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For the past couple of years, we’ve started a blog for each of our large projects. The premise  is simple: once a week, a designated person from the field office sends digital images and brief descriptions to our home office. We manage that information, and on Tuesdays post to each project’s page.

So, why do we go to the trouble? I’ll give you three good reasons.

Our Customers. The folks we have the privilege to work with aren’t always near their construction sites. The blogs give a visual check-in for them. They’re also great bragging tools. We’ve found our customer relationships often like to share their blog site with their team or with their own prospects.

Our Communities. A construction site is a living, growing thing. As projects move along, the community has a right to see progress–at a safe distance. I’d like to give everyone in the community a hardhat tour of the places we are building, but being more realistic, project blogs give them a front row seat complete with commentary.

Our People. Listed last, but certainly not counted least, is our Stewart Perry team. Since our business spreads across the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, it’s virtually impossible for each team member to visit each site. Project blogs let them participate and give them a sense of pride in all our work.

Would a blog be a good way to chronicle work on your next site? We’ve found project blogs an invaluable tool for building, maintaining and improving relationships.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Recently, our friends at Superior Mechanical were kind enough to give me a tour the new half-billion dollar Children’s Hospital expansion here Birmingham. I was interested to see how they are integrating Lean construction initiatives with their BIM work to be more efficient, and save their ultimate customer time and money.

As background, Lean is a system that seeks to streamline practices and eliminate wasted effort. The idea is to create more value with fewer resources. The system is process-oriented, with the goal of entirely eliminating excess—be it physical or in the form of time.

While Lean technology has been applied to manufacturing for several decades, Superior is using it to make them be more efficient in construction. Rodney King, their Lean Coordinator, explained the efforts.

Superior has made perfecting processes their goal. Errors are identified and the procedure is refined until mistakes evolve out. The emphasis is on the series of tasks rather than the individuals performing them, systematizing delivery.

No more creating a new mold with every project. The system becomes the skill.

Rodney gave me the example of their pre-fab shop. It was created so that many standard assemblies–like plumbing systems–can be put together in a warehouse before installing on site. The benefits are multiple:

Speed. All the tools needed are at arm’s reach. Also, with repetition, the labor becomes more time and cost efficient.

Safety. While plumbers onsite might have to work on a ladder, the tasks are at chest-level in the prefab shop.

Lower waste. Excess product that might get thrown out on the job site is set aside for another use. This is better for landfills and the bottom line.

We are evaluating lean ourselves. In fact, we’re planning a post later this week about our CFO’s visit to Basic Lean. For us, I can see the potential. While it’s not always easy to change mindsets and habits, I believe there are some wins out there in the construction industry. As Rodney said, it’s about small incremental successes over time. I agree.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email


In this economy, do you feel like you have to be in 1000 different places at once? If a customer or prospective customer has an opportunity, you want to be there, always staying close. But never too close.  I know the feeling.

Image: Business Management

The good news is, being out of sight no longer means you have to be out of mind.

With today’s networking tools and social media options, it is easier than ever to stay connected to customer relationships.

That’s important, because a well-maintained positive relationship can decide whether a current customer stays or goes elsewhere.

Relationships can also be the reason a potential prospect selects a new partner.

I feel like we are passionate about helping our customers (and others) and I want to stay closely connected to them, but I want to do it in ways that are most effective. Here is what has worked for me:

● I try to figure out how many times a customer wishes to receive contact from me. Once a week, once a month, once a quarter?

● I determine what time of the day and week they prefer to receive contact. I’ve found some people like to receive non-urgent communication over the weekend, so they can look at it first thing Monday morning before diving into the work week.

● I use different forms of communication, mixing up emails with phone calls and personal letters.

● I send articles that pertain to the interests of a particular customer.

Most important, I try to help the customer become more successful by connecting them with opportunities and projects.

I do all this because I genuinely like our customers. We try to work with customers who are, first of all, decent individuals who stand for the same character issues in life that we stand for and who represent quality organizations.

To me, if you help others first, all other things being equal,  then something good will come back to you.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

We recently made a presentation to a prospective customer who had an adaptive reuse project that seemed perfect for us. It involved revitalizing an area of the city, which is exactly the type of project we enjoy. We confidently answered all the questions in the RFI, and the presentation seemed to go flawlessly.

