Contractor of the Year Finalist: Terry and Cinda Alexander – January 2008

Shortly after Terry Alexander opened Strata Construction, a general contractor approached him at church asking how he had amassed such a large fleet of new Mack trucks in such a short time. He wondered at seeing trucks emblazoned with the company’s logo “all over town”, as he put it.

Terry had to hide his smile. In reality, he had just two trucks. “He thought I had a fleet because I always parked them on different jobsites and he was seeing them in different places every day,” Terry says, laughing.

Although Strata Construction now has six dump trucks, they still remain on jobsites every night, as does his other equipment, which includes loaders, excavators, dozers and compactors and a skid steer. To Terry and his wife, Cinda, parking the equipment prominently around the community works better than leasing a billboard. “Our logo is wonderful advertising,” says Cinda. “We’re particular about how things look and about the company’s image.”

The logo and name were carefully crafted to present the image Terry wanted the company to have. “I didn’t care to have my name attached – I wanted the name to reflect the type of construction we do,” he says. Using the glossary in a geology textbook, Terry found the term “strata” – meaning layers of the earth. “We cut, fill and compact the layers of earth, or strata. I felt the name was appropriate.” The Strata Construction logo, made up of horizontal lines running through the company name, also conveys the impression of layers of earth, Terry says.

Smart thinking
Terry also applied careful thought as to how to run the company. “There are a lot of ways to do this business,” he says. With more than 20 years experience in the construction industry, Terry says he had plenty of time to study what other contractors do. “I look at what works for others and adapt,” he says. “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but I can modify it.” For example, Terry compared contractors who hold on to older equipment to those who buy new. “When you have older equipment you can really go through the fluids, parts and downtime,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t see the additional cost, but it can nibble you to death.”

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One modification was the creation of a mobile shop. “I thought about how I wanted to do it for years. As a result, I do things a little differently – my shop is a tagalong trailer.” The trailer carries a fuel tank, a gang box for hand tools and a small amount of grease and oil. Strata’s superintendents are responsible for the trailer, which moves between jobsites as needed.

Terry also ensures his operators use technology properly by mastering fundamental techniques first. “I’m a fan of technology – all my machines have GPS – but it’s often misused,” he notes. “So many times people will use technology as a substitute for their brain. If the equipment they’re using tells them water runs uphill and the sun sets in the east, that’s what they will go with.” He says his operators must understand the nuts and bolts of grading. “I want my people to learn the craft. Before you give someone all this powerful stuff they need to know the basics.”

Capital gains
To keep a healthy bottom line, Terry keeps his equipment in tip-top shape, takes advantage of rental-purchase options and avoids downtime by having routine maintenance performed at night. He says his equipment and truck dealers go above and beyond with nighttime service calls. “I have the drivers look at the tires, but I like someone to monitor the equipment,” he says. “It’s all about minimizing downtime.”

When acquiring equipment, the Alexanders look at a variety of options, including purchase, lease-purchase and rentals, and calculate the depreciation and tax advantages to maximize benefits. While purchasing most of his larger equipment, Terry leases equipment such as trenchers and rollers. Since he doesn’t have a shop, he puts that money elsewhere. “I don’t have the expense of maintaining a building; instead I invest in my equipment.” The way Terry keeps up his equipment doesn’t go unnoticed, says Rob Tavenner, salesman, Carolina Cat. “Strata keeps their equipment first class,” Tavenner says. “Their employees keep the equipment clean and their projects in good shape, too – the total presentation is sharp.”

Although Terry loves doing the work himself – he’s been on jobsites since working for Cinda’s father’s grading company in high school – he tries to leave it to his 14 employees and concentrate on estimating, preparing contract documents and hiring. “I attempt to stay off the equipment and out of the ditches,” he says. Cinda’s role has continually expanded since the company’s formation in 1998. She now works for Strata full time handling all bookkeeping, payroll, benefits, insurance and worker’s compensation duties.

Strata performs both commercial and residential grading and excavation work but concentrates on a mix of profitable commercial projects. “We may be doing a church or school at the same time we’re doing a Dollar Store,” Terry says. “Franchise commercial jobs are attractive because they are often a 90-day turnaround.” They also bid select long-range projects. For example, the company recently completed a two-year project for the local YWCA and worked on an archives building project at a Moravian Church, also a two-year job. Terry says he’s careful about how many lengthy projects he takes on at once, though. “I don’t let my ego get me into where I don’t need to be,” he says.

Rising to the challenge
Since the company works entirely in the Winston-Salem area, Terry and Cinda regularly contend with situations unique to cities with historic structures. “We do projects right next to 100-year-old buildings,” Terry says. “We often lay larger pipe on pre-existing sites. Contractors have no choice, because all the good land is already built on.” Strata Construction often works with Frank L. Blum Construction, the second-oldest active general contracting firm in North Carolina. Drew Hancock, president of Frank L. Blum Construction, says the two firms have a long-term, repeat relationship. “They help us be successful,” he says. “That is what drives their business – they have our best interests at heart. It’s not just a ‘one and done’ kind of thing.”

Labor is another challenge. Terry says the problem is not only finding employees, but finding the right employees. The Alexanders meet the issue head on by pursuing employees who view construction as a career. “It requires intuitive thinking,” he says. “I want construction to be a viable option – not a last resort – and to see people who have an interest in learning. People are convinced in the computer age if they’re not working at a laptop they are wasting their time.” Terry says he values employees who want to advance. “So many workers are transient. If they work for me two years, I feel like I have to give them a gold watch! You’ve got to get people to buy into being a part of the success of your organization.”

Terry and Cinda work hard on retention. “They are firm but extremely fair with their employees,” says Charlie Parker, a salesman with a Strata Construction supplier, National Waterworks of Greensboro. “They spell out their expectations explicitly and they emphasize a team effort – everybody pitches in. They also pay above average for our marketplace.” Strata employees receive vacation days, sick days and holidays and receive health insurance. If covered by a spouse’s policy, employees can opt out and Strata will pay the employee the difference.

The Alexanders’ generosity with their employees often goes hand in hand with frugality within the company. North Carolina’s unpredictable weather affects the work schedule. Two years ago, Winston-Salem experienced a 100-year flood event. “It rained 191 days,” Terry says. We tried to be frugal and relied on the confidence and faith of a good banker.” It helped that the Alexanders’ two daughters, Meredith, 19, and Elizabeth, 16, realize the business is dependent upon the weather. “The girls understand it can affect their life every day,” he says.

Business as usual
With continued growth in Winston-Salem, the Alexanders have plenty of work to keep them active. Their work ethic combined with the company’s positive reputation keeps clients coming back to Strata. “You can always tell a successful company by how busy they are,” says Mossy White, president of Denver White Oil. “Other contractors might slow down, but Terry’s quality of work keeps him busy. He gets a lot of repeat business.”

Terry says it’s all part of doing business the way it should be done. “I want to provide my employees with the best, and I want them to take care of it,” he says. “There’s always a benefit to doing the right thing.”