Episode 14: Agile Decision Making in the Construction Industry with Ashton Sawing and Drilling

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Transcript

Adam Honig: Hello and welcome to Make it. Move it. Sell it. On this podcast, I talk with company leaders about how they’re modernizing the business of making, moving, and selling products, and of course, having fun along the way. I’m your host, Adam Honig, the CEO of Spiro.ai. We make amazing AI software for companies in the supply chain, but we’re not talking about that today. Instead today, we’re talking to Anna Christensen, the marketing director for Ashton Sawing and Drilling, which is, if you ask me, probably the best commercial concrete services company in the whole United States. That’s what I think. Anna, welcome to the show.

Anna Christensen: Thanks for having me, I’m glad to be here. And I definitely agree with your statement, I think we are the best in the country.

Adam Honig: Oh yeah, I can’t even think of another company that comes close to what you guys are doing. But just for the listeners out there who might not be familiar with Ashton, maybe you could give us a little bit of an overview of what you guys are up to.

Anna Christensen: Sure. So as you said, we work in concrete, we got our start over 20 years ago, cutting concrete. So that includes anything from slab sawing, diesel sawing, core drilling, and doing demolition, we do a lot of robotic demolition, so we can take it all down and cut it out. We also put concrete back, we’re in the placement business as well, so that’s pouring foundations, putting up tilt walls, and filling trenches. And also we polish and coat concrete, that’s anywhere from epoxies to polishing and staining.

Adam Honig: Wow, that’s a pretty wide range of things, but I’m really interested in the robotic demolition. What can you tell us about that? What have you demolished recently?

Anna Christensen: Well, those are really cool. A fun project I saw last summer, we actually took down a building in the medical center in Houston. It’s a really eco-friendly safe way to demolish a building when there are a lot of other buildings around where you can’t swing the ball. You know, that image of taking a building down? Not safe to do in cities anymore. So we can be on the top floor and we have robotic cameras that we can operate from anywhere, we don’t have to be close to them and they just knock those buildings down floor by floor.

Adam Honig: Wow, I’ve always wondered how they do that. But when you said robotic demolition, I was kind of picturing like C3PO walking into a building strapped with explosives. And as soon as he got in the middle of it, he went up. This sounds much more high-tech than that.

Anna Christensen: Yeah, those robotic cameras look really cool, they look almost as cool as CP30 but they’re operated by a specialist who’s kind of hanging out in the wings.

Adam Honig: So what happens is the building kind of collapses one level at a time.

Anna Christensen: One level at a time, absolutely. I wanna say that that building was about 13 stories.

Adam Honig: Wow, that’s amazing. And can you reuse those robots or do they kind of get crushed in the process?

Anna Christensen: Absolutely. You can imagine they’re pretty sturdy pieces of machinery. At Ashton, we have one of the few guys who can operate on those, and so he’s pretty much an expert in making sure they stay running and tip-top shape.

Adam Honig: I remember when I had the chance to visit with you in person, we saw a saw blade that would cut through concrete that was bigger than my six-foot partner, Justin. That was the highlight of our visit, seeing that tremendous blade.

Anna Christensen: Yeah, I think 76 inches is the largest one.

Adam Honig: Wow. And what do you do with those kinds of plates? What do you guys cut down? 

Anna Christensen: Concrete.

Adam Honig: So like overpasses, dams, anything like that?

Anna Christensen: Yep, we can pretty much cut through anything if it gets much larger than that, or if it’s something like a column we need to cut through, we would use a wire saw. If we’re cutting vertically, we’d use a wall saw. There are all kinds of different ways to cut concrete and the different size saw blades go with that.

Adam Honig: Wow. Well, it’s a really exciting business to think about. I’m sure it’s less exciting when you see it every day. You’re like oh, we’re knocking down another building, or a home, whatever.

Anna Christensen: It’s funny, as a marketing person, I don’t get to see it every day, so I still find it very exciting when I get to hit a job site.

