Build a Great Construction Business, Have a Big Impact

This is a transcript of Episode 29 of Construction Genius HOW TO DO WELL IN BUSINESS, SO YOU CAN DO GOOD IN THE WORLD. I interview Sean Cook, President of Cook Engineering, Inc.

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Sean [00:00:00] Business is simple. You answer the phone when somebody calls you. You do what you say you’re going to do. And you just execute it. It’s simple as that and it’s it blows me away. The amount of people that that don’t do that.

Eric [00:00:16] This is Eric Anderton. And you’re listening to construction genius leadership masterclass Thomas Edison said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. If you’re a construction leader you know all about the perspiration. And this show is all about the 1 percent inspiration that you can add to your hard work to help you to improve your leadership.

Sean [00:00:43] Welcome to construction genius My name is Eric Anderton. On today’s show Sean Cook the president and CEO of Cook engineering is my guest. He and his wife Shelly started their business 17 years ago and there are general engineering company out of Rancho Cordova California. They’ve grown the business to 30 million dollars. They employ 60 people and they’ve had a massive positive impact. In today’s interview we’re going to talk about not only the impact that Sean has had with his business locally but internationally and specifically you’re going to hear a very interesting story about Sean’s encounter with a black mamba. Thank you for listening to this episode. Feel free to share it with other people. Give me your feedback and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts on Apple or on Google and give us a review as well. And I appreciate listening today.

Eric [00:01:34] Sean welcome to the podcast.

Sean [00:01:35] Well thank you for having me Eric.

Eric [00:01:38] We were just chatting online and you told me that just recently you killed a black mamba. I did. What were you doing killing a black mamba. Tell me all about it.

Sean [00:01:49] Well I couldn’t find any. Here in Rancho Cordova so we were actually in Uganda, Biloba was the village we were in and we were doing some excavation and we basically dug up what we thought was a nest. So weird excavate inside of Hill and feeling in the jungle with there to give them more real estate and I looked down on the Phil site and I see a couple little guys over there with a little twig whipping the ground.

Eric [00:02:23] Let me just let me ask you here. What’s a general engineering contractor from the Sacramento area in California doing in Uganda.

Sean [00:02:31] Well we we’ve been sponsoring a village for the last four or five years over there helping him build artesian wells roofing their church helping them get their school built. I’ve been cutting checks and sending money over here and there and just wasn’t feeling quite complete with with what was going on and I thought we could do more and actually was talking to my wife and she’s like You know I think it’s time to go.

Eric [00:02:58] So you go over there and you meet the black mamba.

Sean [00:03:01] Well we met a lot of other people first. Yeah I was there. It was about a four foot Black Mamba so it’s probably a baby a baby. And these these two guys were whipping it with a little stick. So as I walked up I saw it and and all they were doing was upsetting it to the point where you know it was becoming a dangerous situation I thought. So I picked up a couple bricks and you know two strikes and got it on the third one fortunately.

 [00:03:39] Yeah kind of walked away from it feeling a little grateful that I was still alive and those guys were alive. And the ironic part of it is you know they considered a snake like we consider rattlesnake a snake. You know it’s just the snake and you kind of know the potential dangers but that’s what you live with when you’re from the United States. It’s a little different.

 [00:04:03] You know it’s the Cobras.

Eric [00:04:04] The Mamas it’s crazy because here in our area we have lots of rattlesnakes around I mean even a pitcher property right.

 [00:04:11] You deal with rattles Yeah. They just stayed on shape. Chase you like something in Africa.

 [00:04:17] My other members are they’re chasing species.

 [00:04:20] Apparently, they can travel up his speeds of 12 miles an hour which is way faster than I could probably right.

 [00:04:26] Yeah. Yeah. Now you feel that. It’s interesting though because I think aren’t they.

 [00:04:30] I wonder if because I don’t like the rattlesnakes and the baby rattlesnakes are actually more dangerous than the adults in our area. You think the same is true with the mumbles.

Sean [00:04:40] It is it is they that they can’t control their venom and you know I asked some of the guys ago well what happens. The people who get bit. Well you get very sick. I Well what do you mean by sick. Well you got about 45 minutes until your dead and if you can you get to the hospital and get antivenom or whatever. MIKE Well that’s a couple hours away to your death. Writing’s on the wall right now. So we actually saw to the second one got away. But yeah I was. It was an eye opener symbolic for me. I mean it was interesting symbolic of what survival now go into a third world country and and expecting the unexpected and getting different things thrown at you. We saw monkeys raiding gardens and it was kind of crazy. They almost acted human as they were leading the garden. Oh yeah running down the hill with their with their fruits and running into the trees and eating them and throwing the reins back at the people that own the garden. I mean it was it was crazy.

