change in our industry.”

Sexton has also implemented a program to develop a talent pool to draw from.

“We created a more structured career path for our employees, and it all starts with interns that work summers during college,” Sexton says. “We are doing a better job finding the most qualified summer employees. We used to hire kids of friends; now we look for college students that are majoring in a construction-related area. Now we have a pool of higher caliber kids in our system.”

Construction laborers pose another hiring challenge.

“Kids graduating high school don’t want to go into construction,” Sexton says. “We spend a lot of time recruiting and training people. The Hispanic community has embraced this industry, which has been great.”

As a result, the company has become bilingual, which poses its own challenges.

“The bilingual aspect and training is a big commitment and takes a lot of our time,” he says.

In addition to finding the right people, Sexton says it’s also vital to channel them into specific areas of expertise that clients can use.

“Moving forward, we are much more market driven and are developing experts in market segments,” Sexton says.

The company, which has consistently been named one of America’s Top 400 contractors by Engineering News-Record, is divided into seven groups — commercial, education, health care, industrial, interiors, institutional and special projects — is hiring to meet those needs.

“We are hiring people with more focus in these areas and training them,” Sexton says. “We are creating a company full of specialists.”

Bricks and mortar
Technology has also played a critical role in the company’s growth.

“Technology has completely changed our industry, although that’s not different than any other industry in the last 20 years,” Sexton says.

Computerized tools, computers and programs, cell phones and other related technologies all help to increase the efficiencies, Sexton says.

“We used to carry around boxes of project files; now, it’s all on one CD,” he says. “We have lasers on the job site — it’s all a lot higher level of sophistication. Buildings are built with the same laser technology as robots.”

Sexton says it has taken a huge commitment of company resources, both financial and employees, to stay abreast of the latest technology and put it to good use.

“But it helps us do all of our jobs more efficiently,” Sexton says. “And we make all our decisions with the long term in mind.”

To continue the company’s growth, Sexton is creating and standardizing technology.

“Doing that has helped us get jobs, do them faster and more efficiently, and do them right the first time, which decreases cost and increases quality,” Sexton says.

With the right people and the right technology is place, Shiel Sexton has broken down market barriers to go after projects in markets which, in the past, it had ignored.

“The economy in Indiana and Indianapolis has deteriorated in the last 10 to 20 years,” Sexton says. “We are hoping that the mayor and state government will bring new businesses here. But we are trying to do more public sector work, like schools and universities, which traditionally we did not do.”

Sexton is also looking ahead to a time when geographical boundaries will also not be an issue for the company.

“Ultimately I see us doing more work in other regions and states if our success continues,” he says.

To ensure that it does, Sexton is incorporating succession planning into his long-term approach.

“We’ve experienced some significant business achievements, but we are already planning for the third generation of leadership,” he says. “Whether that leadership comes from within the family or outside the family remains to be seen.”

But Sexton isn’t relinquishing control any time in the near future.

“It isn’t going to happen soon, but we are planning it years in advance,” he says. “We are developing a pool of leaders and giving them a taste of what it takes to manage the company. We are looking to see who is willing and able to lead, and nurturing that.”

Sexton’s goal is to continue the growth of Shiel Sexton through the next generation, using the same long-term thinking he has used since taking over the company.

“Every person and job is important to the company,” he says. “You build clear expectations, get the right people in the right places then get out of their way.”

HOW TO REACH: Shiel Sexton., (317) 423-6000 or www.shielsexton.com