Ahead of the Race

Thomas G. Dolan

October 2007

Tommy Tarlton’s dreams of becoming a professional race car driver crashed in November 1999 when his father, Thomas Tarlton, was injured in a freak accident. He was eating in a restaurant when a car driven by man who suffered a diabetic blackout drove through the window. That’s when Tommy dropped out of his junior year at Fresno State College to take over running the company, Tarlton & Son, Inc., Fresno, Calif.

He was not new to the industry. His grandfather, Elmer Tarlton, was a latherer, as was his father, who started the business in his backyard in 1977. Tommy had started working for the company when he was 15, on the scaffolding crew, eventually running that crew. He was working during the day and going to school at night when the accident occurred. At that time he was 25.

Although Thomas turned over the running of the company to his son, he continued working as an estimator and retained the title of president. Tommy was vice president, though the elder Tartlton has since retired to devote full time to the company-sponsored racing team, since automotive racing is also a third generation preoccupation for the Tartltons.

Tommy still races on occasion, but his main competitive efforts are devoted to making the company a winning team.

Different Directions
While his dad formed the company to earn a living for his family, his son, starting at an early age, decided to grow the company. At the time he took over, the company was doing about 10 jobs a year for between $2 million and $3 million, with about 30 employees. Last year some 240 employees completed about 110 jobs for more than $40 million in sales. Growth has been clipping along at about 60 percent a year. He credits his father with providing the structure as well as "guiding me when I knew very little about running a company,” Tarlton says. "As dad told me, he had laid down the tracks, now I had to drive the train.”

When he started, Tarlton says, he didn’t know how to estimate or read plans, but he had the advantage of the good people his dad already had in place and hired others. Among the key personnel without whom, Tarlton says, the rapid growth would not have been possible, he names senior vice president of project management, Martin Chaney; office manager, Kirstin Messenlehner; estimator, Dave Buchanan; chief operations manager,Blame Steel; and Scott Pimentel, who manages the office in Pismo Beach, Calif. Tarlton also credits his half dozen project managers such as Marty Fist, plus his plaster foreman, Scotty McLean, who he says "has an excellent way of organizing his crew. We use a gun plaster pump, so we get a lot more production done in a day than if we did it by hand.”

Tarlton adds, "We are, after all, a service labor company. We go out and do a job. These people make it work. Without them, and all our employees, we would not have been able to grow the way we have.” He also says that about three years ago, when his dad was still estimating, "I was doing the bidding and trying to run the field. When I pulled out of the field and left that to the field managers, that’s when we really started kicking into second gear.”

Just as all those on a racing team have to work together, from those who build the car to the pit crew to the drivers, Tarlton believes all who work for Tarlton & Son have to function as a team. He considers his main job to be "making sure we are all on the same page, to keep moving forward together and to keep the drama at a minimum. The construction trade is hard work, but you want to make it as enjoyable as possible, to keep cliques from forming and to eliminate finger-pointing. We have our ups and downs, but I feel we have a good work environment where it still feels like a small family company even though we’ve grown. I leave my door open all day, every day so no one is afraid to come in and talk about whatever is on his mind.”

In an industry that faces an ongoing challenge of attracting good workers, how does Tarlton do it? His response is that most of his managers are promoted from within.

"We throw them into the water and they sink or swim,” he says. "That’s how I learned.” He reports that between 50 percent and 60 percent of promoted employees do, in fact, sink and return to their former position. "The ones who make it are good,” he says.

Along the same lines, he’ll give a job to most everybody who applies for work, including those just graduating from high school. But their first position will likely be on the scaffolding crew, which is one of the hardest. "We tell them it’s hard,” Tarlton says. "If they can do well there, after four to six months, we’ll move them to another position, unless they like it there.” Having good, motivated and coordinated employees gives the company its marketing edge. "We take pride in the fact that we are not the cheapest company to hire, but we are known for getting in there and doing the job right on or ahead of schedule,” Tarlton says. "We celebrated our 30th anniversary this August, so with that reputation, we don’t have to do much in the way of marketing.”