Sean [00:05:56] It’s interesting we in the United States particularly where we’re used to cutting checks and you know we run a good business.

Eric [00:06:03] You have some some additional financial resources but that specific decision to go to Uganda which is obviously not a first world country and to. Leave the comforts of the First World. What really drove that for you.

Sean [00:06:22] Well like I said I think the spark that started it was my wife and ironically it was. A couple days before the safari tourists got nabbed in Uganda and was on the news. Yeah. So you see she suggested that we consider going. And then that happened and we were kind of like OK. Well that could happen anyway right. So they just kind of put us on alert. But I think overall it was just having a tie with those people having a connection and seeing what they were doing over there and seeing how we thought we could bring our expertise to their country and help them get to the next level so they’re not thinking about how to keep the water out of their church you keep it from flooding during the rainy season and instead maybe working on e-commerce or something to help create self sustainability for that village. So I think that was the overall draw. To go and and do that work. We took Mike with us. Our superintendent field superintendent general superintendent that basically runs all the guys in the field so we kind of took to the key people out. At a busy time of year those in June and fortunately we have awesome people that can you know take over and run it while we’re gone. Not to say I didn’t put a. Little crunch on us but definitely we’re able to go through it without any big hiccups.

Eric [00:08:14] What have you done to position your business in such a way so that you’re able to take yourself and your top field guy spend 12 days in a third world country and have a positive impact.

Sean [00:08:26] Well it’s consistency it’s duplication. It’s creating a set of values that that become consistent within the organization. It’s creating systems that people can follow so that when one individual’s not here everything runs the exact same. This isn’t something you do overnight. It’s it’s taken several years to build this up because when most people start a business a couple people in there and their group and it’s easy to just shout out and say hey don’t forget to do this. And then as you’re building up over the years and you’ve got more and more employees you have to start creating specific plans and systems that can help. Keep it consistent.

Eric [00:09:15] So going. Going back to what you talked about you talked about the consistency of processes. You also talked about the consistency of values. What would you say are a couple of the key values that drive your business.

Sean [00:09:29] Well what we tell people here is first and foremost is we’re not a construction company where a service company. So we we love the gratification of the end product to see the building the site work everything done on a project. But anybody can do it right. And the difference that we try to instill in our employees is that it’s how you get there how how you get there with that client that makes the difference. So it’s basically the service. So you know things like answering the phone right. You think it’s a it’s a pretty simple concept but not everybody does it. Being able to get a hold of me or Mike or Shaun Scott or anybody in the business at any hour is huge. Specially when something’s going wrong.

Eric [00:10:27] Excellent. You’re right there there’s you know you guys move dirt now you’re a general engineering company there’s lots of guys out there we’ve got a backhoe or you know piece of equipment and they can do that but it’s that focus on service that sets you apart and has enabled you to build that success over the years in a lot of construction companies. There’s often a struggle when a new piece of software or a new technology is introduced particularly you know the office has got you know some great idea and they’re going to push it out to the field in the fields like you know once you guys just leave us alone let us you know do what we do.

 [00:10:56] How do you handle that conflict that can occur between the the aspirations of the folks who are introducing the technology and the realities on the ground and the adoption of that technology the same way I handle my kids because I said so right now not at all.

Sean [00:11:14] I think the biggest thing is you know if you take a step back a lot of construction companies are the office versus the field. Yep. And they’re almost two different companies. And what we’ve done over the years has tried to create one team in the office can’t survive without the field the field can’t survive without the office. And we’ve always promoted that. So there’s no wall between the two parts of the business. And I think that out of general respect the field knows OK well the office is trying to get this technology driven out into the field. You know it’s new it’s an i pad it’s got all these different things that I have to do now and I can’t just be out digging ditches and and moving dirt. But I have to work on this you know software program and document what I’m doing.

Eric [00:12:08] You’ve spent time in the field right.

Sean [00:12:10] Yes.

Eric [00:12:11] And you know how to run all the equipment.

Sean [00:12:12] No.

Eric [00:12:14] Ok but you’ll know that you know how to run some of the equipment.

Sean [00:12:17] Let’s say I know to start it there you go. OK. OK. So there’s a difference between running and operating. Yeah.

