C. DeWitt “Dee” Brown, Jr. was a self-made man, starting as a hod carrier and apprentice bricklayer after graduating high school and proceeding to build one of the largest masonry companies in the United States with multimillion-dollar projects across the country. Dee was hard-nosed and pragmatic, his 1950s crew cut and Texas twang reminders of an early life when a day’s work was expected for a day’s pay.
A practical businessman who understood that profits were neither guaranteed, easily achieved, nor perpetual, he led his company, Dee Brown Masonry, Inc. (DBM), through cycle after cycle of booms and busts in the construction business. He expanded to exploit opportunity and shrank to survive adversity, but always surviving, meeting payrolls, eking profits when he could, and borrowing capital when he had no choice.
My business relationship with Dee began with a small consulting job to assist his collection of overdue accounts from a bankrupt hotel-casino operator in Atlantic City. While we had been friends for several years, previously working together on several church and charitable projects, our fee negotiations were extended and often heated.
During one of our sessions, in a fit of frustration, I exclaimed, “Dee, we are arguing over peanuts in terms of the value you expect to get from my work. Our difference is less than $10,000 and you’re acting as if it’s the last pickle in the jar! You know that if I asked you for $100,000 and I needed it, you’d give it to me, no questions asked. Why are you making this so hard?”
Taken aback, Dee reared back in his chair, looked me in the eye, and said, “That’s friendship and this is business. I won’t have the money to give anybody if I don’t make the best deals I can.”
We finally flipped a coin for the difference and I lost.
Over the next 20 years, Dee and I had many occasions to talk about business and the lessons he had learned during his career as an entrepreneur and successful businessman. His education didn’t come from reading books or attending seminars, but on the job through trial and error. Over the years and during our many conversations, I gleaned five important business management tips that he learned on the job.
Management Tips From Dee Brown, Jr.
1. Be a Friend
While Dee carefully delineated between business and social activities, he rarely missed an opportunity to help someone when it was within his power to do so. Whether mentoring a young man hoping to start his own business, or helping a rival company solve a knotty installation problem, Dee’s door was always open. He didn’t choose his friends on their ability to repay favors, but whether they needed his assistance.
“Life is more than business,” he used to say. “Having friends when you need them means being a friend when you don’t.”
That principle has been inculcated into the culture of DBM and continues to reap benefits for the company through its client and supplier base, many of whom came initially to the company with a problem and became a friend.
2. Remember Your Roots
Hod carrying is a physically draining, dangerous job. Moving bricks, wet cement, and mortar from a delivery pallet to a bricklayer requires unloading and loading bricks, mixing mortar, and scrambling up and down scaffolds to deliver the load to two or three waiting bricklayers so that work is uninterrupted. A typical hod carrier moves two- to three-thousand individual bricks in an eight-hour shift. Dee’s first job in the industry was as a 16-year-old hod carrier working on construction jobs in northern Texas.
As the company grew and profits increased, with operations from coast to coast, Dee always remembered that its success depended upon the guys who continued to carry and lay bricks day after day, summer and winter. He was a beneficiary of their labor and sweat, and he showed his gratitude by listening to their troubles, complaints, and ideas, and implementing their suggestions when they made financial sense, improved safety, or improved work conditions. Perhaps more importantly, when a change would be more costly or create other problems, he always sought out the person with the original suggestion and explained why the idea could not be implemented. Dee didn’t feel that he was smarter than his employees – he just had information they didn’t have.
3. Check the Specs
In the construction business, the profits on a single job could be wiped out by unseasonal weather, an accident, or late deliveries by suppliers. Major projects include collections of drawings, explanations, and specifications that govern every aspect of a job from A to Z. The finished product in compliance with the specifications is the product delivered to the client when the job is complete.
“It is impossible to know all of the things that can go wrong,” according to Dee. “Compounding the risk by not understanding the deliverables is tantamount to leaving a window open in a rainstorm. You might not get soaked, but…”
Many managers, according to Dee, are too eager to prove themselves, acting before learning the details of the project requirements or the expectations of the client. At best, they waste energy and create unnecessary tension on the job site; at worst, they squander money and time, having to remove and redo work previously completed. In Dee’s world, a manager was allowed one mistake concerning specifications; the second instance, he or she was demoted or terminated.
4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Constructing a building requires coordination of a lot of moving pieces – multiple labor trades, hundreds of suppliers, aligned schedules and deliveries, precise measurements, and complicated assemblies. This work must be performed in an ever-changing environment of weather, regulations, and technology. Mistakes invariably occur which, uncorrected, cascade into extra costs, missed deadlines, and buyer dissatisfaction. A good builder, like every good sailor or manager, constantly monitors his or her progress and continuously corrects course to reach the desired destination.
Required team meetings preceded every project to discuss details of the particular job – the final deliverable, the schedule, the work site, roles and responsibilities, and possible problems that could arise, as well as their solutions – so that every team member understood the part they played in the project’s successful conclusion. Foremen worked every day with their crews, setting daily goals, monitoring progress, and facilitating work. Each foreman reported to a DBM supervisor several times each day, and supervisors reported to the company headquarters each morning before work began and each evening when the work was done. Information flowed back and forth, up and down the organization to ensure that work proceeded according to plan.
Because every work assignment or project is subject to miscalculations, lack of attention, and even deliberate neglect, Dee’s mantra was “no surprises.” He believed and insisted on constant monitoring and measurement to ensure his construction projects proceeded as planned, fixing minor problems before they could become disasters. Open, honest, regular communications between team members from top to bottom was the rule and was reinforced by the company culture. “I never punished anyone who brought up a problem; I’ve fired plenty who tried to hide one.”
5. Spread the Rewards
A man of deep religious conviction, Dee never considered himself a self-made man or believed that his good fortune was the result of his intelligence or hard work alone. “I have been blessed,” he would often say, “with family, good friends, and mentors who have helped me along the way.” Dee’s faith and conservative conviction that while no one is entitled to wealth, everyone should have opportunity, influenced his life and the company he built. Dee’s role was to provide opportunity, but each person’s success depended upon their willingness to maximize that opportunity through hard work and responsibility.
DBM is a company where success and reward are inextricably intertwined – every employee shares in success through a higher-than-industry wage, frequent promotions and bonuses, above-average benefits, and constant confirmation of their value to the company. There is no “we” and “them”; everyone’s contribution to the whole is recognized and valued. In return, however, every employee is expected to bring their best to the job, every day, on every project. Each person shares a responsibility to other employees to do more than his or her share of the necessary work including the CEO, the executives, the office staff, the bricklayers, and the hod carriers. His formula has worked over a half-century – turnover is virtually nonexistent, average tenure for the majority of employees exceeds 10 years, and senior management has been in place for more than 25 years.
In an age of robotics, instant communications, and technological revolution, companies are formed, mature, and cease to exist, their entire life cycle completed in just a few short decades. Management theories, revolutionary personnel policies, and complicated competitive strategies become popular for a time before falling out of favor, replaced by the “latest and greatest” new concept of doing business. Despite the extensive research, constant innovation, and eternal tinkering, business at its core remains the same – giving customers what they want when they want it through the coordinated efforts of man and machine.
Dee Brown understood business and, following the principles learned over a lifetime, created a company that now serves second, third, and fourth generations of customers, suppliers, and employees. He recognized opportunity and made the most of it with humility, responsibility and effort.
Has a mentor made a difference in your life? Are you repaying the debt forward with your own mentoring?