Featured In This Issue
Like the business he’s founded and runs, Mike Bishop’s friendly and unassuming exterior overlays a rock solid core. He’s a quiet man in a white polo shirt, concerned about his friend who recently experienced a family loss, and conversant on topics of the environment and community service. But under the humble, people-focused exterior is a gutsy businessman who has driven significant innovation and growth in the Charlotte region since 1998.
His company, Blue Max Materials, may seem unassuming and “earthy” at first, but a quick survey of the surrounds yields an impressive array of all materials earthen. Although the company got its start selling dirt, rocks and sand, it has morphed to provide materials, ideas and support for everything from environmental projects to the construction of large outdoor living spaces.
The company has innovated technologies and products as well as customer-friendly approaches to keep it growing throughout the economic turmoil that has repeatedly plagued the construction industry.
Bishop founded the company with another partner, Denton Williams, to meet a need they saw in Charlotte in the 1990s. With his background in the aggregate industry, Bishop observed contractors and landscapers pulling into quarries to pick up materials for their jobs. He watched them maneuver their little trailers among the monster trucks and giant construction equipment of major construction companies. It was very time-consuming, inconvenient, and downright dangerous.
Furthermore, gravel, dirt and other supplies were loaded “by the bucketful” at other existing material yards, which meant that they were not measured in any meaningful way. Buyers had no way of knowing whether their particular “bucketful” would have enough material for the job. If not, they would have to return to the supplier for another load.
Williams and Hickman agreed that there must be a better way. “There was a need for a reputable company to come into Charlotte and be able to handle those size customers,” says Bishop. “To get them in and out quickly, do things at an affordable price and with good service.”
By 1997, the partners had purchased a location on Westinghouse Boulevard and stocked it with fill dirt, compost, gravel, and sand. The operation ran out of a small trailer, manned by Bishop alone.
Though their February 1998 opening was humble, it represented a significant shift for the industry. Blue Max Materials boasted something that very few mid-level bulk materials suppliers offered at that time: accurate measurements. From the start, they installed a truck scale to measure each load. The innovation introduced legitimacy to the industry, and enabled buyers to accurately estimate jobs.
Although Bishop describes his company’s growth mainly in terms of meeting customer needs, he admits that the innovation was a good business move for Blue Max Materials too, allowing for accurate inventory controls. The company’s safe environment and convenient locations have been a winning combination that has made Blue Max Materials a popular stop for contractors and landscapers.
Paving the Way
Though success came early and quickly for Blue Max Materials, it was not without challenges, chief among them, says Bishop, lack of staff.
“In the beginning, there were days when a customer would come in and tell me what he wanted, and I’d lock the door, go out and load him up, then run back down, weigh the customer out, and collect the money,” he laughs. “Meanwhile, the phone was ringing and another customer waiting at the door. It didn’t take long to figure out it was more than a one-man shop.”
In an industry that was notorious for hiring inexpensive labor, Bishop decided that they would distinguish themselves with a friendly, helpful staff.
Customers loved it. The building and contracting industry was in boom mode in Charlotte, and Blue Max Materials grew quickly. Within a year and a half, customers were asking for more. In addition to bulk products that they could load in the back of a truck or trailer, they wanted hardscape supplies: pavers, retaining wall materials and natural stone.
By late 1999, Blue Max Materials had teamed up with the well known hardscape supplier, Belgard Hardscapes, a division of Oldcastle Building Products out of Greensboro. Oldcastle provided not only high quality product lines like Belgard Pavers and Keystone Retaining Walls, they also brought aggressive research and development, a strong marketing presence, and training opportunities for customers. In partnership with Oldcastle’s “Belgard Universities,” Blue Max Materials started offering development opportunities for landscapers to learn the business of hardscape.
The partnership changed Blue Max Materials; it brought name brand recognition. Commercial landscapers and installers joined the base of customers, which had been primarily general contractors. Expanded training helped develop new landscapers and gave established landscapers new opportunities to grow their business.
It also opened the door to Blue Max Materials’ partnership with other divisions and products from Oldcastle’s comprehensive building products lines. Blue Max Materials is now recognized as one of the largest independent Belgard Hardscapes dealers in the Southeast.
By the end of 2000, Blue Max Materials had firmly established itself as a one-stop shop for general contractors and landscapers in Charlotte. Then in 2001, everything changed again. The 9/11 terror attacks and aftermath brought about an industry shift that turned out to be a business transition for Blue Max Materials.
“We were just really cultivating some of these contractors, and helping them out, when suddenly people decided to stay home and spend their money at home, as opposed to taking vacations,” explains Bishop. Everybody wanted the comfortable, easy access to materials and ideas that Blue Max Materials offered, and business boomed. Blue Max Materials enjoyed several years of growth, adding new product lines, cultivating both suppliers and customers, and further expanding their location in Indian Trail.
But when the bottom started falling out of the economy at the end of 2008, contractors were among the hardest hit. “We went through some painful times,” admits Bishop. “Contractors were having trouble collecting on projects, and in turn we were having trouble collecting from them.”
Simultaneously, new business from general contractors dropped off and the magnitude of projects fell severely.
Meanwhile, a new, vastly different market started to open up. Homeowners wanted to save cash by doing projects themselves, and they were showing up at Blue Max Materials wanting to buy materials. Bishop explains that homeowner projects tend to be smaller than general contractor jobs, and they don’t come with the built-in repeat business.
“Plus, educating a homeowner is a whole lot different than a contractor coming in and telling us what he needs for a job,” says Bishop. “We enjoyed it, but it did require more people for us to provide that level of guidance. We saw that we had to change the way we were doing business.”
The new environment meant lean times for Blue Max Materials. But the challenges came with gifts as well. Homeowners pay with credit cards and checks instead of invoices, so payment was always prompt and reliable. Blue Max Materials learned new cash flow management practices—running background checks and extended credit checks, tightening up invoicing procedures.
With a changed business model in mind and looking forward to future economic growth, Blue Max Materials made the bold move in 2010 of purchasing 40 acres near the original facility on Westinghouse. Ground was broken in 2010, a brand new 7,000-square-foot storefront and a 15-acre materials lot opened for business in September 2011, and in October 2012 a grand opening unveiled an Outdoor Living Design Center.
At first glance, it’s hard to believe the beautiful facility was built amid one of the toughest economic times to ever hit the industry. A concrete paver drive curves gently uphill to reveal a stunning waterfall cascade, a stone-faced building, and an enticing cobble path leading up to an inviting pavilion.
And, like so much else about the company, the facility is more than just a pretty face. Its user-friendly amenities amply reflect an increasingly important innovation in the construction industry: green building.
The gracefully curving paver drive represents the latest in water-permeable paving surfaces suitable for both residential and commercial applications. Its deceptively quaint appearance belies its toughness and practicality. Hundreds of tons of materials travel across those pretty little pavers on a daily basis, carried in heavy dump trucks and tractor trailers, sometimes as many as a 100 a day, that would punish the toughest pavement.
Under the 15,000 square feet of permeable pavers lays a base made of layers of incrementally larger sized clean gravel. This base combined with the attractive gravel filling in the gaps between pavers simultaneously allow water to flow through the gravel while filtering contaminants out of the water before releasing it into the groundwater. The system is so effective a fire truck can pump water into the parking lot without flooding or run-off.
Bishop says the permeable paver systems may have a slightly higher up-front cost, but on the other hand, they have a 50-year life cycle and can be designed to harvest storm water and reuse it for irrigation. They also provide a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to the bio-retention ponds that developers are otherwise required to install next to new parking lots, allowing property owners to develop this previously unusable acreage. For those who do choose to install a bio-retention pond or a rain garden, Blue Max Materials supplies and blends the products for those as well.