Eric [00:12:24] Thank you for your honesty. Does that help you at all to understand where the field’s coming from when you were doing these implementations.

Sean [00:12:31] I think you can’t expect anybody to do anything that you won’t do. You know so I’ve been out there lines you know edges in and you know over the years. I mean obviously it’s changed but early on in our you’re out there and in stakes and doing whatever it takes. So I think the more field experience you have could often hinder your business because what you find is you’re focused more on what’s gone on the field than on your business. Interesting. So what I’ve had to do because you know I was not a tradesman in the field coming up is fine. Those people that are that have that expertise and be able to one work with them on the management side that I know and and then have a mutual respect for what they do and we’re constantly learning from one another. And I think that has been in our part of the recipe of how it works around here as far as creating mutual value respect for one another and giving as. The ability to grow and take on larger projects and still be able to fund them and you know all the things that go with it.

Eric [00:13:58] What have you learned over the years about communication. That has helped you to grow the business to where it is today.

Sean [00:14:08] Well I think I’m constantly learning about it. You know a lot of it starts with your spouse. I mean at home with the family. The communication is key and I’m constantly trying to do better because I’m horrible at it and it makes you. You know really take a step back especially when you come into work to be able to. Maybe I’m just assuming too much and Rite Aid to over communicate to you to make sure everybody’s on the same page. And you know there’s a there’s a lot of people here that have been here for well over 10 years. So if we start thinking alike it makes the communication easier. Yeah.

Eric [00:14:56] So it takes time you’ve got to you’ve got to be able to attract a core and then build long term relationships with those folks internally.

Sean [00:15:02] We’re constantly looking to build the core. You know it’s like an onion. You keep building those layers and having you shed a couple layers at the end of each year. And you keep the the good stuff. And over time you end up with just a great bunch of people.

Eric [00:15:23] And the reason I’m exploring this is because you got to the black mamba because you’ve built a successful company. And so building that successful company this is one of the things I love about businesses. It really just opens up so many opportunities for not only making money but having a positive impact in the world. Tell us a little bit more about how you went about picking Uganda and the work that you’re doing there with a particular village there. How did you go about that.

Sean [00:15:55] My wife met with this pastor probably five years ago and just touched her heart and she says we got to help these guys and we’re both very adamant about helping her and helping our own family internally. Our company family and then our community family you know helping all these people and and sometimes we struggle going across the globe to to help others. And and I think over the years we’ve been doing a lot here. And we just said you know it’s time for a bigger impact on on something that was a 24 hour plane ride away.

Eric [00:16:41] We talked about it quite a bit and decided it was just time to go over and and do something for this village because part of the problem is they build these these structures in the side of the hill but they don’t do any excavation behind it. And everything ends up flooding in the building right. It’s got dirt floors and it turns to mud. I mean just all kinds of stuff that they don’t consider. Yep. And we’re like. We just need to go finish everything that’s not finished properly. Right. And you know so we did we excavated a bunch of dirt would you get the excavator from by the way. Well we. We ended up contracting with a broker that they got as 1960s 70s equipment.

Eric [00:17:33] Sweet was it. Was it Chinese or Russian.

Sean [00:17:35] Chinese.

Eric [00:17:36] Nice.

Sean [00:17:37] Actually one of them was a Cat. But it’s all like Dubai throw off stuff that came to Uganda. So it was definitely a challenge. But you know we were able to excavate behind the buildings bring down dirt and create more real estate in the jungle.

 [00:17:54] We actually did a deep freshwater well. So what we’re doing now is getting to the point where we can start piping for fresh water to the school and the church and all the houses stuff that they don’t have.

Eric [00:18:13] What advice would you give. Let’s get to it to a successful construction company owner who’s perhaps in a similar position to yours where you know they’re their immediate needs are taken care of but they’re kind of getting their heads up there looking around.

 [00:18:25] What advice would you give in terms of opportunities to pick to have a wider impact.

Sean [00:18:29] First and foremost you take care of your employees and their families. I mean that’s your priority. Because it’s like a family owned business. So we take that heart and and we have 60 different families here right now.

 [00:18:44] After you get to that point you start investing for yourself and then you have you know finances available to do other stuff and you just kind of go where your heart takes you.

