Contractor to Contractor: Larson-Danielson Construction Company
Since 1908, Larson-Danielson Construction Company has provided quality masonry work across northwest Indiana. A fourth-generation firm, the company was named one of Indiana's 50 largest construction firms by Indiana Business magazine. Pat Lockwood, Larson-Danielson's project manager, recently shared with us his company's history, his opinions on the future of the masonry industry, and his company's keys to successful growth.
Masonry: Tell us a little about Larson-Danielson's history.
Lockwood: The company was started almost 100 years ago by Charles Larson. He operated as a general contractor out of LaPorte, Ind. He subcontracted some work to Emil Danielson, who was a brick mason. They formed a partnership from that project. Frank Larson, the brother of Charles, had married Emil's sister, Anna. According to what we know, it's suggested that Frank joined the firm and the three men incorporated as a business in LaPorte in 1908.
The company is actually a fourth-generation company. Tim Larson is the president of the company, Terry Larson is the secretary/treasurer, Mark Danielson is a vice president and Tom Walter, who was added about 15 years ago as an owner, is also a vice president.
Masonry: According to your website, Larson-Danielson is ranked as one of Indiana's 50 largest construction firms. To what do you attribute your company's growth and success?
Lockwood: Management believes that employees here are the most valuable assets to the company, and nothing can be achieved without teamwork. The owners have stressed teamwork quite a bit, and have supported all of the people they've brought on. Basically, they try to support an atmosphere that allows employees to take on responsibility and also allows for the possibility for growth as individuals.
Masonry: Your website discusses the large amount of work that you do for longstanding customers. What steps do you take to ensure this repeat business?
Lockwood: It's obvious that client satisfaction is a priority on any job. The reason we have such repeat business is because we're willing to go that extra mile for clients that we've worked for in the past. Word-of-mouth is probably the best advertisement you can have. When you have a client that's satisfied with the quality of work that you've provided, they're going to let people know. Although, sometimes it might cost you a little more money to reach that quality, we feel it's worth it. That's kind of been our direction: Client satisfaction is number one.
Masonry: Your extensive array of services includes everything from project planning services and design/build, to general contracting and industrial/in-plant construction. How has offering this breadth of services given your company an edge over the competition?
Lockwood: Having more services that you can provide to the client does make you more appealing to different industries. Our expertise and the various delivering methods have proved to be an asset for Larson-Danielson.
If a client is looking for a fast-track project, we have those design/build capabilities that we can do in-house and provide that to them, which also allows us the ability to manage the cost and schedule the project. By being able to do the design work in-house — we have four, full-time registered engineers, and three, full-time draftsmen and architects that we use as consultants on a regular basis — it does give us an advantage over some of our competitors who may not have those resources available to them.
Masonry: Larson-Danielson uses an online, digital plan room to offer downloading, publishing, management, ordering and distribution of materials. How has this helped your business?
Lockwood: Advancements in technology have definitely had an impact on the construction industry. These advancements have allowed us to become quicker and more efficient in our everyday activities. The owners here have made a commitment to provide us with the most advanced technology that's available. The online, digital plan room is an efficient way to distribute documents to subcontractors and suppliers so we can receive bids back from them.
Masonry: Your company recognizes and rewards its talented employees. How do you accomplish this, and what result have you seen within the company?
Lockwood: As I mentioned before, management believes that their employees are the most valuable assets to the company. A lot of time, money and effort goes into training a new employee to learn the business, but the initial effort usually pays off in the end. Obviously, it is in the company's best interest to recognize and reward its talented employees. Larson-Danielson accomplishes this in several different ways.
I look at it as a two-way street — the employees need to take care of the company, and the company in turn takes care of its employees.
Masonry: Tell us about one of the most difficult projects that you've worked on, and how you overcame those obstacles?
Lockwood: One of the most difficult projects I've worked on as far as masonry goes was about three years ago. We worked on an elementary school in Hammond, Ind., and it was for an architectural firm that does a lot of school work in the Midwest.
The reason the project was so difficult wasn't so much because of the type or size of the project as much as the structural design and the amount of coordination required to build the project.
The building shell, or super structure, was built of structural steel and masonry, which is not uncommon, but this specific project bounced back and forth so much that it was a coordination nightmare — it also was not conducive to a productive work environment. To be honest, we tried several different approaches — short-term interval scheduling, expedited material deliveries, utilizing several different crews — but never really got over the hump on that project.
The building itself turned out very nice, and it was a quality project, but it was not what I would consider a winner by any means. But we did learn several things from that project that has allowed us to be a better mason contractor.
