Since July, when they launched their new company together, contractors Kevin French and Denis Landry have begun working on a number of projects.
c-Port Credit Union
399 Western Ave., Augusta
New branch construction
Franklin Memorial Hospital's Tufts House
111 Franklin Health Commons, Farmington
Renovation of a medical student housing building on the health care campus
10 Southgate Road, Scarborough
Addition and renovation of 22,000 square feet of warehouse and lunch room spaces
Bangor Savings Bank
Middle Street and Forest Avenue, Portland
Bangor Savings Bank
Allen Avenue, Portland
New branch construction
280 Fore St., Portland, and 80 Exchange St., Bangor
Community Counseling Center
Lancaster Street, Portland
10,000-square-foot addition and renovations to 23,000-square-foot space, which will include offices, group rooms and waiting rooms
L.L.Bean Northport Call Center
Allen Avenue, Portland
New call center
Stillwater Avenue, Bangor
New branch construction
2 Portland Square, 3rd and 4th floors, Portland
2 Portland Square, 3rd floor, Portland
707 Sable Oaks Drive, South Portland
Kevin French slides down in his office chair, and props one foot up on the other knee. His hair sticks up slightly, as if he's slid his fingers across his head a few times in the past hour. He has a well-trimmed graying beard and is wearing khakis, a red vest and sensible brown shoes. He looks like a relaxed foreman at a job site.
His partner, Denis Landry, on the other hand, is clean-shaven and sits up a little straighter, his legs crossed more formally. His black shoes are shined, his pants are pressed and his yellow and black striped tie matches his pale yellow shirt. Compared to French, he looks like he could be a banker, perhaps visiting a construction site to check up on his investment.
The two partners, sitting across from each other in their temporary office on Portland's Allen Avenue, where they're building a Bangor Savings Bank branch, acknowledge being opposites. But they say it's part of the reason the former chief executives of their own companies decided to join forces in July and form Landry/French Construction Co. — and together enter a forbidding market.
French, according to his public relations agent Monica Morin, is energetic, spontaneous and a risk taker, and geared toward customer service. Landry is practical, organized, trustworthy and dependable, with good management skills.
More than just opposites attracting, however, these two are attracting business. Since July, they've made about $7.8 million on several commercial projects. (See sidebar on page 21 for a list of projects.)
"It's a tough construction market," says Kathleen Newman, president and CEO of the Maine chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. "And the fact that they're winning work already when they're a new entity is really good."
This type of success would be practically unheard of if French and Landry were neophytes. But they're old-timers in the construction industry, having been at it for more than 25 years. In fact, they were direct competitors for a long time, French says. "Friendly competitors," Landry clarifies.
French for five years was vice president and half owner of Ledgewood Construction with partner Peter Benard, doing about $50 million in sales a year. Prior to that, he did marketing for Pizzagalli Construction Co., based in Burlington, Vt. But in 2006, French decided to leave the commercial building business to spend more time with his family, he says. He sold his share in Ledgewood and signed a four-year no-compete clause with Benard.
That time is now up. French says people have been saying to him, "We were wondering when you would resurface."
Landry, who managed Payton Construction Corp.'s office in Maine for close to a decade, has for the past four years been running his own company, Landry Construction, based in Lewiston.
"They're not inventing anything," says Matthew Marks, chief operations officer for the Associated General Contractors of Maine. "It would be different for someone new in the industry starting out. But two experienced people with clients and familiarity with bidding work, that's different. … You've got an instance of two business leaders who know the industry."
Landry and French have a lot going for them: carefully built reputations, long-term relationships with clients, complementary personalities and skills. But they will not be immune to the economic challenges facing their peers.
"One of the things we talked about," Landry says, referring to the discussions the two men had before forming Landry/French, "was, does it make sense to do this right now?"
Being naturally competitive, French says the current conditions couldn't be a better time for him to plunge in. "I'm more eager to get in even if everything [with the economy] stays the same," he says. "I look at this like playing a game. It's a game for me to win."
Even as the economy shows glimmers of recovery, the construction industry is lagging behind other sectors.
"Nationally, construction spending and employment are still bouncing along the bottom, long after the overall economy and private employment have begun to turn up," Kenneth Simonson, chief economist with the Virginia-based Associated General Contractors of America, writes in an e-mail.
Construction employment fell nationally by 21,000 in September to about 5.6 million people, adding only 19,000 jobs in net since February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past 12 months, the industry has lost 210,000 employees. Average hourly earnings for construction workers fell, too, by one cent, while for the entire private sector, earnings rose by 1.7%.
In Maine, things are not much better.
