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The Weitz Company
November 5, 2019
Kevin McClain is the President and CEO of The Weitz Company, one of the oldest architectural/engineering/construction firms in the United States. Kevin, who graduated from Iowa State with a B.S. in Construction Engineering, held numerous positions within Weitz before becoming CEO in 2017. The company ranks in the Top 100 of ENR's Top 400 Contractors List.
In our conversation today, we talk about running a cross country meet barefoot, the value of a liberal arts education, the best routes to bike in Colorado, and moving from employee to public ownership.
Kevin: So I was born in Chicago and then moved around a fair amount when I was a kid and then landed high school years in Southwest Iowa. And then after college, for reasons I probably still don't understand, but I had a real passion and interest and desire in construction that didn't have family in the business, but had always wanted to get into construction, and actually took a job out of college as a union laborer in Des Moines, Iowa, and then went on to frame houses for awhile. And those two jobs really got me hooked on the business and the industry, and then had an opportunity to go back to school and get an engineering degree. And then ultimately, that's what started me on the path that I'm at today.
Eric: How long were you guys in the Chicago area?
Kevin: Not long. I was a young kid. Didn't spend that much time there.
Matt: What led to the lot of moving around?
Kevin: So my father ultimately became a pediatrician and then a radiologist. But at the time that I was born in Chicago, he was doing a residency at Cook County Hospital, working downtown, and then moved to Detroit. So I got to see some interesting areas of the country and get a real appreciation for diversity at a pretty young age.
Matt: Then landed in Southwest Iowa. What's there?
Kevin: Yeah. Well, you know, it's one of those things that when you grow up in a place as a kid, you think it's the best place in the world because you don't know anything else. And, you know, in hindsight it was a terrific place to grow up. There's not a lot of industries, agriculture primarily. There were some manufacturing about an hour outside of Omaha and Council Bluffs, but a good area of the country to grow up, but not a booming economic center, that's for sure.
Matt: Okay. So you were near the Omaha area.
Kevin: Yeah. About an hour outside us.
Matt: Okay. You spend any time in Omaha and that Council Bluffs area recently?
Kevin: Yeah, so we have an office in Omaha. I spend quite a bit of time over there.
Matt: I think it has my favorite pedestrian footbridge I've ever seen. You know what I'm talking about?
Kevin: Yeah, I do. Yeah. I'm just wondering what you compare it to. I'm trying to think of other cities that have similar bridges.
Matt: I can't compare it to anything, and that's why it sticks out so much as I'm in awe of that thing and...
Kevin: They should market it more. I've never heard anybody in Omaha talk about it, but I've certainly heard people that visit talk about it.
Matt: Yeah, there you go. So growing up outside Omaha, you particularly strong in school?
Kevin: Yeah, I was a good student, but not because I was interested in school. You know, for me, school was always kind of one big memorization project and I was good at memorizing things. But I never really took a passion or interest in learning. I knew that it was something I would need later on. And even through college frankly, that the education piece for me was more of just, I hate to say, check the box, but you get through school and then move on to a career.
Matt: What captured most of your attention?
Kevin: As a kid and even today, most of my attention was being outdoors and athletics and those types of things. So school was certainly a good conduit for that. And frankly that's when I went to college, the first go around, that's how I chose a school was someplace that I thought I could run in. Maybe in hindsight that wasn't the smartest direction to take, but that turned out okay.
Matt: So you were a high school runner.
Kevin: Yeah. So I was fortunate to happen to grow up in an area that for, whatever reason, and looking back on it, I think I figured out the reasons had really a dominant running program. So the small corner of Southwest Iowa about the time that I was getting to high school started to turn out state championship teams and really become more of the most dominant sports teams certainly in all of the state and probably the Midwest. And it was interesting because it wasn't like they were putting something magical in the water to make really good distance runners. It was a particular coach that had a passion for bringing teams together and he was doing things at that time that other sports teams weren't.
Eric: Yeah. What types of things was that coach doing? What was he doing to create teams like that?
Kevin: Yeah, you know, so most running teams, and still, even when I went to college, most running teams were focused on just the running aspect. So you went in and put out lots of miles and this coach believed in, number one, preparation is key. So you know, in addition to running, it was flexibility and strength training and agility. But even mental visualization, which, you know, at the time nobody was doing that, I don't think, for certainly running. But it taught me that, you know, if you wanna be successful in something, it's not just about what that activity is. If you wanna be a good runner, you don't focus on just running lots of miles. You do all the ancillary things, and if you wanna be good in business, you don't just focus on being a good business person. You have to think about being a good person on all the other things that come with that. And that was probably the initial key.
And then really he instilled, I think, two other things that have carried with me. One was any success that we had, there was all team's success and you don't think of running as a team sport, but he did a great job in instilling kind of this shared accountability amongst the team. That has served me tremendously well. I remember I meet...and cross country, you run seven runners in an adversity race and you score five of those. And so in any race, you could have two people that might have off days and we were at a district meet to qualify for a state championship, which is the goal every year, and that their mass starts, everybody starts at the same time.
And you can imagine you put a couple of hundred people starting from a straight line and a dead sprint and bad stuff happens. And somebody stepped on the back of my foot with a half inch spike and gashed down my leg and pulled his shoe off. And you don't know whether you're going to be...whether two other members of your team are gonna need to use those two free spots. So I ended up running, you know, three-mile race, like kicking off the other shoe. And you know, I don't think that's something that is normal for most high school kids, but you do it because you have a sense of responsibility to the team. That has certainly served as well and in the business world as well.
