Ep. 117: A Fresh Approach to Leading Construction Teams with Alicia Brentzel of Brex Enterprises

Alicia Brentzel, Brex EnterprisesBased in Irwin, Pennsylvania, Brex Enterprises is a WBE certified pipeline maintenance and services company founded in 2012 by Alicia Brentzel and her husband AJ.

Alicia joins host Missy Scherber to talk about business growing pains and how leaning into your core values and unique strengths can help accelerate growth and build stronger teams. 

They also discuss:

  • The transition from AJ working solo and living in a camper to managing 40 employees
  • Putting processes in place to improve your efficiency and profitability as you grow
  • The importance of modeling your culture every day
  • Making critical conversations with employees a priority
  • Navigating your roles as both business partners and spouses
  • Helping your employees achieve their full-potential and providing growth opportunities
  • Getting over imposter syndrome and being honest with where you are right now

Never listened to a podcast before? Here's How to Listen to a Podcast.

If you want to listen to more recorded podcasts, click below to see the CONEXPO-CON/AGG archive of episodes.

Listen on your favorite app: iTunes | iHeartRadio | Stitcher | Spotify | Google Play

Show Transcript:

Intro:

Welcome to CONEXPO-CON/AGG Radio, where we bring you boots-on-the-ground perspectives from construction business owners and industry experts about their successes, challenges and whatever else is on their minds. Consider them your own personal mentors on technology implementation, equipment solutions, business management, and more, enabling you to apply their expertise to your business. Held every three years in Las Vegas, CONEXPO-CON/AGG is North America's largest construction trade show. For even more ways to connect with the industry, visit conexpoconagg.com/connect. We've got another great guest on the show today, so let's dig in.

Missy Scherber:

Thank you so much for joining us for another season of Contractor Conversations on CONEXPO-CON/AGG Radio. I'm your host, Missy Scherber. And this year, we're taking a deep dive into what it takes to be an effective leader in construction. From business development, to employee recruitment and retention, to enhancing your soft skills, we're here to help you level up. Joining us today is Alicia Brentzel, owner of Brex Enterprises. Based in Erwin, Pennsylvania, Brex is a WBE-certified pipeline maintenance and services company founded in 2012 by Alicia and her husband A.J.

Missy Scherber:

We'll discuss the challenges and lessons learned running a business with your spouse and how leaning into their unique strengths as leaders has helped accelerated growth and build stronger teams. Alicia, welcome to the show.

Alicia Brentzel:

Hey, thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here. And thank you to you, thank you to CONEXPO. Considering the amazing amount of guests you've had on this show, there are such big shoes to fill.

Missy Scherber:

You have big shoes to fill, but I have no doubt you'll fill them. I mean, let's look at the just size of equipment that you have out there on your job sites on Instagram. So speaking of that, for those who may not know you, there's going to be listeners out there who might not follow your amazing page out there on Instagram, Brex Enterprises. Why don't you give us a little background on how Brex got started, not only that, your path into the industry? You and I have already talked about this, season two, we're hoping to dive a little deeper into the stories beyond the filtered photos, is what you and I talked about. So give us that background on Brex and how you got started, but give it to us Brex style, the real down and dirty gritty side of the story.

Alicia Brentzel:

So it actually starts probably about eight years ago this month, actually. So the business is eight years old, but we still feel pretty young. And you'll see, I'm going to walk you through just how we got to be where we are and you'll just see how we progressed. It's a story that I think people can relate to. When you look back to the beginning, I would probably call the beginning of the business back in 2011. So before we were ever a business, it was just A.J. and I graduating college. We had met in college, we got engaged fairly quickly. And when we graduated, I got a job, dream job, in the medical device industry.

So I was working as a mechanical engineer. A.J., who pretty much went to school to wrestle, he actually went to work for a family member doing utility and pipeline work. He grew up in the industry with several family members doing utility work. So he was very familiar with construction, home building, truck hauling. He did it all. So he had a nice range of experience to know that, "Okay, this is a viable career for me." So finally in 2012, we got married, and I decided to go back to school for my MBA part-time. My career was going very well, and I was missing that marketing side of it.

So based on that decision and where I wanted to grow my career in the medical device field, I had a great career, and so we decided that with that company backing, that A.J. could start his own company and we could take that jump to go out on our own, which honestly is the hardest part.

Missy Scherber:

So you supported, your full-time salary really supported Brex Enterprises' starting. Was it a one man show in the beginning or how did that go?

Alicia Brentzel:

For the first two years, actually, it was just A.J. It was A.J. traveling 100% of the time, living in a camper trailer on different camp sites, pretty much as a contract foreman for different companies. So he did that for the first two years. I was still working full time, I was going to school part-time, but I was also managing and getting my feet wet with understanding how to run a company financially. So while there weren't a lot of... When you look at cashflow, there wasn't a ton of money going in and out. I was able to grasp the basics of what we needed at that point. So that actually gets us to 2014, which is probably pretty relevant to mention that our first CONEXPO was that year.

And it's crazy how you can relate CONEXPOs with business growth for us. And they were very critical events in our business, and I think it just makes it so surreal to be on this podcast because of that. But our first CONEXPO, which I'm sure as you know, going down that escalator and seeing the equipment and the setup, you get so caught up in the excitement. Here's me, I mean, I was in the medical device industry, had no construction knowledge. I didn't even know what equipment did or what they were called, and I got so wrapped up in it. And it was there at that CONEXPO that propelled our business.

