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Out of the mouths of babes, life-changing advice

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Dick Youngblood, Small Business writer

December 31, 2009

John Quinliven's executive job kept him on the road most of the time. After a comment by his 6-year-old daughter, he knew it was time to go in a new direction.

John Quinliven allows as how there was a load of "personal angst" attached to a job that kept him away from his wife and two young children three weeks a month.

The breaking point came late in 2004, when Quinliven, a vice president of national accounts at Qwest Communications, returned from a week in Boston just in time to catch a flight to Utah for a skiing vacation with his family.

After he changed his clothes in his SUV and boarded the plane, his daughter, Lauren, then a precocious lass of 6, chided him in startlingly mature terms.

"She said, 'It's not normal or healthy for a grown man to be changing clothes in his car,'" Quinliven recalled. "Then she added, 'Oh, and by the way, you missed the father-daughter night at school.'"

That was it. Within weeks, Quinliven quit his job and embarked on a career for which he admittedly had minimal training: He founded Gordon James Construction Inc., a Maple Plain general contracting company that uses the first and middle names of his late father.

His background in the field: His father was a contractor, and Quinliven had managed construction of a coffee shop that he and his wife, Kimberly, own in Maple Plain.

Despite his lack of experience, plus the lingering decline of the housing market and the collapse of the economy, the company has thrived: Revenue climbed from $1.6 million in 2006, the first full year of operation, to $3.6 million in 2008, with the 2009 gross ending up at about $4.2 million, a 17 percent jump.

Not bad, considering the industry is in the midst of "a very trying time, with a lot of competition for a much smaller piece of the pie," said David Semerad, CEO of Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. "It's been a deep recession for many and a depression for some."

So how did Quinliven beat the odds? One factor was his decision to target the residential and commercial sides of the business.  "When the housing market began to slip in 2006, the commercial side picked up the slack," he said. And when the economy tanked in 2008, taking commercial construction with it, he saw "signs of life" in the housing market. Four home constructions and a half-dozen remodels kept the company growing in 2009, although two commercial projects and four large tenant build-outs at area strip malls contributed.

"When you've got no debt and only three employees, that's a very good year," Quinliven said. The other two employees are seasoned project managers he hired to offset his own inexperience.

Coffee shop survey

Perhaps more important, 18 years in sales and sales management taught him the value of attentive customer service. It was confirmed by an informal survey he conducted.

"Whenever I was in the coffee shop, I'd ask people who had built new homes in the area whether they'd hire the same contractor again," Quinliven said. Out of 100 people queried: "Thirteen said yes and eight said maybe," he said. The 79 who said no cited late completions, over-budget expenses and unresponsive follow-ups.

It gave Quinliven his strategy for building his business on word-of-mouth.

Which is how Tore Wistrom, a former vice president of Kraus-Anderson Development, wound up hiring Quinliven to build a home for him in Medina after being "impressed with the quality" of the company's work on a new house for his daughter.

He was also impressed with the attention his project was given: "I had a home built once before, and I really had to monitor the work to make sure things were done right," Wistrom said. "It was not that way at all with Quinliven. He stayed in touch throughout the project to make sure they didn't miss anything."

Attorney Jason Pfeiffer was similarly impressed: "He was personally involved from the design phase to the lot selection to the construction," Pfeiffer said of his home's construction in Orono. "And from a pricing perspective, he worked hard to push the costs to where they needed to go."

In short, Quinliven "listened and he understood what we wanted," Pfeiffer said.

Zero is a beautiful number

When Quinliven says he has no debt, he means zero debt, not even short-term operating loans. In the beginning, he financed the business out of savings, but cash flow now does the job handily. It's all part of a focus on managing expenses.