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A construction project done right starts with building up the people who’re involved in it. Getting them to share accountability and purpose is the magic that ulrimately leads to outstanding results for customers.
James Mansfield of West village GC shared his passion and beliefs. It was a pleasure and inspiration to speak with him
Our next meetup will be this week, on the last Thursday of August, (8/25) at 6:00 pm in Spoons restaurant:— 2923 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NY 11210
You can register at this link
TC: Hi, James, thank you for being here with Thriving Craftsman.
JM: You are most welcome. It’s great to be here with you.
TC: So I wanted to ask a little bit about you. You kind of had a roundabout path towards becoming a general contractor. Why don’t you tell us a bit about your business? What do you do? What customers do you work for? And how did you actually get into this industry?
JM: It’s funny you ask, because it wasn’t a natural course of events that led me to get into contracting. I started off as a gemologist, precious stones. And to pay for college, I was a butler. Like a real butler with stripy pants and the tail coat.
TC: That is awesome.
JM: The whole nine yards. So the agency I was with placed me with Claus Von Bulow and the royal household and Number 10 Downing Street. So I got to see this world that I just didn’t grow up in. I got to see this world of style and people that is sort of almost like a People Magazine episode.
TC: And all of the sudden, you just said, “I’m going to be a general contractor.”?
JM: There were a couple of things in between there. We won’t go into all of the detail, but I ended up living in the Caribbean and became a professional sailor. So I used to race what they call the maxi class boats, which are the around-the-world boats.
I used to race the America’s Cup class boats. So again I was in this world of style and privilege that my background wouldn’t have gotten me there, but I was very mechanical, so as a marine engineer working on these boats and sailing them and what have you put me into this world where I could see things that I would never have been exposed to. And I came to New York about 20 years ago and a guy that I raced motorcycles with had a construction company and we started talking about how I could do some marketing for him and we started working together. That lasted for about a year and then we decided to go our separate ways. We’re still great friends and we still race bikes together. And I started my own company, West Village General Contracting, which I’ve been doing for the last 15 years or so.
TC: Could you tell us a little bit about West Village Contracting? What kind of customers do you have? What kind of projects you do?
JM: West Village General Contracting, we do probably 25% commercial work and 75% residential work. The type of commercial work is the more interesting stuff. So we don’t build out 20,000 square feet for a big bank and it’s just cubicles. Currently, we just did three floors, 7,000 square feet for Motion Picture Company, MPC. Otherwise known as Technicolor. They do all the editing and movies and that sort of stuff. So we built out three floors of their technical suites. So a lot of technology goes into it. There’s a lot of complexity with raised floor and cabling and dark fiber and all this other stuff, backbone infrastructure that we put in.
The other main part of our business is what I would consider medium high-end residential. Because high-end residential in New York is insane. This is where you get Aga Khan buying three townhouses and putting them all together for $100 Million. That’s not what we do.
We serve reasonably regular people, executives, CEOs, that sort of thing. We just did a bit project for the CEO of Victoria’s Secret. We did one of their apartments in New York, a beautiful 5,000 square foot apartment with 8-foot glass windows all the way around on three sides. Just an incredible, incredible space. So that’s what I love to do. And we also do kitchens and bathrooms and that sort of thing for people that live in New York.
And he gave me a call and said, “Man, I was in this amazing space last week. It’s called the Chelsea Arts Tower. We could do all this stuff and it was so well thought out. You should speak to the designer.” And I was like, “Dude! We built it!”
TC: I hear a lot of passion in your words when you’re talking about doing a project that you connect with. Can you tell us about your favorite project in the last 15 years?
JM: Wow. Yeah. You know what, it’s not something I’ve thought about for a while. We did a project for a guy called Jack Guttman. And Jack Guttman owns a building called the Chelsea Arts Tower. And the Chelsea Arts Tower is on 25th Street. And Jack came to us with a set of plans to build out an event space. It was a commercial project to build out an event space. And the designer that Jack had to do the project had come with a great design for an event space. But the client was very concerned about its durability. There were a lot of very delicate finishes. There were a lot of aspects to the project that were going to add the potential to add a lot of cost to a potential user of the space. So we worked closely with the designer and Jack to make this space more robust using materials that were less delicate. And we came across chain mail. Now chain mail, the stuff you use in armor, right? So this chain mail is a fine chain mail that’s normally used as curtains. And what we did was we used it in a horizontal application. We made these giant frames, stretched this chain mail over it and hung it in panels 30-feet by 10-feet. So these beautiful, long panels which have this amazing belly in it when it was hung. And when you put the house lighting, which is basically theatrical-type lighting, when you put the theatrical lighting down either side, you could light one side of this curve with, say, a red light and the other side with a blue light and get this incredible effect on the ceiling. As well as putting Venetian glass, which is super durable, Venetian plaster around the sides. We used an epoxy-resin floor. We put in A/V at all kinds of points. We put full DMX switching in so you could do full theatrical lighting, full theatrical sound. And it took the space from being a place for a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah to a place that you could do anything with. You could have catwalks there. They had Marc Jacobs do a catwalk there for private clients. They had Goldman Sachs rent it out to do a big presentation for their top traders.
It’s not me. It’s the team. It’s the guys that we have. It’s the people that are passionate about what they do.
So the space went from being great for a single thing to being used — to being one of the top event spaces in New York now. And the thing that really made it cool: I got a call from a friend of mine who is in the flower business. He does the flower arranging at events and this sort of stuff. And he gave me a call and said, “Man, I was in this amazing space last week. It’s called the Chelsea Arts Tower. We could do all this stuff and it was so well thought out. You should speak to the designer.” And I was like, “Dude! We built it!” And that was just one of those moments. It was probably about eight years ago that we built it. So we’d been going for a while, seven or eight years. We were kind of finding our feet and becoming more professional. And this was one of those moments where it was the 22nd floor, 23rd floor of this building. You can see the Hudson River on one side. You can see the whole of northern Manhattan out of the other. Sort of these 12-foot windows all the way around it. And it was that moment when we realized, “Wow! We’re really good at this.” And it’s having a client — The client actually did his own wedding there, which was our deadline. And the client invited us, me and my parter at the time, Tal, to the wedding. And actually mentioned us in the wedding speech, like what an amazing job this had been. It was just one of those moments where you sort of sit down — And it’s not me. It’s the team. It’s the guys that we have. It’s the people that are passionate about what they do. And yeah, I would say not because it was the most complicated job. But just because it came together and it was that moment where I think we realized we were kind of grown up.
