Editor’s Note: Alisa and Jason Bennett were finalists for 2012 Contractor of the Year. They started Bennett Contracting in Bradenton, FL in 2000. They have 19 employees with annual revenues between $3 million and $5 million. They serve the commercial site preparation, underground utilities, municipal sidewalk and street improvements markets. Visit them online at bennettcontractinginc.com.
The first thing that strikes you about Alisa and Jason Bennett is that they are a good team, and not in the typical outside-person/inside-person division found in many construction firms. Conversation with Alisa can be rapid fire, but Jason banters with the best of them, and their crews are used to seeing both of them on the jobsite.
“Jason and I attribute our growth to being out-of-the-box thinkers,” Alisa says. “Sometimes people look at us as if we have three heads, but it works for us.”
But this seeming blue sky approach is bedded in conservative, thoughtful decisions, the two say. This includes avoiding overextending themselves, making sure they have cash reserves and seeing that their crews are cross trained. All of these became survival practices after they saw their Florida business shrink by 34 percent in one year.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Alisa and Jason have known each other since they were 12 years old, about the time Jason started helping out in his father’s small construction business. After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi together, they came back to Florida’s west coast region, got married and settled into their respective careers: Jason took a job with a modular building contractor and Alisa began working in marketing and public relations.
After five years, the thought that starts most construction firms hit Jason: He was essentially running the contractor’s company, so why not do it for himself? The idea of starting a company had actually started many years before. While working summers for a “very wise old gentleman,” Jason paid attention to the stories the man would tell his crew at lunch. “He told me that by the time I was 30 I needed to decide what I wanted to do,” Jason says. “I took that to heart.”
The start was meager. In 2000, Jason hired his father, “Big Jake” Bennett, and with a pickup truck, a rented backhoe and $3,000 in savings, Bennett Contracting started getting jobs.
In the meantime, Alisa was enjoying her job working at The Ritz-Carlton in nearby Sarasota. “I wanted a big career,” she says. “Then 9/11 happened, and I realized my priorities were misplaced.” After their son Jake was born in 2003, Alisa recognized her skills were needed at the company. “We had reached the point where we couldn’t run the office out of the back room of our house anymore,” she says. (Daughter Bryce was born two years later.)
By then the Florida housing boom was in full swing. “We would literally get five to 10 phone calls a day, with people asking when we could start,” Alisa recalls. In 2006, the company did $5.3 million, primarily excavating and installing utilities for condos. Then the bottom dropped out. In one year, their billings went down to $3.5 million.
The two weren’t totally caught off guard. “We had started to see housing drop off and switched to municipal work,” Jason says.
Like many contractors, Bennett Contracting re-trenched, cut expenses and people, and aged their fleet. “We’re conservative on replacing equipment,” Alisa says. “If we don’t feel a machine is going to be paid for in a reasonable amount of time, we don’t get it. I need to be convinced that it makes financial sense for us to buy it.” The company has around 18 pieces of rolling stock, including backhoes, excavators, skid steers and compactors.
The downturn has also given Alisa the chance to flex her marketing muscles, both for Bennett Contracting and for their new venture, People at Play (see sidebar). She puts out a company newsletter “Diggin’ It,” keeps the People at Play Facebook page active, and just by sheer force of personality is in a persistent bootstrap promotion mode.
Jason counts having Alisa coming on board as one of the smartest business decisions he’s made.
Jason and Alisa take their 0.85 experience modification rate seriously. In 2008, they hired an outside safety consultant to perform once-a-month surprise inspections on two to four of their jobs. This consultant looks at everything from personal protection to whether the safety functions on their equipment are functioning properly. He also looks out for unsafe practices, such as incorrect trench sloping, and worksite traffic management, including the proper traffic flow set ups and flagging.
His reports – supported with photos – specifically call out OSHA violations and names any individuals who are not following company procedure. These reports are then shared with the individuals or the team foreman, and can be used as a disciplinary tool if needed.
“Our safety improved vastly when we started this process,” says Alisa. “The team now knows they can count on surprise inspections and it relieves anyone in the company having to be the one person pestering the team about safety.” As a reminder, the company uses “B Safe” signs on jobs and machines, incorporating the “B” in their logo.
“As a government agency, we’re pretty tough on safety,” says John Elias, project manager with Charlotte County, Florida, “and their safety practices are great.” “Safety is No. 1 for them,” says Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange.
And this year, the company added another accolade: the 2012 Contractor of the Year Safety Award from Equipment World, given to the finalist the editors feel best exemplifies a safety attitude.
The company has 19 employees, and uses a four/10-hour day schedule with the philosophy as long as there’s daylight, they should use it. Bennett Contracting now self performs most of its work, cross training crews in pipe, concrete and grading. “We avoid titles to encourage everyone to play an important role and jump in when things need to get done,” Alisa says.
And the company does get things done, says Charlotte County’s Elias:
“They did a sidewalk project on one of our busiest roads, and they were constantly making suggestions. They actually saved us so much money that we extended the sidewalk another half-mile on the original budget. Working with them is a unique experience. They are young and forward thinking.”
“When I get them on the job, I know they will cover everything, and I won’t be hit with a bunch of change orders,” adds Jason Swift with Jon F. Swift Construction. “They always go the extra mile to make the job go better.”
“Being successful sometimes reveals itself in the small things,” Alisa says, “such as giving someone the chance to learn a trade. We’re blessed to have created jobs, improved the infrastructure and give people an understanding of the work performed by those in construction.”
The light bulb came on during a 2007 cookout.
The Bennetts invited a group of engineers over to their office, and then on a lark set up an equipment course, complete with machines, traffic cones – and a soccer ball. The challenge: use a compact excavator to pick up a soccer ball from the top of a traffic cone and move it into a 5-gallon bucket. (If you’ve ever been to an equipment rodeo, you know the drill.)
“They went insane, absolutely insane,” Alisa says. The Bennetts looked at each other in amazement. “We literally went home that night and came up with the ‘People at Play’ name,” she says. But the day-to-day intervened, and the idea sat. Then 2010 rolled around, and work was scarce. Time to do it.
People at Play now offers 2-hour ($395), half-day ($625) or all-day ($1,575) equipment operating experiences for anyone curious about what it means to operate a excavator, skid steer or dozer. A host of guest operators have signed on, including a 91-year-old former Navy Seabee.
After viewing a safety video and getting familiar with the controls, guests try their new-found skills on a challenge course. “We start the timer, and they compete for a position on a leaderboard,” Alisa says. “People are shocked at how hard running a machine through the course is,” Jason says. Bennett Contracting operators sometimes serve as instructors, adding another nuance to their cross training.
While People at Play is a weekend business for the Bennetts, they also view it as a way to promote construction as a career. “I tell our guests, ‘hey this machine you’re running was working on one of our jobs yesterday,’” Alisa says. “They like that.”
“Getting young kids into the business is important,” Alisa says. “This is hard, dirty work and it’s not always fun. But you can make a very good living, and it’s meaningful work. That’s part of the message we want to get out there with People at Play.”