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MIC: Survival Skills

When Peoria entrepreneur Dan Higdon founded Mid-Illinois Painting & Drywall Company in 1970, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty—or work late from his kitchen that substituted for an office until the company got its legs. Back then, Higdon worked in the field taking on small jobs with a tiny crew during days and wrestled with paperwork on his home’s kitchen table at night. His wife of the time kept the books evenings while juggling a part-time job days and handling the tiring domestic duties of a family of six.

Those lean days are long behind Higdon whose business today—Mid-Illinois Companies Corp. (MIC)—has a modern office in Peoria staffed by eight people and a field crew that, depending on the market, can be as many as 100. The mid-size contractor has built a solid reputation in and around Peoria over the past few decades and last year opened a second office in Illinois’s capital, Springfield, a market with a growing number of jobs—especially in healthcare—that the company pursues.

Dream Big

One of the three owners today is Bobby Taylor (the other two are Debra Young and Dennis Higdon) who is also a site superintendent. Taylor says when he started as a young laborer with the company 21 years ago, the business model was “very different” from what it is today. While painting and drywall were the company’s bread and butter back then, Higdon envisioned a bigger piece of the construction pie to come for the firm and he has helped it achieve that today, says Taylor.

“We are a multi-faceted company now,” Taylor points out, noting that business includes interior systems, general contracting and exterior insulation and finish systems. “It is our mindset to be as versatile as we can be. Furthermore, we are safety-oriented and focused on building long-lasting relationships.”

That approach to business is unusual in the subcontracting world in Peoria, and it sets MIC apart from others. General contractors see the benefit of hiring one subcontractor to do several jobs on a project. “It’s an advantage to GCs and to us because we are able to keep jobs flowing,” Taylor says.

The diversified portfolio hasn’t made MIC recession-proof, but it has helped it land jobs during tough times. “Having good relationships with our customers, too, has definitely helped us,” Taylor says.

While MIC has grown substantially over the years, its owners never shy from small jobs—even work that totals less than $100. A $4 million job isn’t out of league either.

Come Together

Taylor says business practices in the construction industry in Peoria have changed significantly since he was first started working as a laborer in the 1990s. Builders and subcontractors are far less adversarial today. “We have come to realize that we are all working together for a common goal,” Taylor says.

Reaching that goal hasn’t happened overnight though. That spirit of collaboration probably commenced around the time a local general contractor drafted the first partnering agreement with its subs in the 1990s. The agreement required all parties to attend meetings to bring the team up to speed on any developing scheduling issues or potential problems on site. “Everybody started realizing we had to work together to get the job done. It not only made the GC look good but all the subcontractors as well.”

Taylor says while partnering isn’t a guarantee that adversarial relationships won’t crop up over the duration of a project, it establishes an atmosphere of collaboration where trades coordinate schedules with each other to work toward timely completions. Fast forward to 2014, and you won’t find partnering agreements bandied about. Most of the major players don’t need to a written agreement anymore because the collaborative spirit between subs and generals comes through on most of the larger local projects anyway, says Taylor.

“We (subtrades) have grown and come to realize that we are not competitors, we are companions. Now, I know that pretty well on any job I go to around here that the trades will work together to get the job done. If we get a GC from out of town or a GC using different subs, we let them know that this is how we operate in Peoria.”

Taylor points out that the “colleague-not-competitor” philosophy in Peoria goes beyond just the working relationships on a given project. As an example, when MIC has skilled workers to spare, and one of its competitors is down manpower on a project, MIC will “loan out” some of its workers to that sub. “It works the other way, too, so when we are short, we can look to one our competitors to supply us with their workers.” It’s a means of keeping the best skilled workers steadily employed, which ultimately keeps them from moving away from Peoria to find work elsewhere.

Taylor expects that the collaborative nature of subs and GCs in Peoria doesn’t spill over into big cities like Chicago or to other states. “When I visit different places across the United States with the association (AWCI), I don’t hear about others doing what we are doing. I think everybody wants it but doesn’t know how to get it.”

There’s no secret formula, he says. “Relationships here were never bad (among subs and generals), they just got to be really good after years of collaborating, working together, not against each other,” Taylor explains.

