Industry execs discuss race to normalcy

We are making progess. As vaccines make their way across the country, the commercial construction industry is slowly inching its way back to the first phase of what will become our New Normal. As the participants in our Virtual CCR Men’s Roundtable can attest, the move back to normalcy is filled with a great sense of anticipation, even as the industry deals with it share of labor and supply issues, among other factors.

Our monthly scheduled virtual roundtables feature a diverse crew of vendors and end users who connect via Zoom for two days and several hours worth of networking. The events are hosted by Commercial Construction & Renovation Publisher David Corson and Editor Michael Pallerino.

Following is a roundup from our second roundtable of 2021.

CCR: Tell us what’s on your to-do list.
Sam Harris, Samjen Realty: We have an array of things that we’re working on. The most important is getting technology integration throughout our entire platform—from our development services to franchise and the new coffee shop we’re working on. Technology is a big deal.

The projects that are on our to-do list are in Selma, Alabama. It’s a place where we’re spending a lot of time. It’s a historical city. It has been left behind, but we’re galvanizing developers and key business leaders to help us bring new life there. Our to-do list is to complete out the first phase of our coffee brand by the end of 2021. Our hotel brand will start as construction. In addition to that, we have projects in Tampa. We’re looking for one in the Atlanta area and South Florida.

CCR: When you look at revitalizations in places like Detroit and Selma, do you see that as a trend?
Samjen Realty’s Harris: Absolutely. People migrated to the Northeast in the Midwest. What’s happening is that those people are now raising their children. They’re of retirement age, so they’re migrating back to the south. The south will be a new mecca for opportunities. Preferably, small towns are more appealing to people who are in that upper income level. They don’t want to be involved in all the high price congestion of real estate.

Small towns are very appealing and are the lowest port of entry when it comes to capital investment. When you’re looking 10 or 20 years down the road, you are able to have a 20-plus return on your dollar.

Take medical marijuana. One of the things we’re seeing is an increase in hemp production. We’re also looking at manufacturing. Hemp manufacturing will lead to new technology and building materials.

Right now, in our industry, we have a shortage of lumber. Lumber has gone up at an extreme rate. The only way we can combat that is to look at new ways to do it. We see hemp as a big play in Selma. It gives you the ability to be in the Midwest, close to the East Coast, easy access to the West Coast.

David Thompson, Scooter’s Coffee: I joined the Scooter’s brand in July of last year. There will be huge growth for the brand over the next few years. Next year, we are going to be pushing 200-plus units. I’m one of four construction managers. I cover the Southern market. Our current model is 550 square feet. We are a coffee concept, but we have a food program as well, including breakfast burritos, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, donuts, cookies, cinnamon rolls, etc.

CCR: With the 65 stores you opened last year during the pandemic, was that on pace for where you wanted to be?
Scooter’s Coffee’s Thompson: I think it was more of an increase. I came on during the pandemic. That is one of the reasons I’m here. Our growth actually increased during the pandemic. Store sales skyrocketed, while other brands saw losses.

CCR: What other markets are you looking at?
Scooter’s Coffee’s Thompson: We have big growth in my territory—Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Houston and Dallas. There also is growth in markets like Louisville, Kentucky, Knoxville, Tennessee and the panhandle of Florida.

Jim Harte, Clarks America: It’s exciting in that we are contemplating some new projects. I also now have the corporate office fall under department, so I’m honing my property management skills for an office building. Clarks also is looking to do some refreshes to our existing stores. The stores we have are a stable group, so we’re going to concentrate on making them look better.

Ken Demske, JLL: I have been doing a lot of connecting with our clients, who we are starting to see spend more money. We will be looking at how to manage their renovations differently, whether it’s in the drive-thru area, for example.

Some of our clients had a very difficult year, but are still doing projects. So we’re talking about capital planning—how to get the best bang for their buck. Work is being done differently today. The needs of a lot of our clients are different. We’re looking at how to help them.

Generally, a lot of our clients’ construction market teams just look differently. They’re not as big. We’re trying to see where we can fill some gaps—just make sure they’re being serviced and are able to press on within a different environment.

