Snohomish contractor rebuilds, regroups, retools

  • By Debra Smith HBJ Freelance Writer
  • Thursday, October 11, 2012 4:30pm

SNOHOMISH — Meade and Lori Fox have learned a thing or two about what it takes to survive in difficult times.

The Snohomish couple own M.L. Fox Construction. Like just about everyone involved in the construction industry, their small business was hit hard in 2008 when the U.S. economy fell apart.

Before the downturn, they had two separate business lines humming along: one building new townhouses and the other installing cabinets and doing other carpentry work for commercial companies.

Most of their commercial work came from a single contractor, who always seemed to have another job waiting. They were content, even prosperous.

“We didn’t advertise. We didn’t shake hands. We barely had business cards,” Lori Fox said. “We had enough work through word-of-mouth to make a comfortable living.”

Then the economy tanked in the fall of 2008. By the next year, the commercial work started drying up. Competition was stiff for what contracting work remained.

To make matters worse — far worse — Meade Fox suffered a serious head injury while skiing in 2009. It took him months to recover. By the end of that year, the couple was scouting the skyline for a plague of locusts.

They could have lost everything. Instead, they found ways to adapt and their business has changed and grown. They’ve upgraded equipment, leased additional space and hired a shop foreman. Today, they employ three other workers full time.

The couple shared what helped them turn things around.

Work hard and work smart. When things went bad, Meade Fox began aggressively bidding for subcontracting jobs with general contractors. Writing all those proposals was time-consuming work.

In the beginning, he also would take any job, even those that were outside what the company normally did, such as home remodels. Some of the jobs were small or not very profitable. That was a mistake, he said.

“I learned not to buy work and not to be desperate,” he said. “We knew the work was there, we just had to look harder to find it.”

Now he’s more selective about the jobs the company bids on, making sure those jobs will be a good fit and provide a decent return for the company’s time and energy.

Network and market your company. The owners no longer depend on a few contractors for business. They actively solicit new work by trying new things — like bidding for a government job — and by meeting as many people in the local industry as they can.

When Meade Fox attends job walks, typically held on a work site before a bid, he uses the opportunity to also meet the project manager. If he doesn’t win the bid, that encounter might still lead to some other project down the road.

The Foxes both attend as many professional events as they can manage. The company now has business cards. They also have brochures and an online presence with their Facebook page.

“We get invited to things all the time because we are on people’s lists,” Lori Fox said. “If at all possible, we try to send someone from the company. It’s an opportunity to get to know people.”

Think about how to serve customers differently. M.L. Fox Construction just invested in a CNC router. It has a high upfront cost, but the machine automates the production of cabinets, allowing the company to serve more customers, faster. It also allows them to produce parts for other cabinetmakers. Plus, the Foxes can make money by leasing time on the machine to other carpenters.

Get serious about professional development. Lori Fox didn’t go to school to manage construction projects; she learned on the job. Before 2008, she ran the company’s books and had a good grasp of the local real estate market. Still, she treated her role with the company as more of a part-time job. That changed when she was forced to take a temporary job to help the family make ends meet during the recession.

Fox decided to get serious. She took courses at Edmonds Community College’s construction management program, including one on how to read blueprints. She took a free business development course through the U.S. Small Business Administration office in Seattle.

She just completed a 10-week free construction management course with Skanska, a large construction services company with a strong presence in the state. The course is geared toward women, minority and small-business owners in the development and construction industry.

She learned skills and made connections that have already led to jobs. For instance, she learned the particulars of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) that allowed the company to successfully bid on a “green” public project.

“It filled in the gaps for me,” she said.