TC: That’s very unique. That point in time where you’re like, “Okay, I’ve made it.”
JM: That was it. We’re going to survive. Because when you’re a small company — and we’re a small company — when you’re a small company in the big city or anywhere in the country, it’s a day-to-day struggle to identify your values. It’s a day-to-day struggle to stick to those values. It’s a struggle to find people that share those values. Whether they’re the people who work for us directly as employees or whether they’re people that come to us as subcontractors, finding the right people to be on the bus, if you like. The bus is going where it’s going and I know where the bus is going and I need the right people on the bus and the right people in the right seats on the bus. So when you start to build a company and you reach a point where the key people are in place and the culture can now be spread. The goal of the company can now be spread through our subcontractors and through our employees. To me, that is when it becomes really fun.
TC: So you spoke about a couple of key things here. That passion about where the artistic value and the practical aspect of the building fit together. You created all this amazing chain mail effects and the lighting and everything, but it’s also very, very robust. It can handle any kind of event that you want to do there.
At my level, there’s probably ten or twelve really high end construction companies. And it takes about a second to get a reputation as someone without integrity. Whether it’s your team, whether it’s the owner, you personally, you have to have integrity to be a successful businessman in New York. Period.
TC: You talked about something that’s very, very important — about the leadership aspect: ”This is me, James. These are my values. And these are the values I’m going to imbue into my company.”
Can you tell us about a point of struggle? You said it’s a struggle to keep hold of those values. When did you strugge with your values being tested? When was it; “Do I stick to my values or do I take the easy path?”
JM: It’s a really valid question. When do you make that choice to stick to your values? How do you know if the values you’ve chosen are the ones that are going to help you grow the company? And when do you possibly sacrifice those values for something else?
Yeah, it’s a challenge that’s come up many times and it often comes up around ego, I believe. The ego can come as money, or it comes as an opportunity to be in a magazine or to get some publicity or whatever it happens to be. And the opportunity to not do the right thing comes up.
I have taken that opportunity in the past, you know? I’ve done things in the construction industry, in the field— The subcontractor’s done something and I’ve had the opportunity to say something or not say something, and I haven’t said something to the client or to the designer or whatever.
Every single time, it bites you in the ass. It may not bite you in the ass right there and then, but what I’ve found — and I don’t think this is necessarily because it’s a construction thing; I think it’s a life thing — is people overestimate their ability to deceive and underestimate other people’s ability to detect it.
The reality is that when you’re working with someone on a regular basis, there’s an integrity that you must have. When people come to work in New York, they see the Sopranos, they see Boston Legal, they see these big city TV shows where it shows people screwing people. That’s how they get to the top. It’s like crabs in a bucket, you know? One crab crawls out and another crab crawls on its back and pulls it back in again. But if you can be the crab that gets out, you’re going beat everyone. And it’s not how it works. New York is a place of deep integrity. It is a very small town in a very big city. And once you’ve been here a while, you realize who the real players are. Whatever your industry is, there’s only a few players.
In construction at my level, there’s a few players. Yeah, you’ve got the Turner Construction and these giant companies, but at my level, there’s probably ten or twelve really high end construction companies. And it takes about a second to get a reputation as someone without integrity. Whether it’s your team, whether it’s the owner, you personally, you have to have integrity to be a successful businessman in New York. Period.
What I find is is that people that run successful businesses somehow take their business brains out when they start dealing with contractors. And they go into sort of ‘defensive lockdown’ mode; taking a defensive position and becoming very aggressive. Whereas they should treat this as a business transaction; What are you trying to achieve?
TC: Awesome stuff. So you were talking about a lot of things that make a good contractor a good contractor. Alot of people wouldn’t know what to look for in a good contractor. E.g. I’m starting a project now. I’m a smart person, I’m a successful businessman, executive, whatever it is. But I don’t really know anything about construction, and I would like to get my job done as well as possible. I’d like to have what I want done. Possibly I want some guidance too. What would I be looking for in a good general contractor? What would be the things to look for?
JM: That’s a big question, because there are lots of answers depending on how big the project is, what you’re planning on doing, where the project is… So to sort of take a look at the basics, the first thing from a client’s perspective, is decide what you’re actually looking for, because like any business decision, understanding what the end goal is, is a really good place to start in the decision-making process.
And what I find is is that people that run successful businesses somehow take their business brains out when they start dealing with contractors. And they go into sort of ‘defensive lockdown’ mode; taking a defensive position and becoming very aggressive. Whereas they should treat this as a business transaction; What are you trying to achieve?
And there’s the old adage that you can have quality, time or price. Pick two. I’m not sure that’s actually true. I think it sounds funny, and there’s a kernel of truth in there, but I don’t think that you have to sacrifice one of your primary goals.
You can get a great product at a good price that’s done on time. We do it, all the time. We’re not the cheapest contractor. There’s always going to be someone — no matter what your business — that can do it for less than you do it. But I use the example of: if you were going to go and buy a BMW and the BMW that you want to buy is $70,000, well if you go out and start looking and there’s one at $65,000 and there’s one at $72,000 and there’s one at $63,000 and there’s one at $15,000, there’s probably something about the one at $15,000 that he’s not telling you. The fact that it’s got a broken window and a screwdriver in the ignition is probably the first sign, right?
And I’ve seen this so many times. I’ll give you an example. We did a job at 362 W. Broadway. We built out an entire floor for a client who was super happy. Project was about $750,000, so it was a big project. And our client was friends with the neighbor two floors above, they spoke, and they asked, “Who should we use?” Our client put our name forward. And we assessed the whole scope. We prepared plans. We had documentation. We had the whole thing and we gave them a price — it was a while ago — but I think $450-$480,000. They took our bid. They got another bid, which was about the same, just over $400. And they got another bid for $285,000. And I called my client and asked, “Have a word with upstairs. And whether we get the job or not, there’s something wrong with a bid that’s just over half our price. Our material costs are coming at about $285,000. Plus labor, plus markup, plus profit and the rest of it. I think she’s going to become stuck. And if she does, it’s going to be a real hassle for her.”