Matt: So you went to one of these high schools with a really good strong distance running kind of culture to it?
Kevin: You know, it wasn't even that, frankly, it was just a group of misfits that weren't big enough to play football or were trying to train for the wrestling season or something. And it had had this kind of camaraderie of coming together to figure out if you have this teamwork, you have the preparation. And then the third piece that was really instilled there was work ethic trumps all else. So we were certainly the most talented group of runners, but in sports, and I think in business as well, if the one thing you can control is your output and your effort, and if you're willing to put in the time and energy to make it happen, you can accomplish what ended up being years of dominant performance.
Matt: So did you see like measurable improvements in your times based on the hard work you're putting in?
Kevin: Yeah. You know, it's interesting, even today, 20 years, more than 20 years, 30 years now, 30 years later, I can see improvements in my individual running performance display based on the amount of effort I continue to put in. It's one of the great gifts in life is, most people think as you get older, things get worse. And if you put in more effort it tends to be the opposite.
Eric: Yeah. So you're still running races now?
Kevin: Yeah, I don't have...unfortunately most, I travel almost every single week. And trying to get a race schedule to line up is difficult. But I still...I run every morning and get into cycling and other things.
Matt: Do you remember numbers? Like how many miles were you running a week in high school?
Kevin: I don't remember distance wise, you know, it wasn't crazy amounts of distances. What I do remember about that was, you know, high school was you ran and you prepared. And then when I got to college it was all about large mileage and I spent half of my college career injured because it was all about running and not a lot about preparation and the other things. And I think that's one of the things that helped me kind of reflect back on that and think, you know, what was successful there that maybe it wasn't successful later on.
Matt: Okay. So you decided to go to college in part because you wanted to run at the next level, you get to college and volume starts going up in your training load and you start getting injured. Do you remember having like a really low moment about being injured?
Kevin: Yeah, it's terrible. Again, as that age of a kid, you're not very forward looking or certainly I wasn't. And so if you go to school to run and then all of a sudden you figure it out, you're spending most of your weekends watching other people run, I think it was about three years in when I had to figure out, I better get a major and make something of the call. It was a great experience. You know, the other thing that probably happened by chance, but in hindsight it's been one of the most valuable parts of my career was it was liberal arts college that I was running at. And so, you know, I studied math for lack of anything better to study, but it may be take all of the communications classes and writing history and those type of things. And then when I went back the second time, I got an engineering degree, in construction engineering, which technically was very good, but if I had to pick one of those two that has been of more value for my career, it's certainly been the liberal arts degree because most of the technical skills you learn at a job, and most of the things that you don't learn at a job, you can get through a bachelor of arts type of degree.
Matt: I went to a liberal arts college as well and I used to think that that line that they tell you when you're in college is BS, right?
Kevin: You know, it was a good selling point to make a very expensive education seem worthwhile. And then as I reflect upon it and, you know, I see people that come into our organization at some point you really do need exposure to, you know, how to train your mind to think and how to communicate well and write well. And if you don't get those through school, it's a longer path.
Matt: I had almost the exact same experience. I thought it was BS when they tell you it in school and then years later you look back and you go, "Oh, my friends, who went and got their accounting degree, they kind of think one way and they really weren't exposed to this whole other set of things that I was exposed to." And I actually look back and I do believe it like fully now, which is so funny.
Kevin: That's kinda my life story in a nutshell. Everything I thought though was BS when I was a kid is turning out to be a pretty accurate.
Matt: I ended up sounding like a very cliché version of what I used to just kind of scoff at.
Kevin: No. And if I would have just listened to everybody that was telling me that I could've saved myself years of aggravation.
Matt: Yeah. So, okay, so you go to liberal arts school, you get a degree, and then you'd circle the wagon and you go back and you get construction engineering. Do you remember kind of what was going through your mind and what was going on in life when you were making those decisions?
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah. So I had a degree ultimately that was in math and I could do two things at that point or what was described to me is really two things. One was become a teacher. I certainly didn't have the patience to be a teacher. And the second was be an actuary. And I couldn't think of anything worse than sitting in an office and crunching numbers all day. So I started to think about, you know, the things that I enjoyed growing up. And again, I don't know why or where that fascination may have come from, but construction was always of interest to me. And so after I got out of Simpson College, I went and that's when I joined the laborers union and started framing houses. And I got a very generous offer from kind of a mentor at the time and said, you know, go back to Iowa State, get your construction engineering degree, and allowed me to work at his general contracting business.
And ultimately that's what then jumpstarted my career because I got to see what large building contractors do. And that was really intriguing to me. So I went to Iowa State and then after I got out of Iowa State, the other thing that was a passion of my life was the mountains growing up in Southwest Iowa. We'd taken several trips to Colorado and there was no place on earth that was more appealing to me than getting to the mountains. So I moved to Colorado and worked for a large general contractor in Colorado.
Eric: What was your first job at that general contractor?
Kevin: So I started, you know, they had a kind of special projects group and just started as a project engineer. It's great company, still is a great company. You may or may not have interviewed their CEO here recently. So, you know, it was interesting for me, it was a time at that company that was going through a transition from a generation and I was new there and the people were there and I learned a very important lesson about every company I believe has a culture. I don't think any are necessarily good or bad, they're just different. And I quickly kind of sorted out whether that culture fit with my culture for, you know, what I thought it would be. And it was at a time when jobs were pretty hard to come by in our business. And I remember my father being adamant with me about, you know, you should be a person, have to have a job and be a person. Don't quit there. Don't ever leave there. And my mother saying, you know, you should find a place that you actually fit.
