Last month, I attended NAHB’s midyear meeting in Miami and had the pleasure of sitting in on a presentation by Daniel Swift, president and CEO of Des Moines-based architecture group BSB Design.
Does the Critic Count?
Being a consultant is a tough role, and you walk a fine line. Many consultants are cocky know-it-alls who couldn't manage their way out of a third-rate bar fight. I hope you've read my columns that extol the virtues of this industry.
Contact Scott Sedam
via e-mail at scott@TRUEN.com
Now and then in response to this column, I get a letter that really gets my attention. This one arrived via e-mail late one evening and got me thinking about the building industry and my role in it. Now that I'm entering my seventh year as an outside consultant and my fifth year of writing a monthly column, it seems a good time to pause and ask: Should I be doing this stuff? Here's the letter:
I enjoy reading your articles and think you make some excellent points. But I sense that your approach is very critical of builders, as evidenced by the lead in your January column, "Fixing Community Startups": "I have stumbled across few ways better than this to ruin a builder's day. 'Do you have a new community startup process?'"
Scott, you might be very well-qualified to be a home builders' consultant, but here is something for you to consider. It's a famous quote from a lecture on citizenship presented by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris. You will have to decide how much of this applies to you, but I think Roosevelt's words ring true.
The Man in the Arena
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
I have been in real estate and the home building business for a long time. As someone who works very hard to do things the right way, I can tell you that it is easier said than done.
Canaday & Co.
Opening that e-mail at 10 p.m. after a long day sure gave me a jolt! T.R. is my all-time favorite president, and I have read several of his biographies.
There are, for sure, a lot of critics in the world - too many. And in this political primary season, we are nearly overwhelmed. Whether it's your favorite actor, singer, movie, sports team, city or just something you like to wear, there is always someone to tear it down. The Internet and competing 24-hour news channels have made this all too easy.
So your question is a fair one. Am I just being an "industry pundit," making my living by sitting back and waiting to catch builders screwing up? I wish it were that easy! You can make a living as a critic in sports, entertainment, fashion, politics, radio talk shows and even architecture. But I don't know anyone in this business who can support himself or herself that way.
Yet even if I could pull it off, it doesn't hold much appeal to me. To spend all day, every day, looking for targets inevitably would lead me to go after a bunch of people I truly admire. My favorite people in this industry are the entrepreneurial builders who started with nothing or next to it and built successful organizations with their proverbial blood, sweat and tears. That covers people as diverse as national builders such as Bill Pulte to smaller and midsize builders such as Paul Estridge, Bryan Mitchell, Bernie Glieberman, Floyd Grayson and Perry Bigelow. To have such people not just as clients but as friends does a lot to keep me grounded.
I think the quote is particularly valid for those who have never done much "dirty work." But Chris, trust me, I have done a lot of dirty work. Growing up in southern Indiana, I worked on farms and learned a wide variety of construction jobs, from framing to electrical to roofing. Being a loader in a large commercial lumberyard all through college was good grounding, too. My first job out of college was as a mill foreman for U.S. Steel in scenic Gary, Ind., and sometimes, late at night, I still can smell the sulfur permanently seared into my sinuses from those years. I continue to look for opportunities to get insanely dirty building and rehabilitating homes each summer with the Appalachia Service Project. I like dirt, Chris - ask anyone who knows me.
Being a consultant - and a critic - is a tough role, and you walk a fine line. Many consultants are cocky know-it-alls who couldn't manage their way out of a third-rate bar fight. I hope you've read the columns I've written that extol the virtues of various people, players and companies in the industry. I try to make sure I do that on a regular basis. (Check out the new Corner Office feature on HZRadio at www.HousingZone.com/HZradio, and I think you'll find it 90% positive.)
If you look at where this industry was in the late 1980s and early '90s, it's astounding how far we've come. Yet - and the subject of my column on startup problems is a perfect example - we still have so far to go, so much to do.
What I try hard to do in my writing is not just point out what's wrong but suggest a way to fix it or make it better. I give away a lot of stuff, way more than makes business sense, especially to smaller builders. I recently received a letter from a Colorado builder I've never met. He told me that by following the advice I wrote in a column three years ago, he had saved several million dollars, and no, there was no check in the mail. But I saved the letter, and when I wonder if it's all worthwhile ...
I'm often asked, "Why don't you just build?" Since leaving "the firm" seven years ago and starting TrueNorth, I've had many offers. But to me, it's been done. My work is about pioneering, trying to generate positive change, and yes, like many consultants, I have a bit of a "savior complex," as my sisters like to point out. And one thing that needs to be done is to get the industry to, as author Jim Collins says, "face the brutal facts." Sometimes that is my role, and to do it, you must be a critic.
The home building industry was in denial about where we were with construction quality, customer service, treatment of trades and employees, and just good management practices for far too long. Some builders still are. Yet the J.D. Power scores have improved nationwide for each of the past four years, so something positive is happening. The hard work has been on the backs of builders and their suppliers and trades, but I believe that industry consultants such as Martin Freedland, Chuck and Emma Shinn, Carol Smith, Steve McGee and my TrueNorth associates Daron Powers and Eric Timmis have played a role. Each of these people is driven first by a sincere desire to help people and make the industry better. I just happen to be the only one compelled to write about it every month.
Jeff Parsigian, now Eastern regional president for Pulte Homes, called me awhile back and shouted into the phone, "Sedam!!! When the @$#@% are you going to write something nice about home builders?!" I, of course, told him to start doing nice things and I'd start writing about them. Then he said, "No, keep it up. Someone's got to keep rattling our cages."
I no doubt will continue to ruin builders' days now and then, bugging them about things such as the poor startup process that drives their customers and trades completely crazy. But just think, Chris, if they actually fix it - and it is very fixable - they will turn back literally millions of dollars to their companies and themselves, all the while creating a better place to work for employees and trades. That's not too big of a price to pay for being aggravated once a month or so, is it?
Thanks for your letter, Chris. You played the role for me that I try to play for builders, and it worked. It made me think, and I'll be better for it.