Adam Honig: Well let’s talk about that a little bit. So if you think about construction and many of the industries in the supply chain, it can be very male-dominated. And we were talking a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman working in this industry. What is that like?

Anna Christensen: There are definitely a lot of times when you’re the only girl on the job site, you’re the only girl in the room. I think you definitely have to have a level of confidence and sometimes a thick skin to be that girl in the room, but there are a lot of organizations and groups for women in construction. We’re definitely all working in any way that we can to make sure we recruit more women, especially when it comes to going to universities and getting women into those degree programs for construction. But I have to say in my three years now in the industry, it’s great. I mean the guys in the industry are all really nice as well, and I think they’re happy to have us here. And we bring a new perspective to a lot of things as well.

Adam Honig: Right, that’s great. And if you were counseling college graduates, what would you be telling young women college graduates about your industry and why they should join?

Anna Christensen: Oh the opportunity is incredible. It really is. There’s a ton of opportunity just for growth and for new perspectives. I think construction is one of those industries that when you look at some of the innovations and the new technologies and building efficiencies into how you work, I think construction can be a little bit behind at times. It’s just a great place to come if you’re a trailblazer and you like to work hard. And also that you like to see your impact, you literally are seeing things that you’re building or changing. You’re literally changing the face of the planet. 

Adam Honig: Yeah, that totally makes sense. I picture that it’s gotta be a growth industry with all the spending that everybody’s gonna be doing on infrastructure over the next number of years. It should be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Anna Christensen: Absolutely. And even during COVID, we all could talk for hours about what those couple years were like, but we were an essential industry and so our world kept turning just like it always had in a lot of ways. And we kept working because it’s one of those things that’s needed all the time. It’s almost, I’m not gonna say recession-proof, but it’s definitely a place for an opportunity no matter what, it seems.

Adam Honig: Yeah. Now, are you in your company experiencing any sort of supply issues? We’ve been talking with a lot of people who’ve been dealing with supply issues, right, has this been impacting your business?

Anna Christensen: Yes, it absolutely has. We rely on so many different products. I mean, we have to have concrete when we are pouring concrete, right? We need concrete. I know our polishing and coatings team, they use a ton of products, and some of those lead times are pretty serious. Rebar, it all has a much longer lead time than it used to, so we have to get creative, we have to have those strong partnerships with our clients, just so we all kind of understand what we’re up against together.

Adam Honig: It’s super interesting. I was talking with a company that is a large fabric distributor, and they believe that the reason why they’ve succeeded in the past couple of years is because they’ve built up this warehouse basically of all the fabric that anybody could ever want. And that enabled them to take market share away from their competitors basically.

Anna Christensen: That’s awesome. And it’s not only the supply issue, it’s the rising cost. And so many construction companies get on these projects that are going to last six months to a year. By the time you get into month four and into month eight, things are more expensive than they were when you started. So that’s certainly a challenge as well.

Adam Honig: Yeah, I have the misfortune of needing to fix my deck off the side of my house and I’ve been just doing it pieces at a time kind of thing because I don’t have time to do it all in one go. And I’ve noticed that the lumber prices fluctuate wildly from week to week, it’s gotta be hard to manage. 

Anna Christensen: Yeah, that is crazy. I know you definitely do not wanna be replacing a deck or a fence or anything like that right now.

Adam Honig: So tell me a little bit about some of the business initiatives that you guys are undertaking that you feel are making a big impact on the business.

Anna Christensen: Sure. We, just in the last year or so, started pushing a strategy of kind of not repositioning our company, but just bundling our services in that we’ve had these three divisions for so long. And it’s like hey, if we offer this together, if we kind of position ourselves as this one-stop subcontractor where a lot of our clients have to work with multiple subcontractors on every project. So if we can be that one for you instead of three or four, that’s where we can differentiate ourselves in the market. So we’ve been doing a lot of meetings and some lunch and learns and just a lot of marketing around the projects where we are all working together. 