The Blue Max Materials demonstration of green building materials doesn’t stop at the curb. The main building’s gracious look is in part due to the masonry facade that covers the showroom exterior. This beautiful stone is actually a man-made product from Oldcastle called EnduraMax that installs without the need for a skilled mason, as easily as fitting a jigsaw puzzle.
It includes an R-13.5 value insulation foam on the back side and can be used in new installations or to provide a face-lift and better insulation to existing structures. It was recently voted one of the top 50 new products in the green industry.
Inside the building, an attractive lobby and a friendly receptionist greet visitors. Displays of building materials line the aisles, and skilled staff assist customers in making plans and selections. Among the offerings are many additional green materials, including all the supplies necessary to build green roofs.
Advancing Outdoor Living
By far, the most arresting innovation Blue Max Materials has brought to the community is its Outdoor Living Design Center, a beautiful ever-growing installation that attracts visitors from around the region. The center greets visitors with a stunning stone marker and stone steps leading up to a winding pavilion, complete with covered outdoor kitchens, grills, fire pits, lighting, waterfalls, and a peaceful koi pond.
Each element of the installation is accompanied by signage outlining what materials were used and who designed and installed that section, making it a useful tool for homeowners as well as designers and their clients.
The Outdoor Living Design Center is made possible by partnerships with landscape contractors and outdoor appliance and furnishing companies in the region who work with Blue Max Materials to select materials and create designs to fit the overall space. These masterpieces serve as a year-round business source for the landscapers, an idea center for visitors, and a place for contractors to bring clients to demonstrate concepts and choose materials.
Blue Max Materials hosted October’s grand opening and charity event in the space, in partnership with Hands On Charlotte, with chefs from Johnson & Wales and local restaurants, live music and demonstrations. Blue Max Materials also offers the Outdoor Living Design Center space as an event location for community organizations and other interested groups including those they already support like the Eagle Scouts, Alexander Children’s Network, and Thompson Child and Family Focus.
As Blue Max Materials has grown, they have not gone without official notice. For instance, they worked in partnership with the City of Charlotte to create a planting medium based on soils and sediments native to our area, resulting in Garden Max, a good economical product that is now used in city streetscapes. The product attracted the attention of Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, which uses Blue Max Materials products throughout their plantings. They also partner with the U.S. National Whitewater Center for many of their materials needs.
Bishop, who serves as managing partner and 50/50 owner with one of the other founders, says that he does not expect massive growth for his industry or company in the next few years. The economy is still too uncertain. But he is cautiously optimistic and continues to look for new and innovative ways to serve his customers.
Expect a conservative approach to growth from Blue Max Materials, as its founder continues to focus on the rock solid core that underlies its heavenly exteriors.
Modern society takes a lot for granted. We expect that when we flip the switch, push the lever, turn the knob, key in the numbers or press the button that the lights will come on, the elevator will open, phones will ring, the room will be heated or cooled, the toilet will flush, and, if we are threatened, alarms or sprinklers will get our attention. Few people stop to think about how these and many other more complex systems work in the buildings that we inhabit. As long as it’s all working, it’s all comfortably out of mind.
Not so for the engineers and designers of Optima Engineering, a full-service electrical, mechanical and plumbing engineering firm, who not only spend their talents designing electrical and mechanical systems, but also work to make sure that they function in the most environmentally friendly and most cost-effective manner.
“We support the built environment industry by designing systems most people never see,” says Keith Pehl, Optima Engineering’s founder, president and chief electrical engineer. “It’s not just about having these systems work; it’s also about designing an environmentally sustainable building. We call them high-performance buildings; designed to use the least amount of water, electricity and natural gas.”
Started in 1992, Optima Engineering has built a reputation as a leader in the sustainable movement. “It’s one of the things that make us stand out from other firms,” says Pehl. The firm has completed over 150 green projects in the past few years. “Sixty to 70 percent of them are LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the recognized standard for measuring building sustainability), but all of them were done with a focus on sustainability,” says Pehl.
“There are a lot of things we do that just make sense that the owner doesn’t necessarily ask to be done—solar thermal water heaters, for instance. Sometimes they argue; mostly they thank us. We go in with the presumption that we are the experts in this. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t do it,” says Pehl.
Pehl earned his own LEED accreditation in 2004 when LEED methodology was gaining interest around the country. “I pushed my staff to seek accreditation as well. They pursued it first; embraced it later,” chuckles Pehl.
Ronald Almond joined Optima Engineering in 1994 as a partner and continues to serve as vice president and chief mechanical engineer. Together, he and Pehl have built their staff to 35 members. Among them were Brian Thompson and Steven Daley, both of whom arrived in 1997 and have now become stockholders and managing principals in the firm taking on the day-to-day operations.
“Our new positions and focus free up Keith and Ron to spend more time examining new innovations and trends, as well as on business development,” says Daley.
Optima Engineering has a significant presence within the Charlotte skyline. “We’ve worked on most every building in uptown Charlotte at some point or another,” remembers Pehl. The firm has completed over 10,000 projects since it began.
“Seventy percent of our business is in the Carolinas but we are registered in 40 states,” confirms Pehl. Often, out of state work is driven by client expansion. Pehl and Almond attribute their success to the acquisition of talented people, diversification and deliberate growth.
Many well known names comprise the list of buildings, sites and facilities which carry sustainable infrastructure designed by Optima Engineering: Carowinds, Capitol Broadcasting Company, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, UNC Charlotte, Wells Fargo, NASCAR Plaza, Time Warner Cable, zMAX Dragway, Elevation Church, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS)—the list is lengthy.
“Projects are generally complex and can take a year or more to complete. Then we offer ongoing support to maintain the sustainability of the building,” says Pehl. “Take Carowinds—it’s a city from our perspective. In the summertime, there are more people there using infrastructure in any given day than the population of most towns in North Carolina. We’ve just finished eight projects out there. They’ve been a client for the past 20 years.”
Historically, most of the firm’s clients were architects—around 80 percent. Now, architects make up about 50 percent of clients due to the impact of the recession on the building industry. The firm has become heavily involved in mission critical work including data centers, hospitals and medical offices. “Mission critical work is typically contracted directly,” explains Almond. “We actually have an architect as a consultant on our team in many instances.”
Becoming Mission Critical
Mission critical work involves buildings which require uninterruptible electric power and cooling systems, largely centered on the functionality of many servers, computers and other technologically advanced equipment.
“My big passion for several years now is called net-zero energy buildings—buildings that consume a certain amount of energy over the course of a year but produce the same amount of energy, as well,” offers Pehl. “It starts with efficient design and ends with solar panels.”
“There are currently only 29 buildings in the United States that perform at net-zero. Optima is currently working on North Carolina’s first such building—Sandy Grove Middle School in Hoke County. This one will actually produce 15 percent more energy than the building consumes,” says Pehl. “To me, that’s where we go as a society.”
Coincidentally, Pehl adds, the military is extremely interested in this technology so they won’t be dependent on the utility companies and vulnerable to security and reliability issues.
“It definitely helps to work with like-minded architects and builders because it’s not just the design but also the methodology,” says Pehl. “To build a clean building you need a ‘bring less on/ throw away less’ mentality.” The aim is for a dust free site which protects duct work and electrical systems.
“You have to realize that there is a lot of cost savings involved,” says Pehl. “We do a lot of education for our clients.” Many efforts, such as recycling, result in side industries. Pehl cites the development of a sheetrock recycling plant which lowers the cost of sheetrock: “You can pay by the pound to throw things in the landfill or get paid to deliver it to another building site.”
Optima Engineering designs dashboards for buildings which monitor and display energy usage by the minute, hour, day and week, etc. “It shows you exactly where your problems and issues are, the number of kilowatt hours being used,” says Pehl.
The firm’s work supports Duke Energy Carolinas’ Envision Charlotte program which is a national model. The kiosk uptown displays the results collectively for all the buildings in uptown. The purpose of the program is to reduce electric usage through awareness of usage. The goal is to see a 20 percent reduction in five years.
