Managing Expectations Through Communication
Empire Construction creates a personal approach to clients, projects
John DeRossett is no stranger to entrepreneurship. Business ownership has been part of his family since 1982 when his mother, Suzanne DeRossett, started Empire Building Services. It started small and now is a large commercial service contractor providing maintenance, janitorial and construction clean up in seven Southern California counties.
In 2004, John traveled down a similar path when he started Empire Construction, a general contracting company in Santa Ana, California. It too was a small startup that is now a multimillion-dollar fully operational general contracting company. Typically it manages eight to 12 projects simultaneously, ranging from $500,000 to $10 million. The scope of work includes ground-up retail centers, full remodels and tenant improvements. Markets include retail, fitness centers, restaurants, medical offices, hospitals, and industrial and commercial properties.
John learned the construction trade by working eight years on commercial properties for small construction companies. “I did everything from cleaning job sites, to setting tile, installing carpet and flooring, working with concrete and stucco, grading and ADA improvements. The more I did, the more I learned. There was a great need for small repair jobs in different types of structures, so I was very busy. As the market grew, I decided to formalize my business and start a full-blown marketing effort. The word spread, and the more projects I finished, the more opportunities came my way,” he says.
Suzanne has applied her business and financial expertise to Empire Construction. She is President of the company and transitioning into retirement, so her daily activities in accounting and administration have shifted to other management staff. John is Vice President and manages daily operations for the company that include hiring staff and developing the processes and technology for managing client projects.
The Empire Construction team of 40 people includes superintendents, project managers, a safety manager and administrative staff. “We manage all projects. We do not self-perform any of the labor. We spend all of our time making sure we set our subcontractors up for success and use effective communication and management on the project for the owner,” John says.
The size of Empire Construction creates a personal approach to clients and projects. “We’re small enough to be in tune with all the projects, so everyone in the company knows the work that’s in progress. Having many eyes on a project makes for a better outcome and allows us to handle a greater number of projects with speed and accuracy, as if we were a larger company,” John says.
Recent restaurant work includes ground-up construction for California Pizza Kitchen in Manhattan Beach, tenant improvements for Fogo de Chão in the Irvine Spectrum Center, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Anaheim. It also has completed medical office improvements for California Cosmetics in Newport Beach, tenant improvements for Newport Beach Lavender Salon & Boutique, and office improvements for Glendora NVISION Eye Center. Empire has also managed ground-up construction for the 20,000-square-foot Glendora Public Market in Glendora. Other tenant improvement work has been done for PetSmart, Planet Fitness and Crunch Fitness.
Project teams meet a minimum of once a week on-site or virtually to review progress. “We focus on being results driven, so our claim to fame is our communication. With subs, each week we discuss expectations, including what performance goals they need to meet and for us to hear whether they’re having issues we need to address. We have the same type of regular meetings with clients. It’s a great system of internal and external communication and project management. I like to say ‘We manage expectations through great communication,’ ” he adds. All communication is through personal calls, some face-to-face meetings, texts, conference calls, emails or all of the above.
The company is also very technology driven. Over the last 10 years, it has invested in customized software related to communication, project management, estimating and scanning. All systems are designed to improve project planning and results and to maintain efficient interface between team members, including Empire staff and subcontractors. It also uses Procore as its platform for construction project management and provides team members with iPads.
Plus, it has a system of checks and balances. “We have an excellent support system and resources to tackle any situation. Our process gives us alerts if we don’t meet milestones on the timeline. If that happens, a manager gets our senior team involved to figure out how to meet the challenge and get back on track,” John says.
Clients appreciate Empire’s philosophy that every project is unique and requires its full effort. The most frequent problem the company solves is shortened timelines requested by clients. “Any time that happens we come together as a team to ensure we get the job done. Instead of it just being the project team, we will have our senior management jump in, which includes myself and my general superintendent,” John says. “Sometimes we’ll add additional supervision so as not to overload the lead superintendent. On every project, our goal is always to deliver the client’s expectations with quality. For every job we complete, we want the client giving a great referral and the finished project being a future showcase of what we can deliver. Teamwork is how we get difficult jobs done every time,” John says.
John’s team takes the time to understand their clients’ needs by putting themselves in their position. “We let them know we are on their team, working together to reach their goals,” he says. He recalls a recent situation where a client needed to move up the project schedule by two weeks. “Instead of saying that was impossible, we worked with them. We knew we’d need to double the staff, but they weren’t happy about an undefined price increase to do that. So, we wrote a ‘not to exceed’ contract with the client for $40,000, and actually came in below at $38,000. Our approach is to let the client know we understand what they need and show them how we can get it done together,” John says.
The company has a special formula for success. “The product of what we deliver is based on our process and our people. We have a great team and support all team members. Clients can see that. They recognize that a good team is a measure of the product, so they stay with us because of how we present, communicate and complete each job,” he says.
John and Suzanne firmly believe in sharing their success. For instance, they have supported California Pizza Kitchen’s Inspiring Acts program that gives back to the communities it serves. The program has helped build women’s shelters and homeless shelters as well as athletic fields for schools and military bases. For the military, it also built volleyball courts, workout centers, housing for service men and women, and construction/maintenance yards and offices on the bases. CPK also gives back nationally to fire, police groups and all front-line medical teams in various communities, spending between $1 million and $2 million each year on these programs for the last 20 years. Empire’s work to help members of the U.S. Armed Forces at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton earned it the California Pizza Kitchen’s Golden Palm Award for supplier partner service.
“Over the last eight years, we’ve helped the folks at Camp Pendleton by donating time and money to support whatever the current need is. During that time, we have installed new baseball fields there, put up picnic benches, did renovations of homes on the base and other remodeling as needed. We supplied the materials, and our staff did the work on-site,” John says.
Once a year, the Empire team goes on-site to do the work, but throughout the year the company also makes financial donations toward programs at the base. “We also work with local community organizations during the holidays by providing Christmas gifts to deserving families so they can have a wonderful holiday, especially during trying times,” John says.
As a smaller company, Empire Construction is able to focus on more personalized employee growth and opportunities.
“We give team members enough room to make decisions on their own. A lot of good management communication reinforces that. Plus, I make sure to spend enough time with each person when they start so they know there is an open support system for all staff. Our safety manager also helps protect our staff, our subcontractors and our clients,” John says.
The company has a standard training procedure, cross trains some staff and openly encourages continuous learning. “Once a quarter, we invite everyone to a lunch session in the office to learn more about either a project or a process, or just to find out what’s on their minds,” John says.
Internally, management teams focus on company culture. “Several times a year, we shut down the office and spend time together at baseball games or other events, just getting together socially with families rather than as individuals who work together,” John says. The company also supports its staff with 401(k) profit sharing and generous vacation and leave time.
What John considers most important is ensuring that the company’s philosophy endures. “The highlight of our company is its team culture and how the team helps build up people and makes our career development process effective. We always let our staff know they’re part of the family. It’s everyone’s company, and we want everyone to own their part and know that they matter.”