As we left the meeting, I told my two colleagues that we had nailed it. There was no way they would use anybody else. A few days later I received a call from the architect informing us that we were not selected for the project.

This disappointment was a great reminder for me. I realized that despite my optimism, I had not spent enough prep time on the presentation. Yes, I had answered the customer’s questions, but I hadn’t gone beyond that. I let an over-booked schedule get in the way of the dress rehearsal one of our project managers suggested. It might have cost us the project.

I know better. Over the years, these have been my tried and true rules for successful presentations:

Don’t oversell yourself. Owners don’t want to have to spend time weeding through contractors who make lofty promises.

Ask, then listen. A contractor who asks questions, carefully listens to the responses and then makes a reasoned proposal is more believable.

Work for your wins. No matter how many projects you have won in the past, you are not a shoe-in for the opportunities you persue. In the end, it’s good to know that you got the job not off only from past merits, but because you came prepared, then went above and beyond.

Think like an athlete. The pros don’t just practice before games. It’s a year round job.

Every day is an opportunity to practice selling what you do and promoting your services. When the next opportunity comes up, how will you get ready?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Last week while looking though Entrepreneur, an article titled “How Entrepreneurs Can Conquer Fear of Selling”  caught my eye. Carol Tice lists “owners who hate selling” as a primary reason businesses fail.

While I am not sure it is a primary reason, the brand of a small business is intertwined with the persona of the business owner(s). To me, directly or indirectly, business owners are always representing their brand–selling– whether we mean to or not. If you are the primary spokesperson for your company, good representation is job number one.

A few thoughts that Tice suggests we remember:

  1. Talk about your products and services as you would to a good friend.
  2. Remember why you started your business and relate it.
  3. Focus on customers’ needs and emotions rather than delivering a canned monologue.
  4. Make “warm” calls.
  5. Identify obstacles that would prevent a sale and think of ways to overcome them.

To me, the most important is #4. I’m a big believer in initiating frequent touch points with our contacts (or relationship customers). This is very individual to the relationship. I often share newspaper articles, draft short notes or enjoy meals with people I hope to stay in touch with. The benefit is two-fold: our business stays top of mind, whether they need us now or not, and customers often become friends. Those personal relationships are our primary business plan.

How do you overcome your reluctance to sell? What works for your business?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Did you know the oldest baseball park in the country is in Birmingham, Alabama? Rickwood Field was built here in the early 1900s.

Until Legion Field was erected, Rickwood was the only major sports facility in town. The park hosted not only the Barons and Black Barons baseball teams, but college football teams from all over the state. Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth Hank Aaron and Willie Mays all called the park home at one time or the other.

The history of Rickwood Field could fill a book, so today I will focus on the part that’s most personal to our team: the scoreboard.

Over the years, as the park was upgraded, the original scoreboard was lost.

A chance at revitalization came in the early 1990s. Because of its age and authenticity, film producers chose Rickwood as the perfect set for a movie about Ty Cobb. A vintage board was erected for historical accuracy. It stayed for a few years–and it looked great–but it was a prop. It wasn’t built to last.

As it started to wear down, an opportunity opened up for us. Stewart Perry partnered with the Friends of Rickwood Field and Davis Architects to build a high quality, authentic replacement. Cement board and high performance coatings created a vintage feel that will be enjoyed for years to come.

Today’s board has hand-operated functions, just like the original. Scores are dropped in by boys hanging out in the ballpark. And since it seemed appropriate to unite the old with the modern, the scoreboard has been updated with electronics to ensure the hard-to-reach analogue clock always shows the correct time.

Now, the Barons play a vintage-style game at Rickwood every June. Folks from our office take the afternoon off to check on our scoreboard, all while supporting the history of our city and our hometown team.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

As important as office presence may be, I’m a firm believer in pockets of downtime. A break from email and task-oriented duties, however small, always brings me back to a top priority: family and friends.

When a customer (who I also count as a good friend) invited me to join him and his wife at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, I accepted without hesitation. The plan was for an evening enjoying A Prairie Home Companion. I brought my daughter, a senior in college, as company.

Sitting three rows back from the stage was unbelievable.