“The information affects your behavior,” attests Pehl, who likens the experience to his car, a Toyota Prius, which provides drivers with mileage efficiency information. “I used to be a very lead-footed driver. Now, if I’m not getting 50 miles per gallon, I’m mad. The dashboard has slowed me down. The dashboard does the same thing with a building.”
While there is an upfront cost to having a building dashboard, it’s very insignificant compared with savings, according to Pehl. “If it costs $55 million to build a school and the electrical system is $5 million of that, the dashboard will likely cost about $20,000. If they save five percent of their electrical costs, they have paid for it in six months.”
The work of the 35 Optima Engineering employees is divided about half and half between electrical and mechanical engineering (including plumbing and HVAC—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Approximately half of the staff is comprised of engineers.
Optima Engineering has taken on an increasing role in consultation and education. Once per month existing and potential clients come to the firm’s office to attend Optima University, a lunch and learn program which teaches about sustainable building and design. Accredited by the American Institute of Architecture, architects can earn needed continuing education credits.
“We’re not the stereotypical geeky, pocket protector-wearing engineers holed up in their offices,” says Daley, with a smile. “There is a strong emphasis here on communications, both written and verbal; we try to bring every client along on sustainability and that requires teaching.”
Both Pehl and Almond thought they were going to become architects. For Pehl, the moment of truth was when he went off to college at North Carolina State University and saw the solar house installed there.
“I’ve always been fascinated by solar energy,” says Pehl who went on to earn his degree in electrical engineering. Pehl practices what he preaches in his personal life. His home in Denver, North Carolina features solar roof panels and a geothermal heat pump which uses wells in the ground. He also installed solar panels on the roof of the LEED certified building that houses the Optima Engineering offices on South Tryon Street in Charlotte. The firm, which owns a portion of the building, has occupied space in it since 2008.
“I’m a little too optimistic sometimes. My partner, Ron, grounds me,” says Pehl. “He wasn’t sure about the panels on the roof but six months after we put them up and were receiving a check every month from Duke Energy, he said “We need to expand this.””
Almond earned an associate degree in architectural technology but couldn’t find a suitable job. “No one was hiring so I went to work as a draftsman for a mechanical engineer. I was soon hooked and went back to school at UNC Charlotte for a degree in mechanical engineering.”
A high school internship in mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineering solidified Thompson’s interest in the field. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with a degree in electrical engineering.
Daley’s interest in engineering stemmed from childhood. “I skipped the fireman and astronaut phases. I always wanted to be an engineer.” Daley completed his degree in mechanical engineering at Ohio University.
Optima Engineering’s leadership has strong ties to the community and participates in numerous programs to give back. Some of these are: the ACE Mentoring Program, West Charlotte high School/Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology; South Mecklenburg High School Engineering Advisory Board; Friendship Trays; and the Make a Wish Foundation.
Pehl credits diversification as key in weathering the economic downturn of 2008-2009. Plus, the firm’s core product was, and still is, mission critical work which was never really impacted by the recession, according to Almond.
“The firm’s focus on sustainable building has allowed us to weather the storm economically better than some others,” echoes Thompson. “I see that sustainability is not going away with rising energy costs. People will always be looking to save money.”
The firm is doing more adaptive reuse projects now and pursuing net-zero usage through mixed use buildings in urban areas situated to share energy. Plus, the sustainability industry has created the need for maintenance over time which increases business.
“We do a lot of sustainable work in the Triangle Region so we’re planning to expand to Raleigh next year,” says Pehl. The firm is also considering Greenville, S. C., and Atlanta, Ga., as additional office sites.
The partners have been diligent in raising a second tier of leadership and developing a succession plan. “You see so many firms where engineers work until they’re in their 70s and 80s and then shut the door,” says Pehl. “That’s not us.”
“I’m very proud of the way our firm has evolved over the years to be a leader in the field,” says Almond. “We grew slowly and did a good job along the way.”
Long-term vision is woven strongly into the life insurance firm of Barry, Evans, Josephs & Snipes (BEJS). “A life insurance policy is a contract,” says John Barry. “If you think about it, it’s the longest contract that any of our clients will ever enter into.”
Barry—partner, president and CEO—is the second generation of his family in the firm. His father, Ernest Barry, along with Don Evans, Rick Snipes and Alex Josephs, flipped the traditional business model upside down when they founded the company in 1984.
“The typical insurance advisory firm out there consisted of a large sales force and a small support staff,” explains partner Clint Crocker, “but the principals of BEJS realized that the idea of buying a life insurance policy and putting it in a safe deposit box to gather dust didn’t work for their clients’ level of sophistication. Their clients needed ongoing service of their plans, so for every one or two people they had out in the field marketing, they had three or four people in the office dedicated to serving their clients.”
That founding principle of high level, ongoing service continues today through the leadership of BEJS’ five current partners: John Barry, Clint Crocker, Gerald Applefield, Ernest Barry, and Scott Jones. With close to $5 billion of total insurance in force, BEJS specializes in the unique insurance needs of affluent families, high income executives, and businesses concerned with preparing for business succession or developing select executive benefit plans.
“Attributes of the affluent marketplace require certain products or specialties that can’t be accessed through the routine insurance firm,” explains Crocker. “We can bring those clients something that’s not ‘off the shelf.’ We specialize in helping families and businesses protect what’s important to them.”
“Everything is customized,” adds Barry. “We don’t come with a solution looking for a problem. Our tagline is ‘Priorities Preserved.’ We’re relationship-oriented, so we work on understanding the priorities of each client, and we play long-term, so we can fully understand what those needs are.
“Most insurance agents or brokers take a product they are given and try and sell it, but we have 30 years of experience underwriting the high net worth and executive marketplace, and that knowledge sets us apart and allows us to be innovative.”
One of those innovations is BEJS’ membership with M Financial Group, an elite financial services company that provides products and services specifically tailored for the affluent market.
“We know that because of access to better health care, better education, and a better standard of living, the higher net worth market has a better risk profile,” Barry explains. “Information suggests that an investable net worth of $1 million or more starts to show an improvement in mortality rates and that improved risk should translate into better pricing that we could then deliver to our clients.
“But when we first suggested that to the large insurance companies they laughed at us. The only way the insurance companies would consider doing something like that is if we put our capital at risk, side by side, with theirs. The vehicle through which we invest capital alongside another insurance company is our reinsurance company.”
Through M Financial Group’s reinsurance platform, which represents $47 billion in face amount and $8 billion in assets under management, BEJS is able to offer clients a differentiated pricing advantage that lowers policy costs and offers better value for that cost. They can also offer M Financial Group proprietary products specifically designed for the high net worth and executive market.
“The proprietary products we offer are issued by name brand insurance companies like Pacific Life, The Prudential, and John Hancock, but the product you get from those carriers through BEJS is priced differently and better suited to our clients than the product you would get from your local agent,” Barry points out.
Although the company is licensed to sell insurance in several states and has clients in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois and in states along the Northeast corridor, Barry describes BEJS as a “Carolinas company.”
With three founders from Charlotte and one from Rock Hill, S.C., the firm’s original focus was the Charlotte metro area. In the heyday of Southern textile mills, Barry says the firm “owned the textile mill market” from Anderson, S.C., through Greensboro, N.C. The privately held, multi-generational business model so typical of the textile industry is still a big part of the firms’ core client base.
“We take tremendous pride in our multi-generational work. Today, we have families where the grandparents, children, and grandchildren are all clients,” says Barry. “That’s very much a part of who we are, but it’s not what we do exclusively.
With specialized products and services, BEJS can step in when standard employer benefit plans are inadequate to fully protect a high income professional and his or her family. Customized plans can provide additional disability protection or supplement a retirement program.
And in keeping with their long term vision, BEJS has expanded their focus to include high income professionals.