So two crazy things happen. One, I found that I was pregnant there. So I was actually in CONEXPO when I got a positive test, so that was life-changing. But then also, we left there with such a passion to grow our business that the very next week, we hired our first employee.

Missy Scherber:

Wow. So you were just enamored with everything happening at CONEXPO. And you're right, you do go down that escalator, you see all the equipment, and you really see like possibility. It's like, this is possible. Contractors are shopping in there for the largest size equipment for cranes, for 349s. If they can do it, I can do it. It is, it's possibility. The possibility seems so real and tangible. So it's pretty cool that you took that passion that is instilled at CONEXPO and said, "Okay, we're making this move." So talk us through that first move of hiring your first employee, because that's a big step. People might not understand when they see on Instagram that you have a team of people going, whatever. That first one and the second and third, those are huge learning curves.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah, it is. It is quite the jump, because at that point, you're really committed because it wasn't just A.J. and I then, and if it failed, then... We would make it work, but once you start to have employees relying on jobs and that for their own personal goals, it takes on a whole other just avenue for you and a whole other pressure and desire to make it work. So for the next year, we just grew slowly adding an employee here and there. And what he was doing before we hired employees was he was pretty much a foreman of right of way clearing. So in the pipeline industry, looking at clearing projects, mowing, he would be the foreman for that.

And so once he hired his first employee, he said, "Hey, I can do the mowing too. I've observed it enough." And so that's really where our business started was in the pipeline industry with a skid loader doing clearing and mowing.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. Wow.

Alicia Brentzel:

And so over the next three years, we really started growing. So 2014 is when I said we started adding people. I actually found out I wasn't just pregnant, but I was pregnant with twins.

Missy Scherber:

Oh boy. Start a business, hire a guy, pregnant with twins, MBA, no big deal. Girl.

Alicia Brentzel:

When we look back, it's a little fuzzy.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah, I'm sure.

Alicia Brentzel:

And the thing was, he was still traveling. So after I finished my MBA, my career took a change into more of a marketing role. And so at the time, I was starting to travel internationally and I was doing 10-day trips in Japan and China and Germany. And at the same time, I was still managing Brex financially while having twins, and it just became a lot. So over those next three years, we actually decided to go full force all Brex and to leave my corporate backing and my corporate job and support our business and support the family because we really felt we had something great.

Probably it was about 2016 when our growth started going into more dirt work. So once you're tied in with pipeline companies, that's the hard part, is getting tied in with certain companies. But then, they really value contractors that can do a range of services for them. So it's not just having the right of way mowing, but, "Hey, can you also do this for us?" And so we took the jump from mowing to full pipeline excavation. And as you know, that translates into more equipment, pretty much a whole change of pace, a whole change of scale. And that takes us right to 2017, which was our next CONEXPO.

So when we left the first one in 2014, we're like, "We want to bring employees back to this, get them hyped, get them excited, attend the education classes." And so we took, I think, four employees, and it was great. The same thing. I just left my job full-time in January, 2017. I had just found out I was pregnant again, so I was pregnant at another CONEXPO. And we had our employees there, and it was great. And everybody loved it and they got in the hype, we got good education training. And so we left there with big goals to grow our fleet, grow our company size. And I'd like to say that year, we took off and it was great, but it was actually probably our hardest year in business.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah, it was a lot for us. And really, the stakes were higher because I didn't have any backing. But we also grew at a steady pace to where weren't just a small couple of people company. And so once you leave that phase, you need to have official things in place. You need to have processes in place, you need to have management outside of the office and management inside of the field, and it needs to be done all over. And we didn't scale that. It was our lowest growth year. We didn't do employee development and A.J. still had to see every single job for it to go well.

So while we didn't have processes in place, we were doing larger scale projects, we had new equipment to pay for. And honestly, we had trouble financing that equipment because it was a change of pace for us, we couldn't get lines of credit, so there were weeks where I was worried about payroll.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. Those chest aches that we've talked about in business, they're just so real.

Alicia Brentzel:

You just get that pressure builds in your chest to a point where you're like, "How do we go on?" And I feel a lot of businesses have that happen to them. And if you haven't, then you're probably a rare company if you haven't had those growing pains. Not to mention that year, we lost two big contracts over $1.5 million worth of work because of negligence, and that was in the field. And so I left my company, I was pregnant with my third child. We had our lowest growth year ever, struggling to make payroll some weeks. But if you buckle down and go back to your core values of what you're good at, you can make it through. And we did. And we looked at what our strengths were.

So my strengths were, I just spent six years in a corporate environment. Corporations are very good at employee development. They're very good at performance management, and honestly, construction companies that we saw didn't do that at that time. And so what we started doing was incorporating small things like that into our employees, and incorporating processes of simple things like when you rent equipment, what's the process to getting it returned quickly on time so you're not paying for an extra month of rent. And all those processes were put into place. And I'd like to say the last three years have gone very well because of that hard year.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. So you had that difficult year in 2017. It was just like either all in, or we're done. You must be describing my 2020 at this time. And you made that choice to just buckle down, perfect the process because businesses do grow. It's exciting to see a young company like yours or like ours, there's a lot out there, we all go through that growth spur that's really exciting, like the first three to four years. And you're like, "It doesn't get any better than this." And then you do, you ride the wave, you go to CONEXPO, you see all the possibility and all the intentions are pure and right. And then, it's the process that bites you in the bum all of a sudden, like, "Huh, we have to perfect the process and procedures, and we have to become a viable company."

