Behind the Build: Interview with Stephen Cary, Director of Construction, Eckardt Electric

stephen Cary Eckardt Electric

This blog originally appeared on the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. 

In recent years, Atlanta’s construction market has been growing rapidly. For the companies executing the work, this has equated to substantial growth opportunities–as long as the right systems and processes are in place. Stephen Cary, Director of Construction at Georgia-based electrical contractor, Eckardt Electric, is part of the solution to ensure his company can scale with new demand in the market.

In this week’s Behind the Build, we speak with Stephen on how he applies an entrepreneurial mindset to his job at an “80-year-old startup.” Read on to hear his story.

What makes Eckardt Electric unique?

At Eckardt Electric, we like to say that we're a complete solutions provider to our customers–we are totally customer-facing. We want to be able to provide an excellent finished product, and we've done this primarily in mission-critical sectors like data centers, healthcare and higher education institutions. Our commitment to our customers to meet schedules and carry ourselves with a greater sense of professionalism has been a critical component of our business model.

We also hire consistently across the board. It’s a team of self-starters who take the initiative to interact with not only our customers but with everyone involved in a project.

We make sure to have people who interface with the same level of professionalism, whether it’s with a client or a drywaller.

How did you get to where you are today?

Even out of school, I’ve always worked in the startup space because it’s what I’m interested in. Entrepreneurship was something that interested me, but I quickly realized that I also like working for a larger firm in general. I like the structure that comes along with that, but it’s the growth that’s exciting to me. Eckardt presented an opportunity to grow. Our president calls Eckardt an 80-year-old startup, despite being the oldest in the industry here in Atlanta.

When I first joined, we were doing about $25-30 million a year in revenue. Right now, we are pushing to get to $100 million in revenue by 2025. When I came in, it was to create a scalable environment for this growth. I’ve been working with our project managers to create a system and process for them to manage their projects that not only make us profitable as a company but also provide a consistent experience to our customers. Most importantly, my job is satisfying because I’m working with people–I love hiring and getting them into positions where they can succeed. I also love having the autonomy to be able to change the way we do things and try something new.

As an outsider to the construction industry, how did you gain credibility and trust with your team?

Coming from the outside and gaining respect in the construction industry is tough. I had to provide results and make people’s jobs easier at the end of the day. However, getting there was challenging.

I not only had to gain buy-in on the front end but hold everyone accountable to those processes that they helped develop. In our industry in general, we’ve seen a lot of great initiatives where technology or new systems are rolled out that involved the input of project managers or field staff. But when it came time to implement those changes, it’s failed because there’s little accountability.

Therefore, it was vital that we set realistic goals and expectations with these rollouts. I think it's easy to go to a trade show and listen as someone explains how a particular software solves eight different problems for them. But the reality is, in a company with a few hundred people, you only have so many hours in a day. You might be able to solve one problem in a year, but that's a huge win.

What gets you up in the morning?

The growth potential of the industry is exciting to me. In construction, our production rates have held remained stagnant, and to me, that represents a massive opportunity to move forward. I'm on the core team at the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) in Georgia. We are focused on partnering with contractors, designers and owners to help them understand how lean production principles—originally known as the Toyota Production System–can be applied to construction projects today.

Does Eckardt Electric adopt any of the principles of lean construction?

Yes and, in general, trade contractors have been doing it without calling it “lean construction” for years. For instance, prefabrication and some of the advanced logistics activities that we do on our jobsites to remove the packaging and reduce trash, are all lean in practice. Right now, we use weekly continuous improvement meetings to think about ways we can improve efficiency and reduce waste–all ways to work leaner.

What makes the Atlanta construction market unique?

When it comes to growth, Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing markets for construction.

The amount of work going on in Atlanta is unbelievable.

On the other hand, the Atlanta market has been slower than expected to adopt some of the cutting-edge construction methodologies that we have seen in other markets, such as integrated project delivery (IPD) or a widescale adoption of multi-trade prefab.

Why does your team use PlanGrid on projects?

Document control and storage are key to any big construction firm’s operations. Historically, we have struggled to get consistent information in the hands of our field team. While we were using a cloud system, the reality was it just wasn't very easy to use. So our team wasn’t using the system we had for document control, and it created a good deal of inconsistency. Our project teams on-site had a lot of headaches from the fact there were so many different versions of documents in circulation.

We started looking at solutions, and PlanGrid stood out because it seemed very easy to use. We’ve found that PlanGrid is the best system for field use for sure. Also, the fact that the implementation was one of the smoothest rollouts we've ever done was huge for us.

What advice would you tell the next generation of builders?

Get your friends involved; we need more people in the industry.

We need more people in the trades. I don't know what our industry will look like in 50 years if we don't keep digging. Construction is a wonderful career that I would recommend to anyone.