I get a call about six months later from the upstairs neighbor. “Can you come down and have a look at the project? It’s not quite going to plan.” So six months. She’s given the guy $100,000. So far the demolition is complete and they’re trying to reuse all the electrical cable that they’ve taken out of the walls, which is now spliced together. The rough plumbing is in the floor, the floors are all open. You can visibly see that the pipes are not pitched in the right direction.
I’m like, “What are you going to do?”. “I don’t know. Would you take the job? I mean, I’ve paid $100,000 for all this already. Your price was $485,000 or whatever it was. Can we take $100,000 off that because I’ve already paid it and you do it for $385,000?”
Really!?! The fact is that it goes back to the BMW conversation. Someone came along with this thing that was so inexpensive as to be crazy. And you’re making the comparison between a real company with real people that really understand what’s going on and two guys with a van who show up and this is the biggest job they’ve ever done and they’re like all gung-ho about it. If you were going to a heart surgeon or a dentist or any other kind of business, you’d take one look at it and go, “This is nuts! There’s something going on.” But people go into construction and they have three prices and they choose the one that’s way out in left field and try and convince themselves that they’re actually buying the same product.
So to answer your question; go about choosing the contractor the same way you would go about choosing any other business relationship. Research the actual company.
So to answer your question; go about choosing the contractor the same way you would go about choosing any other business relationship. Research the actual company. It doesn’t take long online to find out if someone has a bad reputation. Secondly, call the references. And when I say call the references, speak to two or three designers or architects that the guy has worked with in the last twelve months. Speak to two or three clients that the guy has worked with in the last six months. Because everyone’s got that client that loves him from two years ago. Speak to someone recently. And go to a current job. Go to a job, spend four or five hours doing some research on this guy, because you’re going to be in a relationship with them for three months, six months, nine months, twelve months. And once you’ve parted with that $30, $40, $50,000, you’re kind of in it. And getting out of it is so much harder.
Really think about what it is you’re trying to achieve. Really get an idea from people what the cost for this should be. And once you’ve got that as a basis, interview people as if they were applying for a job, call their references, call architects and designers they’ve worked with, and speak to their clients and give them a hard time. “How do these guys do? Would you hire them again? Would you recommend them to your mother-in-law? Literally! Would you recommend them to your boss?” And if the guy’s like, “Well, you know…”
There’s always problems on a construction site. There’s always something that comes up that you don’t expect. How did they deal with it? Was it your problem all of the sudden? Or was it their problem they were managing and these are the solutions that we’re offering? Don’t take your business brain out. Just because they’re the cheapest doesn’t make them the best or the worst. Just because they’re cheap doesn’t mean they’re no good.
When we first got into this business, we undercut everybody because our costs were so low. But we were committed to producing a great product. We were committed to being on time. And yeah, we were inexperienced, so we made mistakes, but the client was prepared to work with us with those mistakes, because we were $50, $70, $80,000 less than a bigger company. And that’s how we grew and that’s how we learned stuff. But we also kind of learned on their dime, you know? We gave them a less expensive price with the tacit understanding that we were the new kid on the block and we were going to work hard. And they could have paid twice as much and had it done perfectly and we worked with them a little bit. So if you’re prepared to do this kind of mental gymnastics that’s fine, but understand what you’re aiming for. Understand what the final goal is.
TC: That is very, very powerful.
If you the client come to us and say, “I would like to do this extra thing.” Whatever the extra thing is, the first point that comes up is: This is going to add X amount of time. So our finish date is the 25th of July, this is going to mean that we’re now going to finish on the 15th of August. Are you good with that?
TC: So as a contractor, from the contractor’s point of view, what are three skills you feel that you brought to the table that made you succeed as a contractor?
JM: I break construction down into five simple points, and it comes down to accountability; West Village GC is 100% accountable for the job being on time. We are accountable for the project being on time. Not the architect. Not the client. We are. We are 100% accountable for the cost of the project. And we are 100% accountable for the quality of the project and the finished product.
The design architectural team, are 100% accountable for giving us accurate drawings and accurate specifications.
And the client is 100% accountable for making decisions.
If we keep those firewalls in place — we have these three; you have one each — meaning: the client isn’t trying to project manage the team. The construction team, isn’t trying to design the project. And the designer isn’t making decisions for the project that ultimately the client doesn’t feel in control of.
Because when the client doesn’t feel in control, particularly of budget and particularly of time, that’s when the friction begins. So we own that.
Now in a practical sense, what that means is if you the client come to us and say, “I would like to do this extra thing.” Whatever the extra thing is, the first point that comes up is this is going to add X amount of time. So our finish date is the 25th of July, this is going to mean that we’re now going to finish on the 15th of August. Are you good with that? Because although money is obviously — Not obviously, but money is always a major factor in the decision-making process. Certainly in New York, when you consider what rent is, when you consider living elsewhere, it’s not like being in the suburbs where someone has a big house and you’re doing one bit of it. Here people have 1500 square feet, 2000 square feet is a pretty big apartment. You can’t take out the kitchen and the bathroom and have them living there. So they have a lot of costs and the extra month, although the thing may be $10,000, it might be $20,000 for not being in the space. So really understand what the client’s pain point is; Not being in control, not understanding what the time constraints are, and not understanding how much the ultimate, final cost is going to be. And we start every single meeting with: our timeline is X and the cost of the project is Y. Is everybody happy with that? And that means when you get to the end of the project — let’s say it’s a four month project, five month project and we’ve got three weeks left — it’s not, “Oh, by the way, it’s going to be four more weeks and it’s probably going to be another $50,000.” Because people aren’t prepared for it. So understand your client’s pain points and always, always address them every single week. Make sure that conversation takes place, even if there’s no change — make sure everybody understands what’s happening.
TC: That’s a very powerful thing. Because you’re talking about communication with the customer, first of all, which time and again in construction, you see communication breaks down and everybody gets super sensitive and people get hurt emotionally and financially.
JM: Well, to speak to that very specifically, the communication becomes confused because people don’t understand what they’re accountable for.