And that's why they say most are done after the first five years. And it's pretty amazing that you buckled down. So what you really did is you used your corporate background, and you said, "Hey, let's buckle down, implement these processes, create them." Which you are correct, they're not very common in the construction industry. It's just, go, go, go. Get in the field, Work, work, work. Go home. Figure it out as you go." So tell me, you made it through that year. How have the last three years looked for Brex? Because I think it's pretty exciting to see coming what you've done.

Alicia Brentzel:

That's a good way to put, it's exciting. And we've been very fortunate over the last three years to grow organically, and that is through quality work and just performing in the field and having good systems in place to where we are nine times the size of the company we were back in 2017. And it's still fast growth and we still have growing pains, but we're a lot more attuned to change and to knowing when we have to change. Whereas when you're building a business, you haven't really lived through that yet, you haven't lived through that necessity of change. But if you don't change, there's not going to be a business. And so once you go through that once, I feel like it makes all the future steps-

Missy Scherber:

You're ready.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah. That might be easier.

Missy Scherber:

You're ready. So now, fast forward to the last year, tell us the array of services you guys are providing. You're multiple companies at this point, correct?

Alicia Brentzel:

We're one company, but we have a range of services. So we have about 40 employees now, we have office staff, we have mechanics and we also have drivers and we do have our field staff of operators, laborers, foremen, and we have a great superintendent. So we take aspects of our business that we use for ourselves, like on staff mechanics, our drivers who haul our equipment, and we've now started offering those services externally as well.

Missy Scherber:

Got it. So other companies are hiring you to do those same services for them?

Alicia Brentzel:

Yep. And we still tackle our right of way services, our mowing and pipeline maintenance, but we've also added site development, and as I mentioned, the hauling and maintenance services. And we did have another kid in there too, so it feels weird not to mention the fourth child we had after that.

Missy Scherber:

So 2012, one employee, one baby, just you and A.J., to 2020, 40 staff members and multiple divisions of the company. That is pretty incredible to see.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah. So for the first couple years, it was a pretty small scale. So when I say we still feel like a new company, I still feel like... I look at 2017 as really our starting point because that was the decision that needed to be made, is, are we a real company, a real company set for growth? Or do we want to go back to a smaller feel? Which is great for a lot of companies as well. But the way A.J. and I sat down, we assessed our goals. We looked at what was important to both of us and said, "Let's go for it. Let's ramp it up and go with it." And so when we went into 2020 CONEXPO, we left with some crazy, crazy goals. It has been critical for our business this year as well. So we have pretty big stuff coming, and we're very excited.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. That's awesome. Awesome. So why don't we talk through a little bit more of like the... I really want to make sure that we talk about your corporate background and what principles you've brought into the construction business to make it, like you said, "Are we a real business or not? How are we going to scale? How are we going to grow?" So let's start with the fact that you've established a set of core values as a business, those being accountability, selfless leadership, and integrity. Why was it important for you to document those values? And how has it shaped your company culture at Brex?

Alicia Brentzel:

So we actually never had anything documented in the beginning of the company. And that was just because we, I felt like, we were winging it, and we still wing it, but it all lived inside our heads. So A.J. was on all the job sites. So he was able to model those values every day, and the whole company at that point had visibility to it. So at that point, it just wasn't really documented. But once we started growing and went over probably about 10 employee size mark, A.J. didn't want the core of everything to be lost. And that's when we put the paper and put those values on paper. We've revamped them twice now, but at the core of it, I would honestly say it's just about being a good person. It's about having a company that we ourselves would want to work for.

And at the end of the day, that's the important thing to me is, we are very motivated people. And if I don't work for a company that's motivating others, then I'm missing the Mark. And the thing about culture is, you just can't tell your employees what the culture is. It needs to be modeled and it needs to be lived every day. So while it was important to document and put names to it for our new employees, we still need to model it every single day. And that's honestly how you build a culture. So we actually use those values to evaluate our leaders in the company now. So we use it as a baseline to create a development plan for them as well.

And we recognize the leaders in the company where they excel in those categories, and then if there's anything they need to create a plan to improve on, it gives an easy framework to go back on and reference. And when you look at hiring as well, it's the same thing, is we look for those values in people.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. You do this with your field team as well. So for you, and this is where I tend to see companies lose sight of culture, is it might be like fantastic in the office. So that's something I have recognized this year with our business, is, my office team knows our values and our culture because I talk it, live it every day. Our field team is a little disconnected from it right now, and it's been kind of like, "Well, shoot, I've missed the mark there." How have you... and I've watched you on Instagram do it so well, you put your culture living and breathing out in the field. You see that operating team, you've connected them well with your culture. How have you done that? What have been some of the stories or situations where it's like, "Hey, this is how we made it work to get our culture out into the field."

Alicia Brentzel:

And what you just said about the office staff and in the field, it's so true because I can write paragraph after paragraph of how great we are, what our culture is on Instagram. But if our employees don't feel that way, that's a problem. And A.J. and I know what we want the company to be, but we're not in every spot at once. So how do you verify that? How do you verify what we're saying is true? And honestly, it comes down to, ask them. And I've really been good at implementing surveys and getting out there and talking to employees and saying, "Hey, this is what I'm trying to do. And this is what we think is happening. Is it actually happening?"