We’re also looking at the technology. How can we deliver sites in a different environment? I think most people have been doing that for a year, so we are finding ways to adapt moving forward. How do we make some of these changes permanent?

Tom Muzzey: Swade Cannabis: Everyone thinks the cannabis world is all smiles and happiness, but it has been a challenge during COVID. We operate in a world where traditional bank financing is not readily available. If you want to construct a $10 million facility, you have to look at either raising the money personally or taking on investors in equity.

We are in the process of finishing up 10 build-outs and 10 licenses that we were awarded in November 2020. As soon as we got started, COVID hit. Initially, this year is about getting Phase 1 and Phase 2 moved on. The challenge for me is that with a state where it’s not something that has existed, we have to bring on qualified contractors who understand what our needs are and how to help us implement through the build-out. That has been challenging. We have found a few good partners and will continue to work through the process with them.

Initially, we had some really bad experiences. It cost millions of dollars because they weren’t in a position to really understand the industry. That’s a big challenge for us as we work through the rest of the year.

CCR: How do you see other states opening up?
Swade Cannabis’ Muzzey: It’s a great opportunity from a contractor, management or investor standpoint. Recently, for example, New York went fully recreational. And in states like Missouri that are medical, you’ll see potentially a 100% increase overnight in the demand, and the need for additional space and additional products. There’s a lot of opportunity out there from a property management, real estate, design and construction opportunity.

Ed Philips, Sign & Lighting: We’re a local company. It started out with my wife and I. My dad was in the business in a different fashion, exclusively paper window signs, but we took it to the next level. Fifty years later we have around 60 people. We’re constantly growing. We have a pristine reputation in our region. We’re known for quality above all. Above that, we’re known for dependability. We don’t miss delivery dates. That’s something we take very seriously.

We do a fair amount of work for other sign companies, installing their product in our market. We are building this division of our company with a number of customers now building and shipping product out all over the country. This is a division of our company where we’re seeing growth.

Another key part of our business is the people. It has become apparent to us that we need to hire younger people, bring them in and train them. We’re electrical contractors as well as electrical sign fabricators. We have an electrical division where we’re actually sending people to school. It’s fun to watch these young people rise up through the ranks and flourish.

A lot of our employees have been with us for more than 25 years, which I think says a lot. It speaks well of our culture. When people come to work every day and enjoy what they do, it shows.

Kelly O’Brien, Philips Sign: I mostly operate in the Great Lakes States. These are interesting times. Soliciting business since COVID, especially new business, has been really different. Nobody’s at their desk. Nobody does email like they used to. But I’m really excited to get into this because these are interesting times.

CCR: What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the last year?
Samjen Realty’s Harris: Our biggest takeaway has been technology. We were all moving so fast that we never really slowed down to smell the roses. If you look at where we are today, what we have been through, technology was in place for us to scale our business beyond our wildest dreams. We had a record year in 2020, and it’s going to be another record year in 2021 simply because we embraced technology. You need to have a team of IT people who can help you stay ahead of things. There are some new, innovative things happening across all enterprises when it comes to technology.

Phillips Signs’ Phillips: It has been our people. I have been amazed with their dedication and patience through this whole COVID experience. We’ve all had to deal with one thing or another—everything from social distancing to putting on masks. Just the sheer caring about each other has been something to see. It has been inspirational to see our whole crew pull together the way that we have. It’s so human.

Phillips Signs’ O’Brien: What I’ve noticed over the past couple years is that, especially in the retail, QSR and stuff, there is so much transiency. People change so often. I’ve never had so many emails get knocked back to me because somebody isn’t there anymore. I don’t know if it was because of COVID or not.

JLL’s Demske: I’ve been really inspired by some of my people—what they’ve had to go through. Some of the challenges they’ve faced and how strong they were was inspiring. That’s something to be grateful for. The second part is that I think I learned how to manage my business better. I think we all have, by necessity. We had to learn how to do things better.