“We realize that there is an entire level of professionals who will one day be leaders in their organizations,” explains Barry. “They’re young, bright, articulate, and aggressive, and they are already doing well and working their way up. They may not be high net worth today, but they’re likely to be high net worth tomorrow, and we want to get the message out that they may be able to benefit from our resources and services now and also in the future when their needs change. We fundamentally believe that acorns grow into big trees and want to invest in building relationships with emerging leadership talent.”
Business succession planning is also a specialty of the firm and one in which expertise is enriched by the company’s own personal experience. “We’ve gone through every type of business transition event possible,” says Barry. “We’ve added partners, had partners retire, and had partners die. We’ve done a reorganization and also a strategic partnership with a public company. We’ve sold to a public company and then bought it back. Having actually gone through those events puts us in a better position to plan for our clients with a great level of empathy.”
And while BEJS can help clients in any one of their specialty areas, they find that their initial work with a client in one area often broadens into other areas. “We may begin by working on executive benefits,” Barry explains, “and that turns into succession planning, which then turns into transfer planning. Or an initial engagement in estate planning turns into executive benefits.
“We never know where we’ll begin with a client, but we do know that because we are relationship-oriented and play long term, we might be involved in multiple projects with a client over a 20-year relationship. The initial project may be at a superficial level, but as that relationship builds over time, other issues are revealed, and we start to address them as well.”
“We not only work with clients, we also work very closely with the clients’ other advisors,” adds partner Gerald Applefield. “Whether it’s their accountant, attorney, investment manager, or trust officer, we do tremendous work advocating and supporting the advisory community. Our efforts are collaborative.”
“Often, a client’s advisors will come to us for help in working through a particular situation,” Barry explains. “Recently, we helped edit a resource book called The Advisor’s Guide to Life Insurance published for the American Bar Association. Providing educational resource to the advisory community in our area of expertise is a part of our culture.”
“There’s a misconception out there that insurance companies all provide about the same service,” adds Crocker, “but we’ve got a service department you won’t find at other firms. We put a lot of energy and resources into taking care of our existing client base rather than just on acquiring new clients.”
“We want to make this a pleasing experience for our clients,” says Barry. “That’s why we spend so much money on our staffing and administration team and do so much training. We have really bright people who have the ability to advocate on the client’s behalf.”
“We can distribute and even assist in manufacturing the product, but we also understand how important it is to properly service the product,” adds Applefield.
“Back in 2003, there was a regulatory change regarding the tax code for a popular insurance planning concept known as ‘split dollar,’” Barry recalls. “Gerald is known for his work in this area, so we were inundated with calls from attorneys asking for help.
“The attorneys told us that other agents were ignoring the issue because they weren’t getting paid for it. It was pro bono work, but we felt it was part of building relationships. Because of that, we ended up getting new work, but the point really is taking care of the client even when, sometimes, it’s not transaction-based. It’s a testimony to making the investment in the long-term relationship.”
Maintaining existing accounts is enhanced by the firm’s customized service process where a firm member sits down with a client in a “shirt sleeves session” to discuss their current situation and what is meaningful to them, ensuring that their needs continue to be met—preserving priorities. The customized service process is complemented by strategic reviews to address specific changes that may affect insurance needs.
“You can’t buy insurance like you used to,” states Barry. “Somebody needs to monitor that insurance to optimize performance with due consideration to goals and objectives that change over time. Just like you would expect a stock broker to manage your portfolio of securities, our clients can expect us to manage their portfolio of insurance.”
An Honored Role
But BEJS’ aspirations run even higher than effectively managing a client’s insurance. Barry describes the greatest affirmation of their work as being part of a client’s “inner circle.”
“In this business,” he says, “there’s always talk of the ‘need moment’ when the unfortunate happens. We are very sensitive to earning the opportunity to be a member of the inner circle in that ‘need moment.’ We believe it’s an honor to be one of those advisors that gets the call.
“It’s important to be included among a client’s other advisors when that client explains how they wish things to be handled so there’s no confusion when they die. That’s a critical role to play and we value the opportunity to be part of that.
“It sounds corny,” Barry continues, “but there’s nothing more satisfying than knowing that you did something that made a positive difference in someone’s life. That’s what we call psychic income.”
BEJS looks at growth differently than most businesses. They mark it with milestones such as when previous partner Ernest Barry Jr. rejoined the firm in 2009 and when Scott Jones, formerly of Executive Financial, became a partner in 2011.
Last year, the firm’s assistance in making TIAA-CREF a carrier partner of M Financial was another growth milestone. As the firm continues to grow there are plans for the addition of new, younger partners because as Barry proudly states, “One of the founding premises of this company is that the institution would be here to service the client in perpetuity.”
It’s a foundation based on long-term vision.
The test of a strong company is often not the way it performs when times are good, but how it responds to adversity. It’s sort of like the old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” For Charlotte-based construction services firm Myers & Chapman, the recession of 2008-2009 served as a true test of that old axiom.
The recession had a devastating impact on the retail developer business that had, for years, provided Myers & Chapman’s bread and butter construction projects. New shopping center and office projects ground to a halt as consumer spending dropped, businesses put expansion plans on hold, and the financial crisis caused banks to pull back on project financing.
To make it through the tough times, Myers & Chapman refocused away from the developer-driven work that had suddenly evaporated, diversifying into a wider variety of construction projects supporting industrial, office, medical, and institutional clients. Building new relationships became just as important as building great buildings, and in the process, Myers & Chapman became an even stronger and better company.
Building the Carolinas
In 2013, Myers & Chapman will mark 60 years serving the commercial construction needs of developers and business owners in the Carolinas and the Southeast. Founded in 1953 by Brevard Myers and John Chapman, the firm operated under their leadership until the late 1980s when they sold the company. A period of ownership transition culminated with Mike North assuming majority ownership in 1990.
That same year, North hired Rick Handford as vice president of operations. A 1975 graduate of Furman University, Handford came to Myers & Chapman after 13 years at Metric Constructors working with estimating, purchasing, cost control, scheduling, superintendent and project manager duties. In 1996, Handford was promoted to president of Myers & Chapman.
North and Handford ran the company until 2004 when North decided to sell his interest and step back from the business. Handford increased his ownership to become the majority shareholder, and Bob Webb joined the firm as CEO and second-largest shareholder.
Webb, a 1974 graduate of Appalachian State, came to the company after 26 years in the construction business. He had joined the McDevitt & Street Company in 1978, continuing through that firm’s acquisition by Bovis in 1989 and the subsequent acquisition of Bovis by Australia-based Lend Lease in 1999. Today, Handford and Webb own close to 85 percent of Myers & Chapman, with the remainder spread amongst several other members of their management team.
“We’ve had a fairly diverse portfolio of work over our 60 years,” says Webb. “It has probably been more retail construction than any other sector, but in recent years we’ve broadened our base to include more industrial, medical and institutional projects. We now describe our business as construction services because we can offer a variety of deliverables, from complete design-build projects to program management where we supplement the client’s staff to help them get things built, renovated, or up-fitted.”
As CEO, Webb handles the overall leadership of the company, including strategy, sales and marketing, pre-construction services, and accounting. Handford runs the day-to-day operational aspects of getting buildings built, including managing their staff of project managers and project superintendents.
The leadership team also includes Bo South, vice president of sales and marketing; Derek Carpenter, vice president of pre-construction; Marcus Rabun, senior project manager; and Mike Ussery, safety manager. As vice president of sales and marketing, South is responsible for finding new opportunities by networking with architects and engineers and empowering other team members to uncover new opportunities through their work on existing projects.
Carpenter’s pre-construction function includes the myriad of things that need to take place in the early stages of a project to help clients budget and schedule, such as estimating, value engineering, and value analysis. Rabun manages several key client relationships and Ussery drives the overall safety strategy and makes sure a consistent safety discipline is employed across all projects.
