Chris Ayala earned his reputation in construction by meticulously hanging Sheetrock and satisfying customers from every walk of life.
So when he set out on his own 10 years ago and opened First Response Construction LLC, there was little doubt that he would be in demand. Customers quickly came to him, and business was steady.
Now Ayala wants to grow his small business to compete on a broader scale, with larger projects. Doing so means acknowledging and addressing his weak link: The office side of the business has never been Ayala’s strongest suit.
Transitioning from the construction site to the boardroom has come with challenges, Ayala admits.
“It’s hard to transition,” he said, pointing out that he spent much of his life in construction. “When we saw the suits come in, they were from a different world. Now I’m one of those guys.”
It’s why Ayala sought guidance from ScaleUP! Kansas City. The business growth program is offered by the University of Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center and the U.S. Small Business Administration. It’s open to entrepreneurs who have been in business at least two years, generate $150,000 to $500,000 in annual revenue and are in a market capable of supporting more than $1 million in sales.
Masters Of The Remodel
It’s proven to be an ideal fit for Ayala, who was eager to grow his company. The business has already stopped working in a subcontractor to subcontractor situation on smaller projects in order to seek better-paying contracts with prime contractors including JE Dunn, Straub Construction and others.
ScaleUP! has also shown Ayala that he could either be intimidated by shrewd negotiators or learn to speak their language. ScaleUP! has helped him employ several strategies to communicate more effectively. The veteran craftsman has quickly learned that people on the other side of the desk might seem savvier, but few people know his industry better than he does.
The team at First Response works on residential and commercial properties. Their specialty is Sheetrock.
On the residential side, the company handles insurance claims for fire restoration and water damage. The firm completes full renovations, including drywall, ceiling work, painting, framing and more.
On the commercial side, First Response completes tenant build-outs or remodels for commercial customers, especially when these clients are downsizing or expanding. First Response avoids working on new construction.
Ayala and his team have renovated churches, recreation centers and retail stores. The business recently helped a law firm in Corporate Woods downsize its space by taking out a staircase that connected it to another level.
‘It Needs To Be On Paper’
ScaleUP! has helped Ayala think about day-to-day business operations that he had overlooked.
For years, First Response operated without an employee handbook. ScaleUP! showed him how counterproductive that was. If you want to scale your business, after all, you need to trust others to take on more responsibility as you work on growth. Policies help guide your team when you’re not there to supervise them directly.
“It needs to be on paper. You should be able to step away from your business and your business should be able to run,” Ayala said.
ScaleUP! also taught Ayala to think about time management in a new light.
He had to take a good long look in the mirror after hearing that. He used to drop materials off at jobsites so he could review the work. He loved it. But he ended up micromanaging.
“By going through the classes, it’s helped me realize that I have hired the right guys for the jobs, and I kind of need to step back and let them do their thing and let them shine,” he said.
It’s a new outlook for Ayala.
“If you have a manager and then you try to manage for him, it’s kind of like a slap to his face,” he said. “I don’t have to be involved in every facet. It’s what I’m good at, so that’s where I want to go. But I need to challenge myself.”
Instead of stopping by jobsites, Ayala was encouraged by ScaleUP! experts to get out of the office and find new growth markets. For Ayala, that means researching projects before making bids and building relationships with partners and potential customers.
“I put my time into pre-bid meetings now,” he said.
Ayala pulls the blueprints, attends all the meetings with project managers, checks out the competition and looks for partnership possibilities. Every conversation he has builds goodwill and potential sales.
“It’s about getting out there,” he said.
‘Not Everybody Is Your Customer’
ScaleUP! also encouraged him to think wisely about his customer.
“Not everybody is your customer,” Ayala said.
Ayala used to submit bids for projects that didn’t fit his niche. It often meant his bid wasn’t as complete as one from a competitor who understood the full scope of work and expenses.
ScaleUP! has shown him it’s more important to focus on his niche than to take every dollar being waved his way. He’s already turned down some jobs in order to concentrate on long-term growth.
Ayala prizes the connections he’s made with other entrepreneurs. Many come from diverse industries that Ayala wouldn’t otherwise have crossed paths with, but there’s been an instant connection nonetheless.
“Business is business,” he said.
Ayala plans to turn to the ScaleUP! network of entrepreneurs and experts for advice with complex problems for years to come.
“There’s going to be a brotherhood of scalers,” he says. “We will forever have someone in our corner when it comes to business.”