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Hall of Fame Profile: Jim Ansara

On the importance of growing with your company.
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In 1982, at the age of 22, Jim Ansara, a two-time college dropout, started Shawmut Design and Construction. Eight years later he had placed Shawmut on the Inc. 500 list for the fifth consecutive year. Today Shawmut is a $400 million construction firm that builds both cookie-cutter restaurant-chain outlets and complex one-of-a-kind buildings, and also handles sensitive renovation projects. From Morton's of Chicago restaurants to Harvard's Memorial Hall to Fenway Park's new right-field roof seats, Shawmut has built a reputation for taking unusual jobs on short deadlines.

It was a wild ride. We went from a tiny company, which I had started out of my truck in the early '80s, to becoming a real company in the mid-'80s with a full-time stable of employees. At first I was just chasing any job, going in lots of different directions and making lots and lots of mistakes. When I made the Inc. 500 for the first time, I had just the beginnings of a strategy: If we became experts in an underserved area -- restaurant construction -- and if we became good at it, we'd be in demand.

As simple as that sounds, not many construction companies organized themselves around a narrow focus. As the company got bigger, we sustained growth by identifying new niches -- corporate interior design, high-end retail construction, and work for museums, churches, and private universities, work that often involves a lot of complicated renovation. Into the mid-'90s we stayed focused on these areas, while our competitors did bigger and bigger jobs that strayed from any focus.

During our Inc. 500 years, our niche focus gave us tremendous growth. But underneath it all, we had a total absence of any financial controls. In 1984 and 1985 we came as close to bankrupting the company as we possibly could. Our bookkeeper left in 1985. Then we brought in somebody who just wasn't that good and didn't really care. I can remember one job where we spent $2.5 million doing $2 million worth of work. At the time, I just had no focus.

There were problems with my management style, and that started to create morale problems. The people I had were very dedicated -- it was a cultlike atmosphere in most of the good ways -- but they all would have said I was a complete maniac. I was way too intense, I pushed too hard, I didn't listen, I couldn't be reasoned with. Luckily I had a couple of people who were brave enough to tell me that consistently. Even then it took awhile for me to realize it. The breaking point was when I took a personality survey we had been using to test potential hires, and it really made me realize that though my style created energy and drive, it had had an incredible toll on people.

The larger a company gets, the harder it becomes to run with an entrepreneur's personality, as someone who is autocratic, who is volatile and passionate. I was trying hard to lower my profile in the company, but as the founder I remained this mythical, scary guy. Other people weren't growing because I took up so much space. I had to make room for other people and other styles.

"I was trying to lower my profile, but as the founder I remained this mythical, scary guy."

I went through a whole bunch of people during that time who either had a lot of business experience or had a lot of construction experience. But I didn't think about the fit. Finally, in 1987, we found what we needed: an experienced construction guy from a similar-size company who had experience working with universities and utility companies, which were new markets we wanted to get into. I hired him as vice president, and he brought a very different style to Shawmut. He was much more sales- and relationship-oriented than I was, and he brought a knowledge of the industry and a business savvy that I didn't have.

As an entrepreneur, I'd never worked for a real company. This vice president was able to work relationships with people at Harvard, New England Telephone Co., and banks, places where I would be seen as sort of this crazed young guy. With our restaurant work, I was dealing with chef-entrepreneurs, and they were comfortable with the crazed, get-it-done-no-matter-what attitude. At Harvard, you've got a different story. The new guy brought the needed polish and maturity.

In 1989 we went from $12 million in revenue to $32 million in one big jump. But as we grew, and we won bigger and more complex jobs, the vice president's own limitations started showing up. I had been on a search for a really skilled, bright, experienced construction manager who was young and had the energy to really build the company -- to professionalize it. I found the guy who's now the CEO of the company, Tom Goemaat. He came from Turner Construction, a $3 billion company, and I recruited him for 18 months before I could get him to say yes. For him it was like going from Wall Street to Bangladesh. Tom had completely different strengths from mine -- but we were able to work really well together. He came in '93, and by '95 the company had really taken off again.

Meanwhile, I was taking on a much more internal role. I had very little customer contact and wasn't involved in the building process. The internal administration side needed to be done right, and I felt it was important to get other people out there as the face of the company. But it really became hard for me to stay motivated. By the late '90s I was getting physically and mentally burned out. That precipitated my retirement in 2001.

In the last year and a half, I built a big boat from scratch. I found what I had in the first decade at Shawmut: the thrill of being totally in over my head, of working my way out of corners. It really rejuvenated me. Then, of course, people started asking me if I was going to start a boat-building business, but I've decided that I don't love business. What I love is being challenged and having a mission. I love figuring stuff out.

Last updated: Oct 15, 2004

BURT HELM is a senior writer for Inc. Magazine.
@burthelm




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