"The Man, The Mission, The Passion" Husband, Father, Attorney, CPA, Steward Leader, Entrepreneur, MBA, Author, Builder, HBS OPM 25 Class, Mentor, Teacher

My Biggest Business Mistakes… and What I Learned

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It was a nightmare! A 240 apartment construction project spiraling out of control, cost overruns mounting. I was the sole owner, developer, AND general contractor and it was my personal guarantee on the construction loan. The project was hemorrhaging cash, it was the equivalent of waking up every morning, weekends included, and throwing $10,000 (closer to $13k in today’s dollars) into a shredder.

I’d done multiple under 100 apartment developments in Gainesville and successfully served as my own general contractor (in addition to being an attorney and CPA, I have a Florida Building Contractor’s license). On Oviedo, my first out of town development, the savings from being my own GC were projected at close to $2M. To further save costs, I’d gone with what was then a relatively new concept: prefab walls, assembled off site, a potential savings of another million.

Code required that 1.5 inches of sheetrock between the floors as fire protection i.e. two sheets of ¾’ sheetrock had to fit between the prefab walls and the ceiling. The vendor, competent at carpentry but new to prefab walls, built the walls with only 1.5” of clearance. Fine in theory BUT no slab is ever perfectly level and the sheet rock was to be put in after the walls were up i.e. you need a bit of wiggle room to insert them properly.

This problem was discovered (or at least brought to my attention) after over 2/3’s of the walls were up and water and electric already installed. The “solution” was “simple”: pull out the already installed walls, cut them down an inch or two and pay the electricians and plumbers to re-do their work. In addition, relationships with the City of Oviedo Building Department had deteriorated to an abysmal state; we had received a stop work order that we had to go to the City Commission to have lifted; a further delay of 30 to 45 days while costs continued to mount.

I replaced the on-site team and the project manager; my quick and painful schooling helping me make significantly better choices. The new team mended fences with the city code inspectors, got approval for our refit and took it from theory to implementation. However, progress remained slow; extrapolating the current rate of “progress”, it would take over 3 years to finish, an unacceptable time frame for a project whose original timeline was 15 months. Part of the problem was that we were at the bottom of the subs priority list; we were a “one off” customer from their point of view, their regular customers came first, they got to us when it was convenient for them, not for us. Since much of construction is sequential and you cannot schedule the next sub unless you know when the first one will be done, this compounded our timeline problems geometrically. And the best way to make sure a sub really puts you at the bottom of their schedule is to ask them to show up and then not be ready for them.

When the Oviedo project went south I had two other projects in earlier stages of development, design, and permitting. I walked away from one ($400K) and shelved the other (eventually sold the land and to my amazement made a 7% ROI!) and started driving down regularly, at first three times a week, then twice a week. I also reached out to everyone I knew, asking for advice and counsel. I knew I had to eventually replace my second team; they’d done an excellent job of stabilizing the situation for which I was truly and eternally grateful but I knew needed even more horsepower to get this project across the finish line in a meaningful time.

One challenge is that taking on a troubled project mid-stream is not the sort of task that warms the heart of most GC’s particularly in the absence of a pre-existing relationship. Fortunately, in my search for advice and counsel, I met Tracy Forrest, a fellow YPOer and owner of Winter Park Construction located in north Orlando (WPC, now run by his son Jeff). WPC agreed to take on the project and they got it done in fine fashion. WPC did cost me mega bucks but they had ongoing relationships with subs and a tremendous support team, management depth, and I had the peace of mind of knowing that Oviedo was in good hands.

In the end Oviedo cost me $5M in liquid cash I did not have, a tremendous and exceedingly painful hit particularly given the small scale of The Collier Companies back then. To put it in perspective, the original construction budget called for paid in equity of only $2.5M and actually ended up three times that. On a personal level, I had many, many sleepless nights over 18 months and most unfairly, it was the source of a great deal of stress to those closest to me.

What did I learn?

Knowledge is not Wisdom: There is a BIG difference between wisdom and knowledge: every mistake I’ve made, I’ve read about, learned about, knew about (at least in a generic, general sense) before I made it but the mistake always came in disguise, its identity clear only in retrospect. Knowledge can make you overconfident. Wisdom, usually gained thru experience, is often a better guide into the unknown. There is also the issue on unknown unknowns; you don’t know what you don’t know.

There is no substitute for experience, a proven track record. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. The critical thinking, problem solving, passion and drive I possessed and took for granted as the norm was nowhere near as common as I assumed and just because you’d known someone for a lifetime or someone was pleasant, educated, pleasing to be around and seemingly intelligent didn’t mean they can manage projects or people. Book smarts are very different from street smarts, EQ can be more important past a certain basic IQ. People will make mistakes you won’t ever believe possible and it is hard to guard against what you do not think possible. Also, folks can get the “deer in the headlights” syndrome when they are in over their heads and running scared and their silence can be deadly when they should be sounding the warning bell.

Proximity is Powerful, Distance can be Dangerous: I’d underestimated how important my frequent visits to my Gainesville construction projects were, how much I gained from casual conversations with subs; how course correcting my presence could be.

Bad Things Can Cause Other Bad Things: When I stumble, I always sit down afterwards and ask myself how it happened. One of the things that surprised me about Oviedo was how bad the cash crush was; in many respects I’m financially conservative/cautious. One answer was that the cash flow from existing operations that I’d counted on as part of my reserve had deteriorated. Why? I’d pulled some of my best people off their regular jobs to help with Oviedo and the operating companies’ performance slowly went from outstanding to average. Duh! Very predictable in hindsight and since apartments is very much a fixed cost game, any reduction in the top line has a magnified impact on the bottom line.

We All Have Depths and Strengths We Know Not Of: It is hard for me to adequately convey the emotional nadir, the darkness, the day to day struggle, the all-consuming nature, the pressure, the energy absorbing context of this experience. I’m a fighter, I never, ever give up but boy oh boy there were some exhausted hopeless nights. One wonderful lesson was that having walked (stumbled through?) that valley, I fear a lot, lot fewer things!

Learn the Right Lesson: The cat which sits on a hot stove may never sit on a cold stove either. Quite frankly, I was a bit nervous about doing my next development but I knew I had to get back up on the horse right away so within 18 months I was back in the ground again! I did choose to develop locally (Hidden Lake, the subject of my textbook Construction Funding published by John Wiley & Sons) but I also chose not to be my own contractor and while I’ve done thousands of apartments since, I’ve never, ever again been my own GC!

PostScript:

I still own Oviedo today (I rarely sell but that is another story) and at its first refinance 10 years later, it appraised significantly over cost and I was able to pull out meaningful dollars with which to further grow The Collier Companies. I also just finished IQ (because you are smart to live there), a five story structured parking 656 bed student housing development on Bruce B. Downs Blvd, directly across from the University of South Florida in Tampa. We finished 100% occupied, on time, minimal concessions, and within 1% of budget and I’m further pleased to say locked permanent 10 year fixed financing with 45 days of opening with a major life company.

As always, I share what I most want/need to learn. – Nathan S. Collier

One Comment

  • Steve Angle
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 6:53 AM | Permalink

    Not an employee, but admire your insight and sharing of others same. Great leaders reveal their past accomplishments and failures for others to learn from.

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A BLOG ON PERSONAL LEADERSHIP BY THE FOUNDER OF THE COLLIER COMPANIES
LARGEST PRIVATE PROVIDER OF STUDENT HOUSING