Also, some things that we may have let go in years past, we just couldn’t anymore. We had to address some things and change how we do business. What I’m taking away is that we need to find out what’s really necessary. What do we need to do? How do we change how we do it? How do we make things more efficient?

Clarks’ Harte: One thing I really learned about is how important relationships are. It went from meeting with people face-to-face, flying out, going to jobs to we couldn’t go anywhere. You had to have had those relationships—ones where you could actually trust the people who have been doing things for you. It’s kind of scary in one sense because do we really need people going out and checking as much as they used to check? Or is this the new way where we trust people?

Swade Cannabis’ Muzzey: A couple things come to my mind. It’s really about the resiliency of our people—how much closer I’ve gotten with people, staff and vendor partners, after you see the dedication they have. So many of us had to endure difficult situations. I just have a tremendous amount of appreciation and respect for those people.

Scooters Coffee’s David Thompson: For me, it is the technology piece. I was hired amid the pandemic. Being able to onboard for a company that is based out of Omaha (Nebraska) when I am in Dallas. We did everything via Zoom. I was very impressed.

It has even gone to the point of where we can conduct site visits virtually. I’m still on the road, but not as much as I used to be. With technology now, I can see a site with a superintendent or project manager, basically walking it virtually. I’m able to do a rough-in inspection, whether it’s pre-pour or pre-cover-up. It has really helped out financially for the brand and allowed us to be at home.

CCR: Tell us how you started in the business. What’s your story?
Clarks’ Harte: I’ve been doing this for my entire adult life. I have a degree in Marketing Communication, but I was doing construction throughout high school and college. I obtained my Construction Supervisor’s license. Shortly after I got out of school, I started working with a fast-food company’s franchisee, coordinating placing signs on its properties and working on decor packages for the franchisees’ new and remodeled stores.

From there, I moved to actually constructing its buildings. I built a lot of Burger Kings, Dunkin Donuts and Blockbuster Videos back in the day. One day I saw an ad for a construction coordinator at a kids shoe company, Stride Rite. They were looking for someone to work in their construction department assisting the licensed partners design and build stores. I applied. I was there for 21 years, ultimately becoming the Director of Design and Construction for its brands.

I moved to big box stores for a sporting clothing retailer in the Northeast. I was at Bob’s Stores/Eastern Mountain Stores for a number of years building stores and overseeing their store maintenance program. After that, I spent three years at a supermarket co-op, Topco. They had 50 supermarket chains. I would do procurement for everything from generators, bar joists, roofing materials and LVT—basically anything you needed to build a supermarket or fuel center. The problem was I missed the finished product. I could purchase all the material, but never saw it installed.

From there, I moved back to the construction side. I landed at Clarks two and a half years ago. It has been a good decision. I went there knowing they needed help with store openings and remodels. I knew I could help. I’ve consolidated all my past learnings and am applying it at Clarks.

So I’ve been on all sides of the retail development business—the management side, the owner’s side and the dirty side, construction. I get up every morning wanting to do more and more to help the stores. Life in retail stores can be tough, so I try to make it a little better. The great thing is I still love this business after all these years.

Swade Cannabis’ Muzzey: I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. When I was 14, my brother came into my room, woke me up, and said, “I need help on the job site.” That’s how I got into the concrete world. I did that all through high school, college and then as side work.

I got married my junior year of college and am still married—31 years. We have three great kids who are all out of college and doing well. Our oldest two are pharmacists. My youngest daughter is actually working in the cannabis business. She loves tattoos and she’s all about the cannabis world. My wife is retiring this year as a middle school principal.

I got into this through a dad at one of my youngest daughter’s volleyball games. He is the one who got me into this new venture as a partner. It’s pretty exciting. We’ve built a lot of car washes along the way. A lot of rental property. A lot of storage units. Did all kinds of crazy stuff. My Uncle Bernie once told me that you could always make more with a pencil than you could with a toolbelt. For me, there’s really nothing more fulfilling than having a great day of work—that sense of accomplishment. I still love being hands-on.

