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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
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Imagine attending a conference and being introduced to a prospective client. This person asks about your company and professional background. Instead of replying to the prospect you say, “Let my friend Dave here tell you all about us.” And then you walk away without speaking a word.

It is extremely unlikely that this potential client would end up hiring you. But in a way, that is what many companies try to do when they use canned programs to implement their customer relationship management.

I don’t believe it is possible for anybody else to tell your story the way you can. Others might be able to provide the basic details, but in order to truly explain your company’s character and culture it needs to come directly from you.

There is ample evidence that executives in the commercial construction and design industry are hesitant to enter into unknown business relationships.

According to a nationwide survey I read recently in Construction Executive magazine, 83 percent of respondents said their primary source of business is a combination of repeat clients, referrals and networking. Yet amazingly, 33 percent said they do nothing to nurture existing business relationships.

What’s going to happen if your competition makes the effort to cultivate business relationships with a personal touch, and you simply rely on canned programs? Sure it takes a lot more time and work to do it on your own.

Success is never easy, but if you don’t take the initiative, someone else will.

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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

Making mistakes is common for everyone. We all make them. Admitting to mistakes is not always an immediate reaction. Instead, many try to redirect the blame to others or maybe provide incomplete answers back. I tell our folks at Stewart Perry that they will always make mistakes along the trail and it is a sign of real maturity to admit what may have happened and to provide solutions.

When I visit with our clients, I tell them that we may make some mistakes along the way on their projects and if we do, we will work toward solutions. I have been in the construction business long enough to know that customers, designers and others involved in the property development process also make mistakes. We will try to help them work through these situations as well, just as we wish for them to help us in return.

We make decisions based on the information that we are given and this information may or may not always be accurate. To me, if you accept the error instead of avoiding it, it will start the correction process sooner. The way in which you handle the mistakes can say a lot about the way you do business. Granted we do live in a society where lawyers are involved at every turn and I would think it would be safe to say that has some impact on the methods in which things are handled.

Good leaders in business admit mistakes and move on.

A couple of ideas we try to live by:

• Let’s all admit when we make a mistake and seek solutions and let’s try to have the team support each other.

• Leaders show strength by showing vulnerability. Part of this vulnerability is admitting the mistake.

Nothing is ever perfect and mistakes are sure to be made. Admitting the mistake will be appreciated, strengthen the relationship and in the end, is a win-win situation.

Is this not what we are all striving to do?

 

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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

Are You Saying Thank You Enough?

As the year comes to a close, I wonder what it would be like if more of us said thank you to each other.  Not just at the end of the year, but throughout the year…

I can count on my two hands the amount of times that someone from downstream has thanked us for a material order or a subcontract we have given them over the past few years. Maybe it’s because people were too busy (before 2007)…or maybe they do not think what a wonderful opportunity this would be to build a relationship.

I’m not talking about the obligatory Christmas present or card. I’m talking about genuinely connecting throughout the year to say “thanks.” If you and your business did this, I suspect that your relationships will strengthen more because your competitors are probably not taking the time to say “thanks” either.

Two simple words, expressed in different ways.

From what I have read recently, people who show gratitude have more energy, more optimism, better social contacts and are healthier. We say thank you (a lot) and we try to do it in different ways because we are sincere. It’s who we are. It’s our culture and besides, we enjoy doing business with our customer relationships.

A teaspoon of honey goes a long way to strengthen the relationships for more opportunities which leads to more success.

 

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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 the first Tour de France bicycle race was held in 1903; Maurice Garin, the winner, clocked in nearly three hours ahead of the second-place finisher, Hippolyte Auconturier. This year, the margin of victory was a mere 39 seconds. The three-week-long race covered 2,263 miles. That means winner Alberto Contador traveled each mile 0.0172 of a second faster than second-place finisher Andy Schleck; a miniscule margin to victory.

Things are looking brighter, for sure, yet the margin for error to get a project and to be successful is definitely smaller than it used to be. To me, it is important that we watch out for every opportunity and be ready for the right ones that are a fit.

Our attempt at finding and securing new business is similar to a fisherman stretching a net across a river. The web in our net has to be pretty tight these days to catch opportunities that come by and not let them slip away. There are project opportunities out there for all of us; the key is to ensure that we land our fair share.

Everyone does business different ways, but here’s what works for us:

• Remain true to our core competencies and make the most out of the opportunities.

• Building brand awareness utilizing social communications and other marketing efforts.

• Strategic Relationships with others in the industry. We keep the radar up for each other.

 

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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

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.

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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 my travels I get to experience some cool things and this recent experience reminded me of things that many us take for granted. This recently happened to me during my last visit to the Dakota’s this fall.  After arriving, we gathered in a small bar and were approached by a young man who had overheard us when the discussions turned to football…particularly the Auburn and Alabama rivalries.

