On Record: The contractor artist

Hands down, our editors would agree, one of the most fulfilling things we do is interview our Contractor of the Year finalists. Each is a finalist when we interview them – no one is selected until all interviews are done – and there’s nothing like spending the day with these chosen few, trying to find out what makes them thrive in a most difficult profession.

Certain themes emerge, and one that has struck me often is how our finalists are visionaries in a rather literal sense of the word. Julia Szabo, wife of finalist Terry Szabo, Szabo Construction, Postville, Iowa, just plain insisted her husband was an artist. “Instead of using pen and paper, he creates with a dozer and Mother Earth,” she said. “He can visualize it and it will be perfectly leveled or shaped.”

Another heartland finalist agrees. “I think construction is a form of art,” says Gregg Perrett, Perrett Construction, Valentine, Nebraska. “You have to be able to visualize what a slope will look like before the first blade of dirt is turned. It’s rewarding to see the finished product.” Then Gregg turns emphatic: “If you don’t do it for that reason, you’re in the wrong business.”

Art? Isn’t that the stuff that goes on in galleries and concert halls? That extraneous feel-good class that’s the first cut when a school budget crisis looms? What can art – or more specifically, the process of visualization – have to do with construction? Plenty.

While it could be easy to see blueprints as just a set of orders dictated by the architect or engineer, if you don’t have a contractor who can visualize, God help you. If they’re smart, owners look for more than low-bid order-takers. If they’re smart, they know they need someone who can take their project – be it a highway, strip shopping center or sewer line – and enhance it.

They want a contractor who can see what will be created, even if everyone else sees a barren piece of ground, a derelict building or a crumbling road. They want a contractor who can envision that pipe running perfectly true to grade with not a hint above ground it’s even there.

And it’s more than the end result. There’s vision in each step along the way. The old construction joke runs, “What are the only two enjoyable days on any job?” Answer: “The day you win the bid and the day you finish the job.”

After exposure to so many contractors, including our Contractor of the Year finalists, I don’t believe it. There are many, many in-between days you enjoy, and the sense of satisfaction you get from changing the environment around you permeates your actions and your talk.

Artists, indeed.