The client thinks they’re accountable for the money and they’re actually not. The architect thinks they’re accountable for the finish and they’re actually not. The contractor thinks they’re accountable for making decisions and they’re not. So once you actually divide this up and everybody really owns what they’re doing — Say a client comes into a job, we have a meeting, nine o’clock Monday morning. Everybody’s there. We’ve got an HVAC contractor coming at 9:00, we’ve got a plumbing contractor coming at 9:15, we’ve got an electrical contractor coming at 9:30. So you don’t want everyone standing around wasting time. And the client walks in at 9:20. What do you do? Do you keep everybody waiting? Do you start the show? Well, we start the show. And then we go through our minutes from last week to say what should have happened. Well, the HVAC contractor says, “Yes, this is done.” And the tiling contractor says, “Yes, this is done.” And we go around the room. And we get to the client and invariably it’s, “Okay, client, have you made a decision about fill in the blank.” “Uh, no.” “Okay, well, did you get a moment to look at the documents we sent over for the other thing.” “Uh, no. No, we haven’t looked at that either.” So the client’s turned up 20 minutes late, the client hasn’t done their homework. Everybody else is ready. It’s very easy to then say, “Okay, well the project finish date was July 25th. We’re now going to be pushed out to August 1st. How’s that work for everybody?” And it becomes very clear what the ownership is for the decision-making process and if it’s happening, what the ownership is for the time keeping and if it’s happening. And it doesn’t take many weeks into a six-month project where everybody’s there at five-to-9:00. Everybody’s got their homework done and any problems that are now coming up are now solved in a really clean environment. We’re on time. We’re on budget. We’ve got a problem with a riser that was in a corner that we didn’t know about, but we can now address that without that sort of ambiguity. Without that pervasive feeling of: “What’s going on?” Everybody knows what’s going on. Everybody knows what their job is.
TC: That is amazing. So you’re saying as a general contractor, you make sure to keep everybody on point, everybody focused on their part of the game.
JM: That’s our job.
TC: And not only that, you keep on translating to the customer the ramifications of things he does, decides or does not do. If you’re going to add this little extra thing, it’s going to cost you X more dollars and not only that, it’s going to cost you Y more days.
TC: And you communicate that right away so he can actually make an informed decision. You’re willing to give him the service, whatever it is, but you make sure to keep the line of communication open. You immediately translate to him, “Take into account that your decision means this and that. Do you still want to go forward with that?” That is a very, very powerful thing.
We sat over there and it’s like, “What do you want to do, man? Because I can’t keep going like this. It’s killing me. I’m unhappy. I’m not well. I’m stressed.”
TC: I want to go back in time with you a bit. You’re pretty clear on how you manage the business right now. You understand your position and who does what. I assume when you started out, it was not so clear.
JM: It’s always been that way. Yeah! Not really; Bob Dylan was my business plan. Symbols on the knees, guitar, mouth organ. I mean, the whole nine yards. That was my business model all right.
TC: So sometime between Bob Dylan and now, why don’t you talk about where you had a struggle, where you had failure, where you felt, “Maybe I’m in the wrong line of business. Maybe I’ll go back to butlering or whatever it is.” And how you came of it and how you grew from that.
JM: About five years ago, I sat in the bar right across the road from here with my then business partner, Tal. And we had $10,000 between us in the bank. And that represented our savings, it represented our cashflow, it represented the business. And we had work going on, so we had cash coming in, but we sat there and we were working 14–15 hours a day, five, six, sometimes seven days a week. We were employing 15 people. And we couldn’t get out of our own way. We were stuck at this $2 Million revenue, which we could service, and we had pretty good relationships with our designers, good relationships with our clients. But we couldn’t — We could never — We’d been there for about three years, and no matter how hard we worked and no matter what we did, we couldn’t break through this $1.8, $1.9, $2.1 Million revenue mark. And we sat over there and it’s like, “What do you want to do, man? Because I can’t keep going like this. It’s killing me. I’m unhappy. I’m not well. I’m stressed.” So we took our last $10,000 and we decided to get a business coach. And we interviewed several people and we found this guy, Mark Green.
business is not goat entrails and tea leaves. Business is not; who guesses best wins. Business is a process. Construction is based in process.
Mark Green works for a larger organization called Gazelles. And we called up Mark and we told him our story and he’s like, “You know, you guys are kind of — You sound a bit like a basket case. And I’m not sure I’m that interested.” And I said, “Look, dude. This is our last 10 grand. That is how committed we are to listening to what you’ve got to say.” So Mark agreed to take us on as a client and we started running West Village GC as a business. And business is not goat entrails and tea leaves. Business is not; who guesses best wins. Business is a process. Construction is based in process.
It’s also a people business. Whether it’s the client side or the work we’re doing, it’s a people business and understanding how people think and understanding what motivates people and understanding how to touch, move and inspire people to do their absolute best. We make stuff. That’s what we do. Which means that we work with artisans. We work with people who are deeply passionate about what they do. So finding that person who’s deeply passionate and bringing that passion out. Because it’s often been buried, you know. There’s bad contractors, but there’s bad clients too. Craftsmen come into it with this; “I’m really good at millwork and I’m going to make this amazing thing for you.” And then they don’t get paid and they end up being crushed by the business.
It’s not an unfamiliar scenario if you’ve been in the business for a while. To find people that you can bring this out of, so that you can create an organization that really inspires people to do their best work, that’s what we’re good at.
Putting that skillset into an organization structure that is a viable business, that’s what Mark brought to the table. And that turning point took us from a struggling, small, never-get-out-of-our-own-way construction company into a construction company that does double-digit millions in revenue with a client list that is fantastic, with an architectural and design list where, for some architects and design companies in New York, we do all of their Manhattan work. It doesn’t get bid. They know our pricing is competitive and they give us projects, because we make their life easy, because we run it like a business.
TC: So first of all, I have to commend you, because that choice and the ability to stand behind it, to say, “I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’m investing in this because I believe in this, and I know I need help. And I’m not afraid to go out and get it.” That’s a great thing. I think that really separates the success stories from the failures, to be able to stop and say I need to invest in the business, because I’m running around in circles here.
JM: As much as in the business, it’s also investing in yourself. I look at people — I started this business in 2001. It’s 2016. I started this business in 2001 and I look at businesses that started in 2001, I don’t know what the exact statistic is, but it’s something like 95% of business fail in the first five years. So the fact that you actually make it five years is pretty extraordinary, but do you make it to six? And are you actually successful? Are you actually prosperous?
So everybody in the company does Landmark Forum. Landmark is a psychology course that you can do. I did it and it changed the way I look at the world. It changed my view on integrity. It changed my relationship to my word. What comes out of my mouth has to be true. It has to be fact. I have to make it so. And if I don’t intend making it so, I don’t say it. Having everybody in the company go through a three-day course basically focused on integrity is a primary ingredient to our success.
