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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
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While I think our economy continues to heal from what we are seeing the next 12 to 18 months will see more failures of the weak in commercial real estate and the construction industry.  2012 will be a tough year on the sureties and surety credit will even be harder to obtain over the next couple of years.

Many years ago when we were getting started, it was another tough time for surety credit and I will never forget those times.   The surety industry talks about the three “C’s” to obtain bonding capacity:  Capital. Capacity. Character. To me it was more like Capital. Capital and more Capital were the three “C’s”.

I believe there should be an “E” added in for Experience. If I were a surety, I would take less capital if there was a healthy dose of “experience” mixed in, but this is hard to list on a financial balance sheet. To me no substitute for the experience of hard knocks.

Beyond the Three C’s

I asked our surety manager, Ms. Sandi Benford of Berkley Surety Group, what she looks for in a good credit risk (beyond the three C’s and other underwriting). Here is what she had to say:

  • A contractor that is able and willing to communicate the good and the not so good. No Surprises.
  • A company that is able to forecast with accuracy. Being honest with oneself.  If there is a problem on the horizon have at least some semblance of an action plan.
  • If the company is experiencing ongoing losses, does upper management act with personal responsibility equability considering others in the company?

Thoughts and Comments?

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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.

I read recently in the Wall Street Journal that as of May, retailer Bed Bath & Beyond had $1.64 billion in cash and short-term treasuries, and expects to generate at least another $600 million by February. Nationwide, non-financial businesses had approximately $1.85 trillion in liquid assets as of June. That’s pretty good, I would say. It’s just short of the record high set in the first quarter of this year.

To me it seems that executives at many U.S. companies are in a similar situation these days. They have a significant amount of money at their disposal, and they’re not sure what to do with it.

They’re not expanding like they once were because consumers aren’t spending like they used to. There is no need to increase production amid such anemic growth. Couple that with low interest rates, and companies can’t find any meaningful way to invest their money. And so the cash sits, waiting for a profitable use.

Eventually, consumers will pay down their debt, begin feeling good about the economy and start spending again. The good news is, when that happens—and it feels like we are now on the up tick—there is a wealth of cash ready to pour back into the market.


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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 were asked recently to help one of our customers with a damaged concrete sidewalk. Sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t just any sidewalk. This one was elevated and it was absolutely necessary for this office facility that the sidewalk remain navigable for the tenants through out the repair process.

In years past, if someone wanted to change the appearance of a concrete surface or repair it, we would have had to cut out the entire floor and replace it, incurring great expense along the away. But new technology called micro-topping has made it significantly easier and less cost prohibitive to make such alterations. That’s the route we chose for this project.

The troweled-on, cementitious topping is paper-thin, yet bonds to most any substrate, from concrete and asphalt to wood. Because it is not confined to the color limitations of chemical stains, micro-topping allows for bright designs to be placed into an existing floor of a different color.

Even if the world is not your canvas, your floor can be.


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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.

This morning we resolved a disagreement involving a large piling and timber wall we constructed in Ohio. How? We finally got everyone together in one room and we talked.

It got me thinking about how we used to resolve disputes. It was similar to a boxing match, when the two sides would spar for a while and then take a break and retreat to separate corners. They stand and punch until one emerges victorious and the other is defeated, usually causing considerable damage to both athletes. When there are breaks in the fighting, the two combatants will speak to their own coach, but not to each other.

Too often, construction or real estate disputes resemble what I just described in the ring. Instead of trying to communicate with each other to reach a mutual resolution, both sides remain in their own corners and let their lawyers do the talking—and punching. It seems the only way to resolve the dispute is to fight it out, at considerable expense to both parties.

In years gone by that was our general reaction as well. A dispute would arise and we’d pick up the phone and call our lawyer. At the end of the year I’d find that we had spent a substantial amount of money, and often not be much further along toward settlement.

Time has taught us to recognize there are two sides to every story, and nobody is ever totally right or totally wrong.

We push for a resolution and try to solve things quickly and amicably. As a result, over the past eight or nine years, we have spent very little on legal expenses to resolve disputes.

