Findorff weathering 2020 storm

Feature Take Five With Jim Yehle Panel

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t done too much harm to businesses deemed essential, especially if they looked for unexpected opportunities. That’s certainly true of commercial builder J.H. Findorff & Son Inc., which saw a leadership transition in 2020.

In this Take Five interview, Jim Yehle, the company’s president and CEO since January 2020, took some time to reflect on what has transpired since the torch was passed to him from Dave Beck-Engel.

As a 130-year-old company, what does the future hold for Findorff?

“We’re very, very proud of the history, and we’re proud of the history that’s gotten us to where we are today — that being the history of having strong relationships, doing quality work, and continuing to give back to the community. I will also say, though, being a 130-year-old company, we don’t necessarily just rest on that. We’re also looking forward to making sure that we provide for the next generation of Findorff and invest in what the future holds.

“What does the future hold? I’ll be honest in that I’m very much an optimist. That’s my personality and as a positive person. I’m super excited about the future at Findorff. Yes, we’re in the middle of a pandemic now, but in 130 years you can imagine how many bumps along the road we’ve had in the past. This is another one that we will continue to get through. We continually tell our employees that we will continue to communicate with them and make the best decisions to support our Findorff family for the long run. We are not a short-term, short decision type of a company, whether it’s during this pandemic or maybe when some other companies had layoffs. We did not do any of that.

“We know that this is a temporary, short-term deal. You can define temporary and short-term however you want — six or 12 months or a couple of years — but we want to make the right decisions long term. We’re proud of that and we’re pretty positive about what the future holds for our employees and for the community.”

Given the way you adapted to COVID as a business operation, is there anything that you’ve done in the short term that you think will be a lasting practice, whether it be remote working or whatever?

“Yeah, that’s a really good question, and I’ve talked to many business leaders around the community. I think we’re in a bit of a unique position in that we’re a construction company, where about 75% to 80% of our employees are field crews that don’t have the option to work from home. That’s just the nature of their business, but knowing that we are an office company that is supporting them, I believe that we’re going to continue to try as safely as possible to be back in the office or in situations where we can have, according to the right rules and regulations, that face-to-face interaction versus being a company where you can easily adapt and be remote.

“So, it’s not that we aren’t going to respect that where it needs to happen and where it’s appropriate, but I do think we’re also going to push to have the in-person interactions similar to what 80% of our employees do every day when they have to show up to the job site. I totally respect that other businesses are different and the way they are going to evolve from this might be very different. I personally don’t think we’ll be all that different, but tomorrow could bring a different reality. Always understand that things change, and everything is changing at hyper speed right now, so we’re aware of it and we’ll continue to do what’s safest for our employees.” 

When all things are considered, what kind of year has your first year at the helm been?

“I will say that during this pandemic, there is no place I would have rather been than in a position to lead this company with my partners. People say, ‘Well, you took this position in January and the pandemic happened in March. How’s it going?’ I said absolutely, if it was going to come, I wanted to be in this position working with my partners and leading this company through it. My approach, my philosophy, is to be open and communicate. In those first few months, at least on a weekly basis if not a couple of times a week, we communicated to all of our employees with new information. Even if we didn’t have new information, we would tell them here’s what’s coming, this is what we anticipate, and here is how we’re going to keep you safe. This is how we’re going to work. We’ll continue to make the good decisions for you and your family.

“So, I think it’s been a good year. As far as the impact to our business operations, the fact that we are proud that we are diversified, and when I say diversified I mean in the type of projects that we do and also the geographic regions that we work in. That’s how I define diversified with respect to this comment. That has allowed us to do well, to continue with good operations. Because one sector might go up or down — one might go down, the other one might go up to help us level that. Obviously, early in the game, back in March, we were very pleased that the governor and the authorities allowed us to be essential — construction. Obviously, it would have been a different story if we were not considered essential, and that was a very good decision based on the results that we’ve had in working safe, adapting on the job site and, quite frankly, having a very minimal number of [COVID-positive] cases stemming from construction job sites. The men and women in the field have just been amazing. They are some unsung heroes or people you don’t hear about but who are continuing to move those projects forward, despite everything that’s been thrown their way.”

Were there any projects that were set to be completed in 2020 that were delayed because of the pandemic? Or were you able to stay on schedule?

“We had a handful of projects that were put on temporary holds, where maybe hey, let’s give this a couple of weeks to shake out. Let’s see what happens. There were projects where we were actually in the process of construction and we have since got back at them and completed that work. We also had a couple of jobs that were in the planning phase, where we hadn’t started construction, and maybe the planning was pushed back just a couple of months, just until the companies understood what next steps were appropriate, which I completely understand. So, yes, there were some initial pause and holds, but we got everything back up and running and completed projects on time.

