Cover Story: Contractor of the Year

Alan Bracken is drawn to big challenges like iron filings to a magnet. An entrepreneur at 19, he took his paving company to almost $10 million in annual revenues before he was 35 years old. And while some contractors might enjoy working on cars or motorcycles in their spare time, Alan found a restored Bell 47 helicopter, and taught himself to fly.

But as Alan will tell you the most important challenge he ever faced was becoming a better leader – not just on the job – but at home and in all areas of his life. Alan had talents aplenty, but as he says: “If talent were all it took, Michael Vick would still be quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons.”

Construction looked cool
When Alan was a teenager he took interest in the dump trucks rolling down the roads near his home. “It just looked like the coolest thing to be doing,” he says.

So one day he flagged down a truck and asked the driver if he could ride along. The driver, an older man by the name of Dowell Marshall, was soon impressed with Alan’s enthusiasm and gave him a few odd jobs to do and helped him get more work with local contractors.

Marshall thought so highly of Alan that he loaned Alan a big part of the money that helped him get started in paving. In 1991, a year after he graduated from high school, Alan was in business for himself. Hard work and a reputation for quality quickly brought success. In less than a decade Alan was closing in on $2 million in annual sales – and this was almost all driveways and parking lot jobs.

The first plateau
As he got closer to the 10-year mark in his business, however, Alan began to sense that he had hit a plateau. Despite his energy and talents, the company seemed stuck at the $2 million mark. Like contractors everywhere, he had a hard time finding and keeping good employees – and without more crews, he knew he’d never grow.

“I had the technical skills. We were making money,” Alan says. “But we didn’t have a good team environment. I could see the bad attitudes, but I didn’t have to tools to solve the problem. The old-school way was all that I’d ever known.”

And the old-school methods weren’t bringing in new employees, or making the job easier. “I knew I was the best asphalt paver around. If somebody on our crew wasn’t doing things as well as I could, I let them know,” Alan says. “And if they didn’t like that, I’d remind them that it was my name on the side of the truck.” As a consequence, he says, “I was on every job, trying to do it all myself.”

Leadership starts in the home
In the late 1990’s a series of events began to give Alan a new perspective. In 1997 he married Amanda, “the love of my life,” as he says. In 1999 for a birthday present a friend, Nick Adams, gave him some leadership tapes by John C. Maxwell. Also in 2000, the couples’ first child, Addison, was born, followed 18 months later by son, Hunter Jackson.

Alan began to realize he needed to become a better leader, and not just on the job, but at home. “The leader affects everybody under him,” Alan says, quoting Maxwell. “But you start at home. That’s the hardest place to lead, and I knew I needed to change.”

As with everything else he’d tackled, Alan threw himself into developing his leadership abilities – both at home and on the job – and in helping others at Bracken Paving to develop their leadership skills as well.

“It didn’t take long to see that it was working,” Alan says. “When I began to grow as a leader, Bracken Paving started to grow.” The proof is in the numbers. In the past six years the company went from one crew and $2 million in sales to four crews and more than $9 million in sales.

Learning to value people
A big part of Maxwell’s impact is that his leadership philosophy is based on biblical values, but presented in mostly secular terms. This gave Alan and Amanda a way to put what they heard from the pulpit Sunday mornings to work Monday through Friday in the rough-and-tumble world of asphalt paving. And one of Maxwell’s key themes is that leaders have to value the people around them; as he says: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

For Alan, this meant learning to let go of his perfectionism. “In the past if somebody did a job 85 percent as well as I could have done it, I’d be critical,” he says. But finding flaws wasn’t improving results. By valuing people Alan came to realize that 85 percent from a less-experienced crew member was more than likely 100 percent of that person’s best effort – and something to build on, not tear down.

Good homes make good crews
Alan and Amanda both felt a strong desire to make sure the leadership principles went home with everybody at the end of the day. The idea that leadership begins at home wasn’t just a way for the couple to have a better marriage. It was one of the most important elements in solving Bracken’s and the construction industry’s number one problem – the labor shortage.

“A lot of the skills we work on here can be taken home and used to improve marriages and relationships within a family,” says Suzanne Bawgus, Amanda’s assistant and office administrator at Bracken.

The biggest distraction employees deal with, according to Alan, is their personal life. “Most of them don’t have the tools to deal with that,” Alan says. “So one of the things we do in our Monday morning meetings is we talk about life and what’s going to help you. If a guy doesn’t show up for work one morning, more than likely it’s a personal issue.”

This has safety implications as well, Alan says. “People get hurt when they’re distracted, and the number one distraction is usually a problem at home.”

The meetings not only educate employees on how to solve conflicts and strengthen family relationships, they also give Alan and his supervisors a chance to hand out the praise in a public setting. “So often we think it – but we don’t say it,” he says.

“If somebody’s home life is a mess, sometimes the only place that provides any kind of boost for their morale is their work,” Amanda says. “So we want to make them feel important and that they make a difference.”

Better to give
Another part of the Brackens’ strategy for helping their employees see that they can make a difference is to get them involved in the company’s numerous charitable activities.