I have six diplomas and a Ph.D. But at the end of the day, it’s about what I can do with my hands. That’s what impresses me. I always encourage kids to look into the trades. There is a lot of money to made there if you’re good at it, work hard and seek to improve. There are always opportunities for skilled trades people. I’m always pushing that.

Phillips Sign’s O’Brien: I got into signage in a roundabout way. I went to school, but didn’t last long there so I went into the Marines. Did my tour. When I came out, a friend of mine who worked at Stanford University in the athletic department got me a job there. Part of the job was to go around the different fields and check the scoreboards. After going back to Michigan, one of the guys from a company I worked with recommended that I call a friend of his. I started selling scoreboards to high schools, junior colleges, minor league and professional baseball teams. It was right when the stadiums were transitioning from analog to solid state.

I eventually was hired by a large national company in Detroit. My first project was when Chrysler was bought out by Daimler. They changed their name three times since then. That was always good for business. I ended up working with several large national sign companies and traveled 100,000 miles a year.

I can really relate to what it’s like not rushing to the airport, parking the car, renting cars. This whole transformation has been a little bit different for me, but I’m excited. I don’t think anybody ever plans on being a sign salesman. It just happens that way.

Scooter’s Coffee’s Thompson: In high school, I worked in the construction area—framing field, if you will. My dad wanted me to have something I could always fall back on. After high school, I joined the Marines and served four and a half years there. I served a couple of years overseas, serving during the liberation of Kuwait. I truly enjoyed my time in the Corps. Everything I did helped to get me to where I am today. I’m proud to be a Marine.

When I got out, I thought I continued framing houses and then got into home building. I bounced around in the housing market for quite a while, then when the housing market was falling; I made a jump into the restaurant sector. I worked as a PM for a couple of general contracting firms.

I have been with Scooters since July of 2020. Prior to that I was with Which Wich for about eight years.

JLL’s Demske: I grew up in Florida and attended USF on an athletic scholarship. I played baseball at USF. I moved to Atlanta after college because that’s what you did at the time. If you’re in college, you moved up to Atlanta to try to find work and make your way.

I started working for a signage company almost 30 years ago as my entry into doing a lot of multi-site and retail. Then I went to a smaller general contractor. I did a lot of rollouts.

I’ve been with JLL now for 17 years—all in retail, multi-site. I started out as a project manager years ago doing construction management, roll-outs, and things like that. I worked my way to where I lead the team. It’s more about people management and business development. It’s a little different skill set than what I had planned to do. I enjoy it because I get to work with a lot of people—a lot of different people.

Samjen Realty’s Harris: I have an interesting story like we all do. My grandparents adopted my twin sister and I when we were very young. My father was murdered when I was around five years old. I remember what my grandfather said to me, “I’m going to teach you how to work and be able to take care of your family.” He told me everything there was to know about carpentry.

I had 13 aunts and uncles. They always had parties. Every Friday and Saturday they would have all of their friends over. Then, Sunday morning, the yard was covered with trash. I would pick up everything. I took all the cans to the recycler. That was my introduction into being an entrepreneur. I didn’t want to work all day somewhere and earn five dollars when I can earn $100.

In high school, my objective was to be a fighter pilot in the Marines. I’m not a Marine, but I’m a Marine at heart because I believe in those values. I had an asthma attack after my 15th birthday, so I couldn’t go. When I was 16 1/2 years old, my girlfriend at the time—she is now my wife of 25-plus years—said, “You know Sam, my mom said you can sell ice to an Eskimo. You should go be a stockbroker.”

So I went to stockbroker school after I graduated high school. When I walked into the school, the first thing I was told was that I would never make it because I was African-American. They said I didn’t have a college degree and that I wasn’t 30 years old and white. It fueled me like you wouldn’t believe. In a class of 20 something people, I was the only one who passed the stockbroker course and exam the first time around.

I was assigned to work at St. Armand Circle in Sarasota, Florida working as a 401K small business retirement specialist. That’s where I learned about money. As I started talking to different people from different walks of life, I realized that real estate was where I wanted to be as a business professional. There was so much opportunity and things at the community where I come from did not understand or have access to.