Myers & Chapman’s projects are concentrated in the Charlotte region, but stretch into South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. According to Webb, a significant percentage of their work is within 50 miles of Charlotte, with most of the remainder coming within a 200-mile radius.
Diverse Skills and Capabilities
With 20 superintendents, seven project managers, and four pre-construction experts on staff, Myers & Chapman can call upon a diverse set of skills to complete a wide variety of projects for their clients. Whether it’s a retail, office, industrial, medical, or institutional project, and regardless of whether the project involves ground-up design-build, renovation, or just interior up-fit, Webb and Handford say their team has the knowledge and expertise to complete projects on time and on budget.
While the average Myers & Chapman project is about $3.5 million, averages can be very misleading.
“We’ve done a $70 million job and we’ve done $20,000 jobs,” Webb explains. “Generally speaking, if a job gets below $100,000, or maybe even $200,000, it might not make sense for us unless it is part of a larger client relationship. We do a lot of projects under $2 million, but we also have a decent number of projects in excess of $10 million.”
In 2007, retail construction made up a significant portion of Myers & Chapman’s projects, but with retail expansion slowing in recent years, the company has diversified their project mix.
Some of the projects currently underway include the City of Charlotte Fire Headquarters building, a medical office building in Rock Hill for Carolinas Healthcare System, and a major project for Cato Corporation that includes a new 60,000 square foot office building on their south Charlotte campus plus a 75,000-square-foot office space renovation coupled with a new exterior façade.
But while large retail project volume is down, Handford and Webb say retail is far from dead due to continued activity in smaller retail projects such as new stores they are building for CVS and PetSmart.
Shopping center renovations are also becoming more common, an example of which is the complete renovation of Quail Corners Shopping Center located on Park Road in south Charlotte. That center’s developer, Crosland, happens to be one of Myers & Chapman’s longest standing client relationships, the two firms having worked together for 25 years or so.
“A recent project we’re very proud of is the new Huntersville police station,” beams Webb. “The city was having trouble figuring out where to get the $18 million they needed for a new police station, but someone had the idea to buy an empty building in the depressed marketplace and renovate it. They ended up buying a building in a prime location and we came in and did an interior renovation which gave them everything they wanted for a total cost of less than a third of the original $18 million price tag.”
“We’re also building a textile mill in Hamlet for Knit Rite out of Kansas City,” he continues. “We’re going into an old mill that has been sitting empty for years, completely gutting it, and re-up-fitting 80,000 square feet. They make specialty medical fabrics. It’s another example of putting a resource back into use.”
Another noteworthy project for Myers & Chapman is a large manufacturing facility in Concord. It started out as a 150,000-square-foot new build project, but halfway through construction the client increased the space to make room for additional manufacturing capacity.
“The original plan had a large warehouse component, but they decided to convert that to production space,” says Handford. “It started small and became very big, and is an example of a satisfied client bringing us repeat business because of our ability to satisfy their unique needs.”
Myers & Chapman is also a leader in green and sustainable building services, including LEED Certified projects, Energy Star buildings, and the latest green building principles and practices. LEED is an internationally recognized green building program developed by the United States Green Building Council that provides a framework for practical and measurable green building design, construction, operation, and maintenance. With seven LEED Accredited Professionals on staff, Myers & Chapman has completed a number of LEED Certified projects, including their own LEED Gold headquarters office.
Stronger and More Diversified
The last four years have not been kind to the construction business, but Myers & Chapman has made it through the storm and emerged a much stronger and more diversified firm in the process.
“In the 2005 to 2007 period, the vast majority of our work was for developers,” admits Webb. “But that industry fell off a cliff. The volume of new permits was down 75 percent from 2008 to 2009 and our developer work came to a screeching halt.”
“In September of 2008 we had 23 project awards just waiting for a notice to proceed,” remembers Handford. “Only one of those 23 actually ended up starting and that one didn’t start until this year. So 22 completely vanished. We went from $95 million to $38 million in top line revenue from 2008 to 2009.”
To make it through the downturn, Myers & Chapman shifted their focus away from developer-driven work to the kind of work that was still out there—projects for end users such as Carolinas Healthcare System, Cato, and Knit Rite that own their own buildings. The new strategy paid off as revenues recovered to $73 million by 2011. They expect to finish 2012 with about $75 million of revenue on the books.
“The economy forced us to put a new emphasis on relationships,” explains South. “Referrals, networking, and relationships with architects became much more important to help identify new opportunities.”
Another key to their success has been an unrelenting focus on the client and making sure they are always looking out for the customer’s best interests from start to finish. To accomplish that goal, everybody in the organization is empowered to do what is necessary to take care of the client.
“You don’t have to ask the next guy up the ladder whether you can do something to make the client happy,” says Handford. “As long as it complies with our values, the company stands behind whatever you do. Our one restriction is to do the right thing.”
The leadership team continues to look warily at the direction of the economy, but based on the current book of business and the potential project pipeline, they are cautiously optimistic about the future.
“We know that whatever happens two years from now or five years from now is going to be different from what is happening today,” concedes Handford. “But people are always going to need construction. As long as people are moving into and out of business locations, they’re going to need to reconfigure the space, they’re going to need new space, or they’re going to need to prepare for new capabilities.
“Our job becomes to identify what that market is at any given time and help that market learn who we are so that we can service it. We have diverse talent in this building, so whatever the change calls for, we’re going to be in a position to provide it.”
New Year’s resolutions have a spotty history of success. Made in January, they are usually broken and forgotten by spring. But despite repeated failures on a personal level, there is a lot to like about business resolutions. They are another name for plans and when made by self-confident, decisive and resolute people, they often work.
Thanks to Matthew Dixon, Brent Adamson and Nicholas Toman, writing in the July-August issue of theHarvard Business Review (HBR), there are a few new ideas that sales training managers might include in their New Year’s strategic mix. Should sales staff stay with the solution sales model that has guided sales training since 1975 or transition to Dixon’s 21st century-based insight selling model? Their article leaves little doubt as to their bias; it’s titled “The End of Solution Sales.”
Solution selling comes to the table with a long and successful track record. It radically changed the role of sales representative from product knowledge expert to a coach who seeks solutions to customer problems. Solution sales reps are trained to ask open-ended questions about what keeps their customers up at night. They learn to locate customer pain, build relationships, relieve angst through a sales solution, and deliver satisfaction.
Dixon finds that organizations where solution selling works—those companies with a clear vision, clear need for change and established demands—are not venues that attract top sales personnel. Organizations that are in flux with emerging needs, appeal to star sales performers.
In a recorded interview on the HBR website, Dixon examines the way we buy automobiles today. It’s a good example of how the sales environment has changed since 1975. Long before customers visit a dealership they have checked Consumer Reports ratings, Internet-based analyses and peer reviews. If unaware of their options by this stage of their research, they have at least narrowed the field. Potential car buyers then go on to obtain price reports that reveal a dealer’s true cost of the car or cars that meet their needs. They learn too what others have paid for similar cars and a suggested target price.
Dixon estimates that with help from the Internet and other resources, 60 percent of all purchase decisions are made before consulting a sales rep. There is precious little pain for the rep to relieve and few obvious problems left to solve.
So what is the role of a successful sales rep? Her job according to Dixon et al.is to focus on unacknowledged and unrecognized needs, the issues that should keep the customer up at night. “Here are the issues that could seriously disruptyour life if left unattended,” says Dixon’s idealized sales star. This is the essence of what he calls insight selling.
Customers don’t necessarily believe these tea leaf readers. They are skeptical and that is exactly what Dixon encourages. Challenger reps, as Dixon calls top sales performers, prove their worth by steering doubters away from disaster and into purchases that prevent pain from ever occurring.
A clever idea, but is it worth including in your 2013 sales training? We asked six Charlotte area sales training experts to weigh in.