When you have been in business as long as we have, it’s inevitable you will have an occasional dispute. But disagreements can still have agreeable solutions. It doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all outcome. We try to communicate and resolve our disputes at the lowest level possible. That way, expensive litigation is avoided, and both sides can win.

How do you resolve your disputes? By communicating or paying the lawyer?


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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.

This week I attended the national convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a member-driven organization for the retail industry. This year there were about 25,000 attendees.

I felt the mood of the conference was positive optimism with a sense of getting down to business. Here’s what I’m taking with me:

Landlords and retailers are going to have to compromise on overhead. Many of the public companies have driven down costs about as far as they can go. As the economy heals, they will be opening up more stores to grow the top line. The standoff will be when commercial landlords can no longer deliver store space at the same occupancy costs that the public companies have been negotiating over the last two years. I believe this will resolve itself, but for a while it will be a stare down.

The CMBS market must find ways to heal itself. Commercial banks have the FDIC to be the “hall monitor” so to speak, enforcing regulations and maintaining control. On the other hand, the CMBS (commercial mortgage-backed securities) market is made up of bondholders all over the world. There are special service providers administering the loans, but there’s no umbrella organization for policy or governance.

The feeling was that the commercial banks, while inundated with problematic loans, will eventually work these through the system. The CMBS market is another story. These loans comprise a significant portion of the commercial property loans in the U.S. and about $60 billion come due in 2010.

Hard times have brought out the best in us. There was a spirit of cooperation at the convention. Businesses want to help each other survive and prosper. I think that’s something unique to this retail industry where relationships are so important. As I see it, relationships grow over time when the “bullets are flying,” the tide isn’t rising and when you need each other. Only then can there be a bonded relationship, strengthened over time, where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

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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.

I have been involved with the Boy Scouts of America for about 35 years. It’s a wonderful organization—I would encourage you to find a troop for your sons or grandsons if they are not already active. BSA teaches many essential skills that help children as they grow. I’ve found the basic principles they learn as Scouts carry over well into adulthood.

One of the Scouting merit badges is Communications. It’s required to earn the Eagle Scout rank, and that’s for a good reason. They emphasize conversation, listening, writing, persuasion and public speaking—all things that if mastered, comprise good communication. Honing this valuable skill at a young age can give Scouts a tremendous leg up. That’s because communicating effectively is a key to success at all stages of life, whether it’s interaction with your teacher, your boss, your employees or especially your clients.

Think of the classic vision of a Scout: a young boy helping an elderly lady cross the street. He learns early on the importance of looking both ways. The same is true in communication. It is a two-way street in which the traffic from both directions – speaking and listening – is equally important. You must not only be able to communicate your ideas clearly, but also truly take in what is being said. Listening is a huge part of communication. If something is said and it’s not heard properly, then what have you really accomplished? You’ve probably missed valuable input.

How can communication make us more effective? I think seamlessly and clearly sharing our thoughts, then listening intently in return will take us a long way as business leaders, family members and citizens.

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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 seems that in the construction business—design and finance—there is an ever-accelerating outpouring of technology and knowledge. Because I sometimes worry that advances will pass me by, I’m always trying to figure out how to leverage my time. I want to maximize what I do without decreasing quality or cutting corners. But how?

Someone recently told me: “If sleep didn’t get in the way, I would have time to accomplish all my goals.” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? Here are 5 things I do to increase my personal efficiency, so that I can get lots taken care of and still find time for a little shuteye.

  • Save industry reads for downtime. I go through the Wall Street Journal every Saturday morning, cutout  the pertinent articles, then read them on my next airline trip.
  • Get an executive summary on technology. I subscribe to two bloggers who deliver an overview of what’s happening in marketing, social media and technology. I think these guys are pretty sharp, and worth my time. Check out Chris Brogan and Mashable.
  • Carry an electronic data recorder. Mine is small and relatively inexpensive. Whenever I get an idea or think of someone to contact, I record the thought straight away, then take action later. I’ve saved a lot of good fleeting thoughts this way.
  • Use voice to text. I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking software to dictate my e-mails. It saves a lot of keystrokes, freeing me up to communicate more often.
  • Subscribe to RSS. I use Google Reader, an amazing product. At a glance one can gain knowledge of specifics across a wide spectrum of publications and in my case on construction, design and finance.