And ultimately, I knew of Weitz from my time that was in Des Moines, had a great reputation, and ultimately I made some phone calls. I think I actually called the Denver office of Weitz at the time and asked to speak with the president and I couldn't believe that they put me through. And I said, you know, here's what I, you know, here's what I can do. And he called me in for an interview and hired me the next day. 20 years later, I'm still here.
Matt: So you're a young man. Moved to Colorado. What drew you to Colorado? What do you love about Colorado?
Kevin: For me, there's something magical about being in the mountains, but it was also, you know, all of the pursuits you could do, so skiing and running and cycling. You know, if I had my ideal way, I think I wanted to move to the mountains to be a ski bum. In fact, the first couple of jobs I did for Weitz were mountain resort properties. I couldn't think of anything better than getting an opportunity to live in the mountains. I mean, our job trailer was at the base of Copper Mountain and then Keystone and...
Matt: Oh, that's awesome. Sounds like you could be a ski bum with a good job.
Kevin: Yeah. You know, I'm finding that's tougher than...
Matt: You kind of have to fully commit to being in ski bum.
Kevin: Yeah. It's tough to have the responsibility of a large organization and ski every day, but it's a great place to live.
Eric: What is your favorite hill out there to ski?
Kevin: We built a ton of stuff at Keystone, so I'm still partial to that and I might have kept the card key or two for a couple of the buildings we built so to be able to park at the base of the hill and the basement is a pretty good perk.
Matt: The parking there can be miserable.
Kevin: It's terrible.
Matt: Yeah. I mean it goes for every ski resort kind of, but you have to lug all your stuff all the way through the parking lot.
Kevin: It's gotten very popular, but for good reason.
Matt: Okay. So young man moved out to Colorado. You get your feet wet, but then you say, "Hey, like the culture is not for me. I'm gonna move on to a different firm." And then can you walk us through that job at Weitz and kind of what was different and what you loved about it?
Kevin: Yeah. So I've often told people here that my first job with the company was probably my most important and it seems like I'm going in reverse order. You know, most people spend their careers and work into the most important role they're ever have. I probably started with the most important role. So it was a project engineer for a building in Copper Mountain, but really a couple of great things came out of that. One, I had a field superintendent that I showed up the first day and kind of asked him what his story was and he came into my office at lunch and said, ''All right, I'm gonna make you a deal.'' He said, ''If you do that paperwork stuff,'' although his language was more colorful than stuff, ''If you do that paperwork stuff in the morning before work, you spend all day with me in the field, I'll teach you how to build in an exchange for that.'' We were living in a company supplied housing at the time because the housing expense in the mountains was...still is pretty extravagant. His deal was he would finish his day, he'd go home, make dinner, and have dinner ready for the people that lived in that housing unit, myself included. And then I had to get up and make sure I was on the job at, you know, he showed up at 6:30. So whatever time I got there, 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning and I would do all my paperwork stuff, as he called it. And I really got an appreciation for what makes our business tick.
But beyond that, he was and continues to this day to be one of the best relationship builders I've ever worked with. So he taught me that in every interaction you have, regardless of whom you're interacting with, you've got a choice to make somebody's day a little bit better or a little bit worse, and if you choose to really focus on a little bit better, people do amazing things. And that lesson was tremendously important in building projects. But it has also been one of the biggest lessons in running a business as well.
Eric: So how long did you end up working under underneath this guy?
Kevin: I would claim I probably still work for him. Today, he still runs projects for us, but I did I think a half a dozen projects together. We moved on from that one to one in Keystone. And then we actually, as a company, we bought a small custom home builder thinking that would be an entry into the western slope of Colorado. Turned out to be a fairly poor strategy decision. But we took over some partially completed projects, and he was the superintendent on that. I was a project manager at the time and he called me one afternoon and said, ''You know, you've got to come down.'' And it was a condo complex that had, I think, six buildings and four of the six were complete. And he said, ''There's a whole pile of Simpson hangers so that you know the wind load and tie down hardware out behind the building.''
And I said that, ''You know, that's great, David.'' That's the part where...that's the building. Go put it in the building and quit calling me type thing. And he said, ''No, you know there's a...I've looked at it and there's six buildings worth of hardware.'' And I said, ''Good, sounds like you have extra hardware. Go put it in the...'' And he was getting at, and he thought there were four completed buildings that didn't have any tie down hardware in them. So we went into occupied, finished, completed units, cut holes, and sure enough there was not a single bit of hardware in there. We had this decision to face and it was pretty quick. And that's, you know, I talk about the culture of the company. It was an easy decision that we were gonna do the right thing. So we called the county and we called the structural engineer and said, "Here's the problem we've got."
And it turns out that there were issues on the county inspector side. There were issues with the superintendent of this company that we had purchased and then with the structural engineer. But when that came to light, what it did was cement our relationship with, you know, that structural engineer. We've done 20 years worth of business with them because we did the right thing and did the fix, and the county thought the same way. And it was a great lesson for me, you know, in terms of, no matter how big the issue is, if you take the right path, it's always better in the long-term. So those type of lessons started with that superintendent, but really cascaded throughout the organization and then continues to be our culture to this day.
Eric: Was he a good cook?
Kevin: You know, that's the other thing. He still remains a good cook. It's interesting as we're not as young as we once were. Your diet tends to change over time too. So the stuff he cooked that time, we probably have a hard time getting up morning and run in 15 miles based on some of those meals. But he was a very good cook.
