CareerWritten by Jason Ubay On 20 March 2012
More Advice from Eric Tessem

In our February issue, we asked Eric Tessem, senior vice president and general manger for dck pacific construction LLC, for his advice for business professionals. Here’s more advice from that interview.

HB: Like other businesses and the economy, the construction industry is a constant state of up and down cycles. How do you stay vigilant and competitive during bad times?

Tessem: The joke in our industry is that you are only as good as your last job or project. Though we say it somewhat in jest, there is a kernel of truth in it. You can build many projects successfully, but often a job goes poorly or expectations are either not managed or not met and as a result you don’t get another opportunity. In tough times you must be at your best. The competition gets much more aggressive; fees and markups are challenged. Always take care of the staff and crews that got the company to where it is. In tough times you need to rely on them to get you through it. Keep everyone safe, stay competitive, be aggressive in your expectations of your people as well as your trades and vendors.

HB: What about during good times?

Tessem: It’s funny. I really worry more about the “next job” in good times than in down cycles. In good times you inevitably build up crews, staff and volumes of work and raise everyone’s expectations. With lots of work and business, I always worry about how I’ll keep it going. We are constantly concerned about “getting” work to replace what we are “burning off.” When we are going at 110 percent, we can do a great deal of work, thus creating a lot of pressure to keep replacing it. It is very important to work hard at generating new business in good times so people know you still want their business, that they are important to you in good times as well as bad. We often get caught when we tell prospective clients we’re “too busy” to do their work now so please call back. That tells them they’re not important to us, and if we call on them when things slow down, it’s awkward. That is not to say you can be everything to everyone, you just need to be careful how you handle it so you’re sending the right message. You certainly don’t want to take on a project when you don’t have the resources for it and would risk doing a poor job. It’s a tough balancing act, though a very important one if you’re going to be successful.

HB: What do you do when you feel like giving up?

Tessem: One lesson I have tried to live by is “never give up.” Our business is very cyclical. In good times, there will always be slow times ahead. Sometimes the cycles are longer than others. You just have to stay in the game till the work comes back. Keep trying to do the right things, be consistent and dependable. Then just hang in there. As they say, “your odds of winning the lottery greatly increase if you buy a ticket.” It really is a tough business. Nothing ever stays the same, never costs the same, and completing a job sometimes goes quicker, sometimes slower. When you have to contend with the weather, the market, the work force and human nature, you’re dealing with moving targets. If you don’t like building things, you should do something else. It is not always about the money, you have to enjoy what you do as well

HB: What was your first job?

Tessem: For four summers during college I joined the laborer’s union and worked for a masonry company. It gave me an incredible vision into what actually goes on in the real world, from the people I worked with (a colorful group), to how different the real construction world was from textbooks and the classroom. I think everyone who plans to work in the construction industry should spend a year or two in the trenches. Until you have been in the heat, rain, mud and cold you can’t have a real appreciation for what goes on out there. What was the biggest lesson I learned there? Never stick a shovel in the mixer! I hooked the shovel in the blades while it was running and it knocked me out cold – 15 feet away in the sand pile. I thought a truck had hit me.

HB: Most people recall reaching a “turning point” in their lives. Do you have one? If you do, what was it and how did it change your life or career?

Tessem: Thinking back on it, I think I had two turning points — once when I started my company back in 1981 and the second when I closed my company. The latter was much more significant than the first. I was unemployed for a day when I closed the company and received a call from Ledcor. I was very fortunate to work with a solid Canadian company like Ledcor. But now I’ve been given the opportunity to work with dck pacific construction, LLC, another very exciting company that has a very long history in the Islands as well as on the U.S. mainland and internationally. Owning a business for so many years gave me a great deal of hands-on experience in all the many disciplines in construction. Though I never thought I would be going down my current path, it really is the perfect scenario to be able to apply my experience at the elevated level that dck operates at. It’s a real treat. I plan on making a difference here and being an “impact” player — that has always been my goal personally as well as professionally.

HB: What’s a lesson you learned as a child that you still use today?

Tessem: My father used to always tell me, “Always try to do the right thing.” Sooner or later it will work out. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

HB: What was the most important business lesson that you have learned?

Tessem: “Bigger is not always better.” Figure out the basics first and grow at a rate you can sustain and manage. When things get busy we always think we can do more than we actually can. Know when to say “enough.” A friend once said, “Many times the best project you will ever have is the one you didn’t get.” Looking back, that was a pretty profound statement and very true for me.

Also, you can’t do everything yourself.  So engage professionals and let them do the job right whenever you are either unable to give it proper attention or you’re just not good at it.

HB: When starting a new job, who is the person you need to get to know first?

Tessem: The client of course, but really all the players — the client (and their decision makers), the consultants, lenders and municipalities the project is being built in, and new trades or vendors you have not worked with before.

HB: What is the biggest or most embarrassing mistake you ever made? What did you learn from it and/or how did you fix it?

Tessem:I tell our staff and crews that if you had a plan and the plan didn’t work, so be it. Make a new plan and move forward. If you make a mistake, recognize it quickly and learn from it. Making the same mistake over again is tough to get by.

On a more serious note, maybe not recognizing problems soon enough, trying to do everything yourself and not engaging the professionals in an area you’re not fully versed in or don’t have the time to give proper attention. Try not to micromanage those you’ve empowered to do a job. If you can find good people, let them do what needs to be done. They’re likely better at it than you are or you wouldn’t have hired them for it.

HB: Do you have any regrets or missed opportunities that you should have taken, or taken earlier?

Tessem: Should have bought Microsoft stock when it first came out so I would not be working so hard for a living, or maybe real estate in Hawaii 20 years ago. Can’t afford either one now.

Photo: Courtesy dck pacific construction

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Managing Editor, Hawaii Business magazine. He's also representing the mag on Facebook and Twitter at @hawaiibusiness. You can follow him on Twitter at @jubay.

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