Adam Honig: Is it hard for the sales team to wrap their brain around that? Because if they’re used to selling coating projects or something like that, they’re suddenly having to sell other things too, is that a challenge?

Anna Christensen: Yes and no, they are kind of working together. So behind the curtain, there’ll be three sales guys on a project, but to the client, it’s just the one, so they’re pretty good. It’s such a specialized industry that when you know polishing and coating, you’re not gonna necessarily know the sawing and drilling side. So they do still have to work together behind the scenes.

Adam Honig: They are working well because I’ve heard, and I don’t know this firsthand, sometimes salespeople don’t always get along with each other, but not the case for you guys.

Anna Christensen: I don’t think so. They may be keeping that for me, but it seems like it’s going pretty well and it’s been a way just for us to differentiate ourselves and build some of those partnerships with clients.

Adam Honig: Gotcha. I know the challenge that a lot of companies are having today is in hiring and retaining staff, especially on the sales side. Has this been a challenge for your business at all?

Anna Christensen: I would say it’s been more of a challenge to keep our field staff. It’s one of those things where the industry is just so crazy and just to keep some of those positions staffed, especially with the hours and it’s not the easiest work in the whole world. And then just keeping up, right? I mean salaries are going up like crazy and just making sure we can retain those positions has probably been the toughest that I’ve seen.

Adam Honig: Is there anything that you’re doing in particular that you feel like oh wow, this is starting to work really well for us, or is it just like staying in touch with the employees? What do you think works the best?

Anna Christensen: You know, it’s funny, as we sit here I’m like oh, I should pull in my HR person and the manager of that team. But I know this has been a focus for Ashton even prior to me being a part of the team, but there is such a strong focus on culture. And such a strong focus on like you said, staying in touch with the guys, making sure they’re happy and we’ve been looking at making sure everyone understands what the opportunities are. Yes, you’re here today, but there are plenty of guys here who have climbed that corporate ladder and have these great positions as project managers or estimators now even though they started in the field a few years ago.

Adam Honig: Right, that makes sense. And I know that Ashton is a family business started by Mr. Spencer Ashton. Do you feel like having that kind of familial approach to things helps with that?

Anna Christensen: Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the struggles because Ashton is growing so rapidly and the company has grown so rapidly in the last five to 10 years that I think it’s hard when you get into that day-to-day and everyone’s so busy to keep that as your focus. But I do definitely feel like that’s an effort that’s made here a lot just to keep things more personal and on that family level.

Adam Honig: Totally. Well I know when we were talking earlier, you were saying that Mr. Ashton himself was involved in cutting concrete, so kind of started the business at the very initial part. And so he’s gotta have a lot of ways of connecting with the people in the field because of that experience.

Anna Christensen: Absolutely. And he has been on job sites cutting concrete here and there just when he is needed, even in the last year. So I know that guys out there really appreciate that and it’s fun to have them out there.

Adam Honig: Cool. So speaking about working in a family business, I know you’ve worked in non-family businesses before, and now in a family business, how does it feel different to you?

Anna Christensen: I feel like when you’re in a smaller business, when you’re in a family business and you can just walk two feet that way, and you’re talking to the CFO and two feet that way, and you’re talking to the CEO. And the executive team is smaller and very close, we’re really agile, and so we can make business decisions pretty quickly. And we can try things I think, there’s not as much risk to try something new as there would be if you were a much larger corporation and there was a ton of red tape and a lot of titles above you to have to go through and get approvals. So just like when we started Spiro, it’s like hey, let’s try this out. We had to go through a few phases to get it just right, but it wasn’t the end of the world because we were agile enough and small enough that we could make it work, and it’s been a huge payoff for us.

