As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Spiegelglass, Owner, Spiegelglass Construction Company. As the fourth-generation owner of Spiegelglass Construction Company — a commercial general contractor based in St. Louis — Tim grew up learning about construction at the breakfast table. The concept of helping clients open a new place of business stuck with him in childhood, and today he loves being a small part of those growth stories. Tim oversees all types of small and medium-sized commercial construction projects including retail, restaurant and specialized builds. He is an avid St. Louis Blues fan who was fortunate enough to be at Game 7 in Boston when his team clinched the Stanley Cup in 2019.
Thank you so much for joining us Tim! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Sure, I grew up working in our family’s construction management business — starting with sweeping the floors as a kid and hauling materials as a teen. After college, my father, uncle and I went to see a family business consultant who advised us that I should get some experience under my belt before entering the business. So I did just that — I headed west to California and gained experience in the industry. I moved back home to St. Louis in 2004 — which also happened to coincide with company’s 100th anniversary — and started back at our family’s business. I’ve been there ever since.
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?
I had an embarrassing situation once where I thought I was on mute, but I wasn’t. I learned that unfortunate lesson the hard way and now know how to work the phones.
Spiegelglass Construction is over 100 years old. That must be pretty rare in your industry. If you had to put a finger on the most critical factor for your longevity, what would it be?
We think about everything in the long-term, looking toward the future for each decision we make. That includes minor decisions, too. We’ve learned time and time again that if you take the high road and take great care of your clients, they become both personal friends and lifelong clients.
Obviously, with your long standing clients, quality and price are the primary considerations. But what role does personal relationships play? How much time can your senior executives afford to spend with each client to cement a relationship?
Nurturing long-term relationships is just part of our DNA, and we believe it’s one of the main reasons we’ve been in business for as long as we have. Relationships are important across the board: we have employees who have been with us for 40 years, subcontractors we’ve been working with for generations, and decades-long relationships with partners and clients. Reputation is everything in our business, and relationships are a big part of how a reputation is built over time.
To answer your second question, we invest however much time it takes to build trust and get to know our clients so that we can be helpful to them. Often that takes place over years, even decades.
It’s interesting that the majority, if not all of your business is in the St. Louis area. With your century-plus track record you should have no problem generating business elsewhere. Is there a reason you haven’t?
That’s a great question. We were just talking about the importance of relationships and reputation in the construction industry and how those two things are intertwined. For us, deepening those relationships means prioritizing our time and investing heavily in clients who are either based in the Midwest or are growing throughout the Central region — Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, etc. We’ve been intentional in our growth and have chosen to focus on building relationships for the long-term.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When my great-grandfather started the business in 1904, he was a one-man operation — a carpenter who helped his friends with repair work on their storefronts. The story that was passed down through generations is that he wanted to help people help themselves (i.e. get their business going) and make a living.
For me, early on — and I’m talking grade school — I have distinct memories of accompanying my father to openings once the construction projects were complete. They were grand affairs, and I distinctly remember the restaurant openings as there was food around every corner. What I recall most though is how excited the owners and general managers were to launch their business. I saw my father’s role in helping open their doors and it stuck with me.
We’ve all heard the “Teach a man to fish” proverb, and our company has really taken that to heart. There is just nothing like helping someone open a business — whether it’s their first location or their 50th — it is my greatest source of pride.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Our values come to life in various ways, but they always fall under the umbrella of integrity. To us, that means taking the high road, doing the right thing, and always seeing the long-term view. To a client, that might mean that we don’t nickel and dime for every change. To a subcontractor, that might be paying our bills quickly and completely. To a partner, that might mean decades of helping each other on projects. Our employees and clients see how we operate in our day-to-day interactions and that’s what makes us the company we are.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Our number one principle isn’t much different than the values that guide our work — we take the high road in everything we do. We believe it’s part of what has kept us in business for more than a century. That means doing business with integrity, and that takes many forms. We take care of our clients and add value in everything we do. If something goes wrong, we make it right, so our clients don’t have to worry about it. Sometimes that costs us time and money, but it means we’re doing the right thing, and we’re investing in the future. We’ve seen this principle pay back in spades — both in the form of personal relationships and the number of repeat clients we serve.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I mentioned earlier that I went out to California to “cut my teeth” in the construction management industry before returning to the family business. Well, finding a job was challenging. The only construction experience I had was working for our family’s business, and when your last name is the same as the company name, there aren’t too many people who are interested in hiring you. I finally convinced one business owner to give me a shot — I was willing to start as a laborer and work my way up, which is exactly what I did.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
We’re in our 116th year of business, and things are going great. I have to credit the generations before me for laying a solid foundation for our business, and now I’m passing my learnings on to my kids.
Our values drive every single thing we do. It’s what makes us stand apart from our competition but also what we believe keeps our clients coming back — the large majority of our work comes from repeat business. We add value to the build that others simply don’t. It’s not just a one-off commercial construction project — our clients are investing in a space that will provide them with returns for years to come. We take that responsibility very seriously, and it shows in our work.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Hire people who share your values. It’s impossible to be in 20 places at the same time. Hire people who you trust to take care of your business and your clients. And be sure you are also taking care of them. We have employees who have been with us for 10, 20, and even 40+ years. We’ve also had employees along the way who were not a fit — and you’ll know pretty quickly when that’s the case.
- Know Your Craft and Share that Expertise. Knowing the ins and outs of your line of work is crucial, but sharing that knowledge is where you can really add value for your clients. We make it a point to share what we know, especially through tips that can impact our clients’ business in the future. As an example, suggesting a more durable and cleanable wall surface (like FRP) instead of paint is a tidbit that will save a restaurant owner considerable time and expense down the road. We’re always looking to impact our clients’ business positively — long past the project’s completion.
- Learn how to negotiate so everyone wins. Our clients have specific budgets they need to stick with, and they also have certain elements they feel strongly about. Work with your client so they can see the whole picture and still walk away with what’s most important to them.
- Trust your gut. Outside consultants often have great counsel, but if that counsel isn’t feeling right in your gut, there’s usually a reason. Always listen to advice — you never know what you can learn — but there’s no need to act on everything. You know your company best, and you set the tone for the way your business runs.
- Always take the high road. In a service-based business especially, you are your company. Do the right thing, even if it costs you in the short-term. We’ve seen the returns on this approach in the form of long-term relationships and future business. Our marketing is comprised of telling prospective clients to ask around about us — because we’re confident in what they’ll hear.
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?
I am forever grateful to my father who took the time to teach me not only about commercial construction, but about business. There are so many different pieces in business — from building relationships and celebrating successes to accounting and hiring. It’s been decades of learning a little bit each day and that sea of collective knowledge is what helps me run the business today. There’s a lot you just can’t learn from books and I’m fortunate I’ve had my father by my side teaching me all these years.
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. :-)
I can envision a society where the driving principle is ‘people helping people’. There are so many opportunities to be helpful to others both personally and professionally, and I’m constantly in awe of how rewarding it can be. Mentoring a young professional is one of the most gratifying ways I’ve found to help someone looking to become a commercial general contractor. Personally, something as simple as visiting a friend in the hospital fills both of us with joy.
‘People helping people’ is the essence of every service-based business, and it’s the foundation for strong communities. Imagine the positive impact on our world if everyone resolved to help one person a day.
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