by Dan Rafter
Not many construction companies last 50 years. An even smaller number get to celebrate their 100th birthdays.
The Ruhlin Company in Sharon Center, Ohio — in the Cleveland MSA and just 17 miles or so from Akron — is a rarity, then. The construction firm is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, commemorating that August 4th day in 1915 when German/Swiss immigrant and entrepreneur John G. Ruhlin and his brothers founded a company that they called Ruhlin Brothers Construction Company.
Back then, Ruhlin Brothers was a bricklaying company looking for its first job. Today, The Ruhlin Company is a full-service construction fim with an average of 100 full-time employees, 275 trade workers and annual construction volume of $200 milllion. The company provides general contracting, construction management and design/build services in sectors ranging from healthcare and education to government, commercial and industrial.
How has Ruhlin managed to last for so long in such a competitive industry? Jim Ruhlin Sr., president and chief executive officer of The Ruhlin Company, said that there is no magic formula: It all comes down to the people.
“We have an awful lot of excellent people working for us,” Ruhlin told Midwest Real Estate News. “Construction is a people business. The teams that we have had over the years have been the best. They have allowed us to succeed in good times and in bad. We all go through bad times, especially when you’ve been around for 100 years. The people are what get you through those tough times.”
Ruhlin points to the first job that the company took on, in 1915. The then Ruhlin Brothers won a contract to build the Creston School in Creston, Ohio. The Ruhlin Company still has a black-and-white photo of the company’s first crew standing in front of the job site. There are about 17 people in the picture.
There’s a lesson in that photo, one that Ruhlin said has guided the company since its first days.
“You don’t build anything in this business without a good team of people,” he said.
Repeat customers are key
No construction company lasts long without attracting a steady flow of repeat customers. That’s something that The Ruhlin Company has done. Ruhlin said that his company has customers who have been coming back to the firm for 60 or 70 years.
That leads to the obvious question: How has The Ruhlin Company kept so many repeat customers?
Again, Ruhlin says that there is no secret here. It’s all about keeping promises, delivering projects on time and on budget and building high-quality structures.
“The first thing we do to keep our clients is to build good projects for them,” Ruhlin said. “We give them a great product. Our team works with owners, not against them. We make sure that we are addressing all of their concerns when going through a project. We keep the problems to a minimum for them. That’s the way you keep clients happy.”
This doesn’t mean, though, that maintaining a business for a century has been easy. Like all construction companies, The Ruhlin Company faces its share of challenges. Competition in the industry remains fierce. And the work itself is difficult.
“Our factory floor is the great outdoors,” Ruhlin said. “There are a lot of conditions that we can’t control that we have to work through. And almost every project we have ever built has come with a surprise or two. There are always things that you have to react to that change the job in the middle of it. Not everyone is prepared to handle that very well. Those factors contribute to the demise of a lot of construction companies.”
Don Rife, director of business development with Ruhlin, said that the company’s Midwest location presents challenges, too. The winters in Ohio are rarely easy. They can play havoc with construction projects.
“The winds that come off the lake can be brutal,” Rife said. “The snows we get in the winter can be heavy. It makes it difficult to complete some of our projects.”
Other factors make running a construction company a challenge. Rife points to fluctuating costs for materials. Some companies make the mistake, too, of becoming too specialized, focusing on just one or two sectors.
Then, when those sectors go out of vogue, those companies struggle.
“That has contributed, too, to the demise of a lot of companies,” Rife said. “Being flexible with what you provide customers is important in this business.”
Construction companies need to be willing to adapt to changing technology, too. Rife said that The Ruhlin Company has evolved several times during its existence to make sure that it is embracing the latest construction-industry technology.
Some construction pros want to resist changing technology. That, though, is a mistake, Rife said. New technology can make it easier to complete jobs on time and on budget, he said.
“Just look at how computers have changed our industry,” Rife said. “We can now see a building in detail in three dimensions before we begin building. That makes it so much easier to collaborate with engineers and architects, owners and everyone else on the team.”
Ruhlin points to the demise of the fax machine as evidence that technology changes rapidly in this business. Ruhlin remembers when the fax machine was the revelatory technology, the one that was changing everything.
“We had that rotating roll of paper,” Ruhlin said. “We’d dial the phone and let the fax run. We thought that was truly high-tech. Today, the fax is a thing of the past. And it happened so quickly. But here’s the thing about technology: Our equipment has improved. But it all performs the same basic function. It allows us to communicate faster and better with our clients.”
While technology changes, one thing remains constant: No construction company succeeds without top employees.
And while The Ruhlin Company boasts plenty of repeat customers, it has many long-time employees, too.
“We have some field staff who are the latest in multiple generations of the same family who have worked with us,” said Suzy Addleman, marketing coordinator for The Ruhlin Company. “Their parents worked for the company and now they are, too. We have some field staff who are the third generation of a family that has worked with us.”
There is no real secret, either, to keeping employees happy. Ruhlin says that it comes down to treating them well and caring about their well-being.
“We try to be a family company,” Ruhlin said. “My philosophy has always been to treat people the way you would like to be treated yourself. Family comes first for everyone in this company. We want to make sure that our employees can live a reasonable family life along with working in the construction industry. That isn’t always easy. Construction is a demanding profession. It takes a lot of time.”
During its 100-year lifespan, The Ruhlin Company has built some of the most important buildings in the Cleveland MSA and beyond. The company’s leaders point to these buildings as a resume’ of sorts.
“We are interviewing for a project in downtown Akron now. When you look out to the south and east, everything you look at are buildings that Ruhlin has built over the years,” Rife said. “There are a lot of great examples of our work right across the street from the people we are hoping to work for next. That makes it easier to sell our company. We have a lot great work that our people have done in the past that we can show to others.”