Beautiful to Watch Individuals Work as a Team
Miserable to watch a team struggle as a group of individuals
I completed every project stringing together a thousand projects in my career. Not one construction defect claim (we did have warranty callbacks) nor any severe injuries (we did have a few cuts, abrasions, and broken bones) in those forty years. A few of those projects were internationally recognized. Before we turned a shovel of dirt, we built our professional construction team. Otherwise, my record would have been that I started one construction project in my career.
The early lessons in my career
I moved a couple of hundred miles from home to work on a construction project at eighteen. I was amazed that men on the project could have more than heated arguments during the day and drink and gamble at the casinos at night. There was animosity between the men, but it never got in the way of getting the project built and having a good time.
I was a Resident Assistant at Hawley Hall during my last year at Oregon State University. RA’s had little authority and plenty of responsibility; there were fifty young men on my floor. I kept the peace and everyone safe while they focused on graduating and growing up. I learned how to encourage behavior rather than punishing rule breakers. It was a successful year, with no injuries, suspensions, or probations. I remember when the fifty young men began referring to me as “my RA.” Not the fourth-floor RA.
At twenty-three, I was assigned to oversee Ronny Farmer and his crew of ironworkers on the company’s 35-million-dollar project. I ensured they had what they needed (material, equipment, and information) to accomplish their job, and they put up with me being a recent college graduate. It was not until they heard that Billy T, the carpenter general foreman, told me, “You know the best crew on the project are the carpenters.” I responded with, “no, there is no better crew than Ronny’s,” that I earned the respect of the Ironworkers.
A year later, the project manager promoted me to general superintendent. The project had a year to finish, fifty men on the payroll, and I was stuck with Billy. Billy wanted my job and undermined my efforts to complete the project. He got my job and later complained about the responsibility of the position. Billy taught me a valuable lesson; there are worse things than being down a critical team member.
We started Britton & Rich Construction when I was twenty-eight, with two pickup trucks and a few tools. We looked at every competitor as a threat and an enemy. Five years later, we split up, and I was on my own. By then, I understood I had competitors, not enemies. I joined Associated Builders and Contractor, and my fellow members and I worked together to improve the construction industry with apprenticeship programs and safety courses. My competitors made me a better contractor.
A team of construction professionals versus a bunch of construction workers
As a young project engineer, I watched our 70-ton truck crane operator, and three laborers place concrete. The crane operator stopped the hook over the full 1.5 cyd concrete bucket at the back end of the concrete truck; the laborer hooked the bucket, and the operator began lifting and swinging the bucket seventy feet and down twenty feet to the water tank foundation. As the bucket reached the vertex of swinging, the laborer pulled the line releasing the concrete. The bucket continued the swing back to the concrete truck. Meanwhile, the empty concrete bucket was now full. The empty bucket sat down at the concrete truck and was un-hooked; the full bucket was then hooked. This happened every minute for several hours. It was as graceful as Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire dancing. Allen Bradford’s company operated that way, from the operator and laborers to the C Suite. Allen’s company in the 1970s set the standard for Heavy / Industrial Construction on the West Coast. We were second to none, including Kaiser, Bechtel, Jacobs, and Guy F Atkinson, to name a few.
I left Allen’s company and moved to Portland, Oregon, to be closer to Marion. I hired on with an old-time construction company owned by two brothers. It did not take long to understand that this company was in trouble. During my first week, there were hushed discussions that a worker holding a tagline had been killed when the crane boomed into a high-voltage power line. Ralph, and Henry, blamed each other for any mistakes, and that behavior continued to the laborer in the field. The company culture: keep your head down, do what you were told, and don’t make waves. Despite the culture, I spoke up when I had concerns when a subcontractor or client was taking advantage of them. My concerns were dismissed, and Ralph, Henry, and I parted company. I heard later that the subcontractor cost them tens of thousands of dollars, and the client cost them their company.
Whether in sports, business, or politics, you build your team first. Together you establish the goal and develop the plan. You execute the program and make the necessary adjustments to achieve the goal. Allen did and shared the successes. Ralph and Henry did not; they lost their company, and everyone lost their jobs.
Without the lessons I learned as a young man, I would never have had the success I did in construction, community service, or politics. I look forward to seeing how our team does this January 12, 2023.