What’s the one thing you’re absolutely guaranteed to get out of starting your own construction business?
Freedom, maybe. Pride of having your name hanging on the shutter outside. With a little luck, wealthy.
Good answers but the one thing you’re guaranteed to get? It’s the stories. Start a business, and you may succeed or fail, but you will walk away with insightful, interesting stories you’ll be telling for the rest of your life.
Sam Cicero, Sr., who founded Cicero’s Development Corp. back in 1970, has no shortage of those stories to tell. Now living the good life in retirement on the beaches of sunny Florida, Sam shared some of his fond—and not so fond—memories as his namesake approaches its 50th anniversary this year. His tales will be featured in Illinois Real Estate Journal over the next 12 months. We hope you enjoy them.
Like many entrepreneurs, Sam didn’t seek out the industry that made him a success. It found him. After leaving high school at the age of 16 to begin working at his stepfather’s gas station, Sam got involved with NASCAR locally and drove a stock car at nearby tracks including Chicago’s Soldier’s Field, O’Hare raceway, Raceway Park in Blue Island, and Santa Fe Raceway. Sam was employed as a dockhand and became a Teamster trucker. When the Teamsters went on strike Sam began a career in painting residential interiors. Taking a leap in faith he invested his last $500 into starting Cicero’s Development Corp. at the ripe old age of 28. Short of money to buy a proper wallpaper table, Sam improvised with a three-legged card table he found in an alley that he had to prop up against a wall to maintain standing. He borrowed equipment and tools to take on whatever job no matter how small.
As his business grew, Sam made his first hire and then signed on a second employee part-time. His small crew went from painting single-family homes to apartment complexes. Soon the company had expanded its range of services to include light carpentry, mechanical, plumbing and finally, full-scale, design-build renovations of larger commercial properties, such as major hotels, fast food chains, nursing homes and office buildings. Today, Cicero’s Development Corp. works all over the United States and is one of the most sought-after commercial renovation companies for the hospitality industry.
Of the many stories Sam shares of his company’s early years, the account of how he discovered the importance of training employees is the one he repeats most often, especially to young people joining the trades.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect builder, or a perfect renovation,” Sam explained. “Mistakes on our jobsites would happen, and so did callbacks. These callbacks started to really cost us money, eroding our tight margins, reputation and referrals.”
Despite hard work, Cicero’s Development’s inexperienced employees were making mistakes and needed some basic education. After a chance meeting with a former construction trainer, Sam hired him on the spot to put an end to the onslaught of callbacks. Thus the company’s training program began with the trainer taking the reins.
Sam put his foremen in school with the trainer to get them up to speed on the latest technology, installation techniques and codes. In turn, the foremen would train employees on the fine-tuning of their skills. To overcome objections Sam paid both the foreman and employees extra to go to school, complete with books, tests and jobsite training. Even when jobs were out of town, classes were held on the location.
“Our employees had four years of apprenticeship training for carpentry, painting and wall papering,” recalls Sam. “Soon call-backs dropped off substantially. You can say that training didn’t make us money, but it sure ended up saving us a boatload. Training your employees is not an expense. It is an outstanding investment with real ROI.”
Some of the company’s new employees were GI’s leaving active service while others were young people fresh out of high school learning life. While they may not have had trade skills when they joined Cicero’s, they soon gained union level training they used throughout the rest of their careers. Cicero’s training program allowed all its employees to thrive by creating a safe, challenging and achievable environment where they could feel as though they are contributing in a valuable way. Heightened job satisfaction led to Cicero’s having lower turnover rates.
Deciding on the appropriate areas to focus on in employee training is always difficult. However, by reviewing call-backs, Sam uncovered that finishes were where most errors occurred, no doubt because that is what they could see. Small issues like drywall screws popping out, paint spatter or poorly installed quarter-round were cited frequently. Although minor, these errors added up to wasted labor hours and materials. As a result, Sam made finishes the laser focus of training. Cicero’s employees became known for their superior finishing talents, a key advantage when the company was competing for high-profile brands in the hotel and restaurant industry where design excellence plays a significant role in customer satisfaction. Multi-tasking was essential in all areas.
“I made sure our program offered training in a variety of trade skills to give the apprentice a broad base of knowledge before choosing which path to follow,” notes Sam. “Aside from technical skills, our program helped teach younger men and women leadership, teamwork, work ethic and other useful work and life skills.”
Sam’s faith in employee training is borne out by a recent study from the Construction Industry Institute. Its research team found that for every 1% of the project labor budget that is invested in training, productivity increases by 11%. This means for construction companies to increase productivity, they must have an extensive training program in place for all new employees that will train them on the skills needed to perform a job safely and productively.