Matt: Yeah, that's great. So are you training while you're on a job site like that in Copper?
Kevin: Yeah, I mean, you know, for me the athletics and the exercise or more about, certainly, it feeds a competitive drive, but I have found it to be the single most probably mental clearing thing that I do. And it's whether you do yoga or you do long distance running or cycling or something, I am a firm believer that it helps you really focus and prioritize all aspects, whether it's your personal life or your business life. So for me, the training is almost helping me to be successful in other areas as why I do the athletic pursuits.
Eric: What's your routine like right now? When do you do most of your training?
Kevin: So it's almost all mornings. You know, if I'm home, I'll still get up and run up Keystone Mountain. That's one of my favorites to do. I'm in Des Moines this week, and Des Moines is not known for its mountains. So it was the Marriott treadmill this morning, but...
Eric: Oh, ouch.
Kevin: I Yeah, I tend to be up early and crank out a couple of hours worth of exercise and then it kind of sets the tone for me for the rest of the day.
Eric: So then what do you do during the winter in Colorado for training? Are you one of those guys with the fat tire bikes out on the slopes?
Kevin: I'm ashamed to admit that I have more bikes in my garage than there are days of the week.
Eric: Ah, there we go.
Kevin: At least two of them are fat tire bikes. It's an absurd passion. But yeah, I'll ski, I'll cycle all the way through the winter.
Matt: The fat tire bike thing, this is like a new thing and you're full in on it.
Kevin: You know, it's a great concept. The downside is you're still freezing your tail end off riding a bike. I don't know how to get past that, but, you know, anything that gets you out on a bike is a good thing.
Matt: You got those big gloves?
Kevin: You have to, yeah. It's amazing what they do just to cut down the wind.
Eric: Yeah. Do you do any indoor cycling?
Kevin: I do. I'm not big into, you know, Swift and the other things that have... It's kind of like running on a treadmill for me. If that's the only option, I'll do it. But if I can get outside, I'd rather do that all day long. But, you know, it's tough to be on an airplane every week and carry a bike around with you.
Matt: Right. I looked up, there's this company that's making a product about like trying to avoid the bike baggage fee. They said they make like this bike bag that you break it down and it fits under like whatever dimensions the airline will charge you for. It sounded like a good idea.
Kevin: Yeah, to me it seems like somebody's gonna figure out the VRBO of bikes of the world or something. I'm certain that there's somebody in my town in Colorado right now that could get access to 1 of 13 bikes in my garage and there's somebody in Des Moines that I could borrow a bike from. So if you guys can figure out a bike sharing program, it might be a...
Matt: There was an app, but it failed I think. They took it down. I remember looking at it. It's like a Spin Lister, I think was the name. But I don't know. It's a good idea.
Kevin: Somebody smart will figure it out for sure.
Matt: Yeah, somebody will find that out. All right, so you got into cycling and what's your favorite like route to cycle in Colorado?
Kevin: You know, I'll do road and mountain as well. There's a ride I do every year that goes from Fort Collins to Steamboat, kind of a self-supported start when you start, you finish when you finish. And it's just a beautiful ride through some of the most pristine mountains you've ever seen. So that's probably at the top of my list.
Matt: Is that mountain bike?
Kevin: It's gravel and mountain bike. So it's gravel and some single track. You'll see somebody when you leave Fort Collins and you don't see another person till you show up in a Steamboat. Are you guys riders? You must be.
Matt: Yeah. We're getting into it. So I was a distance runner and I'm finding that cycling is easier on my body these days, so I'm getting a little bit more into that side of things.
Kevin: If you make it to Colorado, let me know. I've got ample bikes and places to ride.
Matt: Yeah, that sounds like a plan. We have these cool gravel races in like Western Illinois and then obviously you know about like stuff in Nebraska and everything. But the very tip of Western Illinois, you know, you think of Illinois as being like a flat state, but we have the Driftless area, that is like Southwest Wisconsin and Northwest Illinois, and there's a couple races out there. And I did my first one last year and it was really, really fun.
Kevin: It's addicting, isn't it?
Matt: Yeah, it really is. Now all I wanted to do is sit on a bike and train and get better at it.
Kevin: I think gravel is the single best thing for the bike industry right now. Just it takes away most of the traffic issues and it's been such a boom for the industry.
Matt: It feels a bit safer. Even though it's like a little bit counterintuitive, you're going up and down these big hills on loose roads, but you know, you're not just packed together like sardines next to people. You're kind of like out there, just you and your fitness, which is kind of what I like. I have to run this stuff all by my wife, though. You know, we're younger [crosstalk 00:25:17], little kids, all that stuff.
Kevin: That's good.
Eric: Eric here. We hope you're enjoying our podcast. If you like this episode, be sure to subscribe, share it with someone you know or leave us a review. If you know a CEO that would like to be on our show, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt: All right, so now after your first job at Weitz, tell us a little bit about maybe what led to your continued progression through the company and what you think were defining factors that led to that progress.
Kevin: Something that I probably didn't recognize at the time, but it was really a pivotal kind of turning point for me is I had been at Weitz not long. Gotten a couple of jobs under my belt and my father passed away at a very young age, so that was right about the same time. I didn't know the story at the time. I came to learn it subsequent to his passing. But, you know, he grew up in a really hard working, blue collar, rural part of Pennsylvania. His father was a bridge painter, had three kids, and at some point when he was growing up, they kind of set the three kids down and said, "We're gonna break this cycle of nobody in the family had been to college, and we wanna be more successful." And ultimately, they made a decision to kind of put their time and resources behind.