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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.

Lately, it seems like I’m surrounded by races. Earlier this week, I told you about my Indy Grand Prix of Alabama experience at Barber Motorsports Park. A NASCAR race happened just down the road last weekend at the Talladega Superspeedway. This Saturday, the Kentucky Derby will be run for the 136th time.

To me, business is a lot like racing sports. It takes teamwork and efficiency to win, but you can’t be hasty. Dedication and precision are just as important to finishing as raw speed. In fact, there’s probably room for a new business beatitude: “Blessed are those who put in an extra push before the finish line, for they are committed to excellence.”

I find myself grateful for those folks who really take their time before declaring a job done. Those who go back, double-check, then triple-check before considering something finished. Their tenacity for excellence makes all the difference.

The other day I was watching some landscape guys finish up a long day of clearing brush and mulching an area. It was definitely “quitting time” and they could have all left and declared themselves over the “finish line,” but one of them stopped, looked over the job with a critical eye and went back to the far side of the property. He saw it still looked ragged and a bit mangy.

Although he must have been tired, the fellow worked another 30 minutes to fix what he’d seen wasn’t just right. His decision to put in the extra time gave the value of each team member’s work and the job as a whole extra value. He made not only his colleagues and company look good, but also saved them from potential customer disappointment and criticism.

You may read this and think that it’s pretty standard stuff. That’s not always the case. That’s why it becomes important to honor the people in the habit of excellence. Do we identify this trait of going back until it is right and then reward it?

I’ve found that the “critical eye” combined with the willingness to resolve any shortcomings before crossing the finish line is an invaluable approach in business and life. Such passionate people with this disciplined approach help us avoid disappointment, assure real triumphs and gain good habits in the process.

Blessed are those who push for excellence before the finish line! I for one am so thankful for your efforts on our team. May your lingering vigilance always be contagious.

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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.

During his childhood breakfasts, George Barber probably saw wheels where other kids saw Cheerios. He’s had a lifelong fascination with vehicles equipped for power and speed.

The passion ran so deep that Barber, whose family built a legacy in the central Alabama dairy industry, decided to make a philanthropic investment in the community that raised him. Through his generous contributions, Barber Motorsports Park was completed just outside Birmingham in 2003.

The Barber Vintage Motorsports Park is considered the finest road course in North America. It’s also home to the Porsche Sports Driving School USA and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The 5-story museum elegantly displays the world’s best and largest motorcycle collection as well as the largest collection of Lotus racecars in the world.

I recently attended the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama located at the Park. I was in good company. Fans poured in from 40 states and many countries to watch the races. All ages were nestled under the pines along the 2.3-mile course on this glorious Alabama Sunday afternoon. They came to watch some of the world’s finest racers running at speeds up to 200 mph. They left an estimated $30 million economic boost for the Birmingham community.

I took a few things away from my time at the track, and thought I would share them. Maybe next year I’ll see you at the races.

The Pit is arguably as exciting or more so than the race. Before the starting flag, I wandered down to watch the Target professional tech team do their last minute precise prep and install their renowned driver Scott Dixon into the bright red Target car. Whether on the track or on the job, such finely coordinated teamwork gives me a zing.

Indy Racing is green power in action. It’s the first and only motor sport to be powered by 100 percent fuel grade ethanol.

Team sports are great “team building” for your crew. Many from Stewart Perry joined in for a memorable, fun day. We had such a great time together that we decided to make The Indy Grand Prix of Alabama a springtime tradition.

Passion is contagious. Mr. Barber turned his passion into a legacy. The result has and will enhance thousands of lives and bring significant economic benefit to his hometown. George Barber challenges us to follow big dreams and make them happen.

What’s your vision? How can you make it real?

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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.