Location: Jacksonville, Fla.
Type of company: Design/build
Staff model: 13 office, 22 field
Sales history: $4 million in 1997, estimated $5.825 million in 2000
Annual jobs: 80
Bio: Dale Crisp started 25 years ago with partner Ken Atlee. They began with painting and home improvements and then migrated to buying and selling houses and building additions. As the business grew, they split duties. Dale assumed construction responsibilities, and Ken took on land development and house moving.
Key to success: "My ability to empathize with people, [and] always striving to be a little bit better," Crisp says.
Owning a small business can be a rewarding but often exhausting venture. Grueling hours and unrelenting stress are par for the course, but the possible payoffs -- increased profits, autonomy and flexibility -- keep many company owners plugging away. But for some, the long hours, stress and financial uncertainty become too much to stomach.
Kendale Inc., a design/build firm in Jacksonville, Fla., has become a refuge for company owners who tire of ownership pressures and opt for the simpler schedule of an employee.
In all, 14 of Kendale’s 35 employees once owned their own companies. Why have so many entrepreneurs ended up at Kendale? The company’s commitment to employees travels by word of mouth through northern Florida’s construction industry, says Dale Crisp, Kendale’s co-owner. "It’s spoken both by clients and by employees that this is a good environment."
While other companies struggle to recruit, Kendale consistently recruits the cream of the crop. "Where other people cannot find people to hire, we are not only taking the best quality applications, but [we are] hiring the best talented people we ever have," says Crisp. "Other people can’t get people to apply."
Kendale, on the other hand, can pick and choose its employees -- most of whom seek out the company. Crisp considers former remodeling company owners to be well-rounded employees because they understand the business. "What the past business owner brings is he knows the whole circle," Crisp says. "He knows all the other assets that need to be in place to be successful."
Production manager, partner
On the downside, these are business owners who, for whatever reasons, couldn’t make their companies work. Depending on the job Kendale is looking to fill, that may or may not be a problem.
"If the guy was a great craftsman, knew the skill set, knew how to build but didn’t know how to manage, and he’s applying for a carpenter [position], it doesn’t matter," says Crisp. "If he’s applying for a management position, whether it’s field management or midlevel, and his business soured because of his management skills, it matters a lot."
Most of the time, when business owners fail, it’s because they didn’t master one or two of the skills required to run a company. That leaves several areas where he or she potentially could excel. "If those skill sets are the ones he’s going to be using for our company, then it doesn’t matter," says Crisp.
"Yes, I prefer to hire somebody who’s got a successful company, who is either relocating regionally to our area or he’s already in our market area," Crisp says. "He’s just plain tired of working 50 and 60 hours in the field, then coming home and estimating, then on Saturdays, he and his wife do his books, which is the case with most of the contractors who are out there today. They’re killing themselves, and they’re killing their families."
That was the case with Brian Wingate, who ran a subcontracting company and did jobs for Kendale. Looking for relief from the stress of his business, as well as a steady income, he became the company’s first business owner to close his doors and go to work full time for Kendale 14 years ago. Since Wingate, 13 other business owners have weighed their options and joined Kendale’s staff. Although each had personal reasons for closing or selling his business, they had many of the same motives for making the change.
More Time With Family: Eighty-hour weeks, which regularly included evening and weekend work, were common for the former company owners. Of course, as a company grows it’s not unusual for an owner to borrow occasional evenings and weekends from the spouse and family to devote more time to the business, but many said family time was extremely limited or nonexistent. John Sandberg, superintendent, averaged 80-120 hours per week. "I’d get home at 10, 11 o’clock at night, and I’d have to sit down and draw plans to pull permits the next day, so I’d draw until 2 or 3 o’clock," he says. "It was eating me alive."
Employees won’t work those kinds of hours at Kendale, a decidedly family-friendly company. Crisp insists employees make time for family and mandates they take time off for family events. "If you’ve got an opportunity to go to your child’s recital or play, I’m a little bit disappointed if you haven’t done it a couple or three times during the life of the year," he says.
