Mike Skillman, Skillman Construction:  First, Be Profitable

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The tremendous growth of Mike Skillman’s business, which went from a one-man operation that made $8,000 in 1989, to six separate companies with 85 employees generating $14.5 million in 2013, may be best explained by his organization’s mission statement.

“We will be profitable,” says Mike, paraphrasing it, “because without profits, we can’t take care of our families, our employees, and our community; and without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

As in all mission statements, it can be easier said than done.

 

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Mike Skillman (right) with his brother, Chris.

It Takes a Community to Raise a Businessman

Growing up in Kansas in a community of farmers, Mike would have described himself as an average guy.  The only thing that he had going for himself was a well-developed worth ethic.  “I started raking hay by the age of seven.  At the end of the summer, grandpa paid me $75 and I thought I was on top of the world.  I realized that I could work and make money.”  That summer impressed upon him the value of hard work.  Since he had worked so hard for that first paycheck, it remained untouched in his bank account until he purchased his first car nearly ten years later.

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Working hard was nothing new to Mike as he’d seen his father, his grandfather, and all the other farmers in the area, practice the dawn to dusk workday, six days a week, while growing up.  People worked hard, in his experience. Another role model was his other grandfather, who owned a gas station.  “Grandpa was the mayor, three times, and a congressman,” his example taught Mike about his responsibility to the community and the importance of giving back.  Being successful wasn’t just about money, but about enriching the lives of the people who surround you.

A turning point was when Mike married his high school sweetheart in 1988 and then had his eldest boy born in ‘89.  He was working at a grain elevator and he liked it, but he had the big idea to buy his first bulldozer in order to make some more money on the weekends.  Mike wanted to do more for his new family.

“My wife, Jo, has been a crucial part of my business success.”  His wife brought attitude into his life, a belief that he could be more than a scrawny high school kid, to go along with his drive.

It’s why they’ve been a great pair, according to Mike, for the past 26 years.  “I wouldn’t be where I am today, without her.  She worked, so that I could do this full-time.  The banker said to give it a year back in ‘90, to try working full time, to see if owning my own business would work.”  His wife worked the first three or four years as well taking care of the books, allowing the business to grow.  Sales doubled every year, from that initial $8,000, when he just worked for local people and friends, doing their farm work, then in ’90 expanded with a dump truck to haul rocks, to $16,000, $30,000, $60,000, then $100,000, when after purchasing another truck or two, he continued to expand.  Hitting gross sales of $1 million was always a goal.

 

 

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Headquarters, before…

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Headquarters for Skillman Construction, today!

 

Working from Dawn to Dusk and then all Night Long

The process of hitting these milestones involved some personal sacrifice by Mike and his family.  He worked from daylight to dark on his construction business, six to seven days a week (he’d go out and work after church on Sunday).  As the company grew, his workload magnified, impinging upon him volunteering as the baseball coach of his son’s team.  “I had started working nights and I’d still try to conduct business while coaching third base, taking business calls while at the game.”

“My oldest son,” Mike says regretfully, “was shorted.  I spent all of my time working.  Yes, I showed up for all of the school events, but I was not home in the evening.  I was missing some of the best years of my life.”

Mike described himself as being physically present, but having two cell phones to his head.  “It was hectic and frustrating.  I was running it all by myself.”  As far as corporate growth goes, he had reached a threshold that he wasn’t able to cross.  There just wasn’t enough time in the day.

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At the ribbon cutting ceremony (Mike and Jo stand at the left of the bow)
for the new headquarters building, June 2014.

To Grow, Keep an Open Mind and be Willing to Listen

Work/life balance did not happen for Mike until after he engaged GPS for management consulting services in 2010.  “The consultants caught me on the right day, when I was willing to listen.”  His construction firm had been hit by the recession in 2008 and while working for the Wolf Creek Nuclear Generating Station was a solid option, the required paperwork was daunting and Mike didn’t have the necessary organization in place.

As it happened, in the midst of his consulting engagement, the nuclear plant had a 24-hour emergency shut-down due to a water leak and Mike’s team was called in for two weeks.  His GPS consultant was there to show how to manage the paperwork.  The company earned $300,000 in those two weeks and then landed a contract to be on-call for 24 hours a day.

His consultant helped him negotiate a contract with terms more favorable to his business.  The consultant had pushed hard for one change, which ended up generating three quarters of a million dollars, alone.  “My consultant showed me how big business worked.  He gave me the insight as I had only dealt with farmers before.”  In 2009, the business made $1.4 million and then doubled it to $3 million in 2010.

When a GPS analyst stopped by, again, proposing a second engagement, Mike wasn’t receptive.  He explained that he’d been so happy, feeling satisfied with what had been achieved from his previous consultation, “that, I was a tough sell.”  The analyst persisted and a second engagement focused on the processes and systems needed for further his growth.  “The company started to gain speed as the plant wanted more and more from us.  In 2012 we did $5.4 million and by 2013 most of the reports, job costing, tax strategy plans, etc. that had been needed to be implemented were now in place.”

There was a long outage at WolfCreek, Mike’s company picked up the slack for another vendor that had been brought in, but had struggled.  “We made $9 million on that project.  We were on a rocket ship, again.  The more we did, the more that WolfCreek liked it.  The paperwork still needed some tweaking, but by the end of 2013, we pulled in a total of $14.5 million.”

The most important result has been the opportunity to contribute to his community, first, as the largest private employer in the county, providing good jobs with good benefits and then, through supporting various charities and being active on their boards.  “I love doing it.  I feel more joy from giving back than from working, now.”  He’s especially involved in a scholarship program, giving away $15,000 college scholarships every year.

 

The Secrets to Success

According to Mike, you treat people the way that you’d want to be treated.

For employees that means “you’re not asking them to do anything that you wouldn’t do or you haven’t done yourself.”

For customers, “the big deal is that we like to do things right the first time.  We don’t like to do things twice.  Doing a good job, offering a good value, has helped us to grow at the nuclear plant and what we call ‘the real world,’ meaning customers other than the plant.  Take care of your customers and they appreciate it. This allows you to continue to grow.”

 

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