Alicia Brentzel:

And it's also just getting out to the job sites. I don't get to get out as much as I'd like, but when I'm out there, I do want to see people being accountable and leaders out there demonstrating how we want the company to run. And sometimes the best people to ask are the new employees.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. So you're saying maybe just have that discussion with the new staff members out in the field, "Are you getting this feel of accountability and selfless leadership? Are you having that experience? Where can we make an improvement plan?" And it sounds like you're really comfortable talking to your leaders about the state of the business when it comes to culture.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah. And honestly, unless you make it a priority, those conversations get lost in the day-to-day work stuff that happens. So we didn't have as many this year as we wanted, but we like to pull the whole company together at certain times and just do a state of the union. What's everybody feeling? How is the day going? Are you learning? Are you being challenged? Are you frustrated? And sometimes, those conversations get lost when you're worried about how many feet do you need to expose of pipe this day, or how fast you have to demo X, Y, or Z? And those conversations take place first, a lot of the time. And so, unless you are intentional about asking, it doesn't happen.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. I think that's one thing I've really wanted to shine a spotlight on on Instagram, is building a strong relationship between the office and field team, because the efficiencies that the field sees, they can change the game, our office game for the better, is like what I've started to learn as we slow down and listen. Like you said, "Are you frustrated? Why?" Sometimes inefficiencies out in the field, we need to improve in the office. And as soon as we do, it's efficient, it makes more money. It's like, "Wow, this field team member had the best suggestion." And so I love that you're saying, "Hey, as leaders, we have to pause and have those conversations with our field team."

And that you've actually picked specific values that you lead all those conversations with, which are accountability, selfless leadership and integrity. So that brings me to a question I was very excited to ask you, Alicia, is, how would you describe your leadership style? I think it's just very unique, your background and then A.J.'s background. And then the fact that you're a mom, you're a leader basically every hour of the day at home, on the field, in the office. But tell us about your leadership style and how you approach leadership now with 40 staff members and four children at home.

Alicia Brentzel:

I think the first thing to being a leader in different aspects of your life is being able to recognize where you need to lead more in the day and where you need to lead less. And different things take priority in your day. The thing about A.J. and I is we actually have very similar leadership styles. And I think a lot of it stems from we both played college sports. And if you've been on our Instagram, you've heard us talk about it before on how we think you learn valuable traits in these sports, and they've helped shape leaders. And the way we lead is very hands-off. Sometimes it's to a fault. So we like to give our employees flexibility to find their own way, but step in when we need to. And that's sometimes where we have a fault, is the stepping in part sometimes comes too late.

But we are getting better at setting our expectations up front. But when you look at our leadership style, we never ask anything of our employees that we wouldn't do first. And when you look at selfless leadership and building people up, I think the best way to lead people is to show them you're right there with them. I've shared with you a couple of times that I'm a big fan of the EntreLeadership Podcast, and the distinction that's made between being a leader and being a boss. And when you look at a boss, it's often as, I don't want to say talking down to, but it's telling people what to do, where a leader is you're showing people how to do something and you're working with them.

So I would put our style, I don't know if there's an actual name to it, but it's very hands-off and it encourages people to help become their own leader.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. So it's hands off, but you lead by example, there's a living example In front of them, you're willing to do anything, which I think is an authentic leader. You're a hands-off leader, but you're an authentic leader, which I think is phenomenal. Let's talk a little bit more about you and A.J., because you just mentioned you guys have similar leadership styles. And you do run the business together. You're in a very similar situation as Trevor and I as spouses owning a business together. How do you work to support each other and stay focused on your goals?

Alicia Brentzel:

Well, actually, at this point, I couldn't even imagine not working together. So when I worked full-time in my own career, the only time we could talk about the company and talk about our goals was at night. And I don't know about you guys, but I'm cranky at night. I just want to shut down and wind down. And he would come off the field feeling the same way, and we just never were able to reach our goals that way. And so once I jumped in full time, it's been a complete 180 for us. And the key to our successful relationship is, I think we focus on very different aspects of the company. And the key part of that is we recognize the value in what both of us do. So A.J. is the what-guy, we like to say, and I'm the how-girl.

So he's the big thinker and he's so good about seeing business opportunities before they exist. Me on the other hand, I'm an engineer at heart, I'm very process oriented. I focus on how we do things, and the processes in place, and the steps to get to that end goal. So we do really make a good team. He's the idea guy, I'm the executioner. But the key part of it too, is also, we frequently talk about our goals. And we know where each other wants to go personally, but we also know where to go as a company. And I know our business wouldn't be where we were today without him, and he knows the same for me as well.

So the hard part is, we're husband and wife, we're mom and dad to kids, we're best friends, we're coworkers, we're peers. So there's a lot of roles we play together with each other, and the hard part is learning what role you need to be in to support each other. And that is not all that different from regular business partners, regular coworkers, because if you can pick up where your partner or your coworker needs some help, why not give it to them. And so, that's the way we approach things. And while we've never really had a hard set role that we can't be both stressed at the same time, when I'm stressed, he is that positive light. And I know when he's stressed, I do the same for him. Both of us stressed is a bad spot.

Missy Scherber:

I like that you're bringing that up. We just had a bid where we were disappointed, and we were both disappointed at the same time. And then we were both frustrated at the same time. Right away, we go into, "How could we have saved that? What could we have done different, better?" And I started verbalizing that right away. "Well, we should have done this. This is why I want to do this. And this is the process." And it was like, in that moment, I realized, "Okay, pause. This is your moment to be a wife, not a business partner." And to be like, "Oh, that was a hard one to lose. How are you feeling? Do we need to go grab a burger together?" And so it's those learning curves of like, which role? What's the appropriate time?

