You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Recession’ category.

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.


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.


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.


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

As the economy continues to improve, construction demand is slowly increasing. As a result, the demand for construction materials is also increasing and one has to assume those costs will continue to go up throughout 2011.

Recently, I was talking with one of our fabricators who supplies steel for projects throughout the nation and he told me he has seen more orders this year than in any of the past three years. He also said steel is going up nearly every day, be it because of demand or the futures market or scarcity of the product. This, of course, is impacting construction costs.

This got me to thinking about what the cost of other construction materials may look like going forward this year and into 2012. I did a little research, and here are my findings:

Cement and Concrete: The Recession had a significant impact on this industry. Because of reduced demand, 14 cement plants closed in 2009 and several others suspended planned expansions. But after a flat 2010, demand is expected to rise 1.4 percent this year and 4.0 percent next year.

Copper: Building construction accounts for nearly half of all copper consumption, and the demand today is far less than it was five years ago. Production is forecast to decline by 1.8 percent this year. But the demand should increase as the construction industry improves, which could result in copper shortfalls in 2012 and a spike in prices.

Drywall: New residential construction accounts for half of all drywall consumption, and residential demand remains low. The price for gypsum, the primary component in drywall board, rose slightly in 2010 but began 2011 heading downward.

Lumber: Prices dipped late last year, but we’re still up nearly 5 percent over 2009. Demand is not expected to increase significantly this year, however, as long as new residential construction remains flat.


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.


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

Few people endure slumps and a downturn in performance as often as professional athletes. Even the greatest sports stars suffer through stretches where seemingly nothing goes right. During his heyday, Michael Jordan had a commercial in which he stated, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.” Then, after a short pause, he said, “And that is why I succeed.”

The point being that we all will go through tough times. To me, The key is how we handle the difficulties, and what we do to maintain a positive attitude and emerge stronger and better.

We have been in an economic slump for the past three years. This downturn has been longer than anything I have ever experienced, and it is not over. But things are improving. Most people expect that 2011 will be better than 2010, and 2012 will be even better than that.

Still, the psychological effects of a bad economy are similar to an athletic slump. Eventually it is difficult to keep your spirits up and you become convinced that the good times will never return. That is precisely when it is vital to visualize success.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal stated that golfing legend Jack Nicklaus used to step back and “consciously regain a positive frame of mind” whenever things were going wrong. Former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz broke out of a lengthy slump by watching a two-minute video of a series of perfect pitches he had made.

Here are a few things I do to try to encourage those around our office to keep their spirits up:

  • We have company lunches from time-to-time. Some of the ladies in our office take advantage of our kitchen and cook some wonderful and tasty full-course meal for everyone.
  • We go on company outings occasionally. Recently, many members of our staff attended a local football game and we invited not only staff, but their family as well.
  • We ensure that all employees have knowledge of our projects and company functions. While not mandatory, their level of involvement is determined by their own interests and time. This increases their own interests and helps create a sense of not only teamwork, but also ownership of the projects.

I am interested to hear how you keep employee moral up in your office or other suggestions you may have on this topic ?


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:


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

Right-sizing, why did I not have this in my vocabulary before ’07?  Makes sense. We are constructors of buildings and handle the civil management of projects, but the bottom line is that we are service providers. Just like architects, engineers, lawyers, bankers or accountants, all service providers of different sorts.

We need to be adjusting( or at least thinking about) our overhead and other needs such as office space and selling space, if you are retailer, routinely. Constantly thinking about expanding or contracting to “right-size”.

The last three years everybody has been downsizing in the “right size” process but going the other way is equally profitable. In the last 2 months, we have hired two more office team members. Getting ready slowly as the economy heals.

Seems our retail customers are working smarter and as are our office building customers. Getting more out of less.  Some of the retailers are combining the Internet and their stores more effectively. Someone orders on the Internet and it is shipped from a store. Someone does not like their order from the Internet, they returned to the store. The stores provides a retail environment and a distribution center. Be more efficient and right sizing, a double win for the company  and a win for the customer.

Maybe I can be more disciplined in the future:

  • I promise to watch our G&A more closely which is profit spent on something else
  • I am going to try to be quicker with the decision, than I have in the past, to upsize or downsize (a common problem among contractors)

We see many good opportunities in what we have learned. What are your thoughts?


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 we finished our United Way campaign in the city but it was not without a real push by its leadership and the United Way. Someone said that while the economy is cyclical, community needs are constant.

I have been thinking of some ways that small businesses can give back to the community that provide value to the recipient organization and at the same time provide some value to the company. A few suggestions came to mind:

  • Give time and services instead of money. Most of us can afford to part with a few hours of our time, and the personal experience usually is much more rewarding than simply writing a check. Like many, we have participated in community service for a number of years, which is fun for our folks and helps worthy organizations. The Pig Iron BBQ competition is one that fits this category we usually do annually.
  • Develop a charitable project for the entire company. Finding something the company can do together is a way to build a stronger bond among your team and help build morale.
  • Donate to non-profits instead of charging them a reduced rate for your services. If you charge the full rate and then donate some of it back to the non-profit, the donation is tax-deductible.
  • Join forces with other companies. If you cannot afford to give as much this year, reduce the amount of your donation but try to find some other companies to match it. A way to turn less into more.
  • We allow non-profits the use of our facilities. A much-needed conference facility can be of much use to a lot of non-profits nowadays.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you and your company help others. What’s the ROI on helping others?


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

My oldest daughter, Chappell, an economics major at Sewanee, spent this summer learning about microfinance lending; first in Bangladesh with the Grameen Bank and Dr. Muhammad Yunus. Then several more weeks in the Dominican Republic working with the Esperanza Bank (Bank of Hope) making micro loans.

Microfinance is a movement whose object is “a world in which as many poor and near-poor households have routine access to an appropriate range of quality lending and thus help the poor out of poverty.  Most of Chappell’s “clients” were women.  It could be as little as $25, to capitalize a business, to buy food to resell on the street or buy a small fridge from which to sell juice.

A typical day for Chappell involved assisting her host family before heading to the bank to visit “associates” (borrowers) ,meeting with staff members or visits to the countryside to visit to met with the borrowers,  which they tried to do a couple of times a month. On their visits they would collect a small repayment toward the loan and offer suggestions for the on-going business. These loans are not without risk, typically without collateral but with the upside so positive, these lenders have devised different ways to help provide somewhat of a social net to help lessen loan defaults.

A Different Process at the Grameen Bank….similar, yet different.

While they are also involved in the microfinance process, Grameen strives to assist in furthering education of the children of borrowers. One way that they have accomplished this is through the development of their own nursing school.  This is in addition to the already existing pre-schools and elementary schools.

Grameen is a story in itself and is very inspiring. They are led by Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

You can read more about Chappell and her travels at her blog here.


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