He gives his staff plenty of days off to ensure family receives top billing. Employees receive nine paid holidays, between two and three weeks of paid vacation depending on tenure, and one paid personal day.
Job Stability: The former owners desired time with their families but needed to provide for them as well. A stable income, as well as stable employment, factored into their decision to join Kendale. "Even though I had a fairly stable stream of work, there were still ups and downs," Wingate says. "My profit was my salary. That tended to go up and down -- a good average -- but up and down nonetheless."
In addition to a steady paycheck, Kendale employees can expect work year-round. "When we get slow, guys get 35 or 40 hours a week," says Crisp. Whereas other companies might lay off employees during slow periods, Kendale ensures steady employment. "They have realized that through the strength of this company there is stability," he says.
Good Compensation/Benefits: Part of the allure of owning a business is the potential to make an infinite amount of money. It’s tough to attract top-quality candidates who have this shoot-for-the-moon ideal. To do so, Kendale offers above-average compensation and good benefits, which conveys the company’s commitment to employees. "It’s getting in the mentality of, let me provide for my people, let me give them what they need to have a successful family relationship," says Crisp. "It’s paying them at or above the job market: That’s benefits, time off, tenure and year-end bonuses when we can. It’s giving them benefits of fishing trips and social events." In addition to fair compensation and year-end and tenure bonuses, Kendale offers a 401(k) with company match. The company also plans to spend $47,000 this year on outside training for its employees.
"We spend money," says Crisp. "Bottom line."
Some of Crisp’s employees experienced benefits for the first time after joining Kendale. "It’s unbelievable," says Richard Prevatt, an estimator. "Working for myself, I couldn’t believe when I first came here, I had paid holidays and vacations."
Quality: Quality of work was a key element in attracting the entrepreneurs to work at Kendale. Some were so busy juggling tasks at their companies that quality suffered. Others, who went to work at other companies before finding their way to Kendale, found the quality of work unacceptable and desired a commitment to quality.
"Unfortunately, in our industry there’s still a lot of flimflam, slam it together, get a paycheck and leave," says Crisp. That won’t fly at Kendale. "We require you to be your best," he says. "Anything less is unacceptable."
By consistently turning out quality work, Kendale’s employees garner a sense of pride and satisfaction from their jobs. "I don’t want the guy or lady who is doing it because it’s a paycheck," says Crisp.
Mark Moore, a superintendent, worked for two production builders before coming to Kendale. He left the second because of the company’s lack of quality standards. "I could never get used to the quality of work that was acceptable to these production builders. Their [idea of] quality and mine just didn’t match up," he says. "[At Kendale,] you know they expect quality work."
Autonomy: Some employees might see former business owners and the independence they are accustomed to as a liability. Crisp views their autonomy as an asset. "Part of the attractiveness of a past business owner or a skilled employee is the autonomy," he says. The company, which encourages constant feedback from employees, asks, "Do they know a better way?"
"I thought that was going to be a major hurdle to cross, but it’s turned out to be just a blessing because I’ve got my own autonomy here," says Scott Ross, a project coordinator. "It’s like I’m running my own business here."
Sandberg ran a yacht for three years after closing his business. When the boat’s owner sold the vessel, Sandberg briefly entertained the idea of opening another remodeling business. "I got to thinking about it, and I had remembered the long hours, the headaches, dealing with the employees who don’t show up, and I said, I’d much rather go to work for somebody else, who’s a reputable company."
Despite occasional wishful thinking, the former business owners now employed with Kendale express no regrets. In fact, all agree that their quality of life has significantly improved since becoming an employee rather than an employer. They enjoy the work they do, experience less stress, and at the end of the day, Kendale’s employees go home to spend time with their families and develop interests outside work.
There’s a payoff for Kendale as well. "If my 35 people can reach their goals working within this company, what does that do to my goals?" asks Crisp. "They’re rock-solid. Now I’ve got a company of 35 owners, vested people who want to make it work."