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Earlier this month, I wrote a post offering a few hints for those on the job search. It seems especially pertinent in these times, because we as managers are receiving more resumes than usual.

Not a week goes by that I don’t see between 3 and 5 job applications. I would say the majority of them are from graduating college seniors, folks who have worked their whole lives getting that just right degree. Their diligence from the last four years, combined with extracurricular activities, would have made them worthy candidates in good times.

I feel like I have empathy for this younger generation of job seekers, because at their age, I was in a similar situation.

At the age of 24, my fledgling home building business had gone bust. Aside from feeling depressed I was broke and without a job. I talked with my father who in turn reached out to our preacher who in turn reached out to a large construction company owner in town. I got a job. While those were stressful times, I will never forget this man’s generosity of help. Never.  It’s because of his mentoring and his hands on assistance with my job search that I was able to move on to the career I now enjoy.

I believe that as people established in our businesses, we owe it to the young folks out there to treat their resumes with respect and help them where we can. After all, someone did it for us.

As business owners and hiring managers, these are my recommendations for helping our next class of leaders:

If a letter is sincere, respond.  I tell the applicant that I wish we could make the hire, but unfortunately we cannot.

Give words of encouragement, if they are deserved. If their resume looks solid, and most of the time it does, I tell them there is the just right job out there. They will just have to be patient in finding it.

Make a suggestion for another place to seek work. I suggest they consider modifying their job search. Because of the economic cycle, perhaps they should consider something that may not fit exactly with their degree but will sustain them for the next two or three years until the economy heals.

Make time to meet them. You might be surprised how much it will benefit you as well.

We do this because we care. What if this young person was my son or daughter? How would I like someone else to react to them?

During these times, while we are all looking for those projects that are scarce, we also have an obligation to help those around us do the best that they can. Maybe next time the shoe will be on the other foot. Will you pay it forward?

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Times are getting better, but still tough.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal compared job seekers now–often isolated and searching online–to those who were looking for work during the Depression.

In the 1930s, folks were more likely to call  in favors to friends and family or knock door to door asking for work. Ironically, 27.5% of external hires made now come from referrals, even in our more connected world.

Perhaps we would be wise to focus more on personal relationships and less on the keyboard.

That said, the web is an excellent portal. I get 4 to 5 inquiries a week from our site and I try to read each one. I know behind each resume is a real human being who needs a job.

If you are on the job hunt, can I advise you to be…

Flexible. Focus on getting a job. Once you have a job it is always seems easier to find another position. Look beyond your field for the next two or three years.

Sincere.  When resumes come in, I try to envision the kind of person who sent it. Is he/she sincere? Was there an effort to get to know us? I try to respond to each inquiry individually, and I feel a larger motivation to respond to those that are personalized as opposed to mass mailing.

Present. Ask to stop by. Even if I can’t offer you a job at the moment, talking in person might give me some thoughts on other places for you to inquire. The more you ask and connect, the higher you likelihood of getting hired.

Healthy. Maintain your eating and exercise routines. Get out there and do some volunteer work. It never hurts to look around and be able to count your blessings.

Encouraged. I do think there are the right jobs out there. Just like 1938, it’s often about being in the right place at the right time.

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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

On Tuesday, I posted about our local partner Superior Mechanical and their use of Lean, a system that fuels efficiency. The Lean Enterprise Institute summarize well by saying, “The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.

I was intrigued by what Lean was doing for Superior and how it might have applications to our work, so I asked our CFO Del Allen to take an exploration trip. He visited Basic Lean, home of Lean training and implementation consultants, located in Midway, Kentucky. He then crossed into Indiana to see the system in action at Jasper Engines.

He came back with notes on the 7 wastes of Lean, which I think are helpful to all:

Over-Production– More product is produced than can be purchased.
Inventory-Extras beyond raw materials, works in progress or finished goods.
Transportation-Product movement increases risk of damage/loss/delay.
Motion-Unnecessary worker movement.
Waiting-Time a stationary product is waiting to be worked on.
Defects-Mistakes mean reworking…and extra costs.
Over-Processing-More work is done than required.

