Supreme Structures: Employee-centric equals client-centric

When you’re a new business owner making $750 a year and struggling to get potential customers to take you seriously, it might be hard to keep your employees and your clients at the forefront of your mind. But no one ever said building a business was easy – particularly if you’re determined to do it the right way and build for the future.

Just ask Dan Bertler. Twenty years ago, Bertler was trying to get his commercial general contracting firm, Supreme Structures, off the ground, and like many new business owners, was plowing a lot of his revenue back into the business just to keep the doors open, relying on his wife’s income to make ends meet at home.

“When I started the company, I remember talking to my dad, and he said, ‘As long as you pay everybody first and you’re last, you will succeed,” said Bertler. “And no matter what, you always treat people ethically, in the right way in handling people the way you were brought up, and I always go back to that.”

Of course, while it’s easier to sleep soundly when you know you’re doing the right thing by the people in your life, making less than a grand a year is by no means easy.

“I always thought that that was part of starting a business; it’s going to be tough,” said Bertler, president and CEO of Supreme Structures, a recent recipient of a Dane County Small Business Award. “You’ve got to suck it up, and you’re not getting paid, but you’re paying everybody and you’re not losing money. As long as you can start earning that nest egg, eventually it will come. And I truly believe if you treat your clients with respect and you do the right thing for your clients, your clients will give you repeat business, and the money will eventually come.”

Fast-forward 20 years, and Bertler has a lot more financial leeway and, as predicted, has accumulated an abundance of client goodwill.

But that doesn’t mean things have been easy.

While the 2008 recession spared almost no one, the construction industry received some of the unkindest cuts of all, and that forced Bertler to really re-evaluate his business. Part of that re-evaluation included job cuts. In that respect, he wasn’t much different than any other business, but Bertler also used the crisis as an opportunity to build a stronger foundation for the future.

“I said, all right, I need to get back to basics, and I wanted to make sure I had the key people on board,” said Bertler. “I wanted to make sure they bought into where we’re going to go with restructuring, and I wanted to make sure that we gave them all the utilities they needed or benefits that they needed to make sure they were long-term employees.”

Assembling the team

Bertler said he concentrated on retaining the employees who were team players and who seemed invested in helping the company grow. He also said the recession helped him to some degree by allowing the company to reach out to some really qualified people who had been let go by larger companies.

At that point, Bertler resolved to focus on keeping that core group intact. He set up a meeting with his attorney, accountant, 401(k) person, and other key personnel in order to brainstorm ideas for assembling the best benefit package he could for his employees.

“I took them out to eat and introduced all of them to each other, and I don’t think a lot of people ever do that,” said Bertler. “I mean, these people talk to each other through a phone, but they never get to know each other, and having them all at one table was really easy, where I could say, now that everyone knows each other, everyone’s having lunch together, here’s where I want to go, here’s where I want to be in 10 years, and can I give my employees the benefits they need to make sure they’re here long term?

“And what that allowed us to do, as my 401(k) guy said, ‘hey, if we do this, it’s a benefit for you with taxes, it helps your employees out.’ My accountant steps in and says, ‘yeah, and you can take this and deduct this,’ and my attorney says, ‘yeah, and I can follow it up with this and this and this.’ So having the professionals kind of step in and see where our long-term plans were allowed me to really get a benefit onboard to my employees.

After that, Bertler focused on getting his employees to buy in to the program, which was centered on sustainability and client relationships.

“I went back to my employees and kind of set it all out,” said Bertler. “I said, we’re a small company. With all my clients, I try to develop long-term partnerships versus a one-and-done deal. And I’ve had clients for 20 years, and the key was getting my employees to buy in that what they do today on the job affects that client 10 years from now or five years from now, because we want that client to pick up the phone and call us again.”

The long view

To Bertler, keeping your employees happy and enthusiastic about their jobs is just good business. He tells a cautionary tale about a project that technically put him on the plus side of the ledger but turned out to be a liability in the end.

“Seven or eight years ago, I had a client in Milwaukee, and we made $100,000 on that client,” said Bertler. “But when it was all said and done, looking back at that project, I lost good employees because it was the type of job where we had to work at night, we had to work on weekends, we had to work on holidays. It was very disruptive for their personal lives, and then I added in the equation of us driving to Milwaukee all the time. … I tell you, I’d rather make zero and maintain the people, because I think it was a wash when it was all said and done.”

While some might be skeptical of Bertler’s employee-centric approach, the results speak for themselves. At a time when many business’s – and particularly construction companies’ – revenues were getting clobbered, Supreme Structures survived the worst part of the storm and continues to grow, reporting revenues of $7.8 million in 2011.

Its 90% client retention rate (clients include Jon Lancaster Lexus and Toyota, PDQ, Stop and Go, The Great Dane, and Nelson Bus Service, to name a few) is something Bertler takes great pride in, and is testament to his core philosophy – which is echoed by one of his most high-profile clients.

“I try to develop a partnership with my clients, and I think Jon Lancaster said it perfectly,” said Bertler. “He said working with Supreme Structures, it’s not just a contractor, we are a partnership for today and in the future. He said that to me a long time ago, and I have to tell you, those words kind of stuck. Every time I look at a client, I know I’m not going to cut a corner. I know my employees aren’t going to cut a corner.”

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