When you come to me, you’re not finished. You’ll never be finished. And if you think you’re finished, you’re not going to fit in here. We want people that are anxious to learn.
Everybody in the executive team, read one book every two weeks. We can listen to it on audiobooks, so if people are on the subway, they listen to books, because we create an environment of learning.
When you come to me, you’re not finished. You’ll never be finished. And if you think you’re finished, you’re not going to fit in here. We want people that are anxious to learn. And that means we all read the same book or listen to the same book over a two week period, then we go to the pub, we have lunch, we have a couple of beers and we talk about the book, we talk about what we learned.
Being in an environment that’s always learning is absolutely key. It’s not just working on your business, because that makes it sound like you’re working on a marketing plan, you’re working on how to schedule stuff, but your business is made up of people. If you’re going to work on your business, you really need to work with and on your people. And that’s what makes a company go from where we were, this messy, scrappy, get-it-done, always-putting-out-fires company into a smooth, well-oiled machine. And everybody in the company speaks the same language, we all understand what the goal is, we understand what we’re trying to achieve, we understand what the client values.
TC: That is really awesome stuff. To understand that a company isn’t the mechanics, isn’t the structures, isn’t anything intrinsic, rather it’s comprised of the people that build up the company. And building those people, putting them in place to extend your will into the world and create that vision of yours.
JM: Exactly. But it’s not just my vision. Although it’s my vision which is the seed to this tree, if you like. The people and the buy-in from your people is essential, Because you can have a great person that’s got 25 years experience yet hates what they do. I’m looking for someone that loves what they do, that wants to be an A player. And one of the things we do when we’re hiring, …we’re actually looking for a site supervisor right now... So we give the site supervisor a set of plans. I’m familiar with the plans and I know what the main problems of starting this job will be. I give this set of plans and a blank timeline and say, “Please spend an hour and a half looking at these plans and fill in the timeline. So: demolition, HVAC, framing, plumbing, electrical rough in, lighting, whatever it happens to be. I’d like you to fill this out. There is a right answer, but in an hour and a half, I’m expecting you to be sort of 80% there.” If the person that’s a candidate doesn’t really want to do that, that’s great. Because I don’t have to hire you. And I don’t have to find out that you don’t really want to do that in six months time. I can find out right now. And you can go and find a job that really suits you. But if that’s like, “Oh, this is a great problem. That turns me on.” Then I know that you’re on the first step to being a great fit for working with West Village.
TC: So you test out the person to see if he’s actually passionate about what he’s doing, rather than just passionate about talking about it.
JM: Yeah. Or has a great resume. Or was passionate about it ten years ago, but really they should be running a fruit stand. Maybe not a fruit stand! But you know what I mean..
TC: Yes. I definitely do know what you mean. And also love that you bring passion to what you’re doing. I think that’s very, very important. I think that’s a differentiating factor that really creates beauty in this line of work.
In 15 years, we’ve never lost money on a project, which is unusual.
TC: I see people struggling with pricing and with scheduling. Obviously, the customer is not going to know how to price something, but I’ve found that many contractors, don’t really know how much something should cost either. They have real trouble estimating pricing. And many also don’t know to approximate their time properly.
So how do you handle those two aspects of the business?
JM: So I’ll start by saying I do have a pretty good track record with this. In 15 years, we’ve never lost money on a project, which is unusual.
We’ve not been paid for the end of a project by one client in 15 years and it still chaps my ass to think about it. He just had a habit of not paying people. But I learned a lot from it.
I break it down into a pretty simple man-day basis. So I’ll look at a room and I’ll say, “Okay, we’re going to frame out, plaster and paint this wall. It’s going to take me four hours to frame it, it’s going to take me four, six hours, two guys to put the sheet rock up, so I’m up to four days, four single-man days. And then it’s going to take me a day to tape it and skim it, so I’m at five days. Okay, so that wall’s going to take me five days, five man-days to put up.” I can then go around the room and say, “Okay, well, this room, because one wall takes more time than four walls, because obviously there’s an economy of scale. So if I can look at this as a room and say, right, well, this room’s going to take me nine days. There we go..” I can go through it all and work out that the project in total is 180 man-days. Well, if I put five guys on it, let’s say 200 man-days for ease of reckoning, if I put four guys on that, it’s going to be 50 man-days. Well, is that practical? So I can then work out, well, I can put ten guys on because it’s a big apartment for the first week to do the demolition. Then it’s going to be this. So I can look at this and then say, “Alright, this is probably going to be about an eight-week project.” Now, from there, I’ve also pretty much got my pricing, because I know that a guy costs X per day. I can multiply that out, put in my insurances and all the other expenses that go into it. And I’ve pretty much got my labor price and my time for the project. And then from there, I plug in all the subcontractors. So, the HVAC is going to be $25,000 and it’s going to take the guy two weeks. Well that will schedule in very nicely after the demolition. Then I’ve got the sprinklers going in. Then we’ll start, perhaps, a week after the HVAC is finished. So I can then put a timeline together as I’m bidding it and really understand what the pricing is going to be and what the time’s going to be. And it’s as simple as that really.
Don’t work with the irretrievably crazed.
TC: As a contractor, or a subcontractor, I have found that you don’t always want all the customers. Not all customers and contractors are a good fit. How do you go about screening your customers to make sure they’re right for you?
JM: First off, for contractors that are perhaps a bit newer to the business, or contractors that struggle with clients that don’t pay, or clients that are just belligerent and very difficult to work with because, as I said, in a previous conversation, some contractors are crappy. But you know what? There’s some pretty crappy clients, too.
Something goes wrong with a project, and it’s like, “The contractor was late or the contractor did a bad job or the contractor didn’t show up,” or whatever it is.
As a rule of thumb, when we get called up by a client who says, “I fired my contractor and I’m looking for someone new,” I will call the contractor and be like, “What happened?” And if the guy seems completely reasonable and tells me a story, I’ll call back the client and say, “This isn’t the job for us. We’re not interested.” So, first off, if you get called to take up the reins of a project that’s gone off the rails, really understand why it went off the rails, because there’s always two sides to that conversation. My partner and I had an agreement that we wouldn’t work with the irretrievably crazed.
