Follow some time-tested advice to separate yourself from all the other contractors.

Webster’s dictionary defines “unique” as: 1) one and only, sole; 2) different from all others, having no like or equal; and 3) singular, unusual, rare.

Do any of those descriptions fit you personally or your company? Or are you just another contractor?

Let me share some damn good advice I received from a total stranger 50 years ago. I was just a young buck, but I was the general superintendent of a new high school building in Dayton, Pa. This old gentleman, probably in his 60s, walked into my jobsite trailer and asked if I knew what I was building. He said this was a unique situation, and I was a unique individual.

I was a little embarrassed and a little insulted, but I defensively answered, “It’s all here on these blueprints. Can you read these plans?”

“Oh yes,” he answered, “I’ve been building longer than you’ve been living. But the important thing that I’ve been building for all of those years is not on those blueprints. I’ve been building a proud reputation. I’d like you to read my resume and give me an opportunity to work with you here and help you build one for yourself. We can build that high school even better than what’s on those blueprints, and at the same time build you the proud and enviable reputation you deserve.”

When he left, I looked up “unique” in my jobsite dictionary and realized he was being complimentary. I carefully read his resume and discovered that he also was unique. That word meant “one of a kind” and he was definitely different from any other job applicant I had encountered.

I hired that gentlemen and he died of cancer before the high school was finished. Fortunately he accomplished what he set out to do with me. He did not give me a written list of dos and don’ts. He would privately chide me when I was off the track and give me feasible options anytime I asked for advice. He was my very first exposure to a “gold mentor” and my introduction to what we now call “value engineering.”

His wisdom helped me make good decisions on that high school job, in my personal life and in every business situation to this day. I already knew and practiced many of these traits he recommended, but he reinforced their importance:

There Is Always A Better Way

You need to learn all the good ways and means for doing something and then figure out that better way.

Most of the contractors you are competing with are doing what they know will work because “they’ve always done it that way.” Look for shortcuts and detours. You cannot afford to stop the job or send your crew home because something is in your way or someone didn’t do their job. What else could you be doing that isn’t on the critical path, but will eventually need to be done? This is an excellent opportunity to prefab or preassemble items that will be installed at a later date.

Read The Trade Magazines

Like this one. In addition to new methods, materials, tools and equipment, there are success stories about competitors who did it right. You also can read about others who didn’t get paid or were fined for breaking government rules they were unaware existed. It is much cheaper to read about their missteps than suffer your own.


Get out of the dinosaur age. I am still amazed at the number of contractors who are still not using flex-time. Back in the early 1950s we worked from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and made a fantastic flex-time shift during the summer months to work 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The only justification for those five, eight-hour workdays was that worn-out excuse, “Everybody does it.” My mentor laughed as he reminded me that unique means that you are not like everybody else.

Care For Your Employees

Don’t worry so much about taking care of the job. Take good care of your employees and they will take care of the job.

You have the position and the power to help each and every one of them. Learn to listen and give them recognition and appreciation for what they do. You also must criticize and discipline privately when they earn that. Do not sacrifice discipline to get someone to like you. They may or may not like you for any number of reasons, but they will respect you for the way you treat them.

Good employees want to be measured and rewarded for what they do. Always review what each employee does each day and keep score. If you don’t keep score, they will -- and they always win.

Do not “expect” anything from your employees. Define what you are buying with their wages and demand that. Show sincere recognition and appreciation for anything they are willing to give you above that.

Treat every employee as a unique individual. Some are born with the ability to build. Help them develop and use those inherited talents. Provide after-hour training opportunities for anyone willing to learn and advance. This advice planted the seeds for me to write my “Born to Build” book that was published in 1994.

Never Be Late

Being on time involves more than just honoring your word. When you make someone wait for you, you are insinuating that their time is not as valuable as yours. That is an outright insult.

That old saying about the early bird getting the worm is especially critical for anyone in charge of a group of people. Just imagine what it costs in wasted time and labor when the boss shows up late. There is absolutely no problem with being too early, but you can suffer major problems by being just a little bit late.

Have Fun

Construction is a very hard, dangerous and demanding occupation and there is nothing funny about it. Keep in mind that a smile is contagious and that any single individual can control the morale of a group. You should be that person. I always like this quote, “You are not dressed for work if you’re not wearing a smile.” Although this is serious business, there is nothing wrong in having a good sense of humor with the employees.

Leave Your Problems Behind

Never take your job problems home at night. Lock them in the jobsite trailer and go home to enjoy your family, friends and whatever you like to do. I soon discovered that you didn’t have to lock them in the trailer. No one else wanted them, and they were always there waiting for me the next morning. Fortunately, my mind was relaxed, recharged and ready to solve them.

Make Profitable Decisions

Make good business decisions based on dollars. Contractors must make a profit to survive. Write all of your options on paper with how much each will cost vs. what it will produce. Then decide.

Give Something Back

Contrary to popular belief, you can take it with you! But I’m not talking about gold, silver or material wealth. I’m talking about all those years of learning and experience that we call wisdom. Just think about the millions of young Americans who could benefit by starting where you left off. Consider what you could share, in addition to many precious “tricks of the trade.”