“It is the worst article I’ve ever read about sales and relationships,” says Jeffrey Gitomer of Buy Gitomer and Train One. In Gitomer’s view, the author’s advice is “dangerous to sales people and their careers” because “there is nothing in there about value, respect, trust and relationships.”
As far as seeking out skeptical clients goes, Gitomer doesn’t buy that either. “If a client doesn’t like you, they won’t do business with you.”
Then there is the title of the article, “The End of Solution Selling.” Gitomer goes it one better. “Solution selling was dead the moment it was written,” he says. It relies too much on techniques and systems. “The key to selling is harmonizing,” he emphasizes. Techniques create barriers to authenticity and impede harmony.
Tim Conner, an author of 80 books on selling, sides with Gitomer. “The authors present a lot of old school stuff repackaged to look new and relevant,” he says. He finds that many successful people in sales are already following what the authors recommend.
Bob Henricks agrees. He heads up Henricks Corporate Training & Development/Sandler Training, a Charlotte sales training company. He says, “Insight selling sounds new and fresh, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure there is anything new here.”
Neither Conner nor Henricks are ready to write the obituary for an old, reliable workhorse. “Solution selling is not dead,” affirms Conner. “Solution selling still has a place,” agrees Henricks. “People buy for the same reasons they always have—to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.”
Keith Eades, founder and chief executive officer of Sales Performance International, would know if solution selling were dead or dying. He was an associate of Mike Bosworth whose research at Xerox Corporation helped develop the solution selling methodology, and has written The New Solution Selling and co-authored The Solution-Centric Organization. His take on the HBR article is more nuanced than Gitomer or Conner.
“The attributes ascribed to solution selling in the article and associated chart don’t remotely resemble what the documented methodology actually teaches—in some cases they are the antithesis of what is taught.
“Take the issue of the type of organizations where solution selling and insight selling are supposed to work—clear vision and established demands for solution selling and in flux for insight,” continues Eades. “If people or organizations already have clear visions of what they need to solve problems, they wouldn’t need salespeople. The real value solution sellers bring is when they can help someone see a way to solve a problem they didn’t know existed or a problem they didn’t know how to solve.”
“We teach the concept of latent pains, latent problems or latent opportunities,” Eades explains. “This is the world that exists within a buyer’s mind where problems or opportunities are hidden, dormant or inactive.” In these cases, solution selling provides clear vision; it doesn’t need clear vision at the onset.
Pat Heidrich, a Cornelius-based sales trainer, gives insight selling a passing grade on many of its ideas. After all, insight is what led Steve Jobs to revolutionize the computer marketplace with the iPad. And challenging a client has a lot going for it. He is quick to add qualifiers, though.
“Take insight…The problem is how do you transfer insight to others? If it is transferable, I can’t teach it in a one-day seminar,” says Heidrich. Enlightened organizations take the time to encourage and support insight and then develop salespeople who believe they can deliver it.
And delivery matters. “It is okay to challenge a prospect’s beliefs,” continues Heidrich. But it must be done short of insult. “There are techniques for getting away with challenging a client while maintaining rapport. You always keep a client in an okay state,” he says. That’s okay as in I’m okay, You’re okay, the classic 1967 text on transactional analysis by Thomas Harris. It’s a book that Heidrich refers to often.
Henricks thinks challenging clients even when done with rapport is not always a wise strategy. What if the client is a highly dominant personality type? “They don’t like to be challenged,” says Henricks. “Do that and you’re out of the office in 15 minutes.”
Jim Dunn of Dunn Enterprises of the Carolinas/Sandler Training is the one sales trainer that has gone beyond the HBR article. He has read The Challenger Sale, the 2011 book by Dixon, Adamson and Toman; it was a gift from one of the best salespersons he ever met.
His take: “Insight selling is dead on. I believe that 20 percent of salespeople have figured out the market. They are the professional salespersons the authors write about. The other 80 percent are getting bad advice, not reading books on selling and not doing the kinds of things that raise the bar of performance. They will find themselves out of a job.”
And does he believe that we have seen the end of solution selling? “Yes, I think so. The article and book express a different approach. They make a unique, valid and important statement.”
Selling Solutions for 2013
Putting differences aside, we asked all six for their best recommendations for building sales in the New Year. Where do they think the gold is buried in 2013?
- Increase prospecting behavior. Make more cold calls, says Pat Heidrich. “You can easily make 10 to 20 cold calls in an hour and it is an activity that is 100 percent under the control of the salesperson.” Whenever he can, Heidrich attaches social media to the call. He checks Linkedin for a prospective buyer’s profile to see if he and the client have contacts in common. If there is a common link, “I call my friend and ask a favor. Would you call X and see if he would take my call?”
- Ask negative questions. Jim Dunn approaches prospective clients with this observation: “You are probably not experiencing these trends that I’m seeing in other companies.” Surprisingly, clients often open up to that type of inquiry. “For established clients try asking, ‘What would I have to do in 2013 to lose your business?’” The result, says Dunn, is an honest conversation.
- Reinvent yourself. “The number one reason companies fail is that they have lost relevance in the marketplace,” maintains Tim Conner. He encourages CEOs to read books and articles by futurists and then ask how their own marketplace has changed. Conner recommends blending those trends into company policies and procedures.
- Get close to your customers. “Relationships matter,” says Jeffrey Gitomer. “Provide your customers with enough value and they will be loyal to you and refer others your way. If you can get every customer to refer one customer, you can double your business,” says Gitomer. Value comes from telling what Pat Heidrich calls—third party stories. For example, “Here are some of the issues others like yourself have shared with me. I don’t know if you are experiencing the same thing, but I’m hearing a lot of that.”
- Track prospecting. There are 70 cameras trained on every play in the National Football League. Coaches know what their players have done and what might improve player performance. “Sales managers could achieve the same result with prospect tracking software,” says Pat Heidrich. “The best salespeople will react positively,” he maintains. Keith Eades calls them “sales enablement tools” and advocates that they be linked to a company’s customer relationship management program.
- The universal truth. Bob Henricks reiterates, “People buy for the same reasons they always have—to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.”
- Probe, learn, listen, ask questions. Keith Eades says, “If people or organizations already have clear visions of what they need to solve problems, they wouldn’t need salespeople. The real value solution sellers bring is when they can help someone see a way to solve a problem they don’t know existed or a problem they didn’t know how to solve.”
With the approach of the holiday season, many of us begin making plans for overseas travel. While the world is becoming smaller, it is also becoming more dangerous, especially for Americans. Robberies have always been common, but kidnappings have increased significantly since 2009. Mexico is now averaging 49 kidnappings per day. International agencies report that many of those abductions are U.S. business persons and have involved organized crime assisted by taxi drivers and local police. This risk is also prevalent throughout most of the world and requires the American traveler to be better prepared.
A key element of safe, international travel is Situational Awareness. Before you travel, it is important to identify specific risks in a region or city. Travel agencies and online services are not a reliable source of information, often downplaying risks with statements such as, “You will be safe if you stay in the tourist areas,” or “Attacks against tourists are rare.”
While these statements might be generally true, more accurate information is available from the State Department which continuously monitors international crime and threats against Americans travelling abroad and publishes that information. Using Mexico as an example, the State Department issued the following warning on November 20, 2012:
The number of kidnappings and disappearances throughout Mexico is of particular concern. Both local and expatriate communities have been victimized. In addition, local police have been implicated in some of these incidents. We strongly advise you to lower your profile and avoid displaying any evidence of wealth that might draw attention. Carjacking and highway robbery are serious problems in many parts of the border region and U.S. citizens have been murdered in such incidents.
Travelers should also research the local area on their own, paying particular attention to crimes committed near the resort, hotel, airport, and tourist areas. Recently, a colleague travelling in Bogota, Colombia, sent me an email warning of a new threat to business travelers.