I asked him for a few observations on how Lean might apply to the corporate and construction world, and he shared great takeaways.

 Lean is embraced by upper management. At Jasper Engines, everyone from CEO to cleaning crew is held accountable for productivity and waste. For Lean to work, it needs to be system-wide. No exceptions.

Lean is process-oriented. People adjust to processes rather than vice versa. Your company should have time tested systems in place, and your team should follow them exactly.

Lean theory would work well for construction project managers. We hope to use the ideology to eliminate waste with our subcontractors, saving everyone time. For example, we are perfecting our pre-project meeting procedures, establishing a precise order for subcontractor visits.

We’ve already seen benefits of Lean by eliminating duplicated efforts and unnecessary report filing in our accounting department.  How could Lean work 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

Recessions don’t have many redeeming qualities, but they do create opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

Let me explain myself with an example. During our current economic downturn, commercial and retail spaces have often been leasing at reduced rates. Many of the prime locations already have been scooped up by opportunistic businesses.

There still are good options. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Time is Ripe for Negotiation,” annual leases for U.S. office properties averaged $23.20 a square foot during the fourth quarter of 2010, down from $25.02 in 2008. Meanwhile, despite the discounts, office vacancies have increased to 13.4 percent from 11.8 percent.

Trends are similar in the retail and industrial sectors.

  • Retail property leases averaged $15.56 per square foot during the fourth quarter of 2010, down from $17.51 in 2008.
  • Retail vacancies rose to 7.3 percent from 6.6 percent.
  • Industrial property leases dropped from $6.28 a square foot in 2008 to $5.47 last year.
  • Industrial vacancies bumped up to 10.2 percent from 8.8.

Having more available space on the market combined with lower rates means this is an excellent time to negotiate with landlords. They would prefer to lease part of the space rather than let the entire building sit empty.

This is also a good opportunity to right-size. We’re increasingly seeing retail boxes get smaller in an attempt to be more effective and profitable.

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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

There is an old story about a brilliant scientist who boasted that he could examine a book and tell you anything about it–what type of ink was used, the composition of the paper, even details about the molecules that made up the book.

But when the scientist sat down to actually read, he realized the book was written in German. And he couldn’t read German.

To me, the story is a great reminder about the importance of basic communication. If you have great ideas and solving problems skills, but can’t communicate them accurately to those around you, what can you truly accomplish? I remind myself of this balance every time we need to make a hire.

Recently, the college-age daughter of one of my colleagues decided she wanted to major in English. Both of her parents are engineers, and they wondered what she could do with an Liberal Arts degree. But to me, that is one of the best degrees you can have. Even in our modern world of digital technology, it is still crucial to communicate effectively, to have a greater impact on the heart and mind while using fewer words.

Last year I wrote a post titled, “Should You Hire for Technical Skills or Communication Skills” and mentioned one of our project managers who had a Liberal Arts degree and an English background, but a limited amount of technical knowledge. Still, because he was such a skilled communicator, he was able to convey what he knew about the business in a distinct, easy-to-follow manner. He gradually gained the technical knowledge and, combined with his communication skills, became a very strong project manager.

Do you hire Renaissance men and women? How has it made you more successful?

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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

You’ve heard about an idea locker? Well how about an idea freezer?

This post from Jeremiah Owyang talks about one of my favorite ways to enjoy time disconnected from work: The idea freezer.

For him,  it’s a notebook that allows you to jot down ideas and to-dos as they come to you. The thought is that after you write thoughts down, they are safe, frozen for you to thaw out and use later.

I agree that we need a means of cataloging our thoughts. Most days, I have more ideas than I have time to fully process, but I want to ensure I never forget anything.  I used to keep a pad next to my bed, but then I had to turn on the light, wake up and write. If I had ideas while driving, it was unsafe to note them.

Then I discovered my idea freezer: voice recording. Instead of writing the thoughts down, I record them for later reference.

Before I got a smartphone, I carried a digital recorder and a cell phone. Switching to a Blackberry with the “voice notes” application meant I had the two in one place. It also removed another business device that has to be electrically charged (and removed from my pocket in the airport or left in the hotel room by mistake.) The Blackberry simplifies my life.

