The Best of Both Worlds
Ross Builders Northwest blends big firm experience with small firm immediacy
While Ross Builders Northwest, LLC may have started small, it’s growing steadily based on the deep, broad experience of its founder Eric Ross and other key employees—as well as their complete commitment to working closely and professionally with clients, subcontractors and others to achieve high-quality results.
Based in Hillsboro, Oregon, the firm provides construction services for public, education (K-12), health care and light commercial building projects throughout the Portland metropolitan area.
Eric spent the first 25 years of his career working for large contracting companies, but says he always wanted to start his own business. “I am the oldest child of the third generation of builders,” he says. “My dad and my grandfather both owned their own contracting firms. I knew how to run a backhoe at age 12 and a trencher when I was a little older, although I didn’t run that equipment on jobs when I was that young, of course.”
After graduating from college, he went to work for “the big guys” with the agreement that he and his father would start a construction business together once he had a few more years of experience under his belt. Sadly, his father died before they could put this plan into action.
“My dad taught me to have a strong work ethic and how to build,” Eric says. “I’ve also been very lucky to have had excellent mentors.” Under their tutelage, Eric says he learned about the operational aspects of running a construction company and how to manage projects that ranged from “changing out doors to being part of a team for a $200 million project.”
Setting Up Shop
One day in 2015, Eric says he came home and told his wife he was ready to start his own construction company. “She said: ‘Good for you; it’s about time,’” he recalls. She is a real estate agent and was working out of a spare bedroom in their house, so they both officed out of that room for a year. “Then I built out a space in the garage,” explains Eric. “Eight months later, we moved into our current office. About six months later, we rented the space next door. We are just about to add another 1,100 square feet of space, bringing the total to 3,300.”
Staff, Systems and Subs
Ross Builders’ staff has grown steadily from one person to eight over the past three years. Construction project engineer, Bobbi Snow, was its second employee.
“One of my schoolmates had worked with Eric, so I asked for her perspective,” she says. “She said Eric is super smart and that I would learn a lot from him. That was important because I changed careers in my 50s. After working in project management and information technology, I went back to school and picked up an associate degree in construction management. I wanted to find a company where I could really grow and contribute—that’s what Eric has provided. I started out part-time and that lasted about two days!”
Eric says he knew Bobbi would be a good fit for a small company with a big vision. “She accepted a job when we were still working out of the garage—and signed up with gusto. She is very good at making sure no balls are dropped. Something will come up and she’ll say: ‘I’ve got it. Don’t worry about it.’ And she just takes care of it. I really appreciate that.”
Both Bobbi and Eric agree that hiring Sara Lum as the office manager and bookkeeper was a great decision. “We could tell when we talked with her that she had strong skills and was going to fit in well,” Bobbi says. “She’s helped us so much and picked up on the need to get Eric out of the books so that he can focus on estimating, marketing and managing the firm.”
“Sara worked on the fire sprinkler end of the construction industry for many years,” Eric says. “She understood our accounting software because she used that in the past.” This was especially important to him because he’d taken time to set up good management systems and processes before launching Ross Builders. “The quality of reports, RFI responses and other information clients get from us is similar to what they would get from a large, successful general contractor.”
Using these systems well also helps Ross Builders nurture and maintain good relationships with subcontractors.
“A common complaint of subcontractors is ‘why does it take so long to get paid?” Eric says. “Sara makes sure our billings are done on time every month. Her top priority is to have all our documentation properly completed so that when we submit it there is no reason for the owner not to pay. Then we make sure that, between the time we send our bill and get paid, we have all the information we need from our subcontractors. That way, when the check from our client clears the bank, we can turn around and pay our subs. We cut checks once a week, every week. We aren’t floating on anyone’s money. I think having these efficient, professional practices in place sets us apart from some of our competition.”
Making Every Contact and Every Project Count
Ross Builders is equally committed to fostering strong, long-lasting relationships with clients.
“We don‘t have the resources to continually look for new clients,” Eric says. “So, we try to find the jobs where we know we’ll be successful and bid on those. We also look for clients who have reasonable expectations. When things go well and the client is good to work with, we keep working hard to maintain that personal connection.”
Eric and his team are always looking for ways to apply the extensive knowledge and expertise they’ve acquired throughout their rich and varied careers, as well as for opportunities to integrate what they’ve learned by completing multiple projects for the same client.
“For example, we did a project for Portland Public Schools—two modular buildings at Lincoln High School,” he says. “There were a lot of permit issues to work through because of the jurisdiction. Then, the completion date was pushed into the school year. We are now working on another pair of modular buildings for the same client and we are using what we learned to stay ahead of the curve. One building is at Cesar Chavez School and the other is at Bridger K-8 School. Even though they aren’t very far apart, we have one supervisor running both projects—we got creative and will shave a week or two off the schedule. We’ve been able to do concrete before site utilities to make it possible to have two different subcontractors working at the same time and then they flip flop locations.”
The immediacy of working closely with clients can also present challenges. While completing a build-out at the Beaverton City Hall, the tenant for the space kept wanting to change the scope.
“We’d frame a wall and they’d want to move it or they didn’t like where the door was,” Eric says. “They were trying to figure out what they wanted as we built it. Sometimes when it’s a little thing here and a little thing there it can get out of hand. The systems we have in place helped us to prevent that. We worked through this and it all worked out because the client was happy.”
Lean and Nimble
“It’s funny,” Eric recalls, “but when we were kicking off our first project with Portland Public Schools, I told them, ‘We are a small contractor that functions like a large contractor.’ At the end of the job, one of the owners said to me: ‘You were right.’”
That compliment made Eric reflect on some of the benefits Ross Builders can offer as a lean and nimble company.
“We don’t have much overhead, so we can keep costs down,” he says. “Also, when the large contractors do small jobs, who is assigned to work on these and how much attention the client gets depends on how busy the contractor is. Of course, every project is important for every contractor. But for us, we really mean that! Large contractors can rely on their history. We’re still building ours—and our clients know we are trying to make our history as good as possible. Down the road when we are proposing on larger projects I want people to say: ‘You know, those guys did a great job’ versus ‘Well they could probably do it.’”
As Eric looks toward the future, he wants to continue blending the best of both worlds for his clients while extending his firm’s market reach. “We’ve been in business three and a half years and we are just starting to scratch the surface in the private market.,” he says. “That’s our next phase.”