Adam Honig: Yeah, so what I hear from a lot of people at family-owned businesses is that they’re able to take a longer view of things. That it’s not like there’s a private equity fund that’s breathing down everybody’s neck trying to get results or external stockholders. The family knows that we’re gonna grow this business, we’re gonna make it successful, we need to kind of take a path, and it sounds like that’s what the Ashton family does.

Anna Christensen: Absolutely. And one of the reasons I was really attracted to working at Ashton is the level of opportunity that was there just for marketing and for sales and for starting a CRM. You know, it is fun, it’s like okay, we can come in and do what I think will make an impact. And the Ashtons get to work on what they think will make an impact which is a fun way to work.

Adam Honig: Totally. But let’s talk about marketing, which I know is your thing more than HR and some of the other topics maybe we were talking about, but what’s exciting in the world of marketing for you these days?

Anna Christensen: For me, this year we’ve just kicked off email marketing. So when I came in, we were doing online marketing, but that was it. And so just being able to build the brand and build up the awareness. Construction’s really fun because it’s still very much a relationship handshake business, so we’re doing a lot. I actually have half of my sales team out at a clay shoot today.

Adam Honig: They’re at a clay shoot? Tell me what that is. I’m in New England, I don’t know if they have clay shoots.

Anna Christensen: Okay, well they shoot clays, so it’s like a sporting clay.

Adam Honig: Like a disc? So somebody fires off a gun, yeah, I’ve seen that in the movies, I think.

Anna Christensen: Yep, absolutely. So that’s the fun thing about construction. There’s a lot of clay shoots, there’s a lot of fishing tournaments, there are barbecue cook-offs, there are all of those fun things that we get to go to and just shake hands and meet. And there’s a lot of business still done face-to-face.

Adam Honig: And so how does marketing support that, do you provide them with materials to give people or tell them the right people to talk to?

Anna Christensen: Yeah, a lot of times I’m out there with them selling right along beside them, building those relationships and making those contacts. We have all the marketing collateral, the tents, the tablecloths, and all of the fun outdoor stuff.

Adam Honig: And from an email perspective, I’m assuming that a lot of your email marketing is targeted to mobile because I’m just kind of picturing people getting emails on job sites and stuff like that. Am I thinking about that properly?

Anna Christensen: Yep, it’s really interesting. So we’ve been using MailChimp and the statistics is about 50/50, desktop and mobile. The way construction is set up, the project manager isn’t always in the field. So we work with a project manager and then they have their superintendents in the field, and so both will be our clients. So it’s about a 50/50 split on mobile and desktop.

Adam Honig: Gotcha. Are you doing any SMS marketing as well?

Anna Christensen: We are not.

Adam Honig: Okay. It’s very controversial these days. I can tell you that I get cold SMS pitches and I’m like dude, so inappropriate, right?

Anna Christensen: Yeah, it’s one of those things that we’ve talked about and we’ve talked about it in a way of being that customer support. So we’ve been talking a lot lately on how do we improve our operations? Again, how do we differentiate ourselves and just make working with Ashton easier than the competition because as a subcontractor, we think that could be a leg up for us. And so we’ve talked about doing things like text messages to our customers when our operators are on the way or when we’ve finished a job and those sorts of things, but not quite marketing, not just yet.

Adam Honig: Yeah, I know a lot of people that I’ve been talking to have been saying things like they wanna be like Amazon. They wanna be always letting the customer know where things are, where stuff is in progress or how to track the order or things like that. That’s a very popular theme right now. So it sounds like a little bit in that vein is what I’m hearing.

Anna Christensen: It definitely is. I mean we’ve used the word Amazon and it’s what everyone’s used to. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s an expectation, but I think it will be at some point for every company to operate that way.

Adam Honig: Yeah. The problem is of course, that Amazon does such a good job with it. How could you possibly do as good a job as they do? It’s so hard.