“In fact, I’ll flip that question the other way. The idea in the spring when school kids didn’t go back for the end of the second semester — March, April, and May. A lot of the school [project] work that we’re doing, that was planned for the summer, but we were able to start some of that once the school districts knew they weren’t going to complete the spring semester [in person]. We were able to start that work earlier and actually complete work before we got to the normal summer crunch. Actually, in some school districts, we’ve completed work throughout the summer that was supposed to happen eight months from now — even beyond than that. So, we’ve been able to get some work done ahead of time.

Looking ahead just a bit, what are the key risk factors in construction, then conversely, the trends in construction over the next five years and how will they influence your vision and strategy?

“A couple of things that maybe speak to trends and may be stating the obvious but how people are going to work with respect to office modifications. Is it just less office space in general? What’s the future of retail? What’s the future of restaurants? What’s the future of hospitality and entertainment? We don’t yet know what those futures are. We, as a company, don’t just do that type of work. We are diversified, so I feel good that we’ll be able to work through these times as everybody figures out what the future looks like.

“As for other risk factors that were in place even before the pandemic, we continue to make sure we’re recruiting the next workforce. So, the construction trades, the men and women in the trades, that continues to be something that — well, risk factor is a strong term, but it’s something we’re always considering and doing our part to make sure that we’re promoting people to get them into the trades and stay in the trades to make sure we have that talented and skilled workforce to continue to deliver the projects.”

Since you mentioned workforce, Findorff recently named four new vice presidents — John Feller (preconstruction), Renee Boyce (human resources), Sam Lawrence (preconstruction), and Jim Martin (project management) — so your management team appears to be in place. In meeting your overall workforce needs, what recruiting practices has the company found to be the most fruitful?

“We’re proud of those promotions and that’s not the end of it. We are continually looking to make sure that our employees at all levels have the opportunity to be successful and move forward, whether it’s an apprentice becoming a journey person, whether it’s a supervisor becoming a superintendent, or an assistant project manager becoming a project manager. We’re always evaluating that, but in particular, those vice presidents, we’re very proud of that and expect to have more announcements over the coming years as people continue to grow their careers.

“As to your question about what’s the most fruitful practice, there are a lot of different ways to find that talent. Historically, we’ve done a very good job of organically growing our talent, where we get a connection maybe when they are in college, doing the work there, and they come to work for Findorff or they intern or do a co-op, and then they grow up through the ranks to success. That’s not to say that we don’t have a few individuals who come to us after maybe a couple of stints at a few different companies. That’s worked really well but growing people and understanding the Findorff culture from early in their career has been positive.

“In particular, I enjoy spending a lot of time at the university doing a lot of recruiting for that next generation of Findorff leaders, whether it’s speaking to different construction clubs, engaging with the Society of Black Engineers [Wisconsin Black Engineering Student Society, the student chapter affiliated with the National Society of Black Engineers] and with Hispanic engineers [Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers] at UW–Madison. I talk to those groups and enjoy my time with them and just continue to talk about the future of Findorff. Often, I will tell the students at the university that the next leaders and owners of Findorff might be in this room today. That’s what this company is about. It’s about perpetuation, and the sky is the limit.”

In conjunction with that, I have a business cultural question here. How do you continue to elevate your core values during these tough times and in the future with so much uncertainty?

“I actually think the tough times, whether or not it’s a pandemic, are really good platforms for us to draw back to our core values. For us, our core values revolved around our people, our commitment to excellence, and the perpetuation of the company. When you think about how we’ve been challenged with COVID-19, for example, we value our people. It couldn’t be truer than it is today because the health and safety of the men and women who work for Findorff is a top priority. We’ve had that at the top of every decision we’ve made over time, whether it was making decisions to be in the office or not be in the office or keep the job site open or what we’re doing to value our people. Commitment to excellence — always doing great work, doing safe work, making sure we’re doing things just right, and then the perpetuation. Honestly, making short-term decisions that could have a long-term effect on Findorff would not speak to the perpetuation. So, we’re always operating with that long-term vision of what’s right for Findorff, not with the attitude that we have a pandemic, we’re not sure, let’s make a decision. What’s going to be good for Findorff in 5, 10, 15 — heck, 130 years from now? I actually think the pandemic brings it even more to the forefront to reflect back and make sure we have those in the front view of our core values.”