Big Jobs

Collaboration is particularly important in an era when projects are increasingly complex, deadlines tight and budgets squeezed—particularly in such sectors as health care. “From equipment to tools, everything we use is made to make the job faster.” MIC’s owners embrace change. “If there is a new product or tool out there, we make a point of researching it, then putting it to good use until the next new one comes out. It’s all about production, but safety always remains a top priority,” says Taylor.

On the subject of safety, MIC recently exceeded 600,000 hours of production with no lost-time accidents. “That’s practically unheard of,” says Taylor, noting that safety is engrained in the corporate philosophy, backed up by extensive training. “Anything we do that is unique, whether it is our firestop or any kind of specialty paint … we make a point of getting ourselves properly trained first.”

Taylor says the construction economy in has “turned the corner” for the better a couple of years ago in the Peoria and Springfield areas. “This year there are more projects than our estimators have time to bid on in these two cities,” he says. “It’s at a point where we have to be really selective.”

Adding confidence to the business community of Peoria is the fact Caterpillar is reviewing plans for a sizable expansion at its head office there, and the city’s Bradley University is evaluating new construction prospects. Both of these announcements could lead to substantial work for MIC. But Taylor says the company opened a branch office in Springfield last year because relying on work in Peoria and surrounding environs isn’t enough to keep its crews busy year-round. “We realize we have to go where the work is,” he says.

Keep It Clean

In Springfield, the healthcare sector is bustling, and MIC has four contracts to show for at Memorial Medical Center. The scope of work on the most challenging one includes metal studs, drywall, taping, painting, air weather barrier and grid ceilings for a new two-level surgery wing that will be tied into the existing surgery department. Rules around sanitation, such as dust and infection control, are stringent, affecting the time of day (often off-hours) when MIC can perform the work.

“The floors have to be mopped every day—I’ve never seen this requirement anywhere before,” Taylor says. Once the new building reaches a state where it is ready to be tied into the existing surgery department, Taylor says the subcontractor will have to comply with strict construction protocols to contain dust and other contaminants. Ante chambers (specially sealed rooms for change of clothing) will be required “for any work creating dust,” and containment enclosures will be the order of the day for work areas.

Taylor says while hospital owners don’t mandate that subs have infectious control training certificates, MIC makes a point of keeping its workers trained in the latest construction practices in the healthcare field. That includes getting them certified through the American Society for Health Care Engineering for construction procedures in hospitals. “We see educating ourselves and our workers as a selling point to the GC we’re doing the work for in this sector,” Taylor says.

MIC is doing three other contracts at the Springfield hospital—including a taping and painting contract for the new Springfield Clinic administration building and painting a six-story addition to the hospital.

Taylor says in addition to infectious control procedures, another challenge to construction in the healthcare sector is the oft-numerous change orders that crop up: “Sometimes what medical departments see when they do a walk-through of construction, is different from what they imagined it to be from the drawings. They may want to tear out a whole wing and have it redone.”

While subs and GCs are financially compensated for the additional work, Taylor says that doesn’t mean they will get more time to complete the job. To meet changing scopes of work, deploying more workers is often required. “It’s hard to accurately bid that kind of work,” he says, noting that in the best-case scenarios MIC can draw staff and equipment needs from other hospital jobs it is doing nearby. It is a “real juggling act” at times.

As for next year, the contractor expects to still be busy in healthcare in Springfield as projects carry over—some into 2016. On another front, the contractor has been awarded two out-of-town hospital jobs that add to its improving outlook on the construction recovery in Illinois. One of those contracts is at a hospital in Macomb, 75 miles southwest of Peoria, and the other is at the Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Bloomington, 45 miles southeast of Peoria.

The Bloomington renovation job includes compliance with strict infection control protocols. It also involves shift work, Taylor explains, “working at night when the hospital is least busy, but we’re not always allowed to work a full shift—sometimes it is only a few hours because of the hospital’s operation. And sometimes if an emergency happens, we have to shut down immediately.” That never makes for a straightforward contract.

“It is the nature of the business we are in,” Taylor says. “We have learned to adjust, to evolve. You have to in construction.”

Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.

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