I think a lot of construction couples out there need to hear what you just said, there's all these different roles and there's a different place and time for those roles to come into play and trying not to always have them mixed up is okay. There's a time and a place to be business partners, there's a time and a place to be husband and wife, mom and dad. So I'm really glad you said that, it triggered me and what recently happened to us. And I think a lot of couples out there need to hear that there is a way to make it work. It's a phenomenal, phenomenal thing to be in business with your spouse, but it is navigating the roles and when they need you to be who they married you to be.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yup. And we talked about the negative, but there's also too that positive side of it too is he, he's very humble and I love him for that, but I want to celebrate sometimes and he just doesn't get excited about some stuff sometimes. And so it's navigating the good side as well as, I want him to be more excited and he wants me to come back down to earth sometimes.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. Hey, we have the same dynamics.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah. It's good. And as long as our black holes aren't combined, because there will be black holes. There is stress and everything, business is stressful, I don't care whether you're an employee, a foreman or laborer, you're going to have stress and things are going to be hard at times. It's how you manage those times. And if you focus on why it's hard, it's probably going to be harder. And so we're really good about being... But sometimes, you just want to be negative, sometimes you just want to get it out and you need to vent it out and then you're good. So it's really identifying that with him that is really strengthened our relationship, but also we're able to take that to our employees as well.

And knowing when some of our leadership team, they need some of that role playing too, when do you need a friend? When do you need a peer? When do you need whatever you need? When do you need a leader to tell you what to do? Or when do you want to figure it out yourself? So it's all relationship management and it's critical to when you're in a small to medium-sized business, those relationships are so important.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. Talk about how you train your foremen and your field team when it comes to relationship management. I think it'd be easy for us to talk about being a construction couple in business, but I think a relevant thing for us to talk about too, is what you just said, relationship management in the field. What does that look like because just like difficult times happen as business owners, difficult things happen out in the field, what kind of nuggets could you leave as a person who really develops leaders for those foremen, those journeymen, the operators, to better manage relationships out in the field?

Alicia Brentzel:

What we're really trying to focus on is managing each other's expectations and making sure that our foremen, our superintendent, that who they're managing that they know what their expectations are. So in our head, we have expectations of people of what they should be doing, how they should be doing it. And I think a lot of people come up short sometimes when the stuff's not done that way and it causes tension and it causes conflict. And what we're really trying to do this year is step back and realize that my personality is not the same as my superintendent or a foreman.

And being able to pick up their personalities and really look at, what are their personality traits? That has really helped us step back and deal with some conflicts we've had. We're work in progress, always a work in progress, always will be a work in progress. So eventually, I want to get our leadership team to take some personality tests, to take the DISC test and see, because I think at the core of stuff, it explains why somebody may react the way they do and why some people are offended when they react that way. And so really it comes down to communication and being able to train our foremen to listen first, has really been helpful.

And our superintendent as well, we're really taking a look at how we feel the company needs to run to thrive and having those traits mimicked. Now, the hard part is, everybody's not A.J., and this is something we're struggling with now is everybody's not going to be Trevor, everybody's not going to be you. And it's opening ourselves up to other alternatives for how stuff should run and looking at the pros and cons, but at the heart of it, what really struggle with and what we're always trying to improve is the communication. And I think that is the biggest thing for our foremen and our leadership to learn is that.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. And I like that you said to listen first. I think like I said, what I've been learning myself is our drivers and our operators have phenomenal suggestions for the way we do business every day. And if you instill a culture of listening to that field team, I think the business can have, and flow and grow exponentially with the field feedback. So I love that you lead it with listening first, I think that's a great suggestion for all the foremen and journeymen out there. Now, what about an operator? Because, again, to me, you're a leader leadership developer by nature. That's just who you are as a person. Give the operators out there...

I've had them reach out on Instagram and they have the same vision and passion that you were talking about you left CONEXPO with. There's operators out there who might be new to the field, but they have a vision and a passion to become a leader within the company that they're working with. What are some suggestions that you would give the operators, drivers, mechanics, out there who want to grow their role?

Alicia Brentzel:

Talk to your superior, talk to the business centers, if you can. Find out how you add value to your team. On day to day, what decisions increase efficiency and increase business outcomes and what don't. I think a big piece of where we've been getting frustrated in the last year or two is we want people to make smart business decisions that increase profit, but we've never told them what those situations are or how to react. And so we expect them to make the smart decision where they might save some money when in reality, they don't even know what those are.

And so it starts with training and it starts with letting a labor operator, whatever, just let them know how they make the company money, because at the end of the day, if companies aren't making money and I hate to make it all about profit, but if companies aren't making money, employees aren't going to be adding value to anything.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. And they're not going to be able to grow their role. The one of our lead operators says, "Hey, I'm just out here to make you money because the better you do the better I do." And that's a true statement at its core. So we've transitioned into the workforce development conversation, which is when I was excited to have with you, growing so quickly from one to 40 in such a short amount of time. Growing your business means adding more people, so tell us about what you look for when you're hiring new team members.

Alicia Brentzel:

Honestly, we just look for good people. And I think I've listened to some Turner Mining, and they do the same thing. They just look for good people because you can train good people, you can't a completely unmotivated person to be motivated, That's just not human nature. So there was a point and some of our higher growth periods were where we were just adding people to fill crews and to keep the jobs running. But what happened was we started having a lot of turnover, and we didn't have that upfront criteria of, "Hey, do you fit with our culture? Do you want to grow with us? Do you have these goals?"