At Findorff, you served as a project manager on projects like the Overture Center and, most recently, as executive vice president for nearly four years. What was the most important thing about running a construction company that you learned while serving in those respective capacities?

“I would say that, going back to my time as a project manager, one lesson that I learned, and that I continue to practice it in my leadership today, is that it’s about the team. It’s all about a team and relationships with people. It is not about one person. I might have the title of president and CEO today, but I am not what makes this company hum. I’m a piece of it, I can set the tone, and I can be the leader, but I need everyone to be going in the right direction. I need to respect that. I need to know that every role in the company is as important as the other roles. Just like we did on the job site, when I was a project manager, we respect the plumber, we respect the electrician, and we respect the drywaller, whoever it is. Everybody has a role, and if you treat everyone as a member of the team, you can really get results. You can really motivate people.

“I used to say, and I still say that positivity is contagious. Attitude is contagious. Just be positive, give people good feedback, take care of them, and it’s contagious. It will pick up and we will succeed together, and so it’s taking those same lessons learned from getting a job built and now building relationships and building success for this company for the next generation.”

How do you envision your leadership team working together to support your top goals during your tenure?

“I am super positive about how our team will continue to do that. I personally have great partners in the ownership group of Jeff Tubbs, Brian Hornung, and Jeff McLean. The four of us are the owners of the company, and I’m very, very proud of those individuals. We’ve worked together successfully for 20 years plus, between all of us being here. The idea that we’re all the same — we’re not. We are very appropriately, at times, different, and that’s good because we challenge each other and make sure that we complement each other as a great team, always moving the company in the right direction. We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing, which is keeping the company on the forefront, keeping the core values in our sight, and our direction going forward. I’m really excited. I have great partners and look forward to continuing to bring more partners into the company going forward.”

Findorff has been known to be a supporter of its communities. What are some of the ways you work this into your company culture?

“Absolutely, and one of our slogans that we’ve talked about is community, craftsmanship, and character, and giving back to community is part of what Findorff has done for many, many years. The way we instill that is the tried and true — lead by example, but also inspire. What I mean by that is that if we want individuals to get involved in their communities, we want them to do it in a way that they are inspired. Meaning, pick a cause, pick a way to give back that is meaningful to you. It could be that you coach your kid’s baseball team, that you volunteer at church, or that you help out at Habitat for Humanity or at the Salvation Army. Whatever inspires you, whatever you want to do, then do that because then you will do a better job of it. By just being there, you are a great representation of Findorff, and then as you evolve in your career, maybe we want you to get on committees and boards and get more involved.

“But it’s a more inspirational vision for people to want to give back to the community than insisting that you have to do this, or you have to go to this event and do that. We want people to go if they are inspired to do it and give back, but to also see that when you do good in the community, this community has been good to Findorff. This is where we live, this is where we go to school, and this is where we recreate, but it’s also where we work. It’s that kind of circle of life that you need to help in all areas to make it successful.”

On more of a personal level, who or what inspires you and why?

“Well, I think I would look at that on a professional level and a personal level. On professional level, the person that has inspired me ever since we met when I was a student at UW–Madison is Rich Lynch, who is currently our chairman. He is, not to sound weird about it, an inspirational person. You listen to that guy and he inspires you with his words, and the way he acts, and the way people react to him. He’s been a great mentor to me and someone that I hold in very high regard. On a personal level, my wife and family inspire me. That’s why I come to work ready to go every day. That’s why they do their part every day when I come home. Whether I’m in a good mood or a bad mood, they are there for me. I’m inspired to work hard for them, and hopefully what I do inspires them in return. Having that support network, you really need that when you’re in the position I’m in. I very much appreciate them.”

Who is Jim Yehle when he’s away from work?

“So, I work all the time, so there is never a time when I’m not at work. [laughs] With technology today, you’re never not connected. In all seriousness, I’m very proud to be a husband to my wife, Jessica. We just celebrated 21 years of marriage, so I’m very proud of that. I have three children, so I’m proud to be a dad. Over the years, I’ve been a coach for the kids in their sports, a supporter of what they do. I like Wisconsin sports. I like to do things in the community. I like to serve on boards, nonprofit boards in the area. I’m on a handful of those. I love to give back my time there. But also, the work does not turn off at 5 p.m. I’ll be completely honest about it. This job, and what I know I need to commit to do this job and to do it well, is a 24/7 deal. And so, I’m here and committed to all of the thousand employees at Findorff anytime, anywhere, to keep them safe, healthy, and successful.”

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