Serving as a weapons officer, Capt. Pat Helton is with the 37th Bomber Squadron that is based at Ellsworth Air Force Base. This historic squadron has served in many missions including Doolittle’s Raid during WWII. The 37th Tigers have also flown in Operation Desert Fox, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Capt. Helton had dinner with us that evening and afterwards asked if we would like to come over and see the plane that he flies based in Ellsworth. But this wasn’t any plane, this was the B1 Bomber. The supersonic bomber that was first developed in the mid-70s, but wasn’t actually put into duty until circa mid ‘80’s. Most recently, it has served during our mission in Afghanistan.

We met Capt. Helton on Sunday morning and after going through security clearance. We were shown the flight lines and how the B1 approaches its missions.  We learned that at any given time, there are at least two B1s flying over Afghanistan providing support to ground troops.

We also learned that they spend an average of 15 hours in the air with a 24 hour service cycle;  flying in cramped quarters like an angel out over the countryside protecting their fellow soldiers. When called into action, Capt. Helton has direct communications with the ground troops deciding which type of ordinance to use.

After we wrapped up the tour of the 37th Squadron and saw the B1 bomber on the flight lines. It made me thankful that I was able to visit with Capt. Helton, learn about his duty and in addition, very thankful for the role our military is playing keeping peace in the world.

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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, Chris Brogan and I spent 2 days together here in Birmingham. We were pleased to have him as our guest for the Green Building Focus Conference.

For those unaware, Chris is the well-respected co-author of Trust Agents and Social Media 101. He’s carved out a niche for himself in social tools online and the means, methods and leverage of Web 2.0. He’s teaching business leaders how to stay connected and in the game.

In his talk, Chris compared Web 2.0 and its tools to the telephone when it was invented. At the time, many maintained they would rather write letters and talk in person than use a new device. Even though it enabled them to communicate across hundreds of miles, people were reluctant to move past the familiar. This compares to where we are now in business communication, particularly in relation to social media. The phone and email are now tried and tested ways of staying connected, building relationships and increasing profits, but are they the future?

I found Chris to be genuine, transparent, honest and helpful, both individually and on stage. He is the kind of person who makes you feel like he’s interested in what you have to say and gives you his undivided attention, one-on-one. There were so many takeaways from my time with Chris, but in interest of brevity, I’ll share just a few that relate to social media.

Be in it for others. The ratio you spend helping others should be 12:1 when compared to what you do to promote yourself. Strive to build long-term relationships and trust.

If you do it, do it right. After Chris explained the various social networking tools that work well for him, he made the point that it was best to choose what you can do well and maintain properly.  If you spread yourself too thin, you will represent yourself poorly.

Keep mobile top of mind. As more people are becoming reliant on their smart phones for web use, make mobile a priority when designing a site. A budget spent on expensive flash and non-compatible design is often money wasted.

Reply. Chris suggested that his popularity is attributed to the fact he actually takes the time to respond where many experts do not.

To sum it up, the more I learn about these new tools and their leverage, the more intrigued I become with delving deeper. After all, social media uses less carbon and less effort, often gaining more results. How’s that for energy efficient?


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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 mentioned a partnership I’ve fostered with WP2DC, the company who designed and implemented a cloud-based application for Stewart Perry. We’ve managed to get all our internal information into an easily accessible virtual file cabinet. As a result we’ve cut out a lot of duplicated efforts.

Using a Building Information Modeling (BIM) is our next goal for being more efficient and a better resource. The American Institute of Architects defines it as a “model-based technology linked with a database of project information.”  Basically, BIM catalogues a structure throughout its lifecycle in real time 3D. All the details—from design, to functionality, to construction, to operation—are accessible from one file. We had a project T’d up using BIM and because of the Recession the project was delayed. We believe that BIM will be a huge value-add for our customer relationships. That’s because, for us, BIM will:

  • improve project visualization
  • improve productivity with easy retrieval of information
  • increase coordination of construction documents
  • isolate and define scope of work
  • increase delivery speed
  • reduce errors
  • reduce costs

BIM will allow us to harness technology to drive long-term improvement in project delivery. It’s a soup to nuts philosophy. If problems come up down the road, building owners can look at how a facility was designed, engineered and built. They can address problems with a holistic approach, often saving them tons of time and effort trying to track down the unknown.

BIM is a huge tool for establishing and continuing relationships. However, I won’t recommend BIM without a word of warning. Adaptation means you’ll have to change the way you look at building phases. There’s a lot less alpha and omega and a lot more ebb and flow. Architects, engineers, contractors and other stakeholders will be sharing more information than they’re used to. It’s more effort up front, but in the end, BIM bridges the information loss often associated with handing a project from design team to construction to owner/operator.

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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.