Some guys call them problems

Learning experiences were pivotal to getting the Wolford family involved with the post-frame industry and the commercial building sector.

My older brothers, Matt and Scott, and I were in college at the same time.  We all had a hard time finding good part-time jobs that could accommodate every time our schedules changed.  About the same time, our uncle asked us to build him a goat barn. Our family had always been in construction, building a house here or a deck there and even a couple pole barns, but it had been a couple of years since we built anything. We decided to go ahead and build his 40x60x14 building, working evenings and weekends.

It was a real learning experience. 

The building pad was about four or five feet out of level, so we just bought longer posts and started building. Then, one evening, our uncle decided he was going to put the fill sand in the building. He pulled off all of the braces and the only metal we had on was the roof and one sidewall. When he finished, he was too tired to put the braces back on.

Who ordered the wind?

Later that night we had 60 mph winds. The next morning the building was leaning about 5 feet out of level.  We hooked two tractors to the building and pulled it back up straight and finished up the next weekend.

The lesson? Leave the braces on until you put all of the metal on the shell.

Even though we had a hard time with our first building, it turned out OK. That job led to a chance to erect three buildings for a friend. Those turned out great, leading to more and more buildings.

Our dad, Tom, helped us figure buildings. When we ran into anything new, he would teach us how to do it.  We continued to build part-time until I graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in construction management.

Matt, Scott and I decided to start building full-time, to see where it took us.  We built our office building at our parents’ house. Shortly after that our dad, Tom, joined us full-time. 

Soon we were building a lot of buildings, but we wanted to grow.  We joined the NFBA and went to Frame Building Expo in Columbus, Ohio in 2005.  There, we found out what else we could do with post-frame construction.

After the Expo the four of us decided that we should do commercial construction. We had built good relationships with our sub-contractors by being honest with them and paying them on time.  So we decided to bid on a small commercial building. To our surprise, we were awarded the bid. 

And some more lessons

We under-bid a couple of things and had to hire some different subcontractors than we usually worked with, but we finished our project. The owner was happy, but we got to chalk up a lot of “learning experiences.”

Lessons learned? We needed better contracts, more time spent estimating, and being the low bid is not always best. 

Our first commercial project gave us the knowledge and the opportunity to bid on many more.  We have had many learning experiences since, but we continue to improve and grow from them. 

It’s nearly four years since we opened our office, and we are approaching $3 million in gross sales per year, about 60 percent of it coming from commercial projects. With three fulltime crews, we are still very small in this gigantic industry.

Getting into commercial construction was one of the best decisions we ever made. Commercial buildings are a little more challenging than residential buildings, and there is usually more than one owner. Instead of pleasing one person, the builder has to please everyone.

WC Buildings has been blessed with the opportunity to build churches, retail stores, strip malls, mini storage, warehouses and restaurants. A key advantage  is that most commercial buildings are on the busiest roads in town. That is the best advertising. Each of our commercial projects has sold anywhere from two to 12 residential buildings in the area. 

Advice? Start small

My suggestion for getting into the commercial market is to start small and work up to bigger buildings. If you bid on a $1 million project and your biggest job so far is $25,000, chances are you’re not going to get it — nor do you want it. Take your time and work your way up.

These “learning experiences” are tough on a small contractor who might think these things have only happened to him or her. That’s not the case. Even the big companies have had — and are still having — “learning experiences.” 

I’d like to hear other builders’ stories of their “learning experiences” on the first commercial projects they and their companies faced while getting into that side of the industry. Send them to bryan@wcbuildings.com. I would like to use them as examples in my next article.

Bryan Wolford is co-owner of WC Buildings, LLC in Newark, Ohio. He serves on the National Frame Building Board of Directors.

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