And once we started implementing that and finding out more about a person, and that's as simple as checking references. And we never did that before because at the time we just had to fill spots, and I would not recommend that growth for anybody, because like I said, we had a lot of turnover and each turnover is a cost to a business, but if you focus on the good people and check them for your culture, then I think that builds better teams from the start. And being trainable, I think that's something we look for too is, do they want to learn or do they think they know it all? So that's an important piece too.

Missy Scherber:

Absolutely. No matter what the age, I think I love to see a learning attitude. I'm looking to improve, I'm learning to learn something, especially when you have young leaders at the helm of a business, and you're going to have seasoned operators who might be in their '50s, it's important that attitude, most definitely. You're very purposeful though, once you found those people that you feel fit with your culture, you're very purposeful about helping your employees achieve their true potential and providing growth opportunities. What are some of the things you do on a regular basis to ensure they're getting the support and trading, they need to excel?

Alicia Brentzel:

I think the first piece of tackling this question is why we do it. So there's two real reasons that we do this, and the first one is just to honestly build a stronger team. And when you ask our employees, and we do, we ask them, what drives them and what they want in a career, you'd be surprised that the majority is they're just looking for a resounding feeling of being valued, like the work they do matters. They want to know that what they're doing matters. It's so simple, but at the heart of it, sometimes that's hard to implement.

Once you have employees that are being fulfilled in their job, they're going to work more efficient, they're going to work harder, they're going to lift people up around them to do the same. And so, if you put programs in place that recognize this and recognize people feeling valued, you only increase the business. And so the first time we asked our employees what their key motivator is, I expected honestly, a lot of them to say money, but in reality, I was shocked to find, that is a piece of it, no one can say it's not, but it's more feeling valued in a role.

The second piece that, and it ties in with the money thing, and especially this year with COVID, is bidding, as you know is getting so competitive. Our employees are paid pretty well, so in order to be competitive, we can't just throw money at people. So putting programs in place for our employees to feel, one, valued, two, recognized and accomplished, it adds this intangible benefit for working for us. Like I said, I'm a how person, so if how we're employing people, and if they are happy, is only going to make a stronger team.

The employees are treated how I would want to be treated, and it goes back to that, what I want to work for my own company. And so that's the how of it. We've tackled this employee development from a couple of different aspects. The first part is we all want our employees to have goals and encourage them to have something to learn. You'd be surprised or you might not, be I was, but the first time we asked some of our experienced operators, what they wanted to learn, we got blank stares, like. "What do you mean? I just dig." But if you encourage them that there has to be something that they don't know that they want to know, you really start getting them thinking.

And, "Oh, well, I'm really good at an excavator, I want to try the dozer. How can I try the dozer?" And so then through us knowing that, then we can set that up and accommodate that when we can. So I always joke, I always say, "I never know what I want to be when I grow up." But when you ask somebody who's operated for 20 years what they want to be when they grow up, they were just like flabbergasted. And we want everyone to always be learning. The industry's always changing and if you're not changing with it or learning, you're going to get left behind.

Missy Scherber:

Absolutely. You've really taken that approach pretty seriously developing your team and finding what their triggers of excitement are to grow no matter how long they've been in the industry.

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah. And I feel like you should always be wanting to learn something. I don't care if you've been an excavator operator for 30 years, maybe you don't know GPS, so let's get that in. And I think it builds a sense of purpose as well. So that's the how we run our goal program and making sure if you don't know what somebody wants to do, you're not just going to do it and it's not going to happen for them. So that's the first thing. The second thing is, and I'm sure I've heard you talk about this a lot, is we have a lot of great experienced operators. We have a lot of new people that are interested in construction, and there's a big disconnect between getting training and finding employers that will actually train these people prior to putting them on job sites.

So, what better way to share knowledge is then to have your experienced team members share and mentor. Now, we're working through personality traits and incentivizing mentorship, but ultimately, what we do is we have a mentorship program where the person that wants to learn tracks their hours, and then they're able to set goals. And eventually where we'd like to get is okay, "Hey, you went from no operating skill 20 to operate an excavator. Hey, what's that benchmark? What's that sweet spot of number of hours? Or something like that, that we can actually start benchmarking and create development programs for employees to come in that have no operating experience to say, "Hey, if we do these five things based off our experience, you can be an operator level one." Something like that.

Missy Scherber:

So you're actually tracking the progress of developing this within your company, which is exciting?

Alicia Brentzel:

We just started, so it's all a work in progress.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. That's so great. So your approach really is finding out what drives them, making sure they know they're valued, what they're doing matters. And now the way you're taking that to the next level is what do you want to learn? And even if you've been in this forever, there's something you want to learn. I imagine the retention that you'll experience from that approach is going to be pretty phenomenal. It's human value, it's not just production, it's people, and you're valuing key parts of just who they are as a person. And I just feel like, wow, what a great approach to keep your people, because like you said, it's expensive to lose people, it's expensive to fill seats, to fill seats.

And we've experienced that ourselves and I'm asking myself, now, how do we improve our process with onboarding to where, like you just said, goals are set and actually met, like we as leaders actually help support meeting these goals? So I'm excited to see this all come together. I hope at some point, you'll be trading your ways and what you've learned because it's pretty amazing. I love that you just bring in that corporate background and just that people skills, soft skills, relationship management skills into a nitty-gritty construction industry, which is very cool. So let's talk, we have to talk about this because you are a woman in a male dominated industry.

I personally think that's a positive, exciting role to fill. It's exciting to be a woman in this industry at this time, to be a part of the change. Being a woman and newer to the industry, it's probably easy to let confidence and feel like you're not taken seriously and constantly having to prove yourself. That's come up for me, that's come up for a lot of the women out on Instagram. Talk us through how you've overcome that feeling of what professionals might call imposter syndrome and leading with confidence. This is something you taught at a presentation that I listened to and was very impressed with.

