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
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In short, sometimes.

Last week, I was reading an article in Engineering News Record titled, “When Does It Pay to Use Innovative Concrete Construction Products?” The piece details a study by the Construction Industry Institute where three recent innovations in concrete were investigated, comparing them to traditional counterparts. The article explains the “why” behind their conclusions, but here’s the executive summary:

Modular formwork involves substantially more labor, which is usually cost prohibitive.

Self-consolidating concrete is a toss up. Labor costs are lower, but they might not offset the signifcantly higher material price.

High-strength rebar is a win over traditional steel enforcement.

I’ve been through several decades of innovations and can tell you that some have proven their worth and others are show.

For example, one of the challenges we have experienced in formed concrete work–especially the more complicated pieces–is the quantity of rebar in the design and getting concrete properly placed among this amount of rebar. Having less rebar makes this an easier task to accomplish properly.

As for high strength rebar, reducing the quantity of steel  involves less production and freight, leaving a smaller carbon footprint.

To me, there is never a large win in cost, sustainability or reduced carbon. The key is small wins multiplied many times over.

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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

We are in the midst of  summer’s “dog days.”  While the heat might be novel to our Stewart Perry team, having a dog around isn’t. For several months, my canine companion has been coming to work with me.

Pal, a 12-year-old Springer Spaniel, used to stay at home whenever I went to the office, enduring what I’m sure were some long and boring days alone. One morning this past winter as I was preparing to walk out the door, Pal looked at me with those sad eyes that only dogs can give you, and I just couldn’t leave him behind again.

“Come on, Pal,” I said. “Let’s go to work.”

Pal quickly became our company dog. He comes to work with me almost every day now, and I think he’s been a nice addition to the office. He wanders around and visits with people, looking for a welcoming voice and a pat on the head. Members of our team will take him out walks, which is a nice way to have a mid-day break for both.

During a recent financial audit, I looked out the window and noticed that one of the auditors was walking Pal. They both seemed to be having a great time.

Studies have shown  pet-friendly environments increase employee cohesion and staff morale and productivity. Research aside, having Pal at our office seems to be nice for everyone. I know Pal definitely enjoys it. Every morning as I’m getting ready to go to work, Pal stays close to my side, making certain he doesn’t get left behind.

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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, I was having a conversation about pricing on an HVAC system with Heath Cather in our office. Why had the mechanical engineer chosen hot gas reheat? It’s more expensive and sometimes unnecessary, I offered.

He mentioned a trend he’s noticed. With all the mold law suits lately, we are seeing recommendations for a sure bet against moisture: hot gas reheat.

What is hot gas re-heat?

With this system, you have two coils in the air handling unit. The air first travels across a cooling coil which de- humidifies, then it crosses the hot gas coil that raises the air temp back up 15-20 degrees to further dehumidify and render the air neutral, eliminating over-cooling.  Once the thermostat calls for cooling, the hot gas drops out in order to lower the space temp.

Why are we seeing more use of hot gas reheat?

I talked with a mechanical contractor relationship of ours for details. This is what he told me:

Recent requirements to introduce large amounts of outside air into the workplace can result in the rise of the  indoor humidity level in the space. People want to combat this by purchasing a unit with excessive cooling tonnage, a “bigger is better” mentality. The over-powered unit causes the system to short cycle, not running long enough to de-humidify. We’re left with excess moisture, which can lead to mold.

Thoughts on combating the moisture with hot gas reheat:

  • Energy code limits the use of electric re-heat to 42,000 btu and below.
  • With hot gas reheat, the average 5-ton unit sees a price increase between $2,800 and 3,000, rising significantly as the tonnage increases.
  • If the space is cooling, it is de-humidifying, whether humidistat is calling or not.
  • Humidity control from a properly sized unit can lead to energy savings. Lower humidity in summer will make you feel more comfortable at 75-77 degrees, while if the humidity is high , 70-71 degrees may not seem comfortable. The opposite is true for winter operation.

Takeaways:

Hot gas is more expensive. A standard  and properly sized system has been proven to be just as effective in humidity removal and comfort control.
Know what you’re building and communicate it. What will the building be used for, and are there special climate issues involved? This is another reason design build works for many clients.
Application is key. HVAC is not a one size fits all discipline.From a contractors stand point, we see the addition of hot gas reheat on the increase and the majority of the time justified.  However one should stop and evaluate: do we really need this, or is it just insurance for a 3rd party?

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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

When we built our corporate campus a few years back, we were thinking about how to create a better workplace for our folks.

Our goal was to create an environment  to promote teamwork, break down cylinders and be fun. To accomplish this, I considered multiple designs:

–minimum walls and many open work areas, our customer CKP has found successful

–many workstations for management and support staff as well

–only one wall separating desks from each other, with the remaining space open to a common area

We ended up building the perfect space for us. Our offices do have walls, but there is glass across the front to keep them open. We placed our focus on common areas, like our huge work station where we all meet up to look at plans.

With all that research done our end, it was interesting to run across a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Designs to Make you Work Harder.”  How others approach the subject of workplace design?

Four design firms were challenged to create the ideal 15×15 ft mid-level executive’s office with no budget restraints. In the process, they learned a lot about workplace trends.

What’s in:

  • glass–shows openness and lets people see the executive at work
  • separate work zones–separates tasks and encourages collaboration
  • integration of technology–wireless friendly

What’s out:

  • status symbol executive desks
  • “ego walls” filled with trophies/awards
  • tons of storage space (paperless trends have eliminated the need)

Interestingly, these thoughts seem to fall right in line with green building and LEED guidelines–more light, openness and sustainability. I had to feel proud that even though our LEED certified place was concepted a few years back, it seems right on point with what’s happening today. What has worked for your 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

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

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