One of the kids happened to be my dad. And so that drove him to ultimately put himself through school and then became a physician. And I learned at his funeral actually that he had been supporting his brother and sister as well. And I suspect that, you know, that stress of having that, the stress of imagine being, for lack of a better term, the chosen kid to try to go make something of yourself probably led to a stressful life that ultimately ended too soon. But when I went through that, it really kind of cemented a couple of things for me. One, you know, you never, or at least I never thought about or really wanted to rely on having your parents as a fallback plan, but when that option is gone, you really do realize that you're solely responsible for your success or failure or whatever path your life takes. And it's not something I thought about much to that point, but it certainly in hindsight, there was a switch that flipped with me that said, "I've now have to go make something of my life and be successful at what I do."
I still had a younger sister in high school. I wanted her to have the same opportunities that I had had. So that really started to drive me forward, and back to the work ethic that I had learned earlier, that the one thing you can control is how much effort you put into something, you don't necessarily control your opportunities in life. You don't control maybe your education or your smarts and that type of thing, but you can certainly control how much you work.
And the other thing I think that really did for me, and again I didn't think about it at the time, but looking back, it certainly was the case that it made mortality, for lack of a better term, very real to me. And it put things in a timeline and I said, you know, everything that I ultimately fail at means if I want to do accomplish it, then I need to try it again. So it really made me ultra competitive and it's something that I've tried to tame and tamp down over the years. But that competitive drive ultimately led to me wanting to be the best that I could be in every single role in the company. And I absolutely despise losing, whether that was, you know, delivering an unsuccessful project or dissatisfying a customer or any of those types of things.
So the competitiveness that I took out of that, but also kind of the viewpoint on work ethic ultimately set me on a path to be in the role I'm in today. And I know it's one of the interesting things from the other podcast I found it fascinating about how many have kind of the peer group that you guys have talked to said, you know, "I had this drive and desire. I wanted to be a business person or I wanted to be a CEO." I never once, even to the day that I was named the CEO, it was never a goal of mine to be the CEO of the company. The goal was to do as good as I could possibly do at whatever role I had within the company and ultimately that led to where I'm at today.
Matt: Do you remember a specific instance where you realized, "Hey, I can just work harder here and I'm gonna kind of surpass them on my colleague"?
Kevin: Yeah, it's an interesting look at it. You know, despite the fact that I had this crazy competitive drive, I never felt like I was competing against others, and to this day don't feel like that. You know, I think there are certainly some organizations, there's some people that wanna compete with, you know, another project manager to get the next promotion. And back to that kind of shared accountability lesson from the cross country team, my focus was always I feel deeply accountable to the company and to the team, and if I do my job well, those opportunities will come. And that has...you know, if there's one other thing that really runs through the culture of our company is that shared team sense where, you know, people stay for 30, 40, 50-year careers because they don't wanna let their team down. Certainly if you've worked for 40 years, you don't have a lot left to prove and don't have a lot of reasons to get out of bed every day. And we have an enormous number of people that have that longer career because of that culture.
Eric: When you look in see that, that competitiveness was kind of a source of success for you, do you look to hire people with similar attributes into your company?
Kevin: Yeah. You know, it's good and bad. I would be the guy that we're traveling on a business trip and I'm competing to get down to get the Cheerio's first in the morning. Some of that, it can make me a fairly miserable person to be around, right? You don't wanna be around the person that's competitive. But we do look for people with that drive to really wanna make not necessarily, you know, themselves the most successful that they can, but people that want to make a team successful. Because I think if you really peel back all of the things you accomplished in your life, there really aren't individual success as us. A group of people always have a role and what people would deem to be individual success. And I've had more fun working with a team than I could've ever imagined. So we look for that probably more than the competitive drive as just people that wanna be a part of a great team.
Matt: So you went from being a project manager and then you moved into the corporate environment and became a safety director?
Kevin: Yeah. Looking back, I had a fortunate opportunity to...I think I've held most of, certainly not every role within the company, but a role within most all of the functional departments. And that helped me, one, understand the business, but, two, told me what I was good at and what I was bad at. As you saw with the setup, I spent a brief period of time in IT and that was never going to be a fit. That was good for me to understand the systems and the processes that we use. And, you know, safety was something I knew next to nothing about. But I had somebody who had asked me, I was running a project in Taos, New Mexico I think at the time and the safety director for the company said, "Hey, we have this opening and we see, you know, how you run this project and we think you'd be a good fit for that." And I thought it's a great challenge for me to learn something about the business that I didn't have knowledge and appreciation for. Ultimately, not only did it teach me about a critical component of the business, but it helped me to interface with all of the leaders of the businesses and all that that role entails in terms of trying to drive performance.
Eric: And then what was your next role after safety director?
Kevin: I think from there I went into a kind of an operations type role. I was in that for a period of time. And then another real turning point for me, we bought a federal business probably five years prior to that. And the agreement was they would kind of operate independently, but it would be still part of the business. And it turned out, I think when we bought it, it was a $40-million a year business and it grew to $400 million, and it moved from Novato, California to Hawaii. It turned out to be fairly poorly run. And so at the time I was on the senior leadership team of the company, and literally I got tired one day of sitting in a conference room in Des Moines looking at results that just didn't make sense to me. And so I said, "I'm gonna get on a plane and go down there and come back in a week and figure out where we go from here."
