Pam Stephens of Chesapeake Concrete Raising sat down with us to share how she and her husband built up their business to where they are today.
Building a Business: Slabjack Geotechnical and Quality Concrete Coatings
Have you ever wondered how other businesses got started? Have they faced the same challenges you have? Maybe you’re curious about starting your own business and are looking for advice from people who’ve been there.
We’ve had the opportunity to speak with some Estimate Rocket users about these topics, and we hope you’ll be able to take away some insight from their answers like we have. Whether you’re just starting a business, have owned one for 40 years, or never plan to.
Could you talk a bit about your business and what you do?
We operate two businesses. The first is Slabjack Geotechnical - a concrete raising and leveling company that we started in 2011. We do compaction grouting, void filling, slab raising, and crack and joint caulking.
We're opening a second company this Spring called Quality Concrete Coatings. We've been looking for another line that complements what we already do, and we've had a lot of people ask about coatings. Things like “You've raised my front porch, now what can you do about this ugly concrete?” For a long time, we were referring that business out. I would tell them to Google “concrete coatings” and they’d find somebody. Now that somebody is us.
What were you doing before you started your business?
When I was 17, I started in the restaurant industry and worked my way up. I started as a dishwasher, then cook, assistant manager, store manager, and district manager. Then I purchased a restaurant when I was 27 years old and owned that for a little over 25 years.
What made you decide to start a slabjacking and concrete business?
My wife and I had a growing family, so we had a home built in 2005. Later on, we had a deck built, and when the deck builder came out to the house, he walked across our uneven front sidewalk and told me “You need to have your sidewalk slabjacked.” That was the first time I'd ever heard that term. He told me more about it and I went on the internet and found a company over in Puget Sound. I was told that they wouldn’t travel to our area because the cost of mobilization was too high. Hating the restaurant business at that stage, I thought maybe there was a business opportunity here, and it turns out there was.
There was a company in Wisconsin that had a training class so I flew out there for a two-day introduction to the business. I had never been in that type of business before. I could hammer a nail into a board and that was about the level of my expertise, but I'm not afraid of hard work. I understand what it means to run a business, and I had a business that was already paying me. I didn’t have to start making money the first month I was in operation, and that was tremendous for me over many people that try a new business.
When I was 49, I started doing slab lifting. I had both the restaurant and slabjacking business for about 5 years, and when the part-time job raising concrete slabs was making my mortgage payment, not the restaurant, it was time get out of the restaurant.
What are the most difficult parts about running a business?
I would say developing and maintaining a culture of excellence and systems to ensure an excellent customer experience. Recognizing our customers, being quick to say I'm sorry if we've done something wrong or if they perceive we have, being very proactive on warranty work, for example, being willing to thank our customers in meaningful ways - All those things lead to the employees understanding that excellence in service is expected from the ownership and that kind of thing comes from the top. If I don't personally do those things, my employees don't feel like they need to do them either. On the other side of it, if I insult my customers, my employees feel empowered to do that too.
I owned a restaurant for a long time, so knowing how to deal with a disgruntled customer was really ingrained in me. I think as a company we're really good at that. A small percentage of customers will be difficult to deal with even when things go well, and we have to calm them down and take care of them in the way that they feel they need to be taken care of. The big issue is really customer service, that's the most challenging part of any business.
My brother has a saying “You can tell a good company from a bad company by what direction they run when there are problems. Do they run away from the problem or do they run towards it?” As a company, we run towards the problem.
For example, we're very proactive with our warranty work. As soon as the receipt goes out, the next day the warranty information goes out along with a letter letting people know “If there's any settling in the next couple of days which is the most common, please call us and we will come right back.” Then a year later a warranty reminder goes out that says “Part of our responsibility to you is to let you know about our warranty. Please go outside and take a look at your driveway or whatever we raised.”
That doesn't happen without Estimate Rocket for us. You don't have the time, even with a staff of four in the office like I do, to do those kinds of things. So the fact that it's just happening behind the scenes through the software is just invaluable to us. Yes, we do a little bit more warranty work than our competitors probably do, but our customers know that we don't shy away from it and we're not running away from problems.
What do you find most rewarding about running your own business?
For me, it's having a vision and working towards that goal. We've never had a year where we haven't had at least 20% growth and we've had years where we've grown 120%. You might have a point where your eyes are open and if you can act on that, your success is really almost guaranteed. My eye-opening came in the fourth year that we were in business. We had gotten to the point where we were at a quarter of a million dollars in sales and I thought we were doing pretty good. I took a trip to Georgia to pick up my second truck and I stopped by two vendors that we could buy materials from, and later on, I stopped by others in the Midwest that have businesses similar to mine and my eyes were opened to the possibilities.
At that stage, it was just me and my eldest son working seasonally. I told my wife “You need to quit your job in the dental practice and come and work with me because I need help running the business. We're going to really grow.” We set a goal to double business the next year and the year after that, that would make us a million dollar company and then we’d set goals from there.
We instituted a lot of changes we saw in those other businesses and made the determination that our growth was dependent on two things - generating leads and selling bigger jobs. If we could do those two things, we would grow quickly. Since 2015, our average job has gone from $990 to $3,100, and we're doing more than twice as many jobs.
What advice would you give to someone starting a similar business today?
I had a guy contact me asking for advice on how to succeed in this business. We started a Facebook page specifically so I could help him, and that Facebook page now has just under 100 members across North America. We even have some people over in Europe.
It’s a closed Facebook group where I mentor these guys, but it's gotten to the point where many of them have done jobs that I haven’t. Many of them have experience doing things that I don't do. Some of them have companies significantly larger than mine because they offer some other services that I don't.
We don't allow anybody in competing markets unless the other person's ok with it. It enables us to share openly what we're doing without fear that it’s going to be used against us. For somebody that's new to business, I would recommend that they join groups that can help them succeed. I've been doing this as long as just about anybody in the country. I think when I started there were 20 people in the entire United States doing it, because slabjacking with polyurethane was on patent until 2006, so there weren’t many people to help. But I learn from the guys in the group on a weekly basis. I have physically met many of them when I travel and I've had four or five of them fly out to work with us as a way to form camaraderie in that group. Having that support and mentoring is really helpful.
Where do you see yourself and your businesses in the next 10 years?
Well, I owned a restaurant for a long time, I am 57 now. So in ten years I'll be 67 and will definitely be at a point where I don't need to do it financially, so I’ll be doing it if I still love doing it. I guess what I envision is transitioning the business to my kids or to a purchaser. I enjoy it but every good thing comes to an end. Right?
Do you own a business? What tips would you give to someone just starting out? Let us know in the comments!