Networking and peer groups deliver advanced industry education
Not long after he started working as a project manager, Sam Frank knew he wanted to use his newfound passion for construction to create his own company. He had a college education and professional experience in economics and finance. But to create a successful contracting firm, he would need education in best practices for staffing, installations, supply chain management, back office operations, marketing, customer service and other fundamentals of growing a startup.
Networking and informational interviews became priority activities and prime sources of insights. Then as he and his partner launched Four Twelve Roofing, Frank embarked on an effort to conduct more extensive conversations about how to run a roofing company.
“I went down the list of the top 100 rated roofing contractors in the country on RoofingContractor.com. I called all of them and none of them returned my calls,” Frank said.
Another article on the site, however, listed a few additional companies so Frank started calling those. On his first call to a Florida contractor, “I got right through to the owner of the company and he was extremely generous,” Frank said. “We had three phone calls of about an hour and a half each. He taught me everything. He shared a lot of information about how his company handled marketing, sales, production, payment agreements.”
Frank subsequently spent a week in Florida, shadowing the company’s production and operations team, talking with their inhouse marketing professional and learning their approach to staffing, customer communications and other operations.
“You could spend a couple of years trying to learn by yourself how to run certain things. By being down there for a week, we were on the fast track,” Frank said.
To succeed in the construction industry, entrepreneurs, business leaders and mid-level managers need to learn a lot on the fly. Those necessary lessons include strategic planning, personnel management, leadership, communication, best (and evolving) business practices, successful technology adoption, and effective responses to new business challenges, like a global pandemic or sudden economic downturn. Often, those lessons don’t come from university degrees or technical training. Instead, construction leaders obtain invaluable, ongoing education through less formal means, such as networking and peer groups.
“Right from the beginning, we considered ourselves learners, not knowers,” said Brett Plano, CEO and Founder of Plano-Coudon Construction.
Plano and company co-founder, Ryan Coudon, fervently sought to “pick the brains of everybody we could… We were kind of the studious dorks at conventions. While a lot of people do a lot of partying at conventions, we would work our asses off… We learned a ton,” Plano said.
At educational sessions, they would check the sign-in sheets to identify people they wanted to buttonhole as soon as the presentation ended. Similarly, they would case the crowd at every networking event to find representatives of large general contracting and construction management firms as well as individuals with specialized knowledge — lawyers, accountants, specialized subcontractors. They would leverage existing or new contacts to arrange meetings with industry leaders. That tactic landed them a three-hour conversation with the CEO of one of the top 10 U.S. construction companies and eye-opening discussions with other “big dogs.”
“If you talk to veterans in the industry, inevitably three or four nuggets pop up in the conversation,” Plano said.
Those nuggets often spoke directly to a challenge that Plano-Coudon was facing.
When Plano landed in a conversation with the CEO of a $1.2-billion contractor, he mentioned that Plano-Coudon had reached annual revenue of $70 million. “Before I could get the words out of my mouth, he says $70 million is right around the time that you need a CFO but you can’t afford one,” Plano said. “It was crazy to me that he could exactly pinpoint one of our needs because he had been there.”
Plano and Coudon, however, never exactly copied the best practices contained in those ‘nuggets.’ Instead, they adapted the practices to suit their company’s circumstances and culture.
For many construction professionals, participation in peer groups has proven to be an especially beneficial way of tapping the expertise of accomplished business leaders and helping grow their companies and others.
After completing the National Roofing Association’s Future Executives Institute program, Cole Roofing President Bill Cole landed in a peer group with six other roofing companies that are scattered across the country.
“It helps with blind spots,” Cole said. “It helps leaders develop a broader view of the landscape so they can see trouble or opportunities on the horizon sooner.”
Peer groups require a time commitment, a willingness to share insights and a significant level of trust so it’s important to choose a group that matches both your professional situation and your personality, Cole said. “It really needs to be people that you genuinely care about and want to spend time with… But if you get into the right group, it will actually save you time because you will be able to process challenges quicker.”
Peer groups’ ability to learn and problem solve quickly proved especially useful at the beginning of the pandemic.
“In April and May, we were changing our business by the hour,” Cole said.
Interacting with industry peers in other parts of the country helped both Cole and Plano learn how the pandemic was unfolding in states that experienced infections earlier, get a jump on preparations within their companies and decipher the onslaught of information and questions about how to operate safely.
Peer groups, informational interviews, convention conversations and other everyday forms of professional development, however, can benefit a far broader swath of construction professionals than just entrepreneurs.
After Cole’s roofing industry peer group switched to frequent Zoom meetings, they expanded the group’s activities to include other people within their companies. For example, service leads from all member companies have started meeting online to discuss best practices.
“My friend in Ohio has a really effective business development guy so we want that guy to host a call with the rest of our business development people,” he said. “We are really excited. We think this will help everybody get better much faster.”