Under 40: Chris Hanke – Never to young to earn, learn

At age 23, Chris Hanke already has 14 years of experience as an entrepreneur, including eight years in the post-frame industry. His work experience goes back further, to when he was 8-years-old and helping in his uncle’s construction business.
When he was in the fourth grade, Hanke decided to earn some money by mowing lawns. By the time he was a teenager, he had 26 regular clients. When he was 15, he decided to try something else, so he applied for a job at the local lumberyard in his hometown of Blue Earth, Minn. He was told there were no jobs available, but that didn’t stop the ambitious teenager. He purchased tools with the money he saved from his lawn service, and began his own contracting business to repair post-frame structures.
While in high school, Hanke kept busy, taking a job as a subcontractor with the lumberyard where he bought his materials and attending Riverland Community College. There he studied Building Trades and Construction Management. “I finished high school and college at the same time,” he says, but he doesn’t think his studies played a major role in his career. “In school, I felt way ahead of the others in my class. Most of what I’ve learned came from the field.”
After graduating from high school and community college in 2002, Hanke became a regional manager with Northland Buildings for two years. In 2004, he left that company to go into business for himself full time and started Blue Valley Builders in Fairbault, Minn. The company serves as a dealer for EPS Buildings.
Blue Valley Builders specializes in light commercials that range in cost from $100,000 to $500,000 and in size between 4,000 and 50,000 square feet. “We provide a service with a pre-engineered package,” he says, noting he works with a number of different vendors.
Hanke employs a half-dozen employees year-round, doubling that number during the peak work times. He subcontracts most of his labor needs.
For a man of any age, Hanke would be considered successful, with a three-year-old business making $5 million in sales. For a man born in 1984, his success is even more remarkable. Talking to Hanke on the phone, it is hard to think he is only five years removed from high school, as he is confident and in command of the conversation. He’s a man who knows his business and knows he can provide as good a product as any of his competitors.
However, Hanke says he does face problems because of his age. Most of the people he works with, from vendors to clients and even his crew are more than 20 years older. He has encountered people who are jealous of his early success and try to make work more difficult for him. He does his best to turn a deaf ear and go about his business as he sees fit.
“Running your own business is a lot of work, responsibility, and headaches,” he says. “But when you work every day, good things will happen. If you are afraid to take risks, you won’t make any money.”
The bottom line is he is busy with work. He uses his youth to his advantage. “I am very aggressive about the jobs I’m doing,” he says “I get my clients excited about the possibilities.”
Right now, he adds, the economy is a little slower, and everybody in the area is competing for the same jobs. That he’s the one that ends up with the job is a testament to the quality of his work and his work ethic. At that point, age is not a factor.
One of the projects Hanke is most proud of is a building he built on the Minnesota Fairground for the Future Farmers of America. It was a $1.6 million project. “We put up a frame building that would have typically been concrete. It helped show that you can do large open-frame buildings.”
Current projects he is working on include an 80×100-foot building with a 60×60-foot office attached for a road construction company, a hazardous waste facility, and an indoor fish farm.
“Each building is unique,” he says. “You have to modify the building to fit each application.” With the fish farm, for example, he is using materials that won’t rust or be damaged by water.
Hanke brings the exuberance of youth to his business. “My favorite thing about the business? That feeling right after I just sold a big contract, got the down payment, and everything is ready to start building,” he says.
He also enjoys knowing he is doing his part to help other small business owners. “I like providing a competitively priced building for small businesses to succeed,” Hanke says. “I can help grow a business by getting them into a facility they can afford. That’s a good feeling.”
In the future, Hanke sees the industry moving toward more commercial structures. “The agricultural buildings will become more like commercial buildings as farms change,” he says. The rural building business is good to him. His company still does a lot of work on small buildings. “Rural builders will have to go into urban areas to diversify. That’s what I’ve done,” he says. The bulk of Hanke’s projects are in the Midwest states bordering Minnesota.
Despite his experience in the industry and as a businessman, Hanke knows he still has a lot to learn. “I’m learning how to work better as an effective manager. I have more to learn about advertising and marketing my business better. I want to find more efficient ways to construct buildings and diversify labor.”
The future is wide open for Hanke, who is married and the father of a son born in December. He might decide to move into metal buildings or go into manufacturing and become a vendor. Or he might keep the business as it is going now.
Whatever he decides to do in the future, with his drive and ambition, it is likely to be a successful venture n.

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