TC: That’s a good agreement.
JM: It is a good agreement. And we’ve said this to clients and to architects and they’ve gone, “Ha, ha, ha.” And then they think about it and they go, “Wow! Maybe we should do that.” You know, there’s this sort of realization that they do work with crazy people.
Well, we’ve got a major problem with this, because the husband is trying to get this done for X price, which is his alignment, and the partner wants to have this fantastic thing, whatever the fantastic thing is, right? And we can’t keep them both happy.
So my first signs for vetting a client is make sure that your client, and often the client is a husband and wife or a civil partnership, whatever it happens to be, make sure they’re in alignment with what they want. Which may seem obvious, but we come across it a lot, especially with the husband and wife team, where the husband doesn’t really care about the new bathroom. He just wants somewhere to take a comfortable shower and that it’s got a kitchen that works. Whereas the wife, and I’m maybe making this a little general, but let’s say for the sake of argument, the wife wants this fabulous place that she can bring her friends around to. And she’s at the golf club or she’s at the round table thing, whatever it happens to be, her social event, and she wants people to know… — Well, we’ve got a major problem with this, because the husband is trying to get this done for X price, which is his alignment and the partner wants to have this fantastic thing, whatever the fantastic thing is, right? And we can’t keep them both happy. We can either do it for this price, which seems reasonable. Or we can give them this fantastic thing, which is going to be four times the price. And you get involved with this. You get the plans and you get the bid and everything looks great. And you give them the bid and it’s $500,000, which is perfectly reasonable. “Can you do it for $300,000?” And it’s like… “No, I don’t know that I can!” But I can certainly start taking things out and as you start taking things out, maybe we can get it down to $425 by changing out the stone and changing out this. Well, now the partner is really unhappy that all this stuff, the juice, is being taken out of the job.
We get into this type of negotiation and we walk away. There’s eight million people live in the Greater New York City Metropolitan area. I think there’s 3.5 million people live on this island. Now, if 1% of those are changing their apartment each year, we’ve got 35,000 potential clients out there. Why would I want to work with two people, that often don’t like each other very much, that have completely different values as to what will make this a successful project, and ultimately I’m going to piss one if not both of them off during this entire thing? And at the end of the project, they’ll suddenly become husband and wife again and this solid unit that speaks as one voice in their hatred of the construction industry.
So make sure your client’s aligned in what the end goal is. And make sure you clearly understand what that is.
Two more basic red flags that I go by are;
- When a client tells you money isn’t a problem. I work with billionaires, money is always a problem! So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is: “We’re really easy to work with.” Why would you tell me you’re really easy to work with, unless people tell you you’re a pain in the ass. So, I use these three basic indicators; Are they agreed and aligned in what they’re trying to achieve, and are they telling me things that normal people wouldn’t have to tell me? That’s how I do my basic sort of sifting the wheat from the chaff.
And don’t be afraid to walk away from a client. You’ve committed, you’ve signed up, that’s fair enough. That’s another deal. But if you start getting the feeling that this client is going to be a pain in the neck, I can pretty much guarantee you, you’re going to be right. And do you need a pain in the neck? Is it better to take that project and spend three months and then ultimately risk not being paid, or spend another three weeks without work looking for the right fit? Looking for the client that’s going to appreciate the time and effort that goes into it, appreciate how you run your projects, and then give you a great reference onto the next one? Because ultimately, we’re as good as the last job we did.
TC: So you’re saying: One, don’t work with the irretrievably crazed.
JM: Don’t work with the irretrievably crazed. And you know it when you sit down. It’s like sitting down with a girl in the bar. You know, she’s friendly, and then all of the sudden, she seems really crazy. Don’t try and save her. Run away.
TC: Don’t save the irretrievably crazed. And keep an eye out for the red flags of “I’m very easy to work with,” “I’m not insane,” and “Money is not a problem.”
If you’re going to lose ten grand on the job, spend $10,000 and go down to the Caribbean for two weeks. You’re going to enjoy it a lot more.
JM: Or, “I’m going to make you famous. I know all these wealthy people and I’m going to get you in magazines.” And it’s like, you know what? How about we do your job and we’ll get through that. Beware of people looking for bargains, because you’ve got to pay what you’ve got to pay. You’ve got to pay your own rent. You’ve got to pay your workers. You need to earn a living out of this. Otherwise, you may as well just go to the beach. If you’re going to lose ten grand on the job, spend $10,000 and go down to the Caribbean for two weeks. You’re going to enjoy it a lot more.
You have the electrician, you have the HVAC, you have the plumbing, you have the plaster, you have the paint and you have — world upon world of different artists, who all have to bring their best to the show so to speak, and not only that, they have to bring it in harmony.
I think the best way to think of it is like an orchestra. You’ve got all these musicians, each one is holding his own musical instrument, but if they don’t know how to play together, you’re going to get a cacophony.
TC: People really tend to take construction for granted. Like walls, lights, electric, whatever it is.
JM: How hard can it be, right?
TC: How hard can it be? Just move this from here to here, this outlet or whatever it is. Just put up a wall here. Take that wall off. But in reality, we both know that every trade demands a lot of skill, a lot of skill, artisanship, craftsmanship. It takes about a minimum of three years working at a craft under somebody before you even know what you’re talking about. And probably five to seven years before you’re a good craftsman and become a master, a skilled artisan, so to speak, it’s a lifelong journey really. And you have the electrician, you have the HVAC, you have the plumbing, you have the plaster, you have the paint and you have — It’s world upon world of different artists, who all have to bring their best to the show so to speak, and not only that, they have to bring it in harmony.
I think the best way to think of it is like an orchestra. You’ve got all these musicians, each one is holding his own musical instrument, but if they don’t know how to play together, you’re going to get a cacophony.
JM: It will sound like that wacky jazz music. Yeah.
TC: You have the position of the conductor, essentially.
JM: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s a good way to think about it.
TC: And you’re conducting the orchestra on the one hand and the audience, the customer, on the other hand. And all those extra people around you, the architect, and so forth. So, how do you go about creating harmonious music?
JM: I think it’s a good analogy that you are the conductor in the orchestra. I whistle and I can pay the triangle, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I know a huge amount about music, but one thing that strikes me about conductors is that the conductor has to know what the piece of music sounds like in its entirety before he can start to break the orchestra up into its component pieces. As the conductor, I have to understand my project manager, who is the office air traffic control, if you like, and my site supervisor, who’s the boots on the ground, and they also have to know what the entire piece of music sounds like. They have to have heard the whole thing. They have to have read the music from beginning to end. And see where the nuances, where this interleaving of skills comes in.
