As company marks 100 years, contractor looks forward

BY ROBERT P. MADER OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF ALSIP, ILL. Some contractors think about doing something different, but Bill Erickson thinks about doing something really different. If a major center of commerce were to develop 60 miles west of Chicago, Erickson muses, the company could decentralize and supervise its plumbers electronically on the Web. Erickson, CEO of C.J. Erickson Co. here, may have inherited

BY ROBERT P. MADER
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF

ALSIP, ILL. — Some contractors think about doing something different, but Bill Erickson thinks about doing something really different. If a major center of commerce were to develop 60 miles west of Chicago, Erickson muses, the company could decentralize and supervise its plumbers electronically on the Web.

Erickson, CEO of C.J. Erickson Co. here, may have inherited that kind of thinking from his father and grandfather. The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Grandfather C.J. "Joe" Erickson bought pie delivery trucks and converted them into "plumbing shops on wheels" during the Depression. His father, Norm Erickson, initiated the practice of using a movable bucket backhoe to assist in restricted area excavations in the 1940s.

That kind of mindset has Bill Erickson thinking more about the next 100 years than the last century. CONTRACTOR recently interviewed Erickson about what he thinks the future holds.

Question: As it becomes more difficult to recruit employees, how will C.J. Erickson find enough people?
Bill Erickson: One of the things that we've done over our 100th anniversary is develop-and solidify our brand. Where that puts us is in a position of being an attractive place to work. The mission statement that we've had over our 100th anniversary is be the best plumbing company in the Chicago metropolitan area to work for, and if we're the best to work for, then we'll be the best company to hire.

When word gets out that we're looking to hire people, people come out of the woodwork, start calling and say, "Hey, I'm interested." So the brand we've created is able to attract enough good people to handle growth.

Q: Will unions continue to play a role?
BE: I think they will definitely have an effect, maybe not in their present form or maybe not in their present structure, but as long as the union continues to provide the highest level of training and education, they will do just fine. That's what they're good at. As they see their market share dwindle, they see they have to change. I think they're strong enough financially. ... One other thing you might call the X-factor of construction unions is that they have a genuine feeling of responsibility and duty to do the installation right the first time and the responsibility and duty to quality.

Q: What do you think will change and how do you plan for it?
BE: What we as a company decided to do is invest in change and do our best to stay current. It's a huge task with all the stuff going on. We think about it and talk about it on daily basis.

One of the changes is that we have more informed consumers, and if we don't stay up on the products and systems out there, they won't keep coming to us. The biggest change I think affecting the construction market is the instantaneous cheap information that all our consumers have. If we don't stay current on that information, we will be left in the dust.

We're already planning for a 24-hour economy in Chicago. The biggest thing driving that is that transportation of goods, material and people will be entirely different in the future. We have to stay on top of that and take advantage of that.

The other change is sustainability and water conservation in Chicago. That's a big change we will be prepared for.

Q: Is there anything you think might happen that's not generally on other people's radar screens?
BE: I think one of biggest changes is "component-ized" plumbing systems built in a factory. That's headed our way. I don't know how soon. That's the way it's done in Asia. The key things are quality control, the idea of maximum use of material, all the things we think about in prefabbing in a controlled environment. I don't know how it will be done, but there will be pressure from our customers to use that stuff or install stuff that they buy. They're already trying to cut the subcontractor out of equipment and fixture purchases and next it will be pipes, valves and fittings. You either challenge it or join it to stay viable and current.

Q: How will technology change C.J. Erickson?
BE: We've got to stay current as transportation gets harder. We're probably going to decentralize our operation. Our employee supervision will be visual through "plumber cams" or whatever you want to call them. You'll be able to supervise field personnel over video.

What that will mean is that in-person supervision will be less and less, so the trick will be how to personalize supervision from the project managers and leaders to the rank and file. How do you develop a trust factor in them trusting us, so therefore, we can trust them? What I'm thinking about is remote supervision or remote management. Personal face-to-face supervision will be less and less due to transportation issues, so management of the supervision technology is the key to successfully using it.

While supervision becomes less frequent, it will be more dramatic, that is, the time you spend with each employee is going to be more quality time and more positive team building and fun rather than exchanging information. Information can be exchanged electronically. Team building, the personal part of the employer/employee relationship, will be more sophisticated and better because it will be less frequent. I think we do a good job at that now, so I feel we will get into that easily.

There's an investment in change in the equipment to do this, the computers, the cameras. If you're not willing to invest in that, then you're not able to take advantage of that and you'll spend a lot of money on windshield time.

Q: Do Chicago and cities in general have a future?
BE: Definitely, Chicago will be one of best spots to be in. First of all, there seems to be a shift, especially with baby boomers, a trend now of people living in the suburbs and, instead of summer cottage on the lake, they have a condo downtown. The city is being rebuilt inside out.

Q: How will the graying of America affect C.J. Erickson and the plumbing industry?
BE: One of the challenges that I think our company has solved is how to convince the baby-boomer generation, whether in corporate leadership or a field worker, that they need to embrace the fact that they're going to be supervised by generation X people. The 50-somethings will take orders from the 30-somethings, and if we can pull that off — and I think we have — then we're on the road to having a healthy, successful business in the near future. Gen Xers are really smart managers. I understand this because I've experienced the energy and enthusiasm of these 30-somethings, and these kids are really good. If you pull that off in an organization, you will have success. The way we've done that is to convince the graying workers that their jobs aren't in jeopardy. It comes down to a job security issue.

The next fact is that the 4,000-sq.-ft. home is going to be a thing of the past. A lot of the baby-boomer generation will downsize their square footage or downsize and have two or three of them around the country.

Q: What is your sense of purpose?
BE: One thing I've realized over my career is my love of being an employer. It's one of the joys of my life, and the fact that I can have a positive effect on families is one thing that I get a kick out of. As I retire from day-to-day operations of the business, I will not retire from being involved in the lives of people in the company.

Q: What's the most important lesson you've learned?
BE: In life and in business, never be afraid to take a risk. No. 2, one of things I've always been able to do is look for opportunity in unfortunate situations. If all hell broke loose, I could step back, look and say, what can we gain out of it? Another is that I'm not the smartest person in the world, but as a businessman I've learned not to be afraid of hiring people smarter than I am.

I believe that half the battle is showing up every day. And trying to do the next right thing. It's a wonderful industry, a noble cause — selling and installing this stuff is a good thing.