"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

Mentor’s Reply to Young Entrepreneur’s Questions (Part XV)

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Hello, Mr. Collier,

I hope all is well with you!

As always I want to express my sincere gratitude for you taking the time to answer my questions.

How would you explain Principled Profit?

Start with what Principled Profit is not: Wall Street charging huge fees to knowingly create toxic financial instruments that rip everyone off and end up dragging the good name of American capitalism through the dirt. Principled Profit is when you keep the interest of ALL Stakeholders in mind; when you honor the Social Contract, when you honestly try to create true, real, sustainable long term real value through hard work that benefits your Customers, your Investors, your Team Members, and society as a whole.

How do you discern fake or false confidence in a person?

Wow! That is a toughie! The most dangerous person is the “Confident Incompetent” who sometimes doesn’t even realize it themselves! Street Smarts (ability to get things done efficiently and effectively without breaking any Red Rules) trumps Book Smarts any day (Hard work beats brains when brains don’t work hard) and EQ and common sense usually beat raw IQ hands down. Short answer is that track record/results speak for themselves BUT it takes a while to be able separate out true ability from rising tide, luck, and Team effort. However, I’ve seen folks with mediocre individual ability be able to assemble, motivate, and lead a team to terrific outcomes. Go figure. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Who developed the systems in your business early on?

Me! I built an Excel spreadsheet with mega macros, would even calculate late rent and print out late notices and 3-day evicts!  I took a database program and created a Service Request module with drop down menus for common Service Requests that tracked our speed of response. I ran the books on Quicken for many years and this before they created a specialized property management module. But this was back in the dark ages, now there are many off-the-shelf programs available.    

What professional would you consider your most trusted advisor?

My Senior Management Team. No one person, I solicit input from many sources including books. In early years I found conferences an excellent way to get out and see how the rest of the world did things.

Do you keep up with the Forbes 400 annual richest Americans list?

Not really; there are many other measures of success/greatness.

What do you think of 1 bedroom/1 bathroom units with no washer and dryer inside?

No in-unit washer/dryer means you have to have a laundry room, higher end expect at least stacked W/D. I would never build without W/D though I do own a fair amount built that way in times past (dinosaurs roamed?).

How crucial is it when buying older communities that do not have washer and dryers inside or even hookups?

We’ve added W/D frequently when we could find the interior space without crowding other rooms AND the electrical load to the building could handle all the 220 volt dryers. It’s all in the rent structure and how you wish to position/brand your community!

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

Three Popular but Futile Strategies

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We all have unresolved issues we KNOW we should deal with: procrastination, anger management, personal or professional growth challenges, family matters.

Be wary of falling into the trap of deploying one or more of these three common but dysfunctional strategies/coping mechanisms:

1) Attacking: We think if we get mad at ourselves or if we whip and punish ourselves (can you hear that inner critic warming up?), we can beat our “bad” side into submission to our good side. We can also attack others: humans tend to get most annoyed at others for exhibiting the traits we most dislike or fear in ourselves.

2) Ignoring: Denial is a favorite; we disassociate, go numb, sweep it under the rug until it forms a mound we trip over constantly. Some manage to raise avoidance to an art form: Elephant? What elephant? If only they put same energy into finding a solution! Never run from your problems, it simply increases the distance to a solution!

3) Indulging: It’s who I am; I can’t/don’t want to change, I deserve a break, what harm can it really do? It’s too late anyway.

Attacking rarely works; if anything it causes the other side (even if it is just your dark side) to dig in even deeper. It is best to focus on removing restraining forces rather than increasing driving forces i.e. focus on why you wish to change this habit or deal with this issue, visualize in glowing, vivid, intricate detail the good that will come of it. The vision of the mountain top will strengthen and motivate you as you walk the valley. Create a strong enough “burning why” and you will find the power you need. For me, it is to create a masterpiece of a life for I deeply believe to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.

Ignoring v. Releasing: While some things can and should be released and become “water under the bridge”, feelings buried alive never die. It takes wisdom to know the difference and an intentional cultivation of balance; some things must be processed multiple times, each cycle at a higher level of successful release. Ultimately, as M. Scott Peck said in Road Less Traveled “Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of spirit.”

Indulging v. Acceptance: You don’t have to be perfect to be perfectly okay. Even saints must sleep and priests must play. However, while we all need to nourish, even on occasion pamper ourselves, in excess it becomes a self-sabotaging form of escapism. The key is to be honest with yourself, actively cultivating self-awareness, balance, wisdom, and courage: “The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we’re afraid.” (Richard Bach, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’, b.1936)

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

 

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