First, maybe talk through imposter syndrome, what that is, there's listeners that might have never even heard that term like me, and then talk us through how you've overcome that imposter syndrome and leading with confidence.

Alicia Brentzel:

Imposter syndrome is just a broad term, and you can Google it, there's a lot of stuff out there on it, but it's pretty much just doubting yourself, and it all stems from different types of way you doubt yourself. So are you doubting your experience based on that you don't have enough? Or, are you looking at yourself like a fraud because you don't have all the data when you make a decision? There are different types of ways you doubt yourself and ultimately, imposter syndrome comes down to that, is just doubting yourself or doubting you deserve the recognition of where you're at.

And it affects everybody. I know it affects women a lot, I've also talked to Adrian about it and it affects him as well. I think there's a fine line too with not wanting to be overconfident and just tout your praises, but it's finding that good balance of being able to celebrate your victories without those little people on your shoulder saying, "Well, you don't really deserve to be here," Kind of thing. But I'd like to say, I didn't let it bother me at first, but coming into the industry full time in 2017 and coming in being a business owner in construction, I felt like I had to know everything. Here I am supposed to be running a company and I don't know the difference between an excavator and a backhoe.

I knew what our loan payments were, I was very good at knowing about that, but I did not know what the equipment did. And it gave me this doubt of, "I shouldn't be a business owner because I don't know all this." And so I would go to bid meetings hiding in the corner, taking notes because I felt like everyone was judging me because I didn't know what our capabilities were. And what I started doing was, I started doing something really simple, and it's just asking why and asking questions. And I was shocked at the overwhelming amount of support that people come to when you ask them, 'How do you do something?" Or, "I don't know this, I will find it out later," Kind of thing. And it goes over really well.

It took probably about till this year where I could confidently say that I don't need to know everything just because I'm a business owner. It goes the same for an operator, you are not touted on your ability to drive a dozer when you're an excavator operator. You don't have to know everything just because you're in this bucket. And it really makes people feel good to be able to help you. So when you look at what I did overcome it, there's no secret sauce, it's literally just being in it day in and day out and asking those questions and not being afraid to.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. And really owning what you don't know and knowing that you belong in the room regardless of what you know, you're there, you're there to do something different, you're there to learn, you're there to ask questions. And I like that you're really saying, ask questions and own what you don't know. That's okay. I just had a call with a huge GC that we've been working with getting into this, the first time where I just said, "I just want to be realistic with our capabilities, and it looks like the jobs we're looking at with you, I might need to be lined up with majority contractor with a bigger excavation contractor in order to support your goals."

And it felt a little rough to get it out there, but that ownership of like, "Okay, we're not capable here, but we're capable here." It totally was a confidence booster for me to just own exactly where we're at. And that's something that I learned from you and your presentation, ask questions, put out there where you really are, and it's really a big confidence booster. So I love that part of the conversation. What advice would you give to other women working in the industry? And like you just said, this isn't just a woman thing, imposter syndrome is really, to me, something everyone struggles with in some capacity, but let's get some specific advice from you for women working in this industry.

Alicia Brentzel:

I'm going to be very basic, find a mentor, find a mentor because that, I believe is the game changer. Coming into 2020, I struggled to find people, and I wouldn't really say I was looking that hard, but I expected people to just come to me and help, when in reality, that's not going to happen. And so once you start reaching out and seeking out mentorship, you put yourself in such a good spot to learn, but to also build confidence in yourself. And it was life-changing for me. And I know you're big on mentors as well, and there's huge value in it.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. And most of my mentors up to this point were men in the industry, which were phenomenal experiences for me. Now, I'm starting to reach out more for women mentors as well, who have accomplished something in this industry, they have been through the ups and downs, I think that's important for women to have both. But I love that advice. This has been a really exciting conversation, we really want to take a new direction this year with the podcast and focus on building better businesses, better business owners, stronger teams.

And it couldn't have fit more perfect to have you launch season two of Contractor Conversations with CONEXPO, because I just feel like you're very much focused on being a better leader, creating better leaders, creating better teams. So just huge kudos to you for bringing that approach into our industry, I'm excited to see where it takes Brex. I feel like this could be an entire series, just talking through the ups and downs of being a leader, but let's transition into what we like to call a rapid fire round to end this awesome, awesome conversation with you. We're going to have a little fun with this one and are curious, what was your first job? And I want to know what A.J.'s first job was.

Alicia Brentzel:

Oh. A.J.'s first job was I believe detailing vehicles for different family members, which if you saw his truck now, you would not guess that. But my first job was, I made pizzas at Pizza Hut. And the stick that making pizzas has on your clothes, I'll never forget it.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. Don't tell. Do you follow up Shamrock Sean?

Him and his wife, they love pizza. So I think they wouldn't mind that smell on their clothes. What was your first car?

Alicia Brentzel:

It was a Chevy Cavalier that I paid cash for. And we lived in a very snowy area in the mountains for college and that thing, we called it, the silver streaker because it went through snow better than any jeep, and we did that, like minimum value trade in for it, and I still kick myself today. We should've kept it, why did we do that?

Missy Scherber:

Just keep the streaker, right?

If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?

Alicia Brentzel:

Like doing construction or this podcast right now?

Missy Scherber:

If you weren't leading a construction company.

Alicia Brentzel:

Oh, I would be in the medical device field, still helping people. I loved it, I had great experience doing it.