It wasn't my functional responsibility. I loved the culture of the company that somebody can just get frustrated and meet and get on a plane and go there. Ultimately, I didn't stay for a week. I stayed for almost three and a half years, which was not a diversion I hadn't planned upon, but it turned into a complete turnaround operation, and it really...I don't think I would have the role that I have today absent that experience. I mean, it crammed probably 20 years worth of learning into 3 years. We were bleeding cash through that business at the time and had to change a lot of things, but it was a great learning experience and I'm fortunate to have had the opportunity.
Eric: What about that role in that experience that really got you going that you really love doing?
Kevin: It was a great lesson for me in terms of, you know, I was always very into the preparation and the details, but when you have that massive of a problem, you can't focus on all of the issues. So I brought an operations guy and a finance guy with me and we would meet every week, every morning, frankly, for the first couple of years that we were there. And I could focus on about three or four things per day and we needed to get that accomplished and then move on to the next. And it's a tactic that I still use to this day. You know, on my morning runs, I'll come up with two or three priorities, you know, a personal thing I probably need to accomplish during the day, a couple of work things. And it has helped me to really streamline, you know, focusing on what's truly important and how you actually drive achievement, whether that's personally or professionally. I don't think I would have gotten that absent the pressure of kind of the losses and the urgency that we were under there.
Matt: What types of things were wrong there?
Kevin: You know, it's the classic, once 10 things go wrong, then 1,000 things go wrong. But one of the first priorities was the cashflow was terrible. You know, and in this business we have a tendency to cashflow jobs. And it was simple, simple things like we weren't billing our customers, therefore we weren't getting paid, yet we were still paying all of our subcontractors and suppliers. And so the cashflow was upside down. You know, I still believe to this day, nobody shows up to work wanting to do a bad job. It just, sometimes people don't have the full perspective. And I credit the finance guy that I brought with it. You know, I made him generate a list and bring it to me every Monday morning and he'd have 13 ideas of how to improve the business, 10 of them were pure genius, the other 3 would have taken us out of business.
It was my job to figure out which were the three that were not so good, but he said, ''We gotta improve cashflow and here's how we're gonna do it.'' I said, "Okay, wWhat are we gonna do?'' ''You know, we're gonna educate the project teams and the staff. And then you know, we're gonna have achiever award and a negative ward and something like that. And for every, you know, the milestones that we achieve, you as the leader of this group is going to do something crazy in the staff meetings.'' And I thought, "Yeah, that sounds good." I was like...You'd start to build some momentum. And so then it was we want you to eat taro or the native Hawaiian food and we want you to do pushups until we do all of this. And people had fun with it. I think we stopped it when their idea was get the tribal tattoo that kinda...that went too far. But the rest of it was good. And so it was, you know, from cashflow down to targeting pursuits and having bid strategies, all of just the basic. It's a good story and you can grow the top line of a business very quickly. But if you lose track of the fundamentals of the business, you can have a big problem on your hands in a hurry.
Matt: ADuring your tenure, the Weitz Company kind of changed their organizational structure from ownership perspective. Can you talk a little bit about those changes and how those kind of flow down. and affect culture, affect the people that working for the company?
Kevin: Sure. Weitz is the, we think, oldest, continually operated GC West of the Mississippi. Everybody always asks East of it. Maybe that you guys can research that because I haven't been able to figure it out yet, but is that family-owned for five generations. And then as employees we bought the business and that's about the time that, you know, I was getting started with the company, so I had the opportunity to participate in that. And then, yeah, you fast forward that program and there was a company that wanted to build a substantial fertilizer plant in Southeast Iowa. They talked to two firms, one of which was us. And ultimately that led to an acquisition. And today we have a structure that is, you know, we flow up to a pair of companies. So we're publicly traded today. Whereas at the start of my career we were family-owned and then employee-owned.
You know, I think the most important thing that runs through all of that is regardless of what your ownership structure is, people at every role and level in the organization have to have a sense of ownership for the results that they produce. And I think we've been able to achieve that because, you know, we still operate the company today largely the same as we did 20 years ago. And that is, you know, people put in local effort and are rewarded locally in part of a team. But there's differences on the publicly traded side today that I hadn't contemplated or anticipated. And that's, you've got shareholders, and shareholders expect improving performance quarter over quarter. And at first you think that's maybe an annoyance or, you know, how do you meet these expectations? And when you sit back and think about it, even if you own your own business, why wouldn't you want improvements quarter after quarter? So all of those changes largely have been good for us and has fueled where we're at today.
Matt: Are there any people who maybe have a longing for going back to the family-owned business? People look back on that fondly or do you think people share your view that these are good progressions and understandable, though?
Kevin: Yeah. You know, I have found that people always view the past with probably, you know, more fondness than maybe what reality had been at the time. So I think it's human nature to say, you know, if we had been publicly traded before and family-owned now, we would have a fair chunk of our employee base that said, "Yeah, I wanna go back to being publicly traded." And so I think it's less about the ownership structure and more about you have great projects and great moments in your career and you associate it with whatever the ownership structure was at the time. But I believe we've done a really good job of people that work here and stay here and come to work for us appreciate that culture trumps all else. And, you know, the ownership structure has some nuances that we deal with it at the executive level, but I don't think it has a great impact on most people's day-to-day life.
Matt: We got a couple kind of funner, quick questions, and I've got a whole bunch of running and cycling related ones. Did you ever read "Running with the Buffaloes"?
Kevin: I did. I don't know that I did a lot after I read it, frankly. But I read it a number of years ago.
Matt: That would have been right, I mean, in your timeframe, right? Like, you were kind of in college right around then and loved Colorado. You ever run Magnolia Road?
