Reach for the Stars if you Want to Get Ahead

MB TruckIn his presentation to the NC Subcontractors Alliance at their July 2013 meeting, Gary Olnowicz, president of The Linda Construction Company, said “Sometimes, you have to bite off more than you can chew.” The meaning behind this is that to grow in business, sometimes you have to reach beyond your comfort zone.

My moment came in 1978 when I was a young contract salesman for Binswanger Glass in Norfolk, VA. I was in my second year in sales. In those days, I was strictly commission, earning 15% of the gross profit of the sale. To get a jump start, I had been concentrating on small jobs that could be turned around quickly so that I could get into position to cover my draw. My commission was paid quarterly, after deducting for my draw and expenses. Luckily, I was successful in landing a very busy metal building dealer who furnished me a couple nice jobs each month and a builder who was building nine Roy Rogers Chicken restaurants in the area. We did not use project managers at the time, so each salesman was totally responsible for his jobs until they were handed off to the Glazing Superintendent to get them installed. It was taking a lot of time to stay ahead on small jobs, so I realized I needed a bigger job carry me along.

One day, I was alone in the contract office when the call came. It was a call from The Haskell Company in Jacksonville, Florida. They were going to design/build at truck assembly plant for Mercedes Benz in Hampton, Virginia and wanted Binswanger to price it for them. I wasn’t going to give it up. I had them send me the plans. The job was big, but fairly simple. It consisted of 1,000 running feet of 4 ft. tall fixed and operating self-mulling strip window units and a 100 foot x 27 foot tall curtain wall assembly. I got all my quotes, put the labor on it and went to my manager to get approval to bid it. We put the price on it and I rolled the dice.

A few weeks later, I got a call from my contact at Haskell. He wanted me to fly down to Jacksonville the following Monday to meet with the design team. I told him I would get back to him. Both the contract manager and branch manager tried to discourage me from going. They both suggested that Haskell was just using me and that I would be making a mistake to go. I said I had a feeling on this one and had developed a feeling of trust with my contact. He told me to go ahead, but he made sure I understood that all the expenses of the trip would be charged against my commission.  1978 was before airline deregulation and the cost of a same day trip from Norfolk to Jacksonville and back was $678. Yes, I still remember that amount. It was a significant amount when your monthly draw was $1,000. That was a sleepless night.

The next morning, I called Haskell and told them I would be there Monday. Sunday was another sleepless night. Up early on Monday to drive out to the Norfolk Regional Airport. The flight, including a stop in Atlanta took about four hours. A taxi ride to Haskell’s office and I was there with about 20 minutes to spare. The advantage of a design/build team is that everything is done in house. I was before the estimating team, the project manager, the architect and the engineer. I made my presentation, then we got to the meat of the meeting. The architect had specified Kawneer windows and Kawneer 1600 curtain walls. Binswanger was not a Kawneer dealer so I had come to the table with Miami Wall Systems windows and Amarlite curtain walls.

But, in an unexpected development, the project manager spoke up and said he did not object to Miami Wall, they had been used on several of their Florida projects. Someone else said, “I understand Amarlite’s curtain wall has a 2” wide mullion and Kawneer is 2.5” wide.” Before I could answer that I had figured on Amarlite’s heavy system, the architect spoke up “I don’t object to a 2” mullion as long as it windloads. A quick call to Jerry Wright at Amarlite got me the windload values and everything worked. I realized they wanted to do the deal as much as I did. They assured me a contract would be going out to me the next day. We shook hands and they had one of their assistants take me back to the airport.

There I was. A twenty-nine year old kid who had landed his first big job. I was walking on air. I don’t remember a single thing about the flight home. The moral of the story is you have to take a risk if you want to score the big one.