Riding Out the Tough Economy

Thomas G. Dolan

June 2009

"At this year’s convention of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, I talked to contractors from different parts of the country and found the down economy is the same all over,” says Terry Buecher, president of CS2000, Inc., in Millstadt, Ill. "But it was also very helpful to find out what’s working elsewhere.”

Contractors from all over no doubt also found it helpful to learn what works for Buecher. Though times are tough, he continues to move forward. Because of a growth rate of 186.2 percent, Inc. Magazine listed CS2000 as the 13th fastest growing business in the St. Louis market, and also included the company on its Inc.500|5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in America.

"Admittedly, that ranking means little this year, and revenues are down. We now have about 25 employees, our highest being 60,” Buecher says. "But we have work lined up until mid-year 2011, and I think things will improve by then.”

How He Got Here
Buecher was a teenager when he started work as a latherer. He gradually expanded his talents, and has been in the trade now for more than 25 years. He had worked for another contractor for 13 years when he opened his current company in Fairview Heights, Ill., in 1996.

"For about the first four years I worked out of my house,” Buecher recalls, "doing everything myself, from the bidding, delivering, field work to the bookkeeping and other financials.”

Buecher has two children, Elaine, 14, and 13-year-old Nathan. He recalls, "When they were 3 and 4, they’d go to bed with me when it was still light out and get up in the dark when I took them to a job site. That was our way of life.”

Buecher also used to hunt a lot, but he had to give it up when the business took off; now he is getting back to it. "I like having my own business because I can work my hours around the kids’ school and sporting events. I can sneak away for a few hours, knowing somebody else can fill in. Other than that, I put in long hours. But I really enjoy doing what I do.”

Last September he moved to his new 10,000 square-foot facility in Millstadt. Buecher works within an 80 mile radius, and he is 15 miles from St. Louis, Mo. So, even though CS2000 is located in Illinois, its major market is St. Louis.

CS2000 offers the full range of standard wall and ceiling services, including metal stud framing, acoustical ceilings, drywall, plaster, fireproofing, EIFS, stucco, insulation and more. Buecher’s contracts are as low as $1,000 and high as $2 million. Ninety-nine percent of his work is commercial, including retail, hotels and schools.

No Need for Advertising
"Once we get our foot in the door of a new customer, it keeps getting wider, and we’re routinely complimented on our work,” Buecher says.

Buecher didn’t do any marketing until the last few years, and even then not much. He sent out copies of the Inc. article, has mailed some promos, and sent coffee mugs to 50 to 60 contractors.

"I don’t advertise, and feel fortunate in not having had to,” Buecher says.

Instead, he makes his presence known in the community in a number of other ways. He serves on a local board of noncompeting business owners who meets once a month for about four hours to share ideas. He also serves on three union boards, for plasterers’ and painters’ apprenticeships and the painters’ labor management board. He’s active in the local Chamber of Commerce and Optimist Club. He cosponsors a local golf tournament and supports a number of charitable causes. He completely replastered the ceilings, sanctuary, and hall of his church, for no charge.

His company’s projects include JC Penney in Washington, Mo., the seven-story Drury Inn in O’Fallon, Ill., Clark Middle School in East St. Louis, Ill., Manchester Police Headquarters and the BRAC Mobility Air Force Logistics Support Center.

An unusual and challenging $250,000 project completed in August 2008 was the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, part of the National Archives in Valneyer, Ill. The NPRC-MPR stores millions of military personnel, health and medical records of veterans of all services during the 20th century, after World War I (records prior to World War I are stored in Washington, D.C.) This construction project was basically offices and record storage built into about 160,000 square feet of solid-rock caves.

"The height of the caves was 30 to 40 feet, so you had to put up ceiling wires prior to building walls, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get the lifts in the rooms,” Buecher says. "You can’t take risks. There’s a 20 acre lake in the back of the cave area, so we were always fighting moisture. We had to use a finer grit of sandpaper and keep dehumidifiers going to finish the drywall.”

Without the dehumidifiers the humidity was about 90 percent. It was very challenging for the tradesman to cut the drywall to fit against the jagged rock formations as well as the tapers to finish the drywall.

Why He’s the "Best Boss”
Perhaps another reason for CS2000’s tremendous growth is the way Buecher treats his employees.

