Foundations Built on Relationships

Anyone who follows the Concrete Foundations Association Project of the Year awards, affectionately known as “the basement from hell” awards, will recognize Ekedal Concrete’s name. The company won the “Single Family Residence over 5,000 Square Feet” award for six years running. Its work on these large, complex foundations that support multi-million dollar homes perched on cliffs overlooking the ocean throughout Southern California is unique because it can only be accomplished with cast-in-place concrete and by a business that employs talented and experienced craftsmen along with professional and innovative management staff.

But President Dave Ekedal knows building is only half the battle in running a construction business — the other half comes with understanding the importance of customer relationships. “I think whatever business you are in, what you are making is one half and the other half is the soft skills in business, and this is a lost art,” Dave Ekedal says. “You have to get along with people, you have to listen and at the end of the day you want to put a smile on someone’s face.”

Dave Ekedal and his wife, Cheri, started Ekedal Concrete in the mid-1970s, building masonry foundations in and around San Diego, Calif. In the 1980s, he saw engineers and homeowners turn toward poured wall foundations for their design flexibility and strength in earthquake-prone environments. As Ekedal Concrete’s work started to get more complex, the company settled into a niche as a foundations builder willing to take on the projects other concrete companies didn’t want to deal with.

In 1991, the Ekedals moved their business into Orange County, a place where they saw opportunities to bid jobs that utilized Dave’s hillside foundations expertise. Today Ekedal Concrete completes between 30 and 40 projects a year. That might not sound like a lot for a company that employees 80 to 100 people, but the size and complexity of the projects are plenty.

The company builds everything from slab-on-grade foundations to five-story, cast-in-place concrete homes. Their foundations are often the building blocks for $10 million to $40 million homes and include work on below sea level foundations and shoring and caisson work for hillside foundations. Structural decks and walls with 60 elevation changes and multiple block outs are common challenges. But it is these complex, mind-boggling structures that Ekedal Concrete loves to build.

A multi-generation business

Like a lot of construction businesses, Ekedal Concrete is a family affair. Dave and Cheri worked hard, long hours as they grew their business and raised a family in the early years of Ekedal Concrete. Dave and Cheri have two sons, Travis and Ryan. Ryan joined his parents in the family business 15 years ago, and Travis came on board 13 years ago. Both are vice presidents at Ekedal Concrete. Ryan handles the sales and field operations. Travis works payroll, human resources and accounting. Dave’s brother has been the head of superintendents with Ekedal Concrete for 25 years, and another brother has been the plan detailer for 30 years. A third brother has also been with the company for the last 10 years. Dave and Cheri continue to oversee the complete business operations. Some companies struggle with the challenges of working so closely with relatives. Not the Ekedal family.

“I get to talk to my brother every day, and see my father and mother every day. We can brainstorm and work out problems together. Because we have so many family members working in management, it gives us a staff we can totally trust is looking out for the benefit of the company,” Vice President Ryan Ekedal says.

The company also benefits from the strengths each generation brings to the business. “After so many years working together, there is a level of expertise each family member brings to his or her role. We respect each others’ opinions and contributions. We are known for being perfectionists. Our philosophy is to treat each project as if we are building our own home,” Vice President Travis Ekedal added.

Dave offers 40 years of construction experience, fiscal responsibility that can only be learned through years as a business owner who has survived decades of economic fluctuations, and an approach to business that emphasizes relationships and leadership.

When Ryan and Travis began working in the family business, they wanted to see the company adopt technologies both in the field and in the office. “My dad was very old school; he was hesitant to consider suggestions my brother and I brought up early on like adopting Master Builder project management software, joining the CFA, getting a website and a lot of the field technology we are trying to implement,” Ryan recalls. “But as time wore on, he saw them as positive changes.”

“The things the younger generation brings to the table are a young energy, college educations, new technology and the whole gamut that comes with that mind-set,” Dave says. “Sometimes in business people get locked into old ways, but change is good for a business.”

Strong relationships

Ekedal Concrete faces the same challenges contractors face all over the country, like tighter margins, an increasing number of competitors to bid against and rising insurance costs. But the company has continued to win projects and stay competitive by focusing on productivity and relationships.

When the company saw its liability and workman’s comp insurance costs increase 300% and watched as profits margins tightened, it didn’t resort to cutting worker pay or passing on those costs to its customers. Instead it implemented a stringent safety plan to combat insurance costs by reducing incidents, kept its overhead low and pushed productivity.

“You have to be innovative and creative to be able to offer the same product for the same price but while saving time,” Dave says. “What you should get and what you can get are two different things in this age. Everyone wants something for nothing, and construction is a continual battle to get the best price for your product without losing money.”

That’s why he feels that as margins tighten, it’s even more important to manage the business more tightly. Ekedal Concrete utilizes accountants and daily job tracking to make sure the company is making money. “It’s a chess game we are always playing,” he adds.

Client relationships and loyalties, an important element in the way Dave has always run his company, became even more important as competition increased. “A lot of unqualified people came out of the woodwork and all of a sudden they were foundation contractors,” Ryan says. “We had to become more cognizant of our relationships with the builders we work for.”

Ekedal Concrete makes an effort to remain visible and vocal with its customers with phone calls, lunches, golf and the like — constantly reminding them that they are an important part of Ekedal Concrete’s success and that Ekedal Concrete is an important part of their successes. Repeat customers make up about 80 percent of Ekedal Concrete’s business.

However, relationship building only works when you can give your customers what they want. “Companies hire us because they don’t want to hold hands,” Ryan says. “They know when they hire us they are hiring professionals. They can concentrate on the other trades and they don’t have to worry about their foundation work.”

Ekedal Concrete has strict tolerances — “Either it’s exact or it’s wrong,” Ryan says. The company’s preconstruction services allow it to increase productivity and eliminate embarrassing mistakes on the job before a shovel hits the ground. “We don’t get a set of plans and go out in the field and start building. We build on paper beforehand, making sure floors stack and things close so we don’t have a problem in the field. Our plan detailer makes sure drawings are complete and buildable. We’ve found that to be very successful for us.”

When Ekedal Concrete puts its quality workmanship together with its philosophy on customer relationships, they build upon their company reputation and customer loyalty. Dave explains an interaction with a homebuilder that sums up why Ekedal Concrete is a successful company: “We had a client that was building a 30,000-square-foot home, and he told the owner he could have it done in a year and a half, which is a pretty major feat. The house had a 10,000-square-foot basement. He said, ‘Dave, I need you done in 40 work days.’ We gave it to him, with the site cleaned up and our crew gone, in 29 days. Now he knows he can depend on us.”

Company Summary

Ekedal Concrete, Newport Beach, Calif.
www.EkedalConcrete.com
Founded: 1973
Employees: 80
Affiliations: CFA, USGBC
Services Offered: Complex, cast-in-place, custom home foundations; concrete homes; shotcrete walls; waterproofing; design/build.
Key Products & Equipment: Olympic Panel MDO plywood; Nox-Crete; Sullair compressors; Putzmeister concrete pumps; concrete mixers; vibration equipment; Concrete Tie snap ties; Jahn brackets; Intuit Quickbooks, Contractor Edition; Sage North America Sage 100 Contractor (formerly MasterBuilder); BlackBerry smartphones; Apple iPads.

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