Can you imagine that every single apartment in this building is worth $5 Million and you flood eight of them, because the guy that’s swinging the hammer really is a gorilla?
So we start with the demolition. Now demolition, people think you just get a bunch of gorillas in there and smash the place up. Not so much. Demolition is the riskiest part of the project. You can’t just get a bunch of guys in there with sledge hammers and start smashing it up. You have to have demo guys that really understand how these walls are constructed, what’s behind these walls, where are the risers, which is where the electrical and the water come through the building, where are the risers located, so that you don’t end up sticking something through a wall. And if you’re in a building with 25 floors and break a water main…
Can you imagine that every single apartment in this building is worth $5 Million and you flood eight of them, because the guy that’s swinging the hammer really is a gorilla? You can’t have that. So the client will look at a bid, for example, and be like, “$30,000 for demolition?! This is crazy!” Well, that’s because the guys that are doing the demolition actually understand construction. So that’s your first interlude. And then the second interlude is coming in with the framers. Now these guys really have to understand what is going on top of this framing. Is it going to be tile work? is it going to be art work? how strong has the framing got to be? where has it got to be located?
When you come into a space, it’s not square. Even if it’s a brand new building, it’s not square. So, where do we start the layout so that we end up with the bit that has to look square being the bit you see? Because having the bit square behind the wall behind the second guest room in the guest bathroom is great, but who cares if in the living room, the floor, when it’s laid out, doesn’t line up perfectly with the living room wall and we’ve got drift of half an inch. It’s all completely square to that wall over there, but which wall do we start with? How do we do this layout? So that’s the second interleaving. We’ve got rid of the demolition, now we’ve done the layout. And if the layout is wrong, then we can have $100,000 of the construction complete and all of the sudden we find that we have a run off or something doesn’t fit or something won’t go into the space.
So we have to have the knowledge to be able to, as you say, conduct the whole orchestra so that we can bring up the string section, we can bring up the horn section, we can drop down the percussion section. We have to understand that ultimately, the client has to be comfortable. The client, when they walk in, has to feel, “Wow!”
Then we go into laying out the electrical, laying out the air conditioning. Because if we get the air conditioning wrong and the living room never really gets cold enough or the bedroom’s absolutely freezing, because the air conditioning blows out of the wall and lands straight on the bed, you can’t fix that once we’re finished. So we have to have the knowledge to be able to, as you say, conduct the whole orchestra so that we can bring up the string section, we can bring up the horn section, we can drop down the percussion section. We have to understand that ultimately, the client has to be comfortable. The client, when they walk in, has to feel, “Wow!”
They have to come in and go, “I love it!” And it can’t have been this giant nightmarish, divorce-inducing, hellish trip that they’ve been on. It needs to be fun. It needs to be something that they want to do again, not something that they’re never, ever going to consider. So us conducting this orchestra isn’t just managing all the different trades that are coming in with their personalities, with their skill sets, with their own vision of what should happen. It has to be understood and controlled by the site supervisor, by the project manager, and ultimately by the senior management of the company.
TC: Ultimately by you.
JM: Ultimately by me, Yeah. Ultimately, I am the final word in quality control, so I go to the meetings. I don’t go to every single meeting on every single job, but once every two or three weeks, I’ll be in there with the site super and we go through the plans. Every Wednesday afternoon, we take three hours and we go through every single project that we have on the docket, which is generally between five and nine projects. And we are militant about time. We are absolutely militant. When we say that the meeting starts at 3 o’clock, at 2:55 everybody’s in there, bathroom break taken, girlfriend called, newspaper read, coffee drunk. You’re there to start and get on with it. We then run through the project. We start, “Where are we with time? Where are we with budget? Is the client aware of any change with those two things?” We then run down every single person that’s going to be on the project, so air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, whatever. And what are they doing this week? What did they do last week? What are they doing next week? Do we have any conflict with this interleaving? So if we’ve got all the cabinetry arriving in ten days time, is all the electrical in place? Are all the plumbing roughings in? Is the plumbing roughing exactly the right place on the wall? Because we’re going to be putting 3/8 tile on the wall, is it sticking out exactly the right amount, and we’ve already laid it out for the tile, so it’s going to fall perfectly on a grout line in a bathroom that isn’t even built yet. All we’ve got is stud and plumbing. We know the thickness of the finished floor, the thickness of the finished tile, where the wall finishes for the tile, exactly where the grout line’s going to fall so the fixture falls on it. All of these details we go through so we find these conflicts, and that means that when the tile goes on the wall and the plumbing is half an inch too far back — it just doesn’t happen. It’s already been addressed on a daily basis, on a weekly basis.
Every single morning, we have a morning call at 9:45 in the morning.
Each person has about a minute and a half to share what their top five things they’re doing today. I don’t want the blood, I don’t want the screaming, I want the baby. I want to know what it is you’re actually doing. It means that you say, “Oh, we’ve got to go down to XYZ client and make this delivery.” Well, someone else listening in on the call is like, “That delivery, if you’re going down there, can you make sure we get this and this photographed so we can send it to the client?”
It’s not to check in on people; it’s so that we communicate as a single, living organism.
Every single morning, we have a morning call at 9:45 in the morning with the entire executive team, it takes about 11 minutes. Each person has about a minute and a half to share what their top five things they’re doing today, sometimes it’s three, sometimes it’s six, but their top five. I don’t want the blood, I don’t want the screaming, I want the baby. I want to know what it is you’re actually doing. I don’t want the story. It means that you say, “Oh, we’ve got to go down to XYZ client and make this delivery.” Well, someone else listening in on the call is like, “That delivery, if you’re going down there, can you make sure we get this, this and this photographed so we can send it to the client?” It’s not to check in on people; it’s so that we communicate as a single, living organism.
Everybody knows what everybody’s doing, because they understand how it affects them, and that means that I can conduct your orchestra and it means we don’t have project failure, because we can catch it weeks in advance of it becoming a problem.
I need my guys to be accountable. Whether you’re the painter, or the electrician subcontractor, or the plumbing subcontractor, or a carpenter, I need you to understand that you are 100% accountable for the success of this project.
