Contractor to Contractor: IMS Masonry, Inc.
Established in 1989, IMS Masonry, Inc. has grown into one of the Northwest region's leading masonry firms. With 90 employees and an ever-growing portfolio, the company prides itself on high-quality customer service, a positive work environment and a priority on safety. IMS has completed a variety of projects, from medical and commercial, to industrial and recreational. Alan Johnson spoke with Masonry about his company's business philosophy, where he sees the future of the masonry industry heading, and how he has successfully marketed his company.
Masonry: Tell us a little more about the history of IMS Masonry.
Johnson: I started AJ Masonry in May 1977, working in the residential market. Looking to create an organization that could be built and passed on without any effects on the company, I formed a new corporation, IMS Masonry, which stands for Integrated Masonry Services. There wasn't a problem with AJ Masonry, but I just decided I really wanted to get away from using my name. I made the switch in 1989.
Our first project was a county jail in Pagosa Springs, Colo. For the next three years, we were chasing work in California and Nevada while maintaining a base in Utah. In 2003, I brought Heath Holdaway into the office as vice president of operations; in 2005, he became a part owner. We currently have approximately 90 employees.
Masonry: IMS has completed a wide variety of industrial and commercial projects, including correctional, educational, religious, medical and recreational facilities. How have you amassed such a diverse portfolio?
Johnson: Over the years, we have developed our management, pursued training for our employees, and created processes for desired results. We will only take on a new type of project if we feel confident in our ability to give our customers a great finished project. IMS has completed work from Vermont to Hawaii, all the while building quite a variety of facilities. We no longer have to spend as much time chasing work, as we build relationships with other contractors — they know the results that they can expect from our organization and invite us to follow them into markets where they know they will be successful.
Masonry: Vermont to Hawaii is a pretty big area. How did that come about?
Johnson: A general contractor out of Salt Lake City had some stations along the Canadian border that they were going to build. On the front end, they talked about taking Utah contractors they were familiar with out there; they decided to take IMS as the mason contractor. We were one of only a few subcontractors they originally brought with them. Having a masonry team they were familiar with turned out to be a great experience for both the general contractor and IMS. We built two border guard stations in Minnesota and did one in Vermont.
Another large general contractor from Utah was building a high-end resort in Vermont and had heard about [the previous general contractor's] experience with IMS. They asked us to join their team, and again we had a very successful project.
After working back East, we teamed up with another Utah general contractor to do some U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service buildings in Hilo, Hawaii.
While traveling these distances creates some challenges with manpower and equipment, we have been able to successfully overcome them and perform to the quality and safety standards for which we are known.
Masonry: Your website mentions the emphasis your company places on safety. Tell us a little about the Behavior Based Safety Program you've implemented.
Johnson: Back in 1994, we started to aggressively chase industrial work in our state. They had already started setting higher standards for safety on their projects. If we were going to do work in an industrial setting, we were going to have to build a strong safety program for our company; in doing so, we have opened new opportunities for our company.
We continued to evolve, with safety at the forefront of our company. Yet as much emphasis as we placed on safety in our company, we still had enough small, little incidents that it bothered us. With the aid of an outside consultant, we developed our Behavior Based Safety Program. As part of that program, an employee takes about 10 minutes each morning to observe job site activities. The responsibility rotates on a weekly basis on each of our projects. The responsible employee is not only looking for omissions in our safety activities but watching fellow employees' personal work habits, including lifting properly, wearing proper eye protection, climbing or descending ladders and scaffolding, etc. In turn, the active participation and reporting of their visual inspections provides a greater understanding to both the employees and management as to why we do the things the way we do it.
Masonry: Your website offers a comprehensive view into the company, including a portfolio, references, company history and recruitment information. How has the site helped as a marketing tool to help grow your business?
Johnson: Most often, we use our website as a reference to companies looking at IMS Masonry for the possibility of working together on a future project. It is easy for us to refer them to this site, to educate them on our diverse abilities and our past performance on similar projects. We were originally directing contractors that we didn't know to the website for information; as time went on, we're getting hits and people investigating us through the MCAA. It has brought work to us and it definitely gives us a very professional presence. More and more, we are being sought out through our website by general contractors seeking mason contractors in our general working territory.
We believe that our website demonstrates a very professional picture of who we are as a company. We are very proud of our company and of our accomplishments.
Masonry: What has been the most difficult project you've worked on, and how did you overcome the obstacles?
Johnson: Two recent projects come to mind. While neither one was difficult to build, each had its own challenges.
The first project, the Larry Miller Motorsports Park, had 22 buildings constructed over a period of 5-1/2 months through the winter. We had an extremely tight schedule to maintain, while fighting the strong winds — recorded gusts of up to 90 miles an hour and consistent winds of 25 to 35 miles per hour — very cold temperatures, and the logistics of working an area of about a half-a-mile radius.
The other recently completed project was IM Flash, a computer chip manufacturing facility in Lehi, Utah, which had nearly 2,000 people working on site at its peak. We were working with a clean-room environment and an accelerated schedule of six, 10-hour days over a period of three months. Several craft trades were working in the same workspace, creating a high-stress environment. Extreme planning was necessary to work together; our foreman worked closely with the general contractor and the other trades, creating a win-win situation for everyone.
Masonry: IMS has been completing work for some of the nation's leading contractors for 20 years. To what do you attribute these high-profile jobs?
Johnson: Again, always striving to achieve high standards of performance, quality and safety have led to satisfied customers, leading to many large projects that require the skills and talents that our company has to offer. We have built relationships over the years with many successful general contractors, and we are always on a short list of those who get to bid on their high-profile projects.
Masonry: You have received positive referrals from many of your clients. Tell us a little about your business philosophy that drives this recognition.