I have long been a fan of Garrison Keillor and his show on National Public Radio. A Prairie Home Companion is a variety show of down-home humor and thoughtful monologues on life, with spirited musical performances sprinkled throughout. The shows are loosely set in the author’s fictional boyhood home, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet Keillor during a trip to his real home of Minnesota, but I had never seen him on stage. It was a pleasure to attend the 1,280th show of his career.

Emmylou Harris, a Birmingham native, sang eloquently about a friend who had passed away from cancer recently. There was not a dry eye in the house. Sam Bush showed off his mastery of the mandolin, and Pat Donohue demonstrated why he is considered to be one of the world’s greatest fingerpickers. We had a wonderful time. (Images from evening on our Weekend Collection at FlickR)

Back at home, whenever I listen to A Prairie Home Companion on the radio it reminds me of that delightful evening in the company of friends and my daughter. It’s an experience that was well worth the time away from corporate duties. Definitely “above average.”

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Recently, I came across this post about failures of leadership. To me, Leadership is much more than following a set of rules or what someone has written in a book. Ideally it is instinctual and second-nature for one in the leadership role to not only guide, but also to learn.

Failure is certainly a very good learning experience for all involved. Have been broke financially a couple of times and once near bankruptcy I certainly learned more from these experiences than any successes, small or large. To me, it is all about what one does afterwards, as this is how one is judged in the long run.

My post,”Admitting Mistakes are Keys to Success” discussed this very notion. Abraham Lincoln and Bill Gates both failed at their first business ventures several times and yet they were able to move on and become the leaders that they are now known as.

There is a quote by David Feherty that rings true for these thoughts: “It’s how you deal with failure that determines how you achieve success.”

A few simple things I’ve learned from my challenges and “not so successes”…

  • Stand out: Do what you do best and let the world know. We utilize social media a great deal and simple marketing to differentiate ourselves from the competition.
  • Innovate: Set yourself apart. Have you done something new in your industry? Are you known for certain areas of expertise?
  • Move Faster: To me, erring on the side of being proactive is better than letting your competitor beat you to it. Act so you don’t have to react.
  • Dominate the Field: Focus on what you do and do it better than anyone else.
  • Employees: Show respect and treat your team as you would want to be treated. They are your best assets to your company.
  • Desire Excellence: It can be contagious.

The road to excellence starts with the smallest details. Overlook them to your detriment. Customers would rather deal with a quality company, that’s a fact. Balanced correctly, the two will make you a better company. But as I stated previously, if you don’t do it, someone else will.

What are your thoughts on learning from failures or mistakes? Do any stand out as learning experiences?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Three years ago we decided to plant a few tomato plants beside our office. That small patch of land has become much more.

Our plot has grown into a full garden featuring silver queen corn, rosemary, strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, turnip greens, cucumbers, peppers and of course—tomatoes.

Beyond the beautiful produce, the beds have become a way for our company to share with the community. In the height of the growing season we harvest vegetables and put them on our kitchen table.

We share among our employees, friends that drop by and our neighbors. One year we had an over-abundance of tomatoes, so it became a team effort to see what all you could make out of a tomato. You’d be amazed at the creative recipes.

It is a joy for all of our employees to share what we grow with our customers. When we build a building we give them a home for their team, but being able to share from our garden extends into their homes as well.

Those personal relationships are the foundation of our company.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) is an organization that can have a substantial impact on construction projects, yet quite a few folks are not familiar with it. ASTM was founded in 1898 for the development and delivery of voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide variety of materials, systems and services.

ASTM’s construction standards are generally recognized as the benchmark by which materials are tested. They cover basics such as wood, stone, concrete, geotechnical engineering and much more. In many projects, these standards can be the deciding factor in whether the job proceeds, so it’s important to get to know them.

Unfortunately, people do not respect the ASTM standards until it’s too late. Even though the building owner may not ultimately be responsible for low results on strength tests, he or she will be affected if a job is delayed significantly because of it.

We prefer “Design-Build” projects as we can utilize these ASTM standards and are prepared before we reach problems during a project. We work with architects directly on behalf of our client and this helps to alleviate any problems before they arise thanks to our knowledge of ASTM standards and past experiences.

Therefore, it is wise to be respectful of ASTM. These technical committees meet twice a year, so keep track of any changes in standards. It might not seem like the most interesting material to monitor, but it could be the most important.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email