The hiring process at Martin-Harris Construction sounds like something you’d find at the CIA. New employees—known as associates—take personality tests so executives can group them into highly efficient teams with complementary personalities and skillsets.
Though it doesn’t handle espionage or national security, the Las Vegas-based general contractor is remarkable for its sophistication, both because its breadth of experience makes it hard to pigeon hole, and because it has developed some extraordinary practices for hiring, training and retaining employees.
This versatility and novel approach stems from one person: Frank Martin.
Martin, who is CEO, started the company in 1976 after getting fed up with the lack of opportunity at his carpentry job.
“One of the reasons I started Martin-Harris was because I was bound and determined never to pigeon hole someone like I had been pigeon holed in the beginning of my career,” Martin says.
To make sure his own employees didn’t feel that way, either, Martin developed progressive corporate policies and values that have not only let the company stay viable through the recession, but capitalize on it.
“Frank laid the foundation for our hiring and retention practices a long time ago,” says son and now President, Guy Martin. “He had the vision, executed on it, and now he’s got the people in place to propel that vision into the next 40 years.”
Smart leader, better practices
When hiring new associates, Frank Martin pays close attention to their personalities, not just the bullet points on their resumes.
“What does it matter if someone has all the skills in the world? If they don’t work well with the team, the project’s going to fail,” he says.
Over the years, Martin has made that approach more sophisticated, so that now the company administers Dominance, Inducement, Submission, Compliance (DISC) personality tests to potential hires. Martin says the company uses information from these tests not just to determine if candidates are a good fit for the company’s core values, but also how to organize them into teams.
“The type of person that works with hard bid public sector clients is not the same kind of person that works with private, negotiated clients,” Martin says. “They require different personalities and skill sets.”
Martin says the goal is to put people together who shore up each other’s weaknesses and have complementary strengths. For example, an employee who thinks creatively but struggles with deadlines pairs well with a goal oriented thinker who stays on schedule. The resulting team can solve problems creatively, but also swiftly.
By grouping teams together for maximum efficiency, individuals get the chance to learn and grow. The company also empowers all associates to lobby for projects they’re excited about and will help train them to handle those projects.
Moving on up
The company recently gave two project managers in its “Special Projects Group” a chance to switch focuses and work on ground-up jobs. Special projects teams typically focus on time sensitive projects involving interior improvements and renovations, whereas ground up projects, as the name suggests, involve turning a hole in the dirt into a finished building.
They are very different disciplines, but when project manager Nathaniel Coats of the Special Projects Group told his supervisors he wanted to learn ground-up work, the company transferred him to a team that was building a $100 million dollar hotel. Coats used the project as a learning opportunity and subsequently managed a large job for a casino, and after that, oversaw an even larger project for an airport.
Guy Martin says the company’s habit of promoting and transferring employees, combined with its hiring process, is the secret behind its high retention rates. He describes this process as “the business of building people, not just projects.”
Tailoring work to employees
Frank Martin’s loyalty to his associates is shown in his efforts to keep them working. In the wake of 2008’s recession, Martin-Harris didn’t lay off its concrete crews, even though there were few concrete-based projects in the pipeline. Instead, the company diversified and began laying foundations for energy substations in Northern Nevada, as well as for a variety of private geothermal and solar companies.
Keeping the concrete crews busy during the six worst years of the recession not only helped the company weather a financially lean period, but allowed it to take advantage of the market when it recovered. After 2008, many skilled concrete workers left Las Vegas in search of work in other regions and states. When the economy began to bounce back and customers needed complex concrete projects built, Martin-Harris was one of the few companies not scrambling to hire a crew.
In recent years, Martin-Harris’s concrete team has been instrumental to several of its biggest jobs to date, including Australian gaming company, Ainsworth Gaming’s 300,000-square-foot Headquarters of the Americas. The concrete crew built it using a time and cost effective technique called tilt-up construction, in which it poured concrete walls on the ground and then lifted them into place with cranes.
Dusting off the cobwebs
Moving out of the downturn, Martin-Harris saw the restart of “cobwebbed” projects that stalled during the recession as a revenue source. In recent years, the company has completed four large scale restart projects.
It can be tricky picking up where another contractor left off, especially on massive buildings like hotels, but Martin says his company has the experience and talent to tackle them. As a result, he says he won’t be surprised if Martin-Harris handles more projects in Las Vegas of the same type and may even venture to the infamous resort corridor, also known as the Las Vegas Strip.
In 2014, Frank Martin sold the company to Big-D Construction Corp., a builder with offices throughout the West. However, both Martin and his son say the transition has hardly been noticeable. Martin says he is thrilled the sale will let the company’s legacy continue.
“Some of our people have been around for more than 30 years out of the 38 years I have been in business,” says Martin. “A major motivator [in selling the company] is making sure our associates are taken care of by a company that shares our values.”
The 70 year-old Martin will step down as president but carry on as CEO. After decades in industry, he has recently received several accolades for his life’s work.
Martin recently won the National Association of Office and Industrial Properties’ Lifetime Achievement award for Southern Nevada, as well as Engineering News-Record’s Regional Legacy Award.
The awards are as important to the company as they are to Frank. Guy Martin says: “these awards mark the importance my dad’s life has made on the construction industry and the indelible mark he has left on our company.”
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