Chris Avant has an ambitious plan that builds on the foundation of Canyon Construction. Founder and former owner Deva Rajan ran the company for 34 years, then sold it to Avant, a long-term employee, who has run it for six years.
Thirty-seven-year-old Avant worked his way up from apprentice to laborer to carpenter to project coordinator to vice president. Ten years ago, he made a deal with Rajan to purchase the Moraga, Calif.-based company. Rajan stayed on for five years during the transition, and now participates as an adviser.
Avant's early tenure was during a rapid growth period for the company. When he was an apprentice, the firm's revenue was $2 million. Ten years later, when he took over as owner, it was $14 million. The company currently stands at $16 million.
Avant preferred purchasing an existing company to forming a new one. “I was able to work within an established team and grow from that core,” he says. “I also liked the idea of being part of a larger organization because we would have a greater impact on the industry in continuing to promote green (building) and creating a company culture.”
The firm now has 80 employees with 55 in the field and 25 in the office. The main office is in Moraga, but the company also has another office in Oakland. “With residential remodeling, you need a presence in the town where you're working. All our marketing is local,” Avant says. Though both towns are in the same geographic area, he says, they are culturally very different.
UP TO THE CHALLENGE The firm's work is 65% remodeling projects, 25% new homes, and 10% commercial jobs, with field crews working on all project types. Remodeling projects range from $100,000 to $5 million, and usually are for baby boomer clients and triggered by an empty nest. The company has a reputation for handling difficult sites and complicated projects. For a two-year remodel of a 4,000-square-foot Swiss-style home, the team set up a woodworking shop on site to more easily match the home's original decks, trellises, shutters, and moldings.
Two employees sell, bid, and run commercial jobs, which include a garden for an Asian art museum, retail projects, and tenant improvement work for universities. The firm has worked with the University of California at Berkeley for almost 20 years. “We have built a legacy there and have worked on almost every building on campus,” Avant says.
Just as with residential projects, the company prefers more challenging commercial jobs, so it does not bid on large, straightforward projects, but instead relies on referrals from architects.
The firm has a design department that is run as a separate company. Two in-house designers work on smaller remodeling jobs, such as kitchens and additions, but they also facilitate larger projects designed by outside architects. Many outside architects are busy and lack the staff to handle all the detailing, drafting, and shop drawings. For example, if the project needs a tile layout, Canyon Construction's design department will lay it out in a CAD program and send it to the architect for approval. “We have a reputation for handling unusual projects with the appropriate amount of management. You do not want to be so overly managed that you are bureaucratic, but you need to have enough so it does not cost more or take more time. You need to find that balance on every job,” Avant says.
A GOOD FIT When hiring, Avant looks for both experienced employees and those from a younger generation who are excited about a career in construction. “We're looking for people with shared values and a work ethic. We can train them if needed — in fact, sometimes it is better to train employees our way,” he says.