Missy Scherber:

Got it. What song gets you pumped up in the morning to head into the offices?

Alicia Brentzel:

Oh, I would go at, this is probably silly, but I'm an alternative girl, so I would go My Bloody Valentine. So just that gets me pumped. It makes me like that.

Missy Scherber:

Roll with it. Got it. Let's see, who is one person you wish you could have dinner with?

Alicia Brentzel:

Okay. I don't know much about this person, but his name's Tanner Godfrey and actually Ryan at Rock Structures introduced me to him and he actually sustained a spinal injury. So I don't want to say this wrong, I don't really know his full history, but his attitude about life is so positive and refreshing, and he overcomes so many things that so many people would complain about. My six-year-old son, he has cerebral palsy and walks of canes. And Tanner, if you're listening to this, I want to meet with you because I feel like you could change my son's life, and you're you probably are changing people's lives.

Missy Scherber:

That's awesome. So Tanner Godfrey, if you are listening, we're ready to host a dinner for you, and come to Pennsylvania. Now, what is your dream piece of equipment? You've been to a few CONEXPOs, where do you run to?

Alicia Brentzel:

Oh boy. I would just say, I love one that's paid for that is, that is my dream piece, but I am weirdly addicted to logging videos, so I love a good feller buncher, I don't know, I can watch logging videos all day.

Missy Scherber:

That is awesome. Now we know what you guys do on date night, huh?

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah. It's been farming now. We bought a farm and now he's teaching me about regenerative farming. So that is going to be popping up on my feed now, because I said it.

Missy Scherber:

That's very exciting. He's a farmer and a cowboy, correct?

Alicia Brentzel:

Yeah. I want to be.

Missy Scherber:

You can be all at once, construction, cowboy, farmer. Why not? Sounds a little bit too much, like my husband. Moving on, what technology is going to be the biggest game changer for your business in the next five years?

Alicia Brentzel:

I should have asked A.J. about this because he's definitely more into the equipment technology. Honestly, for us though, it's not necessarily a technology, it's more an industry change, we're in an industry trend, we're in oil and gas, renewable energy is the buzz word. So I feel like getting tapped into that would be the game changer for our business, for sure, is getting into that.

Missy Scherber:

And what about in the office, what tech? I see a lot of questions out there of, "Should I use QuickBooks? Should I use scheduling software?" What innovative technology you're seeing behind the scenes has been helpful for you guys or that you're excited about?

Alicia Brentzel:

No matter what the system, I think stuff needs to be integrated. So if you have a good system that syncs your project management software with your time tracking software, with your books or your accounting software, I don't care what it is as long as they're synced and integrating seamlessly, that is game changer for people.

Missy Scherber:

Got it. That's good advice for Missy Scherber over here. We have like seven different softwares and they're not communicating with each other. I'm like, "Guys, we got to change this and make it better." Now, talk about your favorite memory from CONEXPO Connect 2020. Those are just such a surreal, great CONEXPO. I remember meeting you and that was a [Build Wet 00:58:50] meetup, wasn't it? We were at that bar for... It was invigorating to just meet other couples and women and people that you've seen on Instagram and you're like, "Oh my gosh, there you are. This is so cool.

Alicia Brentzel:

I had so many good memories, it's hard to pick one. I had just started our social media account in February, so a month prior. So I didn't really know who people were, but I started to know over that last month, the month before CONEXPO. And then when I went in to CONEXPO, I said, "Okay, I need to meet these people because they are so passionate about the industry that we can share a passion together and only further the industry." So it was so cool to be so wrapped up in people that wanted to make a difference in a positive way for the construction industry. And it's just changed, it's just changed our business and where we want to go in the future.

And as much as people like to dig on social media, there's always your haters out there, there is so much more positive light out there that if you go looking for the positive, you're going to find it so much more than the negative. And so being wrapped up in that, was awesome at CONEXPO. It's the best one.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. It was the best for sure. And just the buzz in the room of meeting people was my favorite memory, just meeting. There's real, young entrepreneurial, excited people in this industry, and we had a whole room full of them at that event, which is very cool.

Alicia Brentzel:

People with the power to make change. And it's awesome the power that some of the names in the room could make changes on, and it's so inspiring.

Missy Scherber:

Yeah. That was fun. I think we went at a taco place very late, midnight, margaritas. I don't know what we were all talking about at the end, but it was very fun. Well, this was a really, really exciting conversation for us to have on CONEXPO, and for you to just lead the helm of these new conversations that we want to have as a leader. We really appreciate what you're doing in the industry, how you and A.J. are just changing the game and leadership style when it comes to construction. So thank you for being willing to share your time with us. I know you're a busy mama of four, running a business of 40 with a large fleet. So thank you again, Alicia, this is really awesome.

Alicia Brentzel:

And I can't echo the thank you to you and to CONEXPO, and to shedding light on contractors in the industry. And it only opens up the door to improve somebody else's business. So, you guys are putting valuable nuggets out there for different contractors, operators, whoever, to take them. And that is invaluable, and all these podcasts just keep getting better and better. So thank you for letting me be a part of it. I hope I lived up to expectations because if we can help somebody, that makes it all worth it. So, thank you.

Missy Scherber:

Well, thank you.

Outro:

And that's going to wrap up this edition of CONEXPO-CON/AGG Radio. If you liked the show and think other people should listen to, make sure to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. We'll be back next time with another great guest. Until that time, be sure to visit conexpoconagg.com/connect for even more ways to connect with the industry.

 

 




Related Articles