Construction Entrepreneurs Share Perspectives on Leadership and Letting Go

It’s a familiar story in the construction industry. A young craft professional masters his trade, but he envisions more for his family and his future. He opens a small business and, with time, dedication and a few wise business partners, he builds the foundation for a multi-million-dollar company. He leads by example to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, and so the tradition continues.

Dave Jones & familyDave Jones, founder of Dave Jones, Inc., is a prime example. He was raised on a farm as one of four foster children among a family of seven children, graduated from high school in 1968 and went to work for a hardware store in his small town. He learned a bit about plumbing and heating, started a five-year plumbing apprenticeship, and earned his license as a master plumber. In 1977, he opened his own company in his garage in Mount Horeb, Wis., and his wife worked as his business partner and bookkeeper. In 1992, he moved the company to Madison, Wis., acquired a few local companies and grew to become a top-rated plumbing, heating and cooling, and fire protection company with 300 employees.

Just a few months ago, Jones retired and passed the leadership torch to two of his three children. Greg Jones now serves as president and CEO, and Holly Jones serves as COO.

“I feel too young to be retired,” Dave Jones laughs. But with a secure economy and the family business succession plan in place, the timing was just right.

Greg Jones is a master plumber licensed in four states and he’s currently completing a master’s degree while he takes over the company. Well before he chose to fill his father’s shoes, he was working in the shop helping with inventory, or in the field digging ditches, moving materials and carrying bathtubs. Moving up the ranks quickly to general manager at age 24, he recognized how much that field experience helped him gain perspective and others’ respect for him as a leader.

In a way, stories like these are the very definition of entrepreneurship.

“Most of the companies in the industry are not started by businesspeople; they’re started by the trades, by people working with their hands,” Greg Jones says. “It’s just them and a truck and a couple customers, and they go from there.”

His father echoes that sentiment. “I would have to say construction people in general are very hardworking. If they have a dream, they can start with a one-man shop like I did,” Dave Jones says. “With the desire and the drive, they have the opportunity to be very successful. But there certainly is risk involved. You have to be a person who has the foresight to manage that risk before reaping the rewards.”

The Importance of Partnerships
Denis Landry, co-owner of Landry/French Construction Company, Scarborough, Maine, started out as a draftsman, earned an associate’s degree and took night courses toward his architectural degree. His first job was as a clerk for New England Nuclear Corporation in the engineering department.
“I realized I didn’t want to be inside drafting jobs; I wanted to be in the field. That’s how I got launched in the construction industry,” Landry says. He managed Payton Construction Corp.’s Maine office for nearly 10 years before deciding to hang a shingle for his own business in 2006.

The business ran as a two-man operation out of Landry’s basement for four years. Then in 2010, Landry got a call from a former competitor, Kevin French, who had sold his part-ownership of another construction firm and was looking to get back into commercial construction. The rest is history. Today, the 29-person company maintains repeat business from clients including Bangor Savings Bank, Allagash Brewery and a major pharmaceutical company.

With French’s business development acumen and Landry’s operational expertise, both partners are able to balance each other’s strengths as leaders.

“One thing that helped our company get started is the fact that I’d been in business for a number of years, and I had my own clients and contacts. Kevin also was in the business for a number of years. When we came together, it was really a merging of people I knew and people he knew, so it gave us quite a good start,” Landry says.

By keeping overhead low, the team was able to ride out the recent slow business cycle and wait until confidence built in the marketplace and clients began to invest again. “It’s all relationship-driven. Kevin and I know all of our clients. We attend job meetings and punchlist walkthroughs, and we stay involved throughout the project. Making sure that clients are satisfied is part of our corporate culture—and we ensure all our employees are empowered to make the right decision and keep our clients happy. This is important when the majority of our work is repeat work,” Landry says.

The Importance of Professional Development
“To me, an entrepreneur is somebody who works in a specialized field, or has a unique idea, and wants to take on the responsibility and the risk to develop that business. He’s there because he has the passion for it,” says Todd Kelchner, who started helping out at his father’s business when he was 11 years old.
Kelchner attended college to become a coach and teacher, but he realized it wasn’t the right fit. His heart was in construction. He joined the family business and moved up the chain as a laborer, equipment operator, foreman, superintendent, estimator, operations manager, vice president and president. Today, he’s the second-generation owner of Kelchner Incorporated, Springboro, Ohio, which specializes in site prep work for commercial, residential, industrial and energy sector clients.

Kelchner believes the entrepreneurship model is alive and thriving, but in a modern age, young go-getters must strengthen their professional management skills before taking the helm—more so than they needed to 50 years ago. “My father started the brand and the group, but he did not have a strong desire to adopt professional management skills. I think that to survive in the long term, businesses that are started from scratch have to move out of that entrepreneurial stage and toward a more professionally managed level. Then the leader can delegate authority and give people the opportunity to grow in their careers as the business grows,” Kelchner says.

“Entrepreneurs aren’t just individuals; companies can be entrepreneurs too,” he adds. “As a company, we are entrepreneurial in that we will attack new markets that we haven’t been in before, and apply our core competencies and culture within that new business area.”