Amanda spearheads these efforts. Like Alan, she jumped into the business world straight out of high school, forming a partnership in a tanning salon and selling supplies in a five- state area. When she married Alan she put those skills to work selling driveways and managing the company office. But after the children arrived, she and Alan decided that the kids would be her main focus. So she pulled back from the day-to-day operations. But as Alan dug deeper into his leadership training, Amanda saw a parallel opportunity for her to become a leader in the community promoting good works and strong healthy relationships.

She rallied the company families around a 12-day secret Santa program last Christmas, and got the company involved in the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” a program to sell coffee grown by women and victims of poverty and violence in Africa. Last year the company also started matching donations made by employees to World Vision, a program that sponsors children in Africa whose communities have been devastated by AIDS. This spring as the crews started back for the paving season they were greeted by a big bulletin board in the office with pictures and letters of the children they’re sponsoring.

Regionally, Bracken Paving crews have paved driveways for people in need and basketball courts in underprivileged neighborhoods, a program they call Courts for Kids. They also head up a Mission: Outdoor Overhaul program to renovate or improve the exteriors of homes of needy families.

But Alan and Amanda aren’t running themselves ragged doing all this alone. One of Maxwell’s most important concepts is that good leaders get others to believe in and act on their vision. The couple’s success in the volunteer arena is due in large part to their ability to use their influence to encourage other construction professionals and volunteers to participate in these programs.

Paving like a pit crew
Another benefit of Bracken Paving’s leadership model is that when it comes time to work, everybody hits the ground running. “People tell us our crews look like a NASCAR pit crew when they get to a jobsite,” says Mark Roberts, sales associate. “Everybody has what they need and knows what they need to do. Nobody’s standing around waiting for orders or equipment.”

Alan strives continually improve the process. The strategy is to coordinate one site prep crew and one paving crew, each with its own truck and trailer. Ideally, the site prep crew is finishing up just as the paving crew pulls into view. On a good day, his crews can knock out as many as five or six driveways.

Leadership is tested when things don’t go according to plan. “One of our values is adaptability,” says Tom Weinman, sales and project manager. “I think there were only two days last year where everything went according to plan. Things change constantly, so we have to be flexible and fast.”

Despite the work that Alan and his crews have put into leadership studies, the benefits don’t come automatically. You just don’t do a workbook, recite some wisdom and enter the promised land. Good leaders and good followers need what Alan calls noble character and that requires honesty, humility and the ability to confront uncomfortable personal issues.

Weinman mentions a recent example where a new employee was chewed out for a mistake. The supervisor erred in losing his temper, but in construction tempers are going to flare sometimes. The new employee went into a defensive mode, speaking only when spoken to, obeying orders but never volunteering ideas or help. And in a high-functioning team, it doesn’t take long for one stubborn individual to create a ripple effect, jamming up the whole operation. It took some face-to-face conflict resolution to get the supervisor and employee to admit where they were both wrong and to put the issue behind them, but once they did, the team went back to full efficiency.

Reputation makes marketing easier
Speed and efficiency not only bring in profits, they also give the company a great reputation. Just ask its customers.

Jeff Spear, vice president of Orth Construction has been using Bracken for about five years. “Alan’s mindset is to take care of the customer. He handles people well and they always meet their deadlines,” he says. “When they show up their equipment is always clean, and that’s rare in paving.”

Dan Rutledge, owner of Rutledge Construction, also likes the way Bracken’s crews tackle a project. “Alan understands the job. He’s quick and efficient, and his people take a teamwork approach to everything.”

The company also recently paved the parking lot and drag strip at the Bristol Motor Speedway, earning high praise from Steve Swift, the construction manager. “Flatness is everything in drag racing,” Swift says, “and they did a super job. They’ve kept a lot of the same people over the years, and even with the volume of work they’re getting now the quality is still there.”

The way forward
Alan’s short-range goal is to continue to develop leaders within Bracken Paving so that it can continue to thrive even in his absence. He also wants to put more time and effort into developing other business ventures, including real estate, and continue speak at and participating in Maxwell’s leadership programs.

Amanda is getting close to launching a software product for the asphalt paving industry. Developed in collaboration with a local marketing and web development company, the software will enable paving contractors to estimate bids for parking lots and driveways and help customers understand what is involved in a paving job. She and Alan are also planning a trip this summer to start what they hope will become a long-term relationship with a small village in Africa.

On any given day, Alan is just as happy to be running a loader or a paver as he is promoting leadership around the globe. But he also sees paving as the springboard, the way to finance and accomplish the bigger goals in life for both him and Amanda.

“The one thing we’re most passionate about is helping people,” Alan says. “Amanda’s promoting strong, healthy relationships and I’m all about leadership development. That’s where our hearts are at, and that’s bigger than us or our company. My passion used to be paving, but I’ve come to realize that alone is not enough. I do paving, so I can go help people and empower people to help others.”

Lessons learned

  • Talent is never enough.
  • Character determines success.
  • Good people are the key to growth.
  • Good people are drawn to good leadership.
  • Leadership isn’t something you’re born with, but something you can learn.
  • Great leaders are humble and generous and lead by example.
  • Praise people: just don’t think it – say it.
  • A good home life makes a better employee.
  • Generosity is the best antidote to greed.