Local newspapers were reporting that women were welcoming businessmen to their country with an embrace and “Mi Amor.” Unfortunately, the embrace included a drug dispensed with lapel stick pin that caused confusion and disorientation. Once drugged, the victim was robbed or held for a ransom. This type of information is not widely available from the U.S. search engines, so it takes some digging to find it.
A large part of travelling safely is avoiding risks—don’t make yourself an easy target. Below is an abbreviated list of simple actions that will make you less of a target:
Ø Arrange transportation. Arrange for an airport pickup before departing the U.S., which can be done through most hotels or vetted driving services. Avoid using taxis waiting at the airport and never use a “homeboy” that is trolling for business near the baggage claim. Be sure to get the name, cell phone number and a photo of your driver if possible. Never assume that the person holding the sign with your name is the right person. Avoid driving as it opens many opportunities for problems. When travelling from the hotel, use the concierge to arrange a driver. Avoid hailing a taxi from the street as freelance drivers often have questionable records.
Ø Local currency. Obtain a small amount of local currency before leaving the U.S.—typically enough for the taxi and service gratuities, and use credit cards for everything else. Avoid using currency exchange counters and automated teller machines (ATMs) at foreign airports. Not only are they expensive, but they lure predators. Before travelling, I often buy a preloaded, debit card and then withdraw local currency from the hotel ATM.
Ø Important documents. Make copies of important documents such driver’s license, passport, and health insurance card before you depart. Give a copy of each to your emergency contacts in the U.S. Carry copies with you as the originals should be locked in a hotel safe—not carried in a wallet, briefcase or backpack that can easily be stolen.
Ø Itinerary. Enroll with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and file your itinerary. In case of an emergency, enlist the help of the U.S. Government. Be sure to keep the Embassy contact numbers in your wallet or as a speed-dial number on your smartphone.
Ø Smartphone. Smartphone service outside the U.S. is highly dependent on your service agreement and does not typically include international voice and data. Don’t assume that your iPhone or Android device will work overseas, and be sure to ask your service provider for a single-month global data plan—paying roaming data rates of $15 per megabyte could easily translate to into several hundred dollars.
Ø Hotel security. Assume that anything in your hotel room can be stolen. Theft of electronics is especially problematic as they are easily exploited for personal, financial and corporate information within minutes.
International travel is always exciting. With just a few precautions, it can be done safely.
The North Carolina Legislature made several changes to the mechanic’s lien and bond law, some of which begin January 1, 2013 and some of which begin April 1, 2013. Please consult an attorney as there are specific and strict requirements which must be followed to comply with the lien law. Also effective January 1, 2013, sanctions for the filing of fraudulent lien waivers will expand to include potential loss of contractor’s licenses.
Beginning January 1, 2013, a Claim of Lien on Real Property filed by a contractor must also be served on the owner. Up to now, such service was not required. A subrogation claim of lien filed by a subcontractor must also be served on the contractor as well as the owner. A certification that the Claim of Lien has been served on the necessary parties must also be included with the Claim of Lien. Therefore, a claim of lien is perfected upon both the service of the claim of lien upon the owner (and contractor if it is a subrogation claim of lien) and the filing of the Claim of Lien.
One notable change in the filing of a subrogation claim of lien being asserted by a subcontractor is that, beginning January 1, 2013, the new law allows the subcontractor to use either its own date of first or last furnishing of labor or materials or the contractor’s dates for the first or last furnishing labor or materials.
Beginning April 1, 2013, the lien law will require potential lien claimants to provide written notice to what is referred to as a “Lien Agent” to preserve their lien rights. Chapter 44A-11.1 will require an owner to designate a Lien Agent no later than the time the owner first contracts with any person to improve real property where the cost of the project is $30,000 or more at the time the original building permit is issued, except for certain existing single family residential dwelling units.
A Lien Agent is defined as a title insurance company or title insurance agency designated by an owner. Failure to follow the new requirements specified in the statute could result in the potential lien claimant having its lien rights terminated or subordinated to the interests of others.
For any project subject to a Lien Agent designation, a sign disclosing the contact information for the Lien Agent must be conspicuously and continually posted on the property until completion of all construction if the contact information for the Lien Agent is not contained in a building permit or attachment thereto posted on the property.
If the contact information for the Lien Agent is not on the building permit or posted on the property, a potential lien claimant can deliver to the owner a written request for the Lien Agent contact information and the owner must, within seven days of receiving the request, provide written notice to the potential lien claimant containing the contact information.
A contractor or subcontractor must, within three days of contracting with a lower-tier subcontractor who is not required to furnish labor at the site of the improvements, provide the lower-tier subcontractor with a written notice containing the contact information for the Lien Agent designated by the owner. Failure of the contractor or subcontractor to provide this notice shall subject the contractor or subcontractor to damages suffered by the lower-tiered subcontractor resulting from the failure to give this notice.
In order to preserve its full lien rights under the new law, a potential lien claimant needs to serve a Notice to Lien Agent on the Lien Agent. The best way to preserve full lien rights is to serve a Notice to Lien Agent within 15 days after the first furnishing of labor or materials by the potential lien claimant. The Notice to Lien Agent must include certain information specified in the statute.
If the potential lien claimant fails to serve a Notice to Lien Agent on the Lien Agent within 15 days after the first furnishing of labor or materials, a potential lien claimant can still perfect a claim of lien on real property. However, by waiting a claimant may have its lien subordinated to a previously recorded mortgage or deed of trust or have its lien rights terminated if the property is sold before the service of the filing of a Claim of Lien.
Hurricane Sandy may have caused billions of dollars in property damage, and will likely put many companies out of business in its wake, as major disasters usually do. But your business doesn’t have to partake in national headlines in order to experience disaster.
In fact, for more than 80 percent of businesses experiencing a major disaster this year, it will come in the form of technology mishaps. Even a simple power loss or minor theft can spell major problems for an unprepared small business. The cost of a single small event, such as the data loss associated with the theft of a company laptop, amounts on average to $50,000. By some estimates, 50 percent of small businesses that experience unexpected hardware failure will be out of business within one year.
Yet according to a global study by Regus last year, the percentage of companies with no form of disaster recovery plan remains around 43 percent—and the number among small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) is higher.
Underlying this startling statistic is the reality that most small businesses simply don’t feel they have the time to devote to something as dauntingly complex as Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity. Traditionally, DR/BC has been the realm of big business, a complicated and expensive multi-step process involving consultants and lots of testing.
But new technology is changing that. For most small businesses, the disaster recovery plan can start with three straightforward items: Ensure employees know where to go and who to contact in the event of an office closing, update insurance policies, and maintain up-to-date, replicated, secure data backups.
Though it sounds complicated, the last step can be both the simplest, and the most important, step of all. Here is everything you need to know to take it in confidence:
Plan Now. Don’t wait until disaster strikes, or you have a new budget and a free weekend, to get started. You can’t afford not to make the investment.
Identify Your Critical Data. Knowing what you have and what you need is critical to ensuring you can access it when you need it. Critical data includes everything you use on a daily basis—employee and customer contacts, financial documents, data files—as well as everything you are required by law to keep and everything you might need later. Don’t forget logo and design files, past customer contacts, and email archives.
Choose a Backup Option. Secure cloud-based solutions are an ideal choice for most SMBs, as they are easier, more intuitive, and more secure than ever before. But know what to look for in a provider.
Choosing Your Backup Provider. Not all data backup services are created equal. Be sure yours meets these criteria, and be confident your company is truly protected:
Ø Multiple offsite replications in at least three distinct geographical regions.This ensures that even if power goes down for you and the rest of your region, your data will be secure and ready to recover as soon as the lights come back on.
Ø Near real-time backups. Current technology makes it easier than ever to ensure you never lose so much as 20 minutes worth of new data.
Ø 24/7 support. Agile data recovery is only possible if you can get help when you need it, because disaster doesn’t limit itself to standard business hours.
Ø Intuitive restoration. A good backup system will allow you to restore your data quickly and simply without technical assistance.
