Mark Robert Halper

Bill Keenan was in a bind. His gut was telling him that the way he was spending his time was going to kill his beloved company, W.J. Keenan Building Contractor, in Piscataway, N.J.

“For 30 years, all my pleasure has come from my work on the jobsite,” he says. “I relish my aches and pains, and I earned every one of them. But the more work I did, the more trouble I got into. I was having so much fun framing jobs that I’d forget to call the plumber. I would leave sales and estimating for the late-night hours or weekends.”

Outgrowing What Once Worked

Keenan is not alone. As his business’ revenues climb (to nearly $1 million in 2007) and his projects grow increasingly complex, he and the business itself are undergoing a normal transition.

Studies show that companies go through two-part phases as they grow. They settle into a mode that works for their current volume and operation, and that creates peace and prosperity for a while.

Then, as their volume increases, they outgrow that phase — and chaos ensues.

The systems that worked before are no longer a good fit for what they are doing now. Their personnel may not have the ability or the inclination to learn higher-level skills. The trusty office manager becomes a problem employee. The technically great carpenter can’t also master running jobs, using the computer system, and completing paperwork.

If you’ve reached one of these transition points, you’ve probably gone from running smooth to running rough. You must reinvent your skills as owner, and many aspects of the business itself, to meet the new challenges.

What’s key is to accept that this is normal in business. You, as owner, will forever be on the learning curve.

Potential in Change

Let’s see what Bill Keenan (who has a way with words as well as a love of the trade) has to say about his new challenges.

“I started this company by trading a crushed fender on my car for a power saw,” Keenan writes. “I saw more potential in that old saw than I did in a new fender.

“That being said, I have come to a crossroads in my journey. I must leave what I know and do so well to point my company in the proper direction to help it grow and prosper. The old process has only taken me so far. This step is taken with much trepidation. Fear of the unknown causes a falter in my step. It will take much perseverance on my part and much patience and prodding on the part of others. I will mourn the passing of those calloused hands. But not unlike that old saw, I see potential here.”

Keenan’s transition includes four major changes:

  • His wife Tina came in “mega full-time” to organize the office, schedule jobs, design kitchens and baths, and generally create a more systematic organization.

  • Keenan raised the priority of his role as salesman and estimator, and now does that work during the week rather than fitting it into odd hours.

  • The couple joined a peer review program in which they meet semi-annually with similar company owners to share challenges and commitments. “I wanted to meet guys like me who had jumped this taking-off-the-toolbelt hurdle,” Keenan explains.

  • Hardest of all, Keenan now divides his time equally between the office and the field.

The Keenans’ company is relatively small, but the lesson it imparts is universal: Companies are ever-changing organisms, and their leaders must embrace and embody change as well. Be alert for times when something that once worked for you stops working.
Your company needs leadership and direction, and you need new skills. Embrace well-considered change, and prepare for a lifetime of learning. —Linda Case is founder of Remodelers Advantage, in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5260; e-mail;