Johnson: Part of our philosophy is to be evaluated by our customers and our employees for the benefit of learning and understanding our weaknesses. We want constructive criticism so that we can improve on our systems. Other eyes on our company give us a different perspective. Asking for feedback from those we work with sometimes gets us positive recognition, and we believe that we often deserve that when it does come along.
The problem is that a lot of times they might have issues or stuff that bothers them and they don't voice those concerns [during the project]. In order to try to address these concerns, at the end of all our projects, we send out questionnaires for people to rate us on how we related to the company, how our foreman worked on the job, etc. The idea is to see if there are areas we can improve upon. Every now and then, something will come up that we need to start paying attention to.
Masonry: What advice would you offer to a budding mason contractor?
Johnson: In the process of starting from scratch and becoming the fine organization that I feel that we are, I have learned a great deal.
I would recommend for them to join their local and national trade and construction associations. Most contractors start out as a tradesperson and after they think they have a good grasp of the trade, they think they can start a business. Most do not understand or have the financial aptitude and managerial skills that banks and bonding companies are looking for. All of a sudden, you have employees and have to master several fronts all at once. These organizations offer training in all aspects of operating a successful company. More importantly are the relationships that are built while networking with similar individuals.
Masonry: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the masonry industry?
Johnson: That it is a dying trade. I believe that the history of masonry speaks for itself. There will always be new wall and building systems, but there will also always be plentiful amounts of masonry as long as there are qualified masons to do the work. When there is a severe shortage of masons, creating a big rise in wages and time constraints, then the architects and owners will look for other systems to fill their needs.
I believe 100 percent in networking, building relationships and learning from different educational opportunities that come about. There is a huge benefit to mason contractors in understanding the valuable tool of both educational opportunities and networking and relationship building.
Masonry: What would you do to change that misconception?
Johnson: Support your trade associations on a more active basis and participate in their activities in communicating and promoting masonry education to architects and engineers.
Masonry: What are your three biggest concerns in keeping your company successful?
Johnson: I believe that our success is not so much determined by outside forces as it is internally. With that in mind: A) handling sustained growth while finding and placing the right people in the right positions that need to be filled as the company grows; B) being aware and not becoming complacent in our industry; and C) building, educating and maintaining a satisfied workforce.
Masonry: What do you feel is the industry's biggest challenge in the near future?
Johnson: Here is where I hope all concerned parties listen. The biggest challenge is for everyone involved in, or affected by, our trade — union contractors vs. non-union contractors, brick manufacturers vs. block manufacturers, masonry associations vs. concrete associations, mason contractors vs. other mason contractors — to work together. Everybody needs to put aside their own self interests, and instead work on pooling all of our efforts into promoting masonry in a united front.
There will always be other trades, contractors and various other trade associations doing what they should be doing — promoting their businesses. We should be pooling our limited, valued resources in a united front and getting the biggest bang for our buck. This includes a personal investment in time, as well as giving your dues back to the industry that is looking out for you!
Masonry: Where do you think the masonry industry is going to be 10 years from now?
Johnson: If our industry pulls together, then I believe we will be a vibrant, strong industry. If we stay fractured, as I believe we are, then newer and well-marketed industries will begin taking larger shares of the opportunities that are out there.
Masonry: What do you think will be the masonry industry's biggest competitor in 10 years?
Johnson: I believe the concrete industry is significantly more unified and progressive, and you will see steady increases in their building opportunities. Masonry is never going to totally compete with concrete; we're going to show them that we have something special to offer. Obviously, modularism in masonry is easier than concrete in its structure, with the big panels. We need the masonry people to educate architects and engineers on the reliability and versatility of all of these different textures and different looks — things that are more difficult to do with concrete.
Concrete people are out there doing their job; they're promoting their industry. The masonry industry is not united. The way we've done it in the past is 'us versus them.' We need to unite as an industry under one big umbrella, and get out there, showing building systems and providing architects with information on the benefits masonry has to offer.
Masonry: What do you feel are the most critical issues you'll face with future government regulations?
Johnson: OSHA's charge is to create and enforce laws that protect the American workforce. But people have been put in place with all sorts of power and no elected officials to watch over them. So without careful oversight, we have people with the power to severely damage and overburden companies, without regard to the effect on our industry.
Immigration is already having a huge effect on our political landscape. Most of our country was built on labor from families that immigrated to this country in the last two or three generations. It is sad to see that there is no program in place to allow legal immigration and to properly document and process applications in an orderly fashion. I can only speak for our situation in Utah, but we have a shortage of both trained and untrained employees, and we are being stunted in our growth because of this shortage of labor.
Masonry: Which group do you feel has the bigger impact on masonry's future: architects, engineers or general contractors?
Johnson: Owners and architects call all the shots in determining what a building is made of and how they envision it. Again, marketing and education are the keys to promoting masonry to these two groups.
Masonry: What do you like most about being a member of MCAA?
Johnson: Educating myself and associating with like-minded individuals that I find in this Association are some of the key reasons for our success. Don't stand by and let such a valuable opportunity slip by!
On a national level, the MCAA has the opportunity to bring cohesiveness, so certifications in Utah are similar and carry the same kind of weight as certifications of someone in Las Vegas or back in New York. They can unite all the different associations around the country, creating something that's universal. They have the power, as a large group, to go to architects and the AIA and say, part of a prequalification that would support you having the experiences on the projects you design is using somebody that has these certification processes in place. This kind of education could be promoted from the national level to the local level.
About the Author
Masonry, the official publication of the Mason Contractors Association of America, covers every aspect of the mason contractor profession - equipment and techniques, building codes and standards, business planning, promoting your business, legal issues and more. Read or subscribe to Masonry magazine at www.masonrymagazine.com.