How a Kansas City Entrepreneur Rebuilt His Business by Learning When to Say 'No'
“Dad, it’s raining in the living room.”
If you work in insurance, scenarios like that aren’t unusual—but those aren’t words you want to hear from your daughter when she tells you toilet water has been flowing in your home for eight hours.
That forced insurance pro Larry Carr, his wife and two daughters out of their home for nearly two months. Even though Larry knew insurance like the back of his hand, it was a nightmare claim, and much of it was out of his hands until those with the construction know-how repaired his home.
If only a company offered reconstruction before the insurance company moved a claim through, he thought.
From Busted Toilet to Business Idea
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Turns out, that broken toilet valve gave him an idea for a business. He paired up with a good friend who had decades of construction experience so the two could offer both carpentry and reconstruction in a single business, so the two joined forces to create Bradford Interior Group. Larry led the business side (including some insurance services), while Rondale Bradford (who already had an impressive resume in the KC construction world) tackled the technical, onsite building duties.
And so Bradford Interior Group was born. It had a few successful contracts, until one day, Larry and Rondale landed their biggest yet: $1.2 million shopping center along Prospect Avenue—a cool million dollars higher than their biggest project at that point.
But that enticing contract had a dark side: It almost killed the business.
The Big Break That Almost Broke Him
This was the company’s first city project, and Larry says he wasn’t ready for the paperwork, the administrative costs, the increase in work. If he forgot one piece of a document, it could hold up the entire process.
“We were growing, but didn’t know how to do it correctly,” Larry says.
Finances and lending got tough. The company went down to the bare bones.
“You have to be a risk-taker to be successful in this industry,” Larry says. “You have to be willing to fail. But true failure can never occur as long as you learn from that mistake and pick up and move forward. It’s not really failure—it’s an obstacle, a bump in the road. Be willing to accept and understand that. It’s part of the process and part of the growth.”
Luck was on their side, and Larry and Rondale made it through. Larry says that experience showed him he needed to arm himself with knowledge, so he headed back to the entrepreneurial classroom, which (spoilers) would prepare him for the next whale of a contract.
But before that contract came calling, Larry took a construction business management course through the University of Missouri Kansas City Small Business Technology and Development Center and learned more about the world of construction accounting to avoid the financial missteps he made earlier: like assuming he could apply traditional accounting logic to the world of construction accounting. He learned to look at profit margins and not just profits.
“I didn’t know what made me money on the job,” he says. “Was it the drywall? The flooring? The paint?”
And that UMKC construction course primed him for the next program he’d take: ScaleUP! Kansas City, an intense, elite four-month program that brings in experts and business coaches who teach a select group of Kansas City entrepreneurs how to scale their business for growth. Mark Allen and Jill Hathaway, two KC entrepreneurs-turned-business-coaches with decades of experience, were part of both programs and helped Larry’s business get results.
“It was demanding, but rewarding,” he says. “It demanded a lot out of you, but you got out of it what you put in to it. I realized if you took the advice they gave you and applied it, it could actually work.”
And it did work for Larry. Comparing his profit in all of 2017 to just the first quarter of 2018, he cut his business income by about half but increased his net profit by more than 30 percent. Translation? Less work, more money.
Trimming the Fat for Profit
How did he achieve those numbers? He says he got efficient. Instead of having his workers buy screws whenever they ran out, he kept detailed inventories and had them ready in a box with all the materials before they were depleted, saving his crew time and money.
He also cut everything that wasn’t profitable. Instead of trying to be a jack-of-all trades business and working on electrical and plumbing, he decided to leave those duties and others to outside businesses and focus on his core operation. He says he also stopping blowing money on marketing.
“With our business, people don’t think about you until they need you,” he says. “So playing a jingle a million times a day wasn’t going to help. So we started to focus on customer experiences, and as a result of that, we don’t have to look for business—business finds us.”
And that ScaleUP! KC training primed him for when that whale of a project landed in his lap: a $15 million behemoth from a wealthy national company, to be more precise. The task? Converting an existing office building into condos, which had a hefty share of engineering feats, especially with electrical and plumbing, two areas Larry swore he’d leave to other contractors. He’d learned there was no way his team could do everything, nor did it make sense for them to.
Still, it was an enticing offer. He felt the pressure to bid but took some time for careful thinking. That’s where his ScaleUP! KC resources came in handy. He realized he might have to let this project go.
“I consulted with Jill; I consulted with Mark. I was scared,” Larry says. “I had some sleepless nights. But I decided we couldn’t do it, not at that moment. It just wasn’t right for us. I walked away—and I felt great.”
But Larry soon learned that how you say “no” can actually benefit your business.
Three weeks after he declined to bid, the client asked him to meet—but it wasn’t a small one-on-one. When he arrived, he says executives and other heavy-hitters were there. The company says it was impressed that Bradford Interior Group didn’t try to secure more money; Bradford was the sole entity that didn’t try to get a contract for the sake of landing one. They liked that Larry was honest. And the architect agreed with Larry and Rondale about some sticky aspects about the project.
They tweaked the work based on Larry and Rondale’s advice, and instead of swallowing the whale whole, Bradford Interior Group took on select portions and became consultants who’d find contractors to work on other parts of the massive project Larry and Co. weren’t touching.
“It was one of those things where ‘no’ became a huge win,” Larry says.
The Art of Retaining Talent
And Larry’s careful, measured approach also translates to employees. He says he didn’t want to hire a bunch of workers but then have to lay them off because jobs dried up, as they tend to do during the winter. Instead, he keeps a small staff of full-time and part-time workers and carefully considers what projects his small team can tackle. Because of that careful strategy, in four years, Bradford Interior Group has never had a layoff, Larry says. And he says small actions can go a long way. He helped an employee out with a car repair and earned that worker’s respect and devotion. Larry says that employee is now one of the company’s most loyal.
In addition to paying kindness forward around the office, Larry says he’s spreading the word citywide about ScaleUP! KC and the other opportunities that have made him a believer in Kansas City’s vast resource network.
“The resources are there. We are a very entrepreneurial, resource-rich city,” Larry says. “To not take advantage of that is short-sighted. If your desire is to learn to grow your business, make it more efficient, that’s what you’ll get out of it. You’ll get what you put into it.”
Are you ready to move beyond working in your business and start working ON your business? Apply for ScaleUP! Kansas City, an elite and intensive program that helped Larry Carr and nearly 100 other small-business owners navigate financials, hiring and other tricky hurdles all entrepreneurs face.
ScaleUP! KC is just one of of the hundreds of resources available to small-business owners through KCSourceLink. No matter if you’re just starting you business or looking to grow it to the next level, KCSourceLink can connect you with the best resources to help your business. Just call 816-235-6500. And that brings us to one of our latest tales of success, but it didn’t come easy for this intrepid KC small-business owner who made the jump from insurance to construction.
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