Complex Jobs with Tight Schedules—That’s What They Want

Thomas G. Dolan

April 2008

For a man to achieve ownership of his own company, especially in this industry, it usually means the man is driven by ambition. Not Dan Hanson, president of Sundermeyer, Ltd. in Bridgeton, a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. In fact, the opportunity to have his own company was more or less thrust upon him. He characterizes that experience as filled with "trauma and stress.”

In fact, Hanson goes through a similar pattern of acute anxiety whenever he comes up against a new challenge.

"I like a settled life, but then when something new hits me, I have to go through several steps,” he explains. "Between my junior and senior years I took a bike trip from Santa Rosa, Calif., to Pt. Angeles, Wash., and I was scared to death. I felt the same way when I built my own house at age 28, and when I had my first son.”

He then adds the critical result: "Once I accomplish what I know I have to do, I gain the confidence to know I can do it again.”

Changes Bring Stability
In 1982, when Hanson was 24, just two days after he grad¬uated from the University of Florida with a degree in building construction, he married his wife, Lisa, and moved to her home town of St. Louis.

"It was a dead market there at the time,” he recalls. "I was thinking about going in with a general con¬tractor, but I was hired as an estimator by the Sundermeyer company.”

This company was started by Richard Sundermeyer in 1960. His son, also named Richard, was also working there and was the one who hired Hanson.

"This had been a residential drywall and painting company; they were just getting into commercial drywall when I arrived,” Hanson says. "I didn’t want to do residential. I wanted to move to commercial, and I was allowed to do that.”

Hanson was the natural person to take over Sundermeyer, Ltd. when, in 1996, he purchased the company after the death of the older Sundermeyer. At the time of the purchase, Richard Sundermeyer’s wife had owner¬ship of the company, and their son had left the business to return to the ministry. It seemed like a logical progression; however, Hanson says it took almost nine months of anxiety-fraught negotiations before an agreement was reached.

"My wife helped me a lot, identifying problems and the parameters of the agreement,” he says. "Then, one day I was at a safety meeting in the field with the men. I looked at them and knew they would be there for me, so I knew I should be there for them. I made a commitment to them and made the decision to close the deal.’’

That decision made the negotiations quickly concluded, and Hanson got the business for a fair price.

Now What?
When the purchase was complete, Hanson then moved on to the next set of questions, which started with "What do I do now?” At that time, the company was in the debt from building a new facility. The company had moved from a 700 square-foot office with offsite storage to a 7,800 square-foot warehouse and offices on two acres.

But it all worked out, and Hanson states the obvious when he says his decision to buy the company "paid off.”

Since Hanson took over in the mid-1990s, the office staff increased from two to eight, and field employees from an average of 25 to about 80, though that number has gone up to as high as 140. Annual volume has increased from $2 million to now close to $15 million.

Residential work still remained strong in the company after Hanson first joined it in 1982, but it gradually faded until there was not that much left. In 1996, he finally closed the door on that market for good.

"We used to do [exterior insulation and finish systems], but that slowed down in this area after the problems in the Carolinas. Plasterers are very strong in this area, so we turn to them when we get small EIFS jobs.” Hanson’s company focuses primarily on metal studs, carpentry and drywall, plus taping and finishing the latter.

"Residential drywall is definitely a commodity, which is why we got out of it,” Hanson says. "Commercial drywall can be a commodity too, if they’re just concrete boxes. But we go after more complex jobs, with tight schedules—jobs that need the solutions we can offer.”

Welcome to the Club
The jobs Hanson seeks out usually have incomplete plans. "We come up with the solutions to get the plans finished, and are good with other trades to get things done on schedule,” he says. "We don’t just sit back and wait for the general contractor to come up with all the answers.”

This situation is becoming more commonplace than it once was, according to Hanson. "Plans are not complete; owners are spending less time on that part. They are driving the schedules so they don’t have the time to do the upfront work,” he explains. "And the plans that come out of the computer don’t have enough details to meet the job. Many contractors look at these pressures as a burden, but we see them as an opportunity.”