Kevin: I never have. Nope.
Matt: How about have you ever...are you gonna ever do Leadville?
Kevin: Yeah, so an interesting story about Leadville. So I have done a number of cycling races around Leadville. So the Leadville 100 trail race, which I think you're talking about in the running race, it's a lottery system to get in and I've never made it in, I never had that great of a desire to do it. But I was working out at my local rec center here a month or two ago, whenever it was. A buddy of mine who was big into the ultra marathon scene said they give a certain amount of exemptions for kind of personal interest stories. And there was a lady out of San Francisco who got in and she had won pace, or you're allowed a pacer after the 50-mile mark, and she had one pacer who was a friend of hers who wasn't a runner. Well, that's not gonna turn out well. So this guy was trying to recruit people to pace and apparently I was the only sucker that he got in touch with, so I was able to pace the last 50 miles for somebody that I didn't know at 3:00 in the morning. It was a great experience. I would go back and maybe run up myself someday.
Eric: Yeah. That's awesome. The ultra is a lot bigger deal out in Colorado, right? I mean, we have some stuff out here, but the ultra marathon, it's not as big of a deal here.
Kevin: Yeah. There are very few people that wanna run 100 miles around Illinois. There are very few people that want to run 100 miles in the Western States. But if you're going to run 100 miles, you want some elevation change and some distance. There may be some ultras in the Midwest, I'm just not aware of them.
Eric:Yeah. How many hours a night do you sleep?
Kevin: I wish it was more, it usually tends to be about six.
Eric: All right. What's your favorite restaurant out there in Colorado?
Kevin: I spend every week traveling, so my favorite meal is always anything I can eat at home. But you wouldn't be asking me so that people walk to my house, I'm hoping. I'll give you a recent one. I've been spending a fair amount of time here recently in Aspen and came across a place called Mawas, M-A-W-A, Litchen outside of the Aspen Airport. If you're in that area, you can't miss with that one. There's a, okay, great local recommendation.
Matt: What's your favorite city to travel to?
Kevin: Oh, that's a good question. Denver's my favorite city. Although being around that area, probably the Pacific Northwest. I'm a Seattle fan. We have a presence up there as well. It's a beautiful area of the country.
Eric: How about your favorite website? Do you have a website that you check every day?
Kevin: Yeah, probably four. So I read the "Wall Street Journal," but I usually check the local summit. "Daily News" is my paper, the town I live in there, and then a regional one, and one national paper. But that's a habit.
Eric: Yeah. You don't check any hobby websites first thing in the morning ? You don't go to like lettsrun.com, anything like that?
Kevin: No, we've got our management team in town this week and they're giving me a hard time for Instagram. Yes. I just signed up for Instagram. I spent a week on that and say, "I'm out." You know, I could see how you just...you waste..." I don't know if it's a waste of time, but you could pour endless amounts of time, and I'd get up at 5:00 or 5:30, run for an hour or two, and by that time it's not a lot of free time to be checking websites.
Eric: Yeah. How about your favorite book? What's the favorite book you've ever read?
Kevin: Oh, I don't know about favorite ever. I can think of some recent ones. Usually, I try to read some business-related stuff and some personal stuff on the business side. Alan Mulally's "American Icon" about the Ford turnaround, I thought, was pretty good. Phil Knight's "Shoe Dog" I thought was pretty good. On the personal side, Yvon Chouinard, he's the founder of Patagonia, has got a book called ''Let my People go Surfing.'' It was an interesting look at both business and personal life. And one you guys would probably appreciate Jim Wickwire is a mountaineer and he wrote a book called "Addicted to Danger." It's about his climbing life. It's pretty fascinating.
Matt: Wow, cool. Are you familiar at all with the Patagonia business, some of his business ideas?
Kevin: I am and I've thought about taking out a full page ad in the "Wall Street Journal" saying, "Don't hire us to build your building," but I'm not sure it would have the same impact that it did for Patagonia, but it's an interesting study. You know, he and they as a company have been very successful with a pretty counterintuitive business model.
Matt: Yeah, yeah. I find that fascinating. You wonder if it only works for like one company, you know. How repeatable is that?
Kevin: It's actually a great...it's a great challenge. Certainly as an industry, for my opinion, one of the greatest challenges we've got is a lack of diversity. I think as an industry we're fairly slow to change. You had asked earlier about, you know, the industry groups. If you go to that certain meeting, it's a room full of 100 middle to late age white guys, for lack of a better term. And you know, I think even if you get on conversations around the corner and you scroll through the pictures there, it's not overly diverse and it's a problem because that's not reflective of...it's certainly not reflective of our customer base and I know it's not reflective of the talent pool in the folks that we hire. I think it's a function of kind of how people got to leadership positions. So I understand why it is what it is, but if we don't do something pretty proactive and aggressively to change it, we've got a problem as an industry. So, you know, thinking of ideas like how Patagonia is structured, their business, I don't think those are completely at a left field. And as an industry we should challenge ourselves to think more creatively about it.
Matt: Maybe move the needle closer to that.
Kevin: Yeah. And, you know, we're certainly...we're trying...we've had great success. I think here recently, we've got our general manager for the Phoenix office as the first female general manager we've had in, you know, 160-plus years, which is a big plus for us and a step forward. We've got a lady who runs our strategy and execution for the company. And those are tough decisions. They were the right choices for us to make as they were the right people for the job. But somehow as an industry we've got to get ourselves focused on that because it will help drive the talent pool and frankly help bring some new and fresh ideas to the business.