When I go on vacation, I still may see something that would benefit someone in our company or a customer relationship and do not wish to let the opportunity slip away. When I put the idea in my idea freezer I can forget about it. I have better peace of mind enjoying my time off.

To me, there is confidence in knowing that you’ve preserved your thoughts.

Do you have an idea freezer?

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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

It’s no secret that the aftermath of the Recession continues to take a toll on the construction industry. Last week, as I listened to more struggling economic news, I must admit that I thought to myself, “How much longer?”

I have seen several of my competitors – companies I have bid against for the past 30 years – go out of business. It’s been difficult to watch.

Lucky for me, we have people around here who pick each other up. A day or so after my low point, our CFO told me he thinks things are gradually getting better. Here are a few thoughts for an improved outlook:

Think like a golfer. To me, the downturn might be like a golf handicap: you work hard, a few changes start to occur and then one day things are better.

Don’t trust the status quo. They say that housing always leads us into a recession and always leads us out, but it has become obvious that will not happen this time. There’s no need to wait around for things to happen as they have in the past. Be innovative. Be the catalyst for change.

Play up what works. In times like these, I feel it is important to focus more on the bottom line than on the revenue. Instead of taking an elaborate project outside your normal realm, concentrate on projects that you do best. This will enable you to offer value to customers in terms of quality service and quick delivery.

Like most companies, we have taken a financial hit recently, but we’ve still turned a profit every year. We’ve done it by working smart and staying within what we do best, commercial building construction. By focusing on your strengths, you CAN overcome the weakness of the current economy.

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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


Thanks to several social media tools, I have been able to stay connected with increased frequency than before web 2.0.  A couple of years ago we started using several  of these  and the effectiveness of helping with relationships has been very encouraging.  I can count on a brief exchange with someone due to my blog posts, as you see here, on Facebook or on Twitter.  On the other hand, I will say that social media can be a detriment to your time management efforts.

The internet is a large and highly populated space and it is easy to get lost or chasing rabbit trails. I compare it to someone looking into a refrigerator when one is hungry, but not really sure what they want, yet they open the door to see if anything has changed. Some would compare it to insanity; doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time.

But through the use of Social Media, companies can now focus their attention on specific audiences much easier and start topics of conversation with just a sentence.  In addition, you can make people feel more important by personalizing the messages sent.  I enjoy reaching out to old friends to check on their well-being as well as business acquaintances, as I believe that this is a lost aspect of business today.

I believe that the economy is getting better and to me, it more important than ever before to be sure that you’re strengthening and maintaining relationships with your clients and associates in the most efficient ways across multiple platforms.

Listed below are some other blog posts to help you on your way:

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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

It’s easy to get bogged down with the day-to-day activities and then add in family and just life in general. We lose contact with those that are an import part of our lives, whether professional or personal. We are then reminded of them by something that we see or hear.

Through the years, I have made many friends and associates. I am as guilty as anyone whenever I forget to return a phone call or an email due to my own duties throughout the day. It is not intentional. But it takes just a few moments to use what I believe to be the simplest contact tools already sitting on my desk.

These tools are a phone and a pen.

It is a very quick process to pick up a pen and write out a quick note on a company post card. But it can be the make or break for your business nowadays. We live in a highly competitive world and a gesture such as remembering someone’s love of the outdoors and sending them an article out of a magazine that you believe they may find interesting touches their mind and heart.

Returning a phone call is something that I find people are not always willing to do. I make every attempt to either answer the phone as I receive calls or to call back as soon as I am able. It may sound old-fashioned and to some it may be, especially in this hectic, fast-paced world today.

Yet, I strongly believe that a very simple phone call or a quick note can do wonders with business relationships as it breaks the monotony of the interactive barrage. This is not to say that I do not use email or one of the other communication tools such as Twitter or Facebook, as well, but the phone call and the pen offer something many of us may have left somewhere along the trail.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Call an old friend or business associate and catch up.
  • Write a 1-3 sentence email to a business associate and recommend a book.
  • Send a brief note a new business contact and include an article from the newspaper or a magazine related to their 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