Anna Christensen: You know what’s funny, I have a little insider tip. So we’ve just hired a new associate in our Dallas office, I was meeting her via phone last week and she worked in an Amazon warehouse. I was like, you have to tell me what it’s like, is it the most amazing, most efficient, most high-tech thing ever? And she said absolutely not, it’s the complete opposite. So I don’t know how they pull it off and make us all think that it’s perfect, but maybe it’s not, which gives me more hope.

Adam Honig: Yeah, I think that’s the perfect takeaway from that. What they’ve done is they’ve done a great job of creating the perception and everything else, well we’ll get it figured out. So what I’m hearing for listeners is if you’re feeling like oh, we can never do that. Yeah, maybe your customers think that you’re doing fine.

Anna Christensen: That was absolutely my takeaway because I’m a huge Amazon fan and I will be probably forever, but it was fun to hear that insider perspective from a warehouse. No, it’s pretty crazy hair on fire back there.

Adam Honig: No, I’ve heard some stories. I’ve heard some stories about people not being able to take bathroom breaks because everything’s too busy and all kinds of craziness going on there. So thinking about customer perception and that being the gauge, do you do any sort of formal customer survey at this point?

Anna Christensen: We do not, but I have a pretty strong background in market research, so it’s something I’ve talked about since we’ve been here. And any company that I’ve worked in there’s that fear, right? Like if we ask, they might tell us something we don’t wanna hear, but my comeback to that is it’s better to know than to have them not tell you and go work with someone else. Because if you know what the problem is, you have that opportunity to fix it, and a lot of times that makes that partnership even stronger. So it’s definitely something that I know I’ve talked about and now Jed’s talking about it. I’m sure it won’t be long that Spencer will be talking about it and I can see it in our near future for sure.

Adam Honig: Yeah, we use the net promoter score approach, which is that thing that says how likely are you to refer Spiro to a friend.

Anna Christensen: I love net promoters.

Adam Honig: So we do that continually and it’s really eye-opening I think, to get that view of the customer. And it is scary because if somebody doesn’t like something, it hurts, but that’s the only way to know, right?

Anna Christensen: Yeah, I just had my first conversation last week with some of my sales guys about guys, we need to collect Google reviews. So I wanna put it on your email signature, just the link there, make it super easy for our customer. They’re all like no way are we doing that. Because it’s only the angry customers that are going to leave a review. 

Adam Honig: I don’t know.

Anna Christensen: I don’t think so either.

Adam Honig: No, I think there might be some good reviews coming through. Of course if you survey them yourself, you can always then reach out to the good ones that give you good survey responses and be like oh, Mr. So and So, here’s a nice little Google review you can write of us or something. Maybe prime the pump a little bit that way.

Anna Christensen: Absolutely. And we have a lot of happy customers, honestly, and sometimes in construction, things just don’t go the way they’re supposed to and there’s not a lot any of us can do about it.

Adam Honig: I mean sometimes, in my experience with construction, if things do go the way they were supposed to, you’re super fortunate. Just so many unknowns.

Anna Christensen: I know, and can you imagine cutting concrete and then doing some of the things these guys do? It’s pretty crazy.

Adam Honig: Yeah, super crazy. Well Anna, this has been great, such a great chance to speak with you and learn a little bit more about some of the crazy projects that you guys are working on and to get your perspective on what it’s like to be a woman in sort of a male-dominated industry. And then get some very practical tips about some of the marketing things that you guys are doing, which I think a lot of people can take advantage of. So this has been really super, so thank you for joining me.

Anna Christensen: Oh, it’s no problem. Thanks for having me.

Adam Honig: And as a reminder to our listeners, you can find every episode of the Make it. Move it. Sell it. podcast at spiro.ai/podcast. Feel free to subscribe, maybe like the podcast or write us a nice review. Anna, don’t you think people should definitely do that?

Anna Christensen: Absolutely.

Adam Honig: Absolutely. And hey, thanks everybody for tuning in, and we look forward to speaking to you at the next episode.