Contractor of the Year Finalist: Jim Schier, Schier Construction Company

Why work?

For Jim Schier, president of Schier Construction, it was just part of his nature to build things. As a child he obsessed over building blocks and erector sets, a fascination that eventually led to a career in construction.

But after 25 years of running his own company what seems to motivate Schier today is building up the people who work for him.

Learning from great examples
A native of Buffalo, New York, Schier got his college degree in civil engineering from the University of Kentucky in 1969 and went to work for Chicago Bridge and Iron. For the next nine-and-a-half years he moved up the ladder at CBI, serving as a design engineer in the construction services department and a contract supervisor in charge of the company’s water tower construction in the southwestern United States. Additionally he earned a master’s degree in structural engineering from Memphis State University.

Lured away by one of CBI’s subcontractors, in 1979 Schier took a job as vice president with Oklahoma-based Sylvester Industries, opening and running its Gulf Coast division. A year later, Schier bought out Sylvester’s business in Houston and reestablished it as Schier Construction.

Schier credits his experience with CBI and Sylvester as learning from the best of the best. CBI’s aggressive pursuit of jobsite safety as well as numerous time-tested systems for tracking jobs and managing the business. From Sylvester he learned how to deal with the financial end.

Growing from the get-go
One of the benefits of this introduction to the business was that Schier Construction was successful from the start and has grown to become a $4.6 million company with 14 pieces of heavy equipment and 30 employees.

In the beginning the company built water tower foundations all over Texas and Louisiana. After several years it became apparent that the crews were spending too much time on the road and away from their families.

Schier decided to diversify the business and concentrate on the Houston area, branching out into the construction of water plants and metal buildings.

Curiously, a few years after convincing Schier to get them off the road and into more local work, the crews now say they’d still like to do an occasional road job. And Schier has obliged.

John Tryon, who in his first career developed these interlocking vinyl building modules for a petroleum company, now works part time for Schier and shows him how the modules can be configured to create curved wall segments.

Taking safety seriously
Borrowing a page from the CBI playbook, Schier puts safety in the forefront of every employee’s mind. The company begins every work week with a mandatory Monday morning safety briefing. “Monday and Friday are the two least safe days of the week,” Schier says. “It’s critical to get them thinking about safety at the start of the week.”

Schier also subscribes to a safety topics newsletter, Weekly Safety Meeting, from Safety Meeting Outlines (www.safetymeetingoutline.com) that explores a different construction safety topic every week. Supervisors and crews read and discuss the content of the one-page newsletter at the Monday morning meeting and then everybody signs it, certifying their attendance.

You save money, you make money
Another way Schier motivates his employees is to get them to take ownership of the projects they work on. Under the company’s job bonus system, supervisors are given an itemized budget on each project, including the cost of meals and lodging if the job involves overnight travel. If they complete a job under budget, half of the savings are given back to the supervisor as a bonus to be distributed to the crews as the supervisor sees fit.

In addition to the job bonus system, Schier redistributes a percentage of the company’s profits at the end of the year. With everybody from the laborers on up standing to gain from a job well done, you won’t find any lollygagging on Schier’s crews. Slackers find the pace uncomfortable and tend to weed themselves out pretty fast, says Don Maas, the company’s general superintendent.

But Schier also knows few people get through life without hitting a bump or two in the road. And when an employee runs into a problem, whether it be divorce, drugs or alcohol, legal or financial problems, Schier knows how he reacts as the employer can make a big difference. Loyalty is a two-way street at Schier Construction, and Schier is a firm believer that honest work, a steady paycheck and the ability to forgive and support each other can help people pull through even the most difficult of times.

The families of his workers are important as well. The time between Christmas and New Years day is always a week off, paid, for all Schier’s hourly workers. “I want them to spend that time with their families,” he says, “without having to worry about the money.”

The results of this business philosophy are clear. “In 25 years I’ve never had to lay off anybody,” Schier says.

Mary Rouser, Schier’s first employee 25 years ago, continues to work for him today.

The right thing, the right reasons
Schier has poured a lot of time and resources back into his community, especially the local YMCA and Catholic Church. Even after his four children grew up and left home, Schier continued to volunteer for the YMCA, most recently as chairman of its Partners Campaign, which raised more than $225,000 to help financially disadvantaged families.

For Schier, there is no separation between good works and good business. Late in 2004 his accountant advised him to start taking more money out of the business, mostly because the company’s balance sheet was too cash heavy. “He wanted me to write myself a six-figure check,” says Schier with a look of exasperation, “but what would I do with all that money?”
Schier decided to leave the money in the company for a reason that captures the essence of his philosophy. “With that kind of cash reserve, we could go a whole year without any work and still manage to make payroll and not lay anybody off,” he says.

Rather than buy a big boat or a fancier house, Jim Schier would rather buy the peace of mind that comes from knowing that, before anything else, you’ve taking care of your people.

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