The Importance of Teamwork
“Construction lends itself to entrepreneurship because it’s easier to be closer to the action. Construction is where the rubber meets the road. If you do a good job in the field, it’s going to be noticed,” says Ralph Hargrove of Hargrove Engineers + Constructors, Mobile, Ala. 

With 35 years of experience in the construction industry, Hargrove started his career working for his uncles who were professional land surveyors, and held multiple leadership roles in construction management, project controls and design for heavy industrial projects. In 1995, Hargrove started his own company as the sole employee working from his home. Today, it is one of the largest privately held engineering firms in the state of Alabama, with 11 offices across the country and 1,000 employees.  
Hargrove recently won the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s Outstanding Entrepreneur Award, which celebrates an individual who represents the characteristics of creativity, initiative, dynamic growth and sound management. He credits his colleagues more than himself for the award. To him, entrepreneurship is more about the team than the individual.

“Even though I founded a company, from day one it’s been all about everyone else I’ve chosen to associate with, and they’ve made me stronger. You start by building the team, and you improve upon the quality and capabilities of the people you attract,” Hargrove says. “Both Jim Backes and Dennis Watson were instrumental in implementing a winning playbook for the company, and we’ve built on that over the years.”

“One of our models of project execution is ‘communities of practice.’ With clients, the more you collaborate, the more everyone gets to know each other, the more everybody grows from it, the more the return on your investment, and the more effective the margin is because the team is working together,” he says. 

The Importance of Empowerment
Business leaders who began as company founders and entrepreneurs have a unique perspective—and sage advice—on hiring and supporting the next generation.

“A manager is a leader of process, and a leader is a leader of people. What we look for in a leader is a person who develops talent along the way and who leads by example. We want a leader who is modest and a leader who enjoys the success of his or her teammates. It’s not about beating your chest. If you have to tell someone you’re the leader, then you’re really not the leader,” Hargrove says.

Kelchner, who leads a team of 250 employees, shares a similar outlook. “One of the major hurdles of leadership has to do with ego. You’re empowering other people to create the successes for the organization, and you have to be able to gain your self-worth from others’ successes,” he says. “A lot of people have trouble giving up the limelight. They want control and to be the hero so to speak, and it can hold them back in their career growth.”

Hargrove has found success by hiring the right people in the right roles, empowering leadership at every level, and pushing them a little harder than they’re used to being pushed.

“We’re constantly seeing how we can take this generation and push them to grow to where they desire to be. We want them to feel uncomfortable because they’ve never done it before,” he says. “So to position people for success, we give them the top title that they deserve, and then we empower them to be that next leader we can rely on.”

Greg Jones is of the same mindset. “I’m a strong believer in servant leadership. It’s not what I accomplish in a day; it’s more what I can help our people accomplish in a day. When you’re a one- or two-person company, you do everything, and there’s a person at the top telling someone else what to do. As you grow, you can’t operate that way. You can’t manage that way. It’s about hiring people who are smarter than you and who are really highly skilled, giving them the tools and then letting them do their job,” he says.

These company leaders also place high value on investing in continuing education for the next generation of leaders.  

Landry/French Construction sends its employees to leadership training classes, which focus on skills such as public speaking that help the company compete for construction management work. “Clients want to talk to the people who are boots-on-the-ground—the project managers and superintendents. These happen to be the ones who aren’t always comfortable representing the company in the public, so we give them the comfort level and the tools to succeed at it,” Landry says.

Dave Jones encourages young leaders to become involved in continuing education and advocacy training provided by organizations such as Associated Builders and Contractors to help them understand the business side of construction.

His son agrees. “It’s valuable to learn not just about your trade, but about your business. If you’re going to start your own business, you really should know more than just how to be a plumber or a pipefitter. You have to learn what it means to manage people and manage money,” Greg Jones says.

Landry recommends young entrepreneurs stay true to their passion while embracing the universal truth: everything changes.

“If you don’t have a passion for it and you don’t like doing it 365 days a year, it’s very hard to succeed,” Landry says. “This industry has changed a lot in the 35 years I’ve been involved, and it will continue to change quickly. Embracing change is a big part of success.”  

Back to Class
Local chapters of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) offer valuable leadership training for craft professionals and company owners alike.

One new program that has been a resounding success is the ABC Inland Pacific Chapter’s Leadership Development Series, which launched this year with 27 people enrolled.

The series’ topics are modeled after a program developed by the Arizona Builders Alliance and incorporate educational content from Spokane area colleges and community business groups, including speakers from Gonzaga University, Toastmasters and a local bank. Classes cover everything from public speaking to overcoming jobsite pitfalls.

Students from construction companies—Baker Construction & Development, Inc., Contractors Northwest Inc., Halme Construction, Modern Glass and Walker Construction, Inc., to name a few—attend the courses one Friday afternoon per month.

“The students look forward to it, and it’s been a tremendous program for us,” says Jeff Hooper, the chapter’s vice president of workforce development. “The class really builds camaraderie among the participants.”

“It has improved every aspect of our organization. People are already talking about what to cover next year,” Hooper says. Based on feedback, 2016 courses will incorporate more technology—for example, participants will use wireless tablets—and more construction companies will get involved in real-world scenarios for collaborative group projects. 

ABC chapters offering leadership programs include:

Lauren Pinch is managing editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email, visit or follow @ConstructionMag.