"Construction employment in Maine plunged in 2008 to mid-2010 and has recently bobbed up and down but remains near a 15-year low," Simonson writes. "The rate of decline has slowed, but the state is still losing construction jobs on a year-over-year basis and has done so continuously since November 2007."
In August, about 22,400 people were employed in the construction industry in Maine, down from 24,500 the previous August and a high of 31,400 in 2006.
Beyond facing these daunting numbers, Landry/French has chosen to specialize in commercial work and forgo civil projects, where the action largely is these days.
At the moment, due mainly to federal stimulus checks, Simonson says highway construction, water and waste treatment facilities, energy conservation and energy projects like wind farms and new transmission lines are all strong. Over the next year, he also expects to see more hospitals and colleges and universities breaking ground for new buildings. But public schools, libraries and developer-financed projects like hotels, warehouses, retail and offices will take some time to come back, he predicts.
Simonson says he fears, too, that more hardship lies ahead: "I think [construction companies] are using up what remaining reserves they have. 2008 was a record year for non-residential construction, but in 2009, projects were being cancelled left and right. Many had to close offices and lay off employees. I'm afraid more are going to go out of business."
These statistics and sentiments do not appear to worry French much. He says Landry's success in the past four years with Landry Construction (he remained profitable, making between $4 million and $5 million in sales a year, albeit while watching his work volume go down, Landry says) "proved that there is work out there."
"It is easy to get depressed," French says. "It is the natural state of the human being. It's easy to say, 'Poor me, poor me,' when the latest report comes out. You can get into a depressed state and say there's no work out there, versus saying, 'OK, here are the opportunities and how are we going to go after that?'"
Simonson says optimism alone won't persuade customers. He concedes, though, that a positive outlook can translate to action. And French rides his optimism like a surfer catching a wave. "He likes the challenge of finding a job," Landry says.
French is not, however, deluded about current realities. "There's a lot of guys out there hunting for work," he admits. "We have to spin it a bit differently."
The two men say their approach to business will be based on strong customer service and a clear division of duties. Landry will focus on the operations side of projects while French will work on business development and marketing.
Much of this marketing comes down to doing jobs well, keeping sites clean, sticking to the schedule and budget, and making customers happy. "We want our clients to sell the next three jobs for us," French says. "Reputation is everything, especially in Maine. You burn one person, you burn a thousand people."
The two say they're trying to target "relationships, not bid work." They would like customers who come back to them again and again with new plans, such as L.L.Bean and Bangor Savings Bank, two current clients. So far, they have not done much advertising, but word has already traveled. "We didn't blast anything out, but it didn't take long for our phone to start ringing," Landry says.
Although the two will split their responsibilities, they say they will both be involved in all aspects of the business, from cleaning up after the day is done to meeting every client. "I can count on one hand how many clients I haven't met," Landry says. "And it's important to employees that we set the tone for the rest of the company. It's a culture we're trying to develop. Nobody is immune to customer service, just because their name is not on the sign."
The sign, which reads "Landry/French Construction Company" and has a green logo of a curving white road leading to a cluster of tall buildings, is purposefully placed in a prominent place at every one of their construction sites to attract attention. And the site itself is a point of pride.
"I don't want one car to not know it's our job site," French says. "It's clean, it's picked up, everyone's dressed appropriately." (Later, during a quick tour of the bank building in progress, French picked up an empty Dunkin' Donuts cup and soda bottle that had been tossed aside by workers. "This drives me nuts," he admits. "This drives me cuckoo.")
Landry and French also mean to keep their business on the medium side. They're not aiming to make $50 million in sales a year, but rather between $10 million and $20 million, they say. "When you get too big, you lose contact with your clients. You don't always make the best business decisions because you need the work," French says. "When you move from $30 million to $40 million and then $50 million, it's a whole different stress level, and all these people are depending on you to stay employed."
Landry adds that at that size, "to feed the machine, you say, 'Well, let's go after that project, even though I don't want to go after that project.' You start to get into markets that you shouldn't be in."
And so the commercial market, despite its challenges, is where they intend to remain.
"[Commercial building] is professional," French says. "You work with architects, and with owners who are well versed in the construction process, who keep controls in place and stay close to budget, versus working from napkin drawings."
Then, the thrill-seeker comes out again. "And you have to hunt the job down," he adds.
Landry/French Construction Co.
68 Mussey Road, Scarborough
Owners: Denis Landry, president, and Kevin French, vice president
Annual revenues: To date, $7.5 million; projected revenues, $20 million
Services: Construction management, design/build, traditional design/bid/build, pre-construction services that include the permitting process and working with the owner through design
Rebecca Goldfine, Mainebiz staff reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.