Building decks and pushing a wheelbarrow isn’t the kind of work one would expect to take on after earning an electrical engineering degree. But fresh out of college, Bill Pierce knew he wanted to build things, including his own company, even if it meant starting from scratch and building with sweat equity.
Pierce worked on and off in the trades as far back as high school and loved it. So the engineering degree was just a progression from that experience.
Starting from scratch was not easy. “I remember agonizing over buying a $38 Skil saw one time when I was getting started,” he says. But with his wife Nancy working in the medical field, he was able to build his business, acquire equipment and plow the profits back into the company without worrying about where his next meal was coming from.
Although he started in homebuilding, Pierce had a fondness for projects with complexity and size – challenging architectural designs and difficult mountainside slopes. But being in a town of 25,000 or so in Montana meant there weren’t a lot of subs.
“You had to know how to do a lot of things throughout the whole construction project. So we got into excavating early on,” he says. A steady diet of equipment purchases led to the company doing specialty work for other contractors as well.
Getting it right, every time
“We developed a system early on that comprehensively looked at every part and piece of a job so we knew what our costs are. I think that’s real important,” Pierce says.
One of the tools Pierce developed to help him calculate costs is an estimating software program. The store-bought bidding and estimating programs he looked at didn’t give him the level of detail he needed for the challenging sites he developed nor did they do well at job-costing heavy equipment expenses.
So Pierce created his own custom spreadsheet program in Excel where he can plug in as many categories as he wants. Over the years the program has grown in size and scope and it now runs to hundreds of lines. But the data from every job helps improve the cost management process and sharpens the bids for the next job. “It’s my secret weapon,” he says.
Pride and polish
Pierce has accumulated a fleet of approximately 14 heavy machines and 16 trucks and a compliment of light equipment from power tools to compactors. “We look at our equipment fleet as part of the image of our company,” Pierce says. “We actually spend a fair amount of money in a year’s time keeping our fleet looking top notch.”
Customers respond well to the sharp looking fleet, and so do his crews. “They take a certain amount of pride in knowing they’ve got the nicest Kenworth truck on the road,” he says.”
Pierce’s brother-in-law Don Bacon does all the maintenance on the fleet. He can tell you exactly how many hours each machine has on it and when it’s due for a PM. Every winter when the snow shuts down the work sites, they bring all the equipment back to the shop and Don goes through every piece. As Bill says: “He tightens every screw and checks every bolt.”
Pierce and Bacon are fanatics when it comes to keeping good equipment records and maintaining manuals. “I don’t care if we have to beg, borrow or steal; we’re going to have a manual on every truck, vehicle and piece of equipment we own,” says Bacon.
Motivating different generations
Building a good company would not be possible without good employees and Pierce has a pretty simple formula. Give them good wages and benefits, treat them with respect, run a safe operation and promote construction as a career, not just a job. Pierce puts a lot of emphasis on finding and keeping qualified employees and subcontractors and operating in a team environment. “You can’t achieve professional results with the ‘cheap guy,'” he says.
Pierce’s philosophy is that construction is a profession and a career, and he has been very active for many years in the Montana Building Industry Association, which is comprised of more than 2,300 businesses throughout the state that are engaged in residential and light commercial construction. At the MBIA he has served as president and in other capacities. One of his big accomplishments with the association was to help improve the relationship between Montana builders and customers by developing a model contract that eliminates much of the uncertainty and suspicion that arises from poorly worded contracts. He also aggressively recruited other builders, subcontractors and suppliers to join the association, resulting in 263 firms signing up.
Rules for success
Every company is different, but there are some universal principles for success, Pierce says. You have to know how to estimate your cost to perform work and do job cost accounting after the work is done so you learn what to charge for the next job and consistently make a fair profit job after job.
You also have to have the passion or desire to make that your life’s work. You must want to continually learn and improve. And you have to believe that the outcome of your work is equally as important as your income, he says. “We have a saying around here that ‘price is forgotten long after quality is remembered.'”