As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Vetter, an entrepreneurial-minded business leader and expert in Pre-Construction Services currently serving as Vice President and Partner in Schafer Construction, Inc. Schafer Construction is a growing Design-Build General Contracting firm located in Brighton, Michigan — about 30 minutes North of Ann Arbor. With a career spanning all aspects of residential and commercial construction for greater than two decades, Matt has worked in roles as varied as a self-employed solopreneur consultant, to a Departmental Director of a large construction firm, to his current role as an Owner & Partner in charge of all facets of the business. An avid hunter and fisherman, Matt tends to spend as much time as possible outdoors with his wife, three children, and the family dogs.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up? What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I have always had somewhat of an entrepreneurial itch and spirit. I started my first ‘company’ at about 10 years old — a recycling company where I would pull a wagon around the neighborhood and pick-up people’s milk jugs and newspapers for a couple quarters. Keep in mind this was before curbside recycling was a thing……probably should not have quit that one in hindsight! It was many years after that venture before I would try again as an owner. As a teenager, I watched my father create his own business and saw the freedom that his hard work provided our family. I never really lost that idea that owning a business was where I’d end up.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Geez, I am quite certain that I have made lots of mistakes throughout my career — that is how I have gotten to where I am now. Everyone in business will experience failure at one time or another. The key, I think, is to fail fast and learn from it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My father for sure. He showed me first, that nothing is impossible. That if things look like they have gone belly up that there is always a way to capitalize on the experience and turn it into something good. Aside from that, he pushed me to achieve always — to never accept mediocrity. We butt heads a lot when I was growing up; however, the lessons I learned even just by watching him will be with me forever and have helped to get me where I am now.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I think lots of entrepreneurs will have a similar story, but my first couple of businesses did not survive. I pulled the plug on two different companies for different reasons. As a young man with a growing family, growing debt, and a lack of sufficient income coming in from my business, my wife and I were faced with a lot of challenging decisions. I did not want to ‘quit’ or to admit defeat — ever, but I also really did not want to lose the house or not have food on the table for my kids.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Growing a construction company through the Recession took more grit and determination than I thought I would have been able to muster, but I kept pushing. I was working 80–90 hour weeks consistently and travelling the country 5 to 6 days a week at times. Drive does not come naturally thought I do not think. You must work your brain like it is a muscle — you must build the mental toughness, and you must build it fast sometimes. It was the never-wavering idea in my head that I would not give up on my dream that kept me moving.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today, things are good. I have come a long way and come into my own it feels like finally. I know that no matter what happens, that I can build a team — that I can build a culture, and that I can build a business should I ever have to again. It is the grit and the mental toughness that makes this possible. People do not always understand how much constant struggle and toil it takes to make it in business……. those are not the people who are succeeding.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Schafer Construction stands out because of the culture that we have built through harnessing the power of our combined core values. A lot of firms talk about core values and they put them up on the walls of their conference rooms, but very few firms in our industry especially, really live them. We embody our values. We stand tall knowing that it is our culture that will ensure our Team wins. My business partner and I were recently involved in a meeting about a very pivotal project for our company; a project that will truly change the shape of our future as a construction company. Our values were brought into question (by an outsider — NOT by our clients) and we were asked to do some things moving forward that would have been in direct conflict with our core values. Rather than give in to such a suggestion, we held our ground. I informed our clients that I would literally rather lose this project, than compromise our values and lose the respect of our Team that we have worked so hard to build. I do not know that most folks would do this…. risk walking away from a large contract like that.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Stay humble. Nothing ruins a company in our industry quicker than a lack of humility. The Universe has a way of beating it out of you if choose not to accept this. And have fun! Life is just too darn short to not.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am a member of an organization that is focused on just that (The Arete Syndicate) — changing the world for the better through honest and well-meaning business and entrepreneurship. Through our business and through Arete we are changing lives for the better every day.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Discover & Build your Core Values first.
You cannot build a strong business if you do not believe in it, and you cannot believe in it if the business does not stand for something. Core Values are kind of buzz words lately, but they need to be given a real commitment. This is the foundation with which you build a great team upon.
2. Hire and Fire Based on Core Values.
Once you commit to your Core Values and once your existing Team understands them and truly embodies them, it is time to live by them. We hire based on our Core Values and we fire based on them. In construction, mistakes are made frequently — it is part of the game. I make a point to welcome mistakes and help my Team to learn from them. The caveat to this; though, is I have a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy to mistakes made that contradict our Core Values.
3. Build a Culture before trying to build a Brand.
Culture drives the business — culture drives the Team — culture wins the races. We do not hire nor fire quickly in our business (unless there is a breach of Core Values), and as such we do not experience a lot of turnover. We treat our Team like family and really try to foster that type of environment. We push really hard and we all work really hard — we have a great time doing it.
4. Work/Life Balance means nothing to an Owner — it means a lot to an Employee.
There is no such thing as a work/life balance when you are an owner. You must find the work/life mix that allows for you to be successful in both business and personal life, but it will never be balanced. You will ALWAYS be working on the business, but there are absolutely ways to be sure that your family time does not suffer. Now — on the flip side, your employee’s will NEVER care about your business as you do — nor should they. As a leader you must make sure that your employees DO have a good work/life balance. Make sure they are not burning out and make sure that they are not neglecting their homelife in order to do better at their work life.
5. Do not forget to have some fun.
This one is easy, because look — if you do not enjoy what you are doing and you are not getting any sort of intrinsic value from the work you do, then you are in the wrong line of work. Money is not everything. I am a firm believer that you can enjoy what you do and make plenty of money doing it.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Absolutely my personal style and philosophy has changed over the years. I do not think leadership is something you can learn from a book or in a classroom; you must get in the trenches and suffer the bumps and bruises of learning and growing as you go. I am continuously learning and growing — and I can see this happening in my company as well now. It all boils down to culture — you cannot do great things without it and once you really truly believe this, you can quickly become unstoppable.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I touched on this in the last question, but without question trial by fire is how to become a better leader. Fail fast and learn from it — pivot as often as necessary — and always get back up after getting knocked down.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Being in the construction industry, I am partial to helping the men and women that make it up. This is an incredibly high-stress industry with overly high rates of depression and suicide. If I had the capital and the reach, I would start an organization to get these issues under control in our industry.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me on the following channels:
LinkedIn & Facebook @mattvetter & @schaferconstruction