The belief that people come first is more than a personal mantra for Robert Greaves. It’s also the name of his construction group, consisting of six companies centered around building outdoor living spaces. Together, these businesses reeled in $18.6 million in total sales revenue in 2022.
From the moment Greaves took ownership of Washington-based People Come First Construction Group (PCF) in 2009, known then as Undercover Systems, the foundation of his business has been built by bringing together talented people, many of whom were unhappy with their previous employers.
Greaves, NAHB’s Remodeler of the Year, is passionate about helping those inside his organization achieve their personal and professional goals, but his desire to put others first doesn’t stop with his work family.
“As I’ve gotten older and more mature as a business owner, I’ve realized how much I can impact people in the community,” says Greaves.
Greaves says he wouldn't be as successful if he hadn't met his wife and co-founder of PCF, Lisa. "I had never met somebody who believed in me as much as Lisa did," he reveals. | Photos: People First Construction Group
One of many examples of his efforts to build a better community is the construction project he completed for Childhaven, a Seattle-based agency offering programs to mitigate childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect. Greaves and his team members built a covered structure that gives children a dry play area year-round.
Construction has been an integral part of Greaves’ life since childhood, but his path to owning a business was like a roller coaster with ups, downs, and difficult decisions at every turn. The ride became less rocky when he centered his business principles around three pillars: people, processes, and community.
Life Before Business Ownership
Originally from the small town of Homer, Alaska, where his parents performed civil construction work, Greaves followed suit as a teenager and got involved with road construction throughout high school and college, helping his parents by running heavy equipment, laying asphalt, and painting lines on the roads.
After graduating from the University of Louisville with a degree in business management and marketing, his career in construction continued.
Greaves was eventually introduced to Undercover Systems, a product installed underneath second-level decks to waterproof the space below and create year-round dry areas.
Undercover Systems is PCF's flagship product. | Photo: People First Construction Group
He was blown away and was certain that with his marketing background, he could sell this product to everyone.
Though it wasn’t as easy as anticipated, Greaves advanced to become Undercover Systems’ Pacific Northwest territory regional manager.
Two years later, he faced the decision to move on or purchase the business.
“I made the leap and cashed out my 401K and savings,” he recalls. “I put that money toward a house that I could run the business out of because I couldn’t afford a facility.”
Greaves became the owner of Undercover Systems in July 2009 and promptly changed its name to USI Undercover Systems LLC.
A Setback or a Reset?
Greaves immediately recognized opportunities to grow the organization, despite others warning him to focus on his new business.
But grow he did.
Over the following decade, customer demands fueled expansion into other outdoor construction services, including patio covers, decks, railing systems, and electrical services.
And then COVID-19 struck.
“The hardest part of my career ever was the pandemic,” Greaves says. “I’ve never had a scenario where I had to basically lay everybody off. In the state of Washington, every single business had to shut down.”
As I've gotten older and more mature as a business owner, I've realized how much I can impact people in the community.
But Greaves would not be deterred by a temporary setback.
He proactively sought ways to rebuild his business and brand as government restrictions eased.
He made two decisions in 2020 that left a lasting impression on his success story.
The first decision was to join Certified Contractors Network (CCN), a group of nearly 300 contractors offering sales, marketing, production, and business operations training for the home improvement and remodeling industries. It also functioned as another network of peers he could turn to for advice on recovering from the pandemic.
Greaves would eventually be named CCN Boss of the Year in April 2022.
What's in a Name?
The second step taken by Greaves was to rename and rebrand his organization.
At the time, all of his businesses began with the initials “USI,” as in USI Decks and Concrete or USI Custom Outdoor Living. USI was short for Undercover Systems Incorporated.
Greaves grew tired of fielding the question, “What does USI stand for?” The reality was that it stood for nothing other than the initials of his original business name. He wanted to change that.
So, Greaves hired Seattle-based creative agency Belief Agency to help him discover a new business identity and build his brand “on the foundation of truth,” as the agency says. So what was his business’s truth, and how would they find it?
“We got together and went through all of the reasons why people wanted to work for our organization,” recalls Greaves. “We all kind of laughed about it because what we found was that we all [previously] had bosses that we didn’t like, and we had jobs where we didn’t feel valued.”
Throughout the truth-finding exercise, everything came back to prioritizing people.
It was about how employees were treated and felt valued working for this company, how those same employees went above and beyond for customers, and how the business impacted the people in its community.
That’s how Greaves and Belief Agency landed on the new name: People Come First Construction Group (PCF).
Photo: People First Construction Group
Transparency and Team Building
Greaves admits that his group of dedicated employees is the main reason for PCF’s success.
He doesn’t like to give himself credit for the business he’s built over the years.
“The only reason we’re here and have made it this far is because of my team,” Greaves says. “I’m not the guru of railing. I’m not the guru of decking. I’ve literally built two decks out of the thousands we’ve built as a company. I just have this amazing group of people who are in alignment with what I believe in and they continue to blow me away.”
Greaves’ modesty aside, it’s apparent that he cultivates a culture of compassion for anyone willing to work with him, all toward a common goal of complete customer satisfaction.
His team speaks most highly of two key elements of employment at PFC: team building and transparency.
Greaves and his team have created "grade sheets" that identify the precise skills one must obtain to earn a promotion and a pay increase.
“I’ve worked for what I would say are some great companies,” says PCF Manager of People Operations Department Kevin Williams. “I’ve never worked with one that is as transparent as People Come First.”
