Charlotte-based residential contractor Ben Collins, owner of the Salins Group, was almost a casualty of the Great Recession.
His pipeline of multimillion-dollar projects dried up. Clients with deep pockets were out of jobs.
Collins said he knew the market had fallen apart when he ran into a former client and Wachovia employee at Starbucks.
“He was a bond trader guy who goes in at 5 a.m. and comes home at 6:30 p.m.,” Collins said. “It was 10 in the morning ... and he was just walking around with a cup of coffee, in a daze.
“I looked at him and thought, ‘wow.’ ”
And late that summer, Collins’ office manager gave him some bad news: They couldn’t continue to make payroll.
So doing what he once thought was unthinkable, Collins laid off all 13 of his employees in one afternoon.
“The writing was on the wall,” Collins said. “There was just no work out there. I basically told them, ‘This is the only chance I have of having anything for you guys to come back to.’ ”
And after 11 years in the business, he was alone and at a turning point: Could he pull out of this?
The boom times: Collins moved to Charlotte 15 years ago with plans to become a residential contractor. The son of an entrepreneur, Collins had studied business in college and then ran a resort real estate marketing firm in Greenville, S.C., with his two brothers.
But he couldn’t just jump in the Charlotte market; he’d never worked in construction.
So he took on the only project he could at the time: his own house.
He started with a deck. And with the help of an architect, interior decorator and landscape architect, his 1,900-square-foot cottage near the entrance to Charlotte Country Club grew to 3,600 square feet with fine handiwork – a perfect example of what he could do.
And as real estate boomed, so did his business. He took on high-profile projects, from homes in Eastover to 7,800-square-foot homes on 300 acres.
Flying solo: Post-2008, with a staff of zero, the workload was different. Instead of five or six major projects, he had two or three smaller ones. But he also didn’t have any employees to share the burden of work with.
“I was just going out and picking up the hammer, renovating bathrooms ... pouring concrete for six to eight hours,” Collins said. “Whatever it took to get the job done.”
He also rented out some of the extra bedrooms in his home to supplement his income. “Anything and everything I did was as resourceful as possible.”
A new kind of business: For his first hire, Collins brought back his old office manager and bookkeeper. He reasoned that if he was going to build his company from the ground up again, he should enlist her help and do it right.
For the first time, he began “hyper-analyzing” every expense. Before the recession, Collins said he was more reckless with the budget. “I’d say, ‘Oh, well, we need it, so let’s just get it.’ ”
This go-around, he had a different policy: Spend money only if you can justify it. Now, if he’s considering a piece of equipment, he’ll calculate how many hours a month he’ll need to use it in order to pay it off.
He did the same with hiring. “If we didn’t have enough business, we weren’t going to hire someone,” Collins said.
‘A better contractor’: Collins now has nine employees, and with the housing market bouncing back, he has returned to his pre-recession work flow.
He’s even making more money than he did pre-recession, thanks to his new business strategies. Collins said he’s on track to do about $5 million in business this year, and he’s accounting for every dollar spent.
“I came out a better business person, a better contractor.”
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