TC: So, you’re doing the same thing you did regarding the customer. You make sure the communication is always on point, always live, always real-time. That everybody is always talking to everybody else.
JM: That’s a byproduct. The actual kernel of this is accountability. I need my guys to be accountable. Whether you’re the painter, or the electrician subcontractor, or the plumbing subcontractor, or a carpenter, I need you to understand that you are 100% accountable for the success of this project. And that means that when the stud goes in and the next guy comes in to put the sheet rock up, ‘framing is square, framing is square, spirit level’, everything’s fine. The sheet rock goes in, then the taper comes along. ‘Framing is square, framing is square, spirit level’.
And if we’ve got a problem with the framing at that point, maybe someone’s leaned on the wall too hard with a screw gun putting the sheet rock on, and it can put the wall out of square. Okay, so we can take it down now. It’s going to take us an hour to fix it. And then the tile guy comes along, muds the whole wall, makes it perfect, and puts his tile on. If at this point, we find the wall is half and inch out and the shower curve has drift, it’s not in parallel line with it, I’ve got to take down $5,000 worth of tile, I’ve got to take down the whole wall, I can’t put my plumbing fixtures in and my plumbing’s scheduled for next Wednesday, so I’ve got to delay him. And all of the sudden, this one action of someone pushing too hard on the wall with a screw gun, which was never caught, is costing the company $5-$10,000. We then have to go to the customer and say, “Look, we’re not going to be finished on this date.” I’ve got to recalendar four or five trades that are coming after it. The glass guy, the plumbing, the electrical for all its fixtures and fittings, all of this has to be recalendared because one guy leaned on the wall. Perfectly normal, it happens. But the issue is that the guy that came after him was not accountable for that wall being perfect. Even though he didn’t put it up.
If you’re working on it, you own it. And bringing people into this level of accountability is a fantastic thing
If you’re working on it, you own it. And bringing people into this level of accountability is a fantastic thing, because people enjoy it. They enjoy the fact that we finished a 4,000 square foot apartment, great client down on Wooster Street. We finished it. It took us seven months. It was $900,000. And we had four items on the punch list. We had the entire company — this is how we do the handover to the client — the entire company comes down. All the people in the office to the bookkeeper and everybody to the driver in the field, and we hand the project over to the client. Because 40 or 50 or 60 thousand hours, man-hours have gone into this project, and to have everybody there with a few bottles of champagne and the client and we hand it over to them, and then we leave the client with the lead carpenter and the project manager and they go through it and show them how everything works, their stoves, their air conditioning, their refrigerator, their waste disposal, everything. And everybody feels that they were part of building something, as opposed to the client gets it, I go down and say, “Thank you very much. Thanks for the check. Bye-bye.” And people never see it finished. People never see the reaction of the client walking in and bursting into tears. It’s finished. It’s on time. It’s on budget. It looks amazing. It’s just what I wished it would be. It’s better than I thought it could be. And to see the guys who built it be part of that, that creates accountability.
TC: Powerful stuff.
I like making great people. And the great people that we make at West Village GC make really cool stuff.
TC: What are the three things that make you do this, that drive you, that give you passion to be in this line of work?
JM: I like making great people. And the great people that we make at West Village GC make really cool stuff. When I first came to New York, I was in banking. That was my thing. I came here because I watched Wall Street when I was 15 and wanted some red braces and thought I could be Gordon Gecko and I was going to take over the world and that’s how it was going to be. You know? That’s how people that come to New York are, right? They see a movie at 15 and they decide they’re going to take over the world. And I hated it. Because you were just in the screwing people business. You were lying to them on the phone and you were hoping that they would do something and if they did it or didn’t do it, you would earn money. And it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
making stuff. And being around people that are creative. That is something that I really, really enjoy.
I used to dream about being hit by a bus on the way to work. And I did well. I mean, I had a Ferrari, I had a nice apartment. I was in the market when a monkey with a buy button was making money. So it was fine. And one day; I just don’t want to do this anymore. And coming from the yachting industry and making stuff and being practical, I raced motorcycles that had maintenance, I rebuilt engines. I’m practical. I’m not an academic. I’m not particularly well-read or particularly smart, academically. I was pretty much a straight C student. I was expelled from school at 16-years-old. So academia was not my thing. But making stuff. And being around people that are creative. That is something that I really, really enjoy, and having a client give you the responsibility for making their environment, whether it’s their offices or their home, you’re making somewhere that they fall in love, that they raise their children, that they have their big idea, that they come home and they relax, or they’re in the office and they’re creative themselves.
It’s finished, and you can walk away with a real sense of pride and accomplishment that this was something that your team, that you created. It’s something I really enjoy. The making of the people. Making people that really produce something that they’re proud of
You built that environment. You made this. And you can do it badly, or you can do it to the best of your ability. And if you’re doing it to the best of your ability, and you can touch, move and inspire people to do it to the best of their ability, then you create this energy around the project, which is that moment when you hand it over to the client and it’s done. It’s finished, and you can walk away with a real sense of pride and accomplishment that this was something that your team, that you created. It’s something I really enjoy. The making of the people. Making people that really produce something that they’re proud of and seeing the effect it has on people and how it affects them at home and their family lives and what have you. And how they feel fulfilled. I really enjoy it. And finding clients that see that as a value is what my job at West Village is.
TC: So how would clients who are reading this and want to get in touch with West Village GC, go about reaching out to you?
JM: WestVillageGC.com. Look us up on Houzz. We’ve got lots of testimonials and what have you on Houzz. So Houzz.com and WestVillageGC.com. We’ve been in many publications, so Luxe Magazine, New York Times several times, Time Out, Rob Report, Architectural Digest, El Decor, we’ve got quite a lot of press.
And if you wanted to work with West Village, if you wanted to work with us because you think it’s an environment you would like to work in, then give me a call. And if you’d like to work with us because you’d like us to build out your apartment, then yeah. I would be absolutely delighted. And if it’s not the right project for us, then we’ll put you in touch with someone that’s going to be a great fit. Because it’s super important that as a client you end up feeling that you got great value for money. It doesn’t have to be cheap; it doesn’t have to be expensive. You just have to feel that you were looked after and you got great value.
TC: Great stuff. James, thank you so much for your time.
JM: Absolute pleasure. Thank you very much. A real pleasure.
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