Masonry: What advice would you give to a budding mason contractor?
Lockwood: It's kind of ironic. This company started as a mason contractor in 1908, as I mentioned before. For a long time, they did their own masonry work.
Back in the '70s and '80s, we pretty much got out of the masonry field for several different reasons. The big reason was that there were so many masonry subcontractors out there that it was hard to compete. In the last four to five years, the number of qualified mason contractors has declined. I am not sure what the main reason is for that decline, but I am sure part of it is attributed to lack of financing, bonding capacity and equipment, and manpower resources.
What we've found in our area is that a lot of the larger general contractors now self-perform their own masonry work. They have the resources that are necessary to perform this type of work, and it allows them an advantage when it comes to controlling scheduling and quality.
When I hired on with L-D 10 years ago, we got back into masonry work. Our philosophy was to start small; you crawl before you walk, and you walk before you run. We've kind of taken the philosophy that you don't want to take on anything too big. We use a ladder approach, one rung at a time; we're just working our way up the ladder as far as masonry work is concerned.
What I would offer to a budding mason contractor would be that they need to have a niche in this industry, and they need to work on perfecting that niche. They're not going to be able to service everyone, and they are not going to be able to handle every job. They need to focus on their strengths and work to perfect them.
Masonry: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the masonry industry?
Lockwood: I think the biggest misconception is that masonry is so expensive. I think people really need to look at it as masonry is the most permanent. That's not to say that 70 to 80 years from now, you're not going to have to do some restoration work to insure that it's weather tight and structurally sound. I look at it as: You get what you pay for.
Today's consumers are very educated and they want the most bang for their buck; but what they fail to do is look at the big picture, long term. As a mason contractor, you need to explain and prove the benefits that they will realize from having a masonry building built. Yes, it may cost more money upfront, but long term it will lead to less repair, less maintenance and less money invested.
Masonry: What would you do to change that misconception?
Lockwood: I guess it just lies in educating the consumer. I'm not going to say that there are not a lot of owners out there that don't know what they're getting, but it really boils down to explaining the benefits of masonry construction. The NCMA [National Concrete Masonry Association] and IMI [International Masonry Institute] have several publications that can be used as reference tools to explain the benefits of masonry construction.
Masonry: What are your biggest concerns in keeping your company successful?
Lockwood: Obviously, it starts with your employees in the field. They are your company's front line, and they are the ones that will have the biggest impact on how successful your company will become. So it is very important to keep your employees happy and working. They also need to be supported on a daily basis with competent people that will help make them better at their job.
In addition, you need to be willing to change and be adaptive as technology changes how we perform our work. There is a reason this equipment is out there and you need to take advantage of it not only to be more productive and competitive, but also to be smarter and safer in your daily activities.
Masonry has, and will continue to be, a very difficult and competitive business.
Masonry: What do you feel is the industry's biggest challenge in the near future?
Lockwood: I would definitely say it's concrete tilt-up panels. Recently, we completed a new Wal-Mart store, which I think is one of the first in the nation that was built with concrete tilt-up panels. Unfortunately for the masonry industry, I think Wal-Mart may realize that there is an economical and time-savings advantage to using concrete tilt-up panels.
Masonry: Where do you think the masonry industry is going to be 10 years from now?
Lockwood: I think the masonry industry is still going to be strong, especially in the institutional market. As far as retail and commercial, I think it's going to fall off a little bit. But as far as your schools, industrial and hospitals, I think it will be pretty strong.
Masonry: What do you think will be the masonry industry's biggest competitor in 10 years?
Lockwood: Concrete tilt-up. They've just got so many options that they didn't have previously. Now they can actually simulate brick veneer when they cast these panels. So, someone that likes the look of a brick building can get that out of the tilt-up panel now.
Masonry: What do you feel are the most critical issues you'll face with future government regulations?
Lockwood: Probably the ever-increasing amount of regulatory requirements and paperwork, particularly on public projects.
Masonry: Which group do you feel has a bigger impact on masonry's future: architects, engineers or general contractors?
Lockwood: I believe architects do. They're the ones that are out there selling these projects to the owners. Most projects begin with an architect; therefore the architect is the client's first contact. I think they have the most influence on what type of construction is going to be used.
Masonry: What do you like most about being a member of the MCAA?
Lockwood: I like all of the advantages you receive from being part of it. You're kept up-to-date on the latest technology and techniques used around the country. It gives you a lot of good advice about how to retain people and what's going on around you. It really keeps you in the loop.
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.