Eric: It seems like talent coming into the construction industry is kind of a topic everybody talks about. There's just kind of a lack of labor, a lack of interest in the construction industry. Do you guys see any of that in your business?
Kevin: Yeah. We do. People have been talking about it for the 20 years I've been doing this, which is interesting. I think, you know, probably another place that we don't, as an industry, push as hard as we should is, number one, it's a great business. It can provide a very great life and lifestyle. And I think for whatever reason, there's still a stigma associated with whether you wanna be a craft worker in the trades or even in construction, sitting on an airplane three or four times a week. And then people ask me what I do, I say construction. And you can almost at times read the disdain of, "Ah," you know, because people haven't had a good experience building their house or doing something. And it really...it's a fascinating business. I absolutely love it. And I have yet to meet anybody within our company or outside of that's been in the business any period of time that isn't extremely passionate about it. So we've got a bit of image issue to work through there to attract talent as well.
Eric: Yeah. It just seems like there aren't many colleges that are pushing people into the construction industry.
Kevin: A hundred percent, yeah. Maybe I should go back and visit some college counselors' speakers. It certainly has provided a terrific life for me. And I think for most people in the industry, they would agree it's a great business.
Matt: Maybe a liberal arts college tour.
Kevin: You know, I've been jotting notes as we were talking, all these things that we've talked about. I've got some followup to do. But it actually is, you know, we were on a push for a while and I think we'll revisit that. You don't have to have a degree in engineering to work in this business. Most of the stuff you can learn and we'd be well served to hire some more liberal arts folks.
Eric: I think that the majority of people we have here come from a liberal arts background and it's just getting that really diverse viewpoint from people is valuable.
Kevin: Yeah, it's fun. You know, I think we've had an economics major that was a CEO prior to this. We had somebody that was in history and it brings a unique background. And frankly what you study for four or five or six years in the school does not necessarily have to set you on the path for the rest of your life.
Matt: Our head of marketing was a philosophy major.
Kevin: That would be interesting discussions for sure.
Matt: Well, and he was also doing IT at the beginning of this podcast production. Maybe he could have more of a technical education.
Kevin: He was very helpful. He was very helpful.
Matt: He's sitting right here. I had to bust him.
Kevin: That's great. I love it.
Eric: All right. What else? Anything you think we missed? Any questions? Anything you really wanna...yeah, were there any topics you wanted to hit on and talk about?
Kevin: No, thanks. I am just a little bit off top. I'm curious what has motivated you guys to a really cool service that you're putting out? What was the impetus behind starting the podcast?
Eric: Well, I think a big one is Matt and I both went to a liberal arts college. And our college, everybody out of it goes finance and that type of thing. And we're not in that industry. And when we started looking at resources for the construction industry for people our age and listening to podcasts, there just really wasn't anything out there. I don't know, you get kind of sick of listening to finance podcasts. You know, it's like everybody thinks there's something special about that. And when you're in the construction industry and kind of what you described, people don't really realize how great of an industry it is. And it's shown by some of the lack of resources out there.
Kevin: I was ecstatic because I'm a big podcast listener just because if you got to pass a couple hours on a run, you gotta do something.
Matt: Yeah. So what's your playlist? What's your podcast roll?
Kevin: You guys would both like the ''Move'' podcast. Have you heard of that?
Kevin: It's Lance Armstrong does...so they covered the Tour de France. They just did the Vuelta. It's terrific coverage. It will make you a cycling fanatic if you haven't tapped into that. Love...you know what Lance Armstrong did for cycling or riding. He's done a great, great job on that podcast.
Matt: Yeah, I actually have listened a couple episodes and I listened to when he was kind of first starting it up and he kinda did his like...you know, they all like do their cross promotion, they go in the other podcast and do it. I find him to be very thoughtful person and I really do. I don't know, his podcast has kind of rechanged my opinion of them.
Kevin: Yeah, I think, yeah. Frankly I was hoping I'd run into him and ask him to tell him he's got a chance to kind of redeem his character. I think, so he does...the move is completely cycling focused and then the forward is where he interviews great people. You guys would love that because he's got some of the most interesting people on that and he does some good...whether he's doing or he's got somebody that does background research. It's been enjoyable. I liked that one. It's been very well done. Let's see. "King of the Ride" host Ted King was a professional cyclist. I got a chance to ride with him out in California and a couple rides. So he and I become a little bit of friends. So I listen to that.
Matt: I follow him on Instagram. He's a good follow because he has all these great pictures from all the gravel stuff.
Kevin: Well, I quit Instagram last week. "How I Built This" is an NPR one on entrepreneurial stuff, that one's a pretty good. The "Dirtbag Diaries" if you wanted to be a ski bum on his kid, I like that one. When Phillip told me about this opportunity, I went, you know, to the iTunes store and I thought you gotta be kidding me. There's actually a construction executive focus podcast. And I binge listened to all your guys' podcast, and it was interesting.
Matt: And this is, I got to give John credit here, the philosophy major. He says, people remember stories. Two things are interesting, is like stories and insights, and stories actually stick with people. And that's, I think, this is one of the great things about podcasts is they give people like a long enough time to actually tell good stories. You learn from them is these like very insightful things purely by them trying to tell a story. That's why we kind of went, you know, the biographical route in the construction industry because there's all these great stories out there. There's all these like really cool, you know, physical locations. You guys are in building physical things with great stories and then trying to just glean insights from those stories. And not to mention some of the stories from the construction site tend to be more of the colorful, fun stories to listen to.
Kevin: It is a very colorful industry. Yeah.