 [00:18:56] If you have a passion for something whether it’s in Uganda or California you follow that and you get to the point where you can help them. It’s awesome. I mean just giving people the opportunity to do some of the stuff that we do is exciting to us. We we feel like OK well if they have running water if they have good drainage if they have all these things that are. Physical then mentally they can spend time on you know working on e-commerce or apps or something to help generate revenues for their their village that maybe they weren’t focused on in the past.

Eric [00:19:45] As we’re wrapping up what would you recommend in terms of a person’s focus today on their business in order to help them to really step into that passion and make that larger impact.

 [00:19:59] What are some action items you would recommend to a construction company president.

Sean [00:20:03] Stay true to yourself stay consistent year after year be consistent never be satisfied with where you’re at.

 [00:20:14] Be dynamically different than everybody else. Think outside the box look for new opportunities.

 [00:20:23] I talk to our people about the fact that we’re kind of amoebas we we can adapt in the tough seasons we can we can do different types of work and some day some years we’re doing interior demo. Other years we’re working on 50 acre sites. It just it varies but there’s nothing too good for us to take on challenges and challenge our guys in the field to be able to make a good product.

Eric [00:20:58] Let me ask you you you said something there that just caught my attention what do you mean by staying true to yourself your values what’s important business is simple.

Sean [00:21:09] You answer the phone when somebody calls you you do what you say you’re going to do and you just execute it. It’s simple as that and it’s it blows me away the amount of people that that don’t do that.

 [00:21:23] If you’re out there trying to serve in whatever capacity you can and you’re doing the best to serve your client then the rest of it all you focus on money. You sit there and struggle because you’re you’re not focused on what is really the most important part of it which is doing the best job you can.

Eric [00:21:46] What are your plans to to go back and meet some more black mambas?

Sean [00:21:51] Hopefully I doubt I think they’re in a zoo.

 [00:21:57] I think we’ll go back. There’s definitely more work to be done. We’re trying to get several people over there that we’ve met opportunities to work through e-commerce. To get and share their products now to the world. Interesting. They’ve got all kinds of cool things over there. Interesting. Yeah now and. And then we also have a couple of guys that we met that are really excellent operators that we’re trying to get visas to come to America and share some experiences here with them so they can go back and use those you know technologies that they’ve experienced here as well as you know the the financial aspect of it.

Sean [00:22:45] So you can open up the cook engineering division in Uganda.

 [00:22:49] Maybe not but at least give them the opportunity to learn when they’re over here.

 [00:22:54] Yeah. And you know they’re great people that you know I think one of the things that amazed me the most is you come from a place like the United States and you go to several different countries and you you just are mind blown by what they’re lacking right.

 [00:23:13] And the common denominator is they’re happy.

Eric [00:23:18] Right on dude.

Sean [00:23:18] Those people are happy over there.

Eric [00:23:20] That’s right.

Sean [00:23:20] And they don’t know any different. And and then you’re like well there’s so many miserable people and I don’t know what it states. I don’t you know if maybe if we all didn’t have anything or maybe if we are the exact same thing we’d all be happier.

 [00:23:35] I don’t know but it just amazed me that the smiles and the the grace and and just the joy that these people have with what they’re working with you know that’s awesome. And so you know the conversation came up with with Shelley and I as.

 [00:23:53] Are we disturbing that force by actually introducing vigger opportunities you know how is that really. Is it gonna mess up what they’ve got going on.

Eric [00:24:06] That’s an interesting thing. Yeah.

Sean [00:24:08] And I don’t know the answer but you know it’s it’s about creating opportunity right now. We’ve got a lot of opportunities here and we’re grateful for it. And we just want to share those with our employees our community our world.

Eric [00:24:25] That’s great. I don’t think a clean running water and some indoor plumbing is going to affect their joy too much. I would imagine.

Sean [00:24:34] Well I’m sure it’ll make it easier to enjoy other stuff.

Eric [00:24:37] There you go. Awesome welcome. Sean I really appreciate you taking time to speak to me today. Great talk.

Sean [00:24:41] Thank you.

Eric [00:24:43] Thank you for listening to this episode of construction genius. Hope you found that one percent of inspiration to help you in the next few days if you like the show. Please give us a five-star review on iTunes. Share it with other construction leaders who you think would benefit. And always remember that the show is brought to you by kick ass meetings I’ve been working with construction leaders since 2004 teaching them how to run extremely effective problem solving meetings that gets their people collaborating taps into their creativity and to get yourself a free copy of that kick ass meeting report go to GRAB YOURSELF THAT FREE report read it use it in your business you’ll find it extremely useful and thanks again for listening.CG29