Having worked for an established company while he was learning the trade, and starting his own business at about age 30, Buecher has evolved his own perspective: "I believe a lot of third and fourth generation companies have gotten away from how they treat their em¬ployees. They don’t convey the respect they should. I don’t want people here working just for their paycheck. I want them to enjoy being here. There’s no point in having disgruntled employ¬ees, and, quite frankly, many qualified people come here because they didn’t like their former environment.”

Buecher says that sometimes you can even have an employee who is not that qualified, but give him the proper training and treat him right, and he will blossom. "When people come here, their mentality changes, they’re inspired to try harder and rise within the company,” Buecher says.

He mentions a Hispanic he received through his union. "All Hispanics are often allowed to do is hang drywall,” Buecher says. "But they can do metal framing and everything else if you teach them. I’m often told I’m the best boss a person has worked for. It makes me feel humble. I don’t feel I’m doing anything special, just applying common sense.”

The payoff, Buecher says, is that by getting the right people in place and treating them with respect makes them want to work with you. They want your business to succeed, because they know that will help them succeed.

You also can retain good employees by keeping their work environment up-to-date, and Buecher is a believer in state-of-the-art computerization.

"We have all the most advanced systems in place,” he says. "We have a thorough accounting system, with a full-time CPA. Our two estimators use estimating software utilizing digital takeoff, and our office manager is tops in the field.”

Although Buecher hasn’t been particularly attracted to the Internet as a marketing tool, he does say, "I’ve learned about using Facebook from an AWCI seminar as a way to get in touch with the younger generation. About 25,000 people a day join Facebook. I put up a business page last fall and have been experimenting with it.”

Keep Employees Involved
Because CS2000 is a union business and all the workers receive basically the same benefits, Buecher had to find other ways to elicit loyalty. "We try to share more information, let them know where jobs stand on hours,” he says. "By being able to track jobs weekly, they know when a job’s not looking good and what to do to make it right. We don’t have problems of falling behind because of problems we find out about too late.”

Another key factor in Buecher’s success is how he gets his employ¬ees to buy into the safety program. The employees make the recommen¬dations for the safety products and procedures. There is a safety panel of employees, typically made up of a carpenter, a plasterer and a taper. The company has a quarterly fish fry or barbecue, and employees with top safety records of more than 1,000 hours have their names go into a hat for $500 rewards. One result of these efforts, Buecher says, is "our safety modifier is .87, which is pretty good.”

Also, there is a grievance committee elected by the employees. Anybody with a grievance can take it to the committee, which, in turn, brings it to management. "This is not just a top-down, but also a bottom-up company,” Buecher says. "They all know they are a part of the company; they don’t just work here.”

One result of having employees dedicated to doing the best job possible is that Buecher’s company gets about 20 percent bid work, but 80 percent is negotiated. That proportion has slipped somewhat in this cost-conscious economy, but Buecher has not been forced into the lowest bidder trap.

National Assistance

"One of the biggest changes as the result of the economy is that before when there were four to five bidding on a job, now there are as many as 17 people bidding,” Buecher says. "Work is harder to get, it’s going cheaper and there’s less markup. But we’re in a good position. We have enough work to cover our over¬head, and everything else is gravy, so we’re not going as low as some of our competitors. Let them fill up their plate with low markup work. We believe we can hold out until the economy picks up.”

And just when will the economy pick up? Does Buecher see President Obama having a positive impact?

"So far his package is directed toward roads and highways, as well as getting banks to loan money to owners and developers of retail centers,” Buecher says. "It hasn’t worked down the pipeline to affect us yet, but I think it will. And I think Obama’s stimulating green building growth will be good for our industry. The real benefits are a few years away, but it’s definitely something we’ll stay on top of. Very profitable work for us is schools. It comes easy for us. We’re able to perform well and stay competitive in that market. Unfortunately, that work has slowed down. But the Illinois legislature is considering passing a $26 billion capital bill that will stimulate school construction. We’re hoping that will pass.”

Meanwhile, Buecher has high praise for the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry being a strong support during tough economic times. "Through AWCI I’ve been able to meet quality contractors in a noncompetitive environment to share ideas,” he says. "AWCI has very good seminars and offers excellent training. We send our mechanics to be trained there through the EIFSmart program. It’s a shame more people don’t see the benefits they could receive from such an organization.”

And it is because Buecher takes advantage of all the opportunities available to him that CS2000 will weather this economic storm and emerge as one of the leaders in the wall and ceiling industry.