Pence Northwest Construction LLC
Back when he was in high school, Brent Pence recalls hearing teachers tell students “you don’t want to be a ditch digger” all your life.
His response now? That ditch digger may be making $35,000 or $40,000 a year, without going into overwhelming student debt.
A fourth generation contractor, Pence honed his chops working for his father’s company before setting out on his own in 2007. His company, Pence Northwest Construction, specializes in commercial construction projects of all sizes, focusing on renovating spaces for commercial tenants and food service franchises.
For Pence, jobs aren’t just jobs—in every case they’re a chance to meet new clients and subcontractors, or learn better techniques. And his ability to meet new people through jobs has been the engine behind his company’s success.
Creating a network of friends and partners
Pence says he doesn’t rely on conventional advertising because it can attract clients who aren’t ready to start a project. “We don’t necessarily want to work with someone who only knows they need a contractor and nothing else about their project,” he says.
This is part of the reason he started building facilities for restaurant franchises—because the owners have a clear sense of what they need.
The other benefit of franchise work is that it offers built-in advertising. Working with big names like Baskin Robbins, Little Caesars and Dutch Bros Coffee, Pence says each project has helped his company find connections and garner attention from franchise owners in other regions.
Beyond helping him advertise, Pence says franchise work connects him to contractors and business people who offer useful tips on finding subcontractors or using alternative building methods.
In one case, a franchise owner from another region visited Pence’s crew and suggested a subcontractor who sold and installed prefabricated metal panels. Pence says the new subcontractor was half the cost of his old one, and that he’s used him on all of his franchise projects since.
Helping owners help tenants
When not building a network of franchise clients and subcontractors, Pence Northwest Construction handles tenant improvement projects in commercial buildings.
For years, the company has performed traditional jobs involving repairing and renovating office interiors. Practices like asking clients to fill out satisfaction surveys at the ends of projects and even sitting down with clients to get face-to-face feedback has earned the company a reputation.
On the merit of this reputation, building owners who were struggling to find tenants asked Pence to do renovation work on the exteriors and common spaces of their buildings. On one project, an owner who had 50 percent vacancy in his building said the structure needed a face lift.
So Pence Northwest crews ended up trimming trees around the front of the building and sprucing up its entrance—tasks not usually handled by a general contractor. Pence said he enjoyed the chance to try different work. “It put me back in school and caused me to learn a lot,” he says.
Even better, the job brought more tenants to the building.
Pence says a challenge of renovating common spaces is working around the tenants who are using their offices. “It can be a scheduling nightmare,” he says. “How do you get in to do work? How do you make sure tenants don’t leave?”
Pence makes this challenge an opportunity.
The company sends out letters to tenants or meets with them ahead of construction and asks them if they need anything fixed in their offices while his company is working on the common area.
Tenants then submit lists of minor repairs and Pence’s company will bill it to the building owner. He says it eases the inconvenience for tenants of listening to construction during business hours and also improves relationships between tenants and owners because tenants see that their landlords are willing to pay for repairs.
Going “on tour”
Pence Northwest Construction has built such strong relationships with its commercial customers that one building owner asked the company to build a water well on his personal property. After that job, more commercial clients began calling Pence to repair their houses and eventually, to build them.
This year, Pence committed to residential work, demolishing and building a house from the ground up in a historic neighborhood. The company pulled out all the stops on this project—elevating the land by 16 feet to better capture the view of the neighborhood, and adding a massive, 18-foot retaining wall, the largest it had ever done residentially.
The house needed to be impressive because Pence was displaying it on the Home Builders Association of Marion & Polk Counties Tour of Homes—a promotional series of open houses for industry professionals and prospective homebuyers.
“Everyone loves an open house,” Pence says, and adds that the project has helped his company secure more residential work and has even introduced him to new subcontractors and suppliers.
Pence created a modified logo for his residential business so that it can still play off of Pence Northwest’s good reputation, but cue clients into the fact that it’s a separate division.
Pence says not enough young people realize how much thought and strategy goes into construction—in its marketing as well as the actual building.
He remembers his father used to visit high schools and encourage students with hands on skills to not rule out contracting in favor of college.
“My dad used to say ‘just because it’s not glamorous doesn’t mean it’s not fun,’” he says.
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