I ended up working as a financial advisor for about seven years. I decided to give my booker business up and started our firm, which now is Samjen Residential & Commercial Realty. We’ve been in business for more than 20 years. It was just my wife and I when we started. We’ve grown to be a good-sized company with 20-plus employees. We’re in the process of hiring agents and brokers all over the United States to work on development projects.

It brings me to the conclusion, which is my greatest experience about my story. There were so many people who told me I couldn’t do something. Now, I get phone calls every day from people who say, “We knew you could do it.” Anybody that has a dream or a vision, if you want to do something, don’t listen to the naysayers. There is always going to be somebody telling you you can’t do it.

Phillips Sign’s Phillips: I was born in southeast Michigan. I grew up with my father in the sign business. He did paper window signs—the ones that used to hang on grocery store windows. We would literally airbrush 6-foot cabbage heads or tomatoes and all that crazy stuff. I grew up doing that with my father for many years. When my father finally retired I took a job at Pulte Homes. I worked with Bill Pulte himself. He was a super human being, just a great person to be around. He was a real inspiration for me.

I was punching out houses. I would take care of the homes for these people for one year, all the warranty issues and all that type of stuff. I loved the job. I did it for five years. But I never got the sign business out of my blood. One day, I’m heading to work out to Novi, Michigan and I see a man hanging a sign on this old decrepit building. I went to introduce myself and asked him about the building. I found out that someone promised to buy the building from him. I told him I would give him a check right there. It was crazy. I called my wife and said I think we just bought a building. Here we are 45 years later and we have these magnificent buildings.

I went back into the sign business with that old building. We bought a truck and ended up turning this thing into what it is today. We have some of the greatest help. We have a general manager that’s incredible. A workforce that’s beyond believe. There’s not a morning that I don’t get up and I am not anxious to go to work. The phone keeps ringing. It’s just a great way to live, so it’s been a good life—a fun trip.

CCR: What’s the biggest opportunity you see this year?”
Clarks’ Harte: The biggest opportunity is to get customers back into the store so that we’re able to start remodeling again. Hopefully, we’ll be able to lose some of the COVID protection in the stores. I’d love to lose the sneeze guards and open it up so that the customers and the associates in the stores can interact much more closely again.

Swade Cannabis’ Muzzey: For me, it’s the opportunity to execute better than other people in the industry. Because there were major COVID delays, we’re trying to work smarter and faster than other people to capitalize on the market with an elevated product and experience.

Phillips Sign’s O’Brien: The biggest opportunity for me is to sell as much as I can and raise the profile and reputation, which is already established at Phillips Signs.

Scooters Coffee’s Thompson: For me, the biggest opportunity and biggest struggle I have to fight right now is on the front end, getting these stores permitted. Due to COVID, it has been near impossible to get any response from some of these municipalities with them being shut down. Everyone’s working from home. Expediters are really not helping out in any way. You really can’t expedite anything if you can’t get into the city hall to jump on somebody’s desk and tell them you’re there with the review. I want to find ways to get into the city and get plans out in a timely manner. Our development timelines have increased on the front end just due to the permitting phase of it.

JLL’s Demske: For me it’s picking up on the efficiencies that we have. How do we do it better? How do we serve clients differently? What can we bring to the table? How do we use technology? How do we make that become more efficient? It’s really just capitalizing on some momentum that we’ve built over the last few months with our clients in our industry and staying out in front of the client’s needs, basically.

Samjen Realty’s Harris: The biggest opportunity we have lies in technology. We now have digital technology like Zoom, which allows us to connect and reach more people, especially the next generation. We want to teach them how to be real estate developers and construction workers at a rapid speed. Our takeaway and the opportunity for this year, moving forward, is the ability to hire young people with technology as a catalyst to win them over.

Phillips Sign’s Phillips: We’re looking at some new software that will make our company more efficient as well as additional equipment. We’re excited about that. With Kelly on board, we’re excited about 2021. 2020 was a trying year but in the end a very good year. I know that’s unbelievable, but we had a great year. So we’re looking forward to an even better 2021.

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