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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

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

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

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.

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.