Builder's product is peace of mind

Charter Builders, Roy Harryman, VP Magazine


This article originally appeared in VP Magazine.

Some people might see mud and construction debris, but Charles DeVoe III saw his destiny.
Standing in the middle of a casino construction site circa 1979, the college intern witnessed how indispensable site supervisors are to a project’s overall success. The experience convinced him to change his major to prepare for a career in construction management.
“I saw how important it was that I was there to help them make decisions to see something grow from a piece of ground to a building,” he said. “That was my calling. It was what I wanted to do.”
That passion for construction leadership has landed DeVoe at the head of Charter Builders, one of central Texas’ leading commercial contractors, with $170 million in revenues in its 2004 fiscal year.
Headquartered in Dallas, the firm’s 110 employees serve government, educational and corporate clients in about a 100-mile radius. Projects include sports complexes, religious institutions, warehouse and industrial facilities as well as school, retail and medical buildings. Educational facilities are its niche.
The company, consistently ranked in the top 300 contractors nationwide, was founded in 1971 and was acquired by John Mowlem & Co. in 1988.
DeVoe joined Charter as project manager on a $50 million prison for the state of Texas. He was promoted to vice president of operations in 1995. In that position, he oversaw all construction operations and employee hiring until January of 2004 when he was named president. During his tenure in operations, the company’s sales volume grew from $50 million to $150 million and its employee count leaped from 40 to 100.
Although he is excited about buildings, DeVoe knows that what his firm sells is peace of mind.
“What we sell is a service and we compete among many others service providers, so you have to sell the advantage of your firm,” he said.
For Charter, that edge is the premium it places on its relationships with customers, employees and subcontractors.
Maximizing relationships
 Charter’s strength is maximizing the relational element of the business. Exhibit A is school construction.
“Education has more demands than just building the project,” DeVoe said.
Successful contractors should attend school board meetings, even when they won’t be asked to speak. They should get to know board members and even help with school fund-raising initiatives. They should also attend PTA meetings and take the initiative to alert neighbors of pending construction traffic.
“The fact that we do it and take the time to do it gives them confidence in us,” DeVoe said. “There’s a lot of service to the client over and above building facilities. All of those things help separate a good contractor from a really good contractor.”
The company also places a high value on its relationships with employees.
“I give them a doorway to come and see me,” he said. “For me, it’s providing them with a comfort that if you have an issue, let’s talk about it and see if we can work through it. Employee retention is strong here.”
More than half of Charter’s employees have worked there for more than five years and 25 percent have more than 10 years with the company. Turnover is below 5 percent anually.
In addition to Charter’s employees, subcontractors play a key role in the firm’s success. Solid subcontractor relationships are achieved through responsiveness and fairness, said Bruce Helm, the executive vice president who oversees purchasing.
“I find that the subs will respond positively if they know they are going to get a fair opportunity,” said Helm. “You can’t develop trust overnight and you can lose it in one job or decision. We work very hard to treat the subs fairly and with respect on every project.“This philosophy carries on into the field with the operations team. Charter is known for being tough but fair. We pay on time and push the schedule to help all the subs complete their work in a timely manner.”
Expansion plans
The construction industry is notorious for its cyclical, boom and bust nature. Charter, however, has a project backlog of nearly two years.
“Keeping a good backlog is a real challenge because it keeps everybody with the firm feeling good about the future,” DeVoe said. “It keeps people knowing that, when it finishes in June, we’ve already got another one for you.”
Charter is researching how it can effectively serve other markets in order to maintain its steady workflow. It’s working to expand beyond its primary niche of elementary and secondary school construction.
The company has spent six months investigating the health care, higher education, retail and government sectors for possible long-term and repeat business opportunities.
“When the education sector might slow down, you have some experience that will help you in other markets,” he said. “Higher education is a likely additional sector for us and a good complement.”
With plans being formulated for the future, DeVoe has his employees at the forefront of his mind.
“The future is for them,” he said. “My time here is limited. I’ve got an obligation to give it to them as good or better than it was given to me.”