Williams, who has been employed by PCF for three years, cites Greaves’ willingness to share budgets and business plans, and having an open line of dialogue on what needs to improve, as examples of his transparency.
PCF has an open book policy that includes the entire company meeting quarterly to review the financials of the business, a practice that is becoming more prevalent in the remodeling and home improvement industries.
Williams is also a big believer in the team-building events instituted by Greaves.
These events range from employee-only meetings to review goals in fun and meaningful ways, to family activities with kids, chaos, and camaraderie.
Greaves glows when speaking about any of the many company events he’s held for his people.
While Greaves has shut down his operations for a day here and there over the years to hold a number of unique company events, he is especially proud of the production in 2022 when he hired world-renowned mountain climber and motivational speaker Jeff Evans to talk to his team about blind trust.
“Jeff Evans guided the first blind person to the top of Mount Everest,” says Greaves. “We had recently changed our production format, our sales process, and our org chart. So, the theme was that the team had to blindly trust leadership [through the changes].”
In addition to the team hearing Evans speak about his experiences, PCF employees were tasked with completing several activities while blindfolded, including playing Ultimate Frisbee, building block structures, and navigating through a park with “landmines” placed throughout.
Team-building events are central to the company culture at PCF. Greaves says it's an effort to bring everyone together in an age when many still work remotely. | Photo: People First Construction Group
“We’re close to 100 people right now and you have to have that blind trust,” says PCF Senior Production Manager Steve Kristek. “Whether you’re communicating with someone via email or working with them on a jobsite, you need to be able to trust that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Kevin Williams also echoed sentiments confirming the impact this team-building event had on the business and the direction in which it’s headed.
“Our company was going through a big transition,” recalls Williams. “As we’ve moved the organization forward, this event has been huge in showing our people that they have to have trust in leadership to guide us, but that it’s also going to take everyone’s help to get us to the top.”
Ladder to Success
Perhaps the highlight of the company’s candidness is its training program, People Come First University (PCFU), which functions as the blueprint for success and professional growth inside the organization.
When someone starts a career at PCF, they immediately know their path to advancement all the way up to leadership roles.
Greaves and his team have created “grade sheets” that identify the precise skills one must obtain to earn a promotion and a pay increase. And they’ve built a training hub that holds all of the standards of operation (SOPs) employees need to learn to reach the next level.
“PCFU is kind of the central database for where we keep all of our training materials,” says Steve Kristek. “Whether it’s a written SOP or a video SOP, the idea is to try to train everybody to do it exactly the same way and give them tools so that they can learn it before they have to do it on a jobsite.”
Kristek has held a number of roles at PCF over the past five years. He’s proud of the growth he’s been a part of at the company, especially the growth of individuals who’ve entered the organization with little to no construction experience, but then blossomed into professional builders producing beautiful work.
Prioritizing Customers and Community
While Greaves works tirelessly to provide a better quality of life for his employees inside and outside of working hours, the “People” in People Come First Construction Group applies to more than those he employs.
Photo: People First Construction Group
Combined, the businesses under the PCF umbrella completed around 1,000 projects last year. That’s a lot of customers. And Greaves and his team are determined to make all of them happy—especially the difficult ones.
“We are targeting the 20% of the population who most contractors call ‘hard customers’,” says Greaves. “If we can make those customers happy, then the other 80% of the customers are going to just fall in line and be happy.”
Greaves says his team delivers a great customer experience and he doesn’t hide that they’re not the cheapest option in their market.
Photo: People First Construction Group
He cites brand awareness and reputation, effective marketing, an impressive tech stack, and—of course—his people, as the primary reasons customers choose PCF and its businesses.
“One thing that we can all agree on as an organization is that we’re looking to produce high-quality work and satisfy our customers,” says PCF Customer Care Manager Ryan Quinn. “We believe in ourselves and we believe in the products that we’re providing to people. Meeting customers at the end of a project and seeing them be happy means that we succeeded.”
But their success doesn’t end with their customers. It extends beyond the walls of their business and into the communities in which they call home.
Greaves isn’t content with simply giving monetary donations to help people in need—though he does that, too. He prefers to get his team physically involved in giving back.
PCF and its people constructed a ramp for a man who was paralyzed, joined a chow wagon where they served meals to less fortunate families, and built 27 bikes for kids who had never had bikes before, to list just a few examples of the company’s community involvement.
“It’s not enough for our accounting department to just print the check,” says Greaves. “We want input from our people and we want them to get involved with something that has more meaning to all of us.”
To reach his lofty long-term goals of $50 million in annual sales revenue within the next six years, Greaves will need to rely on even more people to help his business grow. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The people are the best boss,” says Greaves. “They’re the ones making this place such a cool place to work.”
I've met Rob and interacted with some his team during CCN events. He is always willing to share best practices but also is open to learning from others. This is certainly a well-deserved award and we are so happy for him and the whole PCF team!
FFI Contracting Services/SW Florida and fellow CCN member
I've had the privileged of working with Robert for about 2 years now as a vendor. He is constantly introducing me to other team members, he clearly knows where each is and how they can see their growth potential. I've seen him shake his head and walk away from a potential vendor that did not consider the importance of their current process, and I've seen him stand in front of a room of 200 peers and have them hang on to every word as he explains his tech stack and the value of culture. I haven't worked for Rob so I can't say what it's like on the inside but on the outside it really does look life a proud father talking to his happy family. Having sat in on a sales meeting recently even the way they disagree on processes is by talking through both sides with open communication and understanding. Awesome group! All that being said I'm pretty sure he learned all of it from Lisa though so credit where credit is due! ;)