From Commodity to Comrade: Becoming the First Call

John Tarpey

Think about the space you inhabit right this very moment. Perhaps it’s a place of business with gleaming marble surfaces, glass-fronted offices, and geometric terrazzo tile. Or maybe it’s a modern courthouse with finishes like warm wood paneling and intricate stone inlays that impart the values of freedom and justice. Maybe it’s a home you built with your spouse, where rooms were planned and constructed as much around past memories as future dreams. If those dreams were of a family, you either have already or will one day find yourself saying tearful goodbyes in front of even more important buildings – the places where your children will learn, grow, and discover. You see, that’s the magic of buildings. Far from a commodity, they are custom, personal, and create deep and enduring emotional connections.

I’ve had the privilege of working in the construction industry for nearly four decades, and during that time, I’ve come to realize that our business model is widely and erroneously viewed as a commodity by not just the public but also amongst some of our very own workforce. With the issue of waste coming to light and the opportunities available through new technologies, I’d argue that it’s more important to debunk this myth now than perhaps ever before in our lifetimes.  

By its very definition, a commodity is a mass-produced, unspecialized, and widely available product. In other words, it’s generic and highly interchangeable – a far cry from the buildings described above or any construction project for that matter, which each carry their own unique set of variables from staff to location, budget/economic conditions, and weather, etc. Odds are you don’t have to think long to remember a time when filling up your gas tank cost nearly as much as a fine dining experience. If you’re anything like me, you didn’t mind driving across the street to another station where gas was a few cents less per gallon. Never mind brand loyalty, the names Exxon or BP might as well have been replaced by a dollar sign, because oil is a true commodity. If you’re operating a commodity business, you’ll almost always be stuck competing on price just like the oil tycoons unless you successfully transform your product into a cleverly branded experience – think Starbucks.

I believe we can all agree it’s immensely difficult to cultivate a sustainable business model if you’re always striving to produce more goods (and do so infinitely cheaper) than your competition. If there’s anything the recent economic downturn taught us it’s that there’s always someone willing to charge less. But take heart! As general contractors, we aren’t stuck in commodity market quicksand. When a client selects Balfour Beatty Construction, they are retaining us to orchestrate the budget and schedule among other managerial functions – not perform the welding, excavating, or scaffolding. Fundamentally, we provide our clients with a highly customized service, and by extension, a belief and an experience. When you operate as a service business, your value proposition is all about relationships and intentional behaviors such as respect, appreciation, communication, effective listening, and prompt issue resolution among others. Instead of competing on cost, we compete in the realm of value, where businesses have the opportunity to inspire fierce loyalty and forge lifelong connections.

In recent years, Balfour Beatty has undergone a cultural evolution to first understand and secondly embrace our role as a service organization. Although we’ve done this well in pockets, it hasn’t always been our default, but we’ve made tremendous strides since placing a concerted focus on behavioral differentiation. In fact, our current purpose statement is entirely focused on what we believe and directed to the customers (and communities) we serve. It reads:

                  “To be a Relentless Ally for the success of each
                    and every dream we are entrusted to build.”

There are two key points here to observe. First, the term Relentless Ally is entirely behavioral. The adjective relentless speaks to our unyielding commitment, while the noun ally evokes the type of business partner Balfour Beatty is – an always-in-your-corner, whatever-it-takes kind of champion. Secondly, you’ll notice that the words ‘buildings’ and ‘projects’ are nowhere to be found. That may seem odd for a construction company, but it’s very much intentional. We understand that a dream exists long before the piles are drilled or the foundations poured. Yes, our role is to supervise the tangible deliverables, but getting back to the commodity distinction, our overarching function is to be the architect and builder of the client’s dream. And every dream, like the project behind it, is unique.

As a company, we have found that when we consistently operate in the value realm, remaining devoted to our Relentless Ally purpose and disciplined to the behaviors that demonstrate our unique understanding of the client’s business and dream, we don’t need to outpunch the competition.
Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but nine times out of ten the businesses that thrive are ones that deliver an exceptional customer experience. Nationally, Balfour Beatty’s repeat client rate is 82%, a testament to the power of service excellence.

One of my favorite industry pastimes is speaking to college students, and they’re often surprised but excited to hear me address two of the topics I’ve written about in this blog post: construction as a service business and the highly custom nature of projects. Perhaps that’s because in this highly digitized age, they’re hungry to hear that no matter what app has the power make a job more efficient, it’s the people running it who make all the difference.