Ø Flexible restoration. Data that comes back in a jumbled mess can cost almost as much to recover as data that doesn’t come back at all. Choose a solution that allows for recovery of files, folders, partitions, mailboxes and messages, databases, and tables.
Ø Secure, encrypted, compressed formats. If a server is compromised by malware or hackers, it’s important that your data not be readable to thieves.
Ø On-site virtual server. While not strictly necessary, having an on-site version of your back-up can mean getting your business up and running significantly faster. Off-site recovery, depending on vendor, can take several days, while on-site recovery usually requires less than a couple of hours.
If you’re among the 43 percent who came into 2012 with no disaster recovery plan in place, commit to starting 2013 with confidence in your ability to recover. Because it doesn’t take a hurricane to make a disaster.
There are a variety of reasons why people start a new business. In these recent times of layoffs, corporate downsizing and high unemployment rates, you may decide that working for yourself is the best alternative. To get a new business off the ground successfully, consider what resources you will need to develop a solid business plan and successfully carry out that plan. Fortunately, these resources are readily available in your community—you simply have to know where to start.
Nearly 65 percent of new businesses fail within the first five years of operation with the primary reason being lack of proper research. There are steps you can take to improve your chances of success. A good starting point is to seek counsel from reputable, established business owners in your industry. These individuals can offer important planning tips for your business’ early stages. These business owners with “boots on the ground” experience are a vital resource in helping you avoid pitfalls and may provide information that can lead to the development of a more solid industry-specific business plan.
Once you have a feel for the industry, contact your local Small Business Administration (SBA) office. The SBA will provide business research information free of charge in many aspects related to your business. One important aspect is the demographics of the area in which you will practice. A demographic study will help you understand your potential customer base and identify your existing competition.
Make certain that the location where you plan to open your business has both the age and income demographic that will provide the best opportunity for success. The SBA also will provide tips for writing a business plan if you are uncomfortable devising a plan on your own. The Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE, is also a great resource and will help when needed.
The next step is to ensure you have enough capital to carry out your plan. You need to be sure you have access to sufficient funds not only to open your business but also to cover business and personal expenses should times get rough. A business lacking adequate back-up capital is virtually doomed from the start.
Develop a working relationship with a local banker and share your business plan with this person. Even if you do not need funds upon start-up, in lean times or times of expansion, an established relationship with your banker may provide you with funds needed for future plans.
Before you open your doors, hire a qualified certified public accountant (CPA). A successful business owner is organized. Poor organization leads to poor accounting, and poor accounting is one of the biggest reasons that businesses fail. Your CPA can help you provide details of revenues and expenses to solidify your business plan. The more detailed and well thought out the business plan, the better your chances of clinching the financial backing you will need to operate your business.
Understand that your costs and overhead will likely be far higher than you anticipate. The unexpected is to be expected, and may come in the form of anything from escalating equipment, lease or insurance payments to surprise taxes and fees on the local, state or federal levels. A CPA can assist you by working with you and your insurance agent (property insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, owner’s life insurance coverage), real estate agent (leasing property versus purchase of a business site), or payroll service to better understand and control the costs of your business. Your CPA can also help you execute your business plan, including adjusting the plan periodically and helping you to distinguish between long-term and short-term goals of the business.
Hire the services of a reputable attorney. Your attorney, along with your CPA, can advise you on the form of business you should establish, whether you should operate as a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, or corporation. Each structure offers advantages and disadvantages in the way of taxes and legal liability. If you choose a form of business other than a sole proprietorship, request assistance from your attorney to properly complete the appropriate registration forms for your business structure.The operating and reporting requirements and the tax consequences of each of these forms of business can vary greatly and your CPA can help you best choose the form most suited to your particular business and personal goals.
These trusted business advisors will ensure you are in compliance with licensing requirements, necessary fees, and applicable regulations, and may also assist you in handling other important issues such as tax payments and payroll. Reliance on those crucial business partners allow you to concentrate your energies on operating your business. The expense of obtaining the services of an attorney and a CPA will be recouped many times over.
Butcher, baker, candlestick maker? These villagers provided the essentials of life in the communities of old. In the present day, we all continue to rely on providers of essential services. A new business start-up requires the cooperation of a village of advisors to ensure the entrepreneur better understands the business and its operation in an ever complex economic, legal, and tax environment.
Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, wrote in his recent book, The Coming Jobs War, that what most people want in our global marketplace is a job.
In order to rebuild the American economy and create new and better jobs, we need to boost innovation and entrepreneurship that will create new businesses and new wealth. Clifton says that the next big economic breakthrough will come from the combination of the forces within big cities, great universities and powerful local leaders. He says the top 100 universities, along with 10,000 local business leaders, represent America’s supercollider for job creation.
Charlotte is likely to become just that…an important supercollider for job creation. We have a dynamic and growing urban area; we have great universities with research capacity already in place and active; we have great community colleges already working to transition workers from one economy to another; we have great local and state leadership to forge the important partnerships that will work together; and we have the business resources, talent and ambition to produce that significant economic growth and advancement that will engage the global economy over the next 50 years. We simply have to create the clusters and connections to stimulate new ideas.
In the U.S. Presidential campaign, we heard a lot of talk about how jobs would be created and how the U.S. economy would recover from the worst economic downturn since the depression. Now that the race is over, we seem to be mired in another prolonged debate that focuses the fiscal cliff and increasing taxes, cutting spending or some combination of the two in order to reduce our fiscal deficit and work towards a balanced budget 10 to 20 years in the future.
What most businesses want is a stable business environment that is reasonably predictable. Then, given the mix of conditions, regulations and taxes, they will adjust their business models as they are impacted. Businesses will adapt to change and survive as long as they can make a profit and a rate of return on their investments.
The problem with our current economy is much bigger than taxes and regulations. In order to maintain U.S. economic dominance, our economy needs to grow at a much faster rate. It must grow beyond the measly annual growth rate of 1.5 percent for the past several years. Many economists are worried that we are faced with a long period of stagnation with limited growth.
Clifton points out that similar concerns existed 30 years ago when the economies of Japan and Germany were rising dramatically. Economists projected growth rates consistent with their performance at the time and predicted that both Japan and German economies would exceed the United States by 2010. Fortunately, they were wrong. U. S. GDP soared from $3.8 trillion to its current $15 trillion. The U.S. did not fall to third; its GDP grew at nearly five times the forecasted rate and is still No. 1.
What was not predicted in those numbers was the quantum leap in innovation and entrepreneurial growth in the U.S. that surprised everyone. Instead, it was American entrepreneurship that successfully capitalized on technology and the Internet, creating millions of new businesses and new jobs and exporting them everywhere.
Now, we face a similar challenge from global economics. To stay ahead, the U. S. needs a growth rate of 5 percent of GDP annually. We have work to do.
We are fortunate to have several economic concentrations within our regional economy that will support greater innovation and entrepreneurial growth. In addition to our substantial banking sector, we have an active energy cluster formed, organized and encouraged to produce economic breakthroughs and advancements. We can add to those clusters in the areas of sustainability, advanced manufacturing, education and health care among others.
UNC Charlotte wants to be known as the Urban Research Institute among the North Carolina university system. It is well on its way with its focus on economic development and its Research Institute, the NC Research Center, Belk School of Business, the Energy, Production and Infrastructure Center, the School of Informatics, the Public Health School, and many others including a medical school in the future.
Add to that the presence and active educational roles performed by Queens University, Johnson C. Smith University, Davidson University, Wake Forest, and Northeastern.
We are in the right place at the right time to make a huge difference in our future. We are looking for the right business leaders to step forward and become involved in a collaborative effort that will spawn the creation of new business entities built on new ideas that create new wealth for the future of the next generation. If you are interested in participating, we want you and your ideas to join others to spark aggressive economic growth.
Please let me know about you, your interests, ideas and ambitions. Call or write me today!