That doesn’t mean that Tarlton rests on his laurels. "We bid every good job we can,” he says. The company’s major markets are schools, prisons, large office buildings and shopping centers. "The more difficult the job, the more likely we are to do it,” Tarlton says.

Face the Challenges
One of the main difficulties with projects like these is that it’s very hard to bid competitively, yet still make a profit. One of the main contributions Tarlton has made to the company is upgrading the technology. The company had moved from manual estimating to a home-grown computer system evolved by a former employee. Tarlton saw that that could be improved.

"In 2000 we purchased American Contractor software,” he says. "That’s an excellent package that has made a huge difference. It’s allowed us to better track our true costs so we can be more competitive in our bidding.”

Another change, Tarlton continues, is that "when I got here, the estimator would have to go down to the Builder’s Exchange to get plans, but now we get them all online through the Internet. It’s hard working long hours in a place like the Exchange, so we were able to bring our estimator into the office, with a better atmosphere, and we’re able to turn things around quicker.”

Yet, there is more to the art of estimating than simply plans and numbers. As a part of his evaluation, Tarlton checks out the owner, inspection team, architect, construction manager or general contractor, and location. "If you have all these things in the right combination, you can be more aggressive in your bidding,” Tarlton says.

Some owners are more reliable and ethical in terms of payments than others. Inspection criteria can vary from one municipality or county to the other, and some inspectors are more reasonable and less focused on overkill than others. "In hospitals you have to go through three inspections,” Tarlton says. "So you want an inspection team you know you can work with and not one that is looking to pull you down every chance it gets.”

By the same token, Tarlton continues, some architects are known to be easier or more difficult to work with than others. "You need to know if your architect will provide you with a good set of plans,” he says. Also, he says, location plays a role. If the men have to travel long distances to and from jobs, that can be a factor. Having a good construction manager or general contractor to work for, Tarlton says, can make a 5 percent to 10 percent difference in costs depending upon how well the job is run and coordinated.

Go Where the Work Is
The main geographical work radius from the Fresno office is about 150 miles from Bakersfield to Stockton. In 2000 a second office opened in Pismo Beach also covering about 150 miles, from Ventura to Monterey. Pismo Beach is about two hours from Fresno and came about as the result of a contract for student housing at California Polytech in San Francisco.

At that time, he hired Pimentel (mentioned earlier) to oversee a temporary office there. But then when a contract came for a new football stadium project at the same school, it was decided to make that a permanent office.

The company is often involved in big projects. It played an important role in the building the Clovis Third Education Center, the largest high school in the state. It’s currently finishing up a big student housing project at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

The company started in lathering and plastering. But in the early 1990s added drywall, steel studs, scaffolding and EIFS. "We’re a vertically integrated company that allows us to take on an entire job,” Tarlton. "Construction managers prefer to work with someone who can offer an entire package.” He adds that instead of subbing out things like scaffolding and EIFS, the workers do it all in house.

The company owns all of its own equipment, including a fleet of forklifts, plaster plumps, scaffolding trucks and scaffolding equipment as well as others, adding up to more than 100 pieces that have to be maintained and managed.

"We have three full time mechanics and a fleet manager to handle all that drama,” Tarlton says. "It’s funny: We have one company but it seems we have seven, including a trucking company, that has its own set of regulations and inspections.”

The company started in the country where the family had five acres, but it just recently moved to a new location not far away. The movement was from an 1,800 square-foot shop space to 6,000 square feet, and from 2,000 square feet of office space to 4,500 square feet.

"It’s very exciting,” Tartlton says. "The new space is ultra high-tech, with plenty of windows and all the right ergonomics. It showcases what we do, with a lot of specialty finishes,is a first class place for our customers to visit and a fun place for our staff to work.”

Tarlton’s main hobby is still driving in sprint car races part time as a semiprofessional for his family team, World of Outlaws. But he says he has no regrets that his main occupation is driving his family wall and ceiling business to the head of the pack.