Lessons from the best PM I ever knew

MY FATHER, Harold H. Craig, with whom I grew up not only as his son but also as his employee of Craig Plumbing Co. from my early childhood through my early adulthood, passed away April 3. He did not pass away so much as pass on to me the legacies of his lessons of life, business and project management. I've tried to pass them on to the next generation of project managers through my column here at

MY FATHER, Harold H. Craig, with whom I grew up not only as his son but also as his employee of Craig Plumbing Co. from my early childhood through my early adulthood, passed away April 3. He did not pass away so much as pass on to me the legacies of his lessons of life, business and project management. I've tried to pass them on to the next generation of project managers through my column here at CONTRACTOR since 1998.

Project management can get itself lost in the latest flavor of the month. New paradigms and labels get attached to it, such as process management, project modularities or constructive task-and-timeline deconstructions.

Be that as it may, a handful of universal truths about project management will remain inviolate over time.

The boss might not always be right, but he's always the boss.

This was the hardest lesson I ever had to learn about project management, business and working for a living. I still have to admit I have occasional problems when my own boss tells me to do something that I think is blind silly. (I do work for a great boss, Mike Ravas of Goldstar Mechanical from Charlotte, N.C.) Since he signs my paycheck each week, I simply remind myself of what "Pop" used to tell me when he'd order me to do something incomprehensible — "I might not always be right, but as long as you work for me, I'll always be your boss!"

It's about learning to check your ego at the office door and becoming part of the winning team. It's about learning that part of being a man is knowing when to admit you're not in control of a situation, making the best of it, and always acting responsibly and professionally. It's also about treating your crew with the same respect that your own boss (I hope) gives you.

The customer might not always be right, but he'll always be the customer.

By extension, your customer is also your boss and your company's boss. You must treat him with a similar amount of deference (although really problematic customers can be fired).

Good customers make great companies, but bad customers can make bankrupt ones. Cultivate your better customers; let your weaker ones weed themselves out. Cold call and develop customers you want to have — customers that pay on time and are good to work with.

Partner with many but never marry a single customer, since the "divorce" will put you out of business. When conflicts arise with better customers, don't just meet them halfway, meet them 51% or even 60% of the way if they're really worth keeping.

If your company is primarily residential, commercial or service, try to make sure you still do a little of all three, since they all drive one another and if one of them goes sour, your company can still have cash flow coming in from the other two.

Watch your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.

Strange in this day and age of ultra-competitive markets how much outright waste I see on many job-sites by other contractors. Encourage your crews to be thrifty by sharing a little of a job's higher-than-expected-net when they are thrifty. Praise reuse of scrap that would otherwise be thrown away.

Thrift does not mean cheap! Buy the best brand-name tools for your guys, since they're cheaper to own because of higher crew productivity rates. Spend money on preventive maintenance for your trucks and jobsite equipment. Save all scrap metal, scrap parts and equipment that can conceivably be resold.

Make vendors earn your business, but make sure to spread your business (and good credit) around to ensure multiple sources of supply. Never shop prices after bid day since that will only increase the prices of your quotes in the future.

Invest, don't just spend! Realize that every dollar spent, even if it's just for a dollar bag of ice for the crew, is an investment in an asset. The effect of that expenditure has a ripple effect no matter its initial size.

Do not tolerate even the slightest amount of theft! Fire thieves immediately when caught! This not only means immediate savings in materials not lost, but it also improves overall crew and company morale.

Safety doesn't cost, it pays.

Pop got hit in the head by a piece of threaded 2-in. galvanized pipe thrown down an elevator shaft where he was working as an apprentice in 1947 in the pre-hardhat days. He was nearly killed, but fully recovered, eventually. Because of that, he was totally safetyconscious when he started his own business in 1949, decades before it became fashionable. In doing so, he also reaped reduced expenditures in workers' comp and other insurance premiums, which positively affected his bottom line.

Hire the best employees you can afford, and always make sure they have the same core values that you do.

You'll spend more time with your work-family than your family-family if you're like most project managers. Your values could be Golden Rule-do-unto-others or slash-burn-pillage-for-an-extra-nickel-of-profit or let's-justtry-to-do-our-jobs-well-and-make-a-decent-living-for-us-all-today. Sharing core values is as important, if not more important, than any particular skill sets and abilities they may or may not have. If you don't like the people you hire and have to work with everyday and they don't like you, your daily misery and low job productivity will be unbearable.

The same is true for the professionals you hire, such as your lawyer, your tax accountant, your bookie, etc.

In the end, all you'll have are memories of your thoughts, words, and deeds, good or bad.

At Pop's funeral, which was held in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon just two days after his passing, we expected 10, 20 or 30 close friends and family to show up. More than 200 friends, family, former customers and total strangers he somehow touched by his generous and giving spirit over his five decades of being in the plumbing contracting business told me story after story about how my father had touched their lives.

The chapel where his funeral service was held was filled past capacity, standing room only, a fitting testament to a man who not only talked-the-talk but walked-the-walk when it came to always at least trying to do the right thing. His motives were not driven by profit — although for 55 years, through good times and bad, he was always a very successful businessman — but by his simple philosophy of always treating those in his life — his family, friends and customers — the way he would wish to be treated. In doing so he left one helluva legacy.

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He can be reached by calling 919/367-7488, or via e-mail at [email protected] yahoo. com. His Website is www.hkentcraig.com.