As an example, Hanson points to an out-of-town job in Branson, Mo., a 2,000-seat theater, built for a main act like Glen Campbell.

"We were given the job in January, and they wanted it built by June,” Hanson says. "What we were given was a single piece of paper. We had to come up with a plan to get it built. And they didn’t have a big budget to complete this project.”

Hanson and his team sat down with the general contractor in late January and began working out the details.

"The idea of a subcontractor like us analyzing the plans and providing the full details was not well known at the time,” Hanson says. He contracted with an adjacent business to rent some of its parking lot space where he put up two big circus tents to store 200 10-by-40 and 10-by-60 feet EIFS panels. Two shifts of 30 to 40 people worked to complete the project. Hanson’s contract was $1 million for his company’s part of the job.

By identifying the scope of the job and providing the concrete details, Hanson says, "We help the general contractor and owner understand just what they’re getting for their dollars,” Hanson says. "We get them to realize the additional costs that aren’t identified in a plan. As with the theater project, we were building the project while we were still getting drawings. Having our project manager track the changes equals better management, fewer headaches for the general contractor, and more profitability for the customer.”

Reaching Out
A key part of the dynamics, Hanson continues, is working with the other subcontractors. "Most other subcontractors are working toward the same goal, accomplishing a smooth-running job,” he says. "The main thing is communications. We have site meetings, get the subcontractors all talking and inform the foreman so the general contractor doesn’t have to orchestrate as much.”

One result is that Hanson gets about 50 percent negotiated work, the other half bid. As a part of this process he gets many repeat customers. One downside to this approach is that the general contractor can take all this free advice, then give the job to another company for a cheaper price. But, Hanson says, "We are careful about to whom we offer our services.”

Ordinarily the company works within about a 50 mile radius of St. Louis, but sometimes the job takes the company out of town.

"The first out-of-town job I did was in Huntsville, Ala., a four-story office building for NASA, back in 1990. Back then we were still doing a lot of EIFS,” Hanson says. "The St. Louis market had dried up so I was extremely nervous about going out of town. But, as the pattern is for me, once I accomplished that task, I was able to do similar things without being nervous.”

Since then he has also done jobs in Wyoming, Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Nevada. Because of the travel time and expense and obvious other logistics, Hanson accepts out-of-town jobs only when he’s had to. Naturally, he stays close to home when he can. At the time this interview was conducted, the St. Louis market was doing well, and all of his work was in that area.

Back in the office, Hanson has mixed feelings about computers. He says the Internet helps a lot with the green LEED certification, so he can provide environmentally friendly products to his customers. E-mail is used and some employees have Blackberries. But in many ways, he says, "Our computerization is still in the dark ages. Some in our office use it in estimating, not for pricing but for take-offs. I’m sure if I learned it, it would be faster, but I’m still doing the take-offs on paper and doing the pricing the way I did it in 1982.”

But he doesn’t feel this is necessarily a bad thing because the old-fashioned way, he says, gives him a better hands-on sense of the details.

"In my opinion, it’s better to work with the real world,” he says. "People who use computers too much make mis¬takes. It’s just another tool.”

Back on the Homefront
Hanson and Lisa have been married for 30 years. Their son, Matt, 26, is an estimator and project manager for the company. Ian, 20, is in college and works part-time in the field. Dylan, 16, is in high school.

Hanson used to work 12-hour days starting at 6 a.m., Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays. Now he stops at 4:20 p.m. and keeps his weekends clear for family and personal time. He credits his efficient staff, especially Project Manager Mike Marshall and Head Estimator Jeff Tschannen, as being key people who have allowed him to cut back on his long hours. With that free time, Hanson enjoys sailing and canoeing.

Will any of his children follow in their father’s footsteps? Hanson says he plans to get Matt involved in a group similar to the Business Forum that Hanson participates in through the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry. He says his experiences with the forum have been very helpful since he joined it three years ago.

When asked about the future, Hanson says, "I don’t look too far ahead. I just look at the current market and make adjustments to get my share of work in the coming month.”

In other words, Hanson isn’t particularly worried about the future. He’s been there before, meeting the challenges that the future invariably brings.