‘Push Yourself’

BY: BUSINESS OBSERVER

Gulf-Coast-500August 2016 – Bigger isn’t always better. That’s the approach Barry Connor and Craig Gaskins took when they started their Naples-based general contracting firm, Connor & Gaskins Unlimited, in late 2010.

Longtime veterans of the construction industry (and former partners at Boran Craig Barber Engel Construction), the pair knew how they wanted to position their business. “Having a large volume wasn’t our interest,” says Connor. “We really wanted to get back to concierge-type service, to being very involved with our clients.”

That hands-on, client-focused philosophy has led to lots of repeat business and referrals. That, in turn, has helped the company grow its business throughout Florida and the United States. Revenues, for example, have risen from $17.4 million in 2014 to $36.6 million in 2015, up 110%.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a great group of clients that has afforded us the opportunity to provide them great service,” says Connor. “As they continue to grow, we’re going to grow shoulder to shoulder with them.”

But just like they don’t chase volume, the company co-founders won’t let any potential for growth get out of hand. “We’ve always been cautious, making sure that we’re shoring everything else up as we grow,” says Connor. “It’s important to us to have the team strength to take on another project, and we’ve turned down work because the timing of it doesn’t work or the team isn’t ready for that project.”

Nurturing their team of 38 full-time employees has been a major focus for Connor and Gaskins. Over their years in the construction industry, they’d seen an increase in employees’ desire for work-life balance — the importance of being able to do the job they loved and enjoying plenty of time with their families. Making sure those employee needs are met pays off in many ways for the business.

“We feel that being able to provide an environment that allows the team to spend time with their families means that their effort and attitude and the nature of how our clients are treated are so much better,” says Connor. “We’re able to provide better service to our clients because we’re all fresh and focused on what we’re doing.”

That quality of service, which extends from conception and design to construction and completion, keeps clients coming back and has helped the firm expand both the types of projects it takes on and the geographic areas in which it works. The firm has completed projects and has others underway statewide and in places such as North Carolina and California.

“It’s a small world out there in the sense of the product type and scale of projects we’re doing,” says Connor. “Everyone discusses who’s performing and who doesn’t. Our biggest catalyst for doing the things across the U.S. that we’re doing is that we do what we say we’re going to do, and we do it well. And clients want to surround themselves with people who do that.”

‘DESIRE TO DIVERSIFY’

In addition to expanding geographically, the company also focuses on keeping a diversified project list. The goal: avoid concentrating too much on any one construction area so it can weather industry and economic changes and keep new opportunities coming. So while it does a lot of hotel work nationwide — including renovations of 189 existing InTown Suites Extended Stay Living locations, as well as new projects for the brand — the firm also takes on everything from condo to retail projects. And it recently started a new division, CGU Homes, to handle its high-end residential work.

This desire to diversify means the executives must be open to new things. “It’s important to keep pushing yourself into environments that maybe aren’t as comfortable as others,” says Connor. “We want to make we sure don’t get complacent in one market. And it always leads to something even better, to another relationship.”

Taking a multiregional approach also protects the firm from inevitable hiccups or slowdowns in any one geographic area, helping to ensure there’s always another project on the horizon, even if it’s in a different city or state.

“Markets constantly fluctuate,” says Connor. “My biggest concern is being able to provide for my team and their families.” That might mean some travel for project managers or construction superintendents, but it keeps the work flowing.

One challenge in operating around the country is the time it takes for the firm to familiarize itself with different regions. “You have to have boots on the ground before you even kick the dirt,” says Connor. “It’s six months of time spent interviewing subcontractors and materials vendors to understand who’s qualified. It’s important we spend time up front doing that; we can see where the weakest links are on competitors’ projects very quickly.”

But with investment in time the company is able to gain valuable experience constructing projects in different environments with different concerns, from wind and rain in Florida to earthquakes in California. This provides insight on how materials and designs perform under different stressors. And working in a variety of regions helps Connor and Gaskins stay on top of construction and design trends, and then share those with clients.

That value it provides clients, and the connections forged as a result, has become the ultimate factor that drives the firm’s growth and success.

“We’re not just looking for work,” says Connor. “We go places where our clients want us to go. We’re following our relationships. We do project after project with our clients.  And when we’re doing a project, we do whatever it takes to make sure that project is successful. We truly partner with all of our clients.”

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