Power Players: Changes In Attitude

Rick Allen of Augusta, founder and chairman of R.W. Allen, a successful commercial construction firm, marvels at the population shift in his neck of the woods.

“I grew up living on Hereford Farm Road in Evans, Ga.,” he says. “That’s where Augusta is headed now! I’m one of the few people that moved from Columbia County to Rich-mond County instead of the other way around.”

Growing up on a farm, Allen loved building things. That passion led him to Auburn University, where he studied architecture before discovering he lacked the necessary creativity for the discipline. Instead, he switched gears, graduating in 1973 with a degree in building construction.

He and his wife Robin moved to Augusta and he settled into a job with H.W. Duffie Construction Com-pany. “I was there for three years,” he says. “But I had a goal to have a stake in something. That wasn’t going to happen with a family firm.” So, in 1976 at age 25, with a wife and new baby, Allen struck out on his own.

The economic climate was hardly conducive to starting new businesses. “My dad said, ‘Son, this might not have been a good idea,’” recalls Allen, chuckling. But he gives Robin a lot of credit for his ultimate decision to make a go of it.

“She’s been my greatest mentor,” he says. “When I said to her, ‘I can’t seem to find what I want [professionally]. I think I need to go into business,’ she just said, ‘That sounds great.’” With her blessing and support, Allen started his company.

A new business in a recession meant R.W. Allen was often the lowest bidder. “It was my competitive advantage,” he says. “I could bid low, because we did all the work ourselves. We were unproven, and [bidding low] was how you get work.”

And they got plenty of it. The company established early on a reputation for excellence that continues to this day.

“In our industry, commercial follows residential, so our slowdown really hit in 2009,” says Allen. “Back then [in 1976] it was just me. I had nothing to lose. Now I have employees. I love these people, and fortunately we’ve been able to keep everyone productive.”

‘Love’ wasn’t a word Allen would have used to describe business relationships when he first started out. “I was driven, a control freak,” he says. Very different from the type of leadership he espouses these days. In 1998, Allen met Ken Blanchard, author of the The One-Minute Manager. “We were both going through similar spiritual journeys, which entered into my business life,” says Allen.

Blanchard taught a servant-leadership model, turning the organizational chart upside down and placing a priority on building relationships within the company and with clients. The philosophy struck a chord in Allen.

“It was a major transformation for me,” he says. “Changing wasn’t easy, but once I understood the concept, I wanted to change.” Allen believes his willingness to adjust helped the company weather the 2002 and 2009 construction slowdowns virtually unscathed. Most important to him was that the company not be forced to lay off employees, and so far it hasn’t.

“Relationships with our people are vitally important to me,” he says. “We work at it.” Case in point: Allen brought in Tommy Spaulding, co-author of It’s Not Just Who You Know, to conduct a two-day training with R.W. Allen employees. “The thing is, you don’t do things like this to get a ‘return,’” says Allen. “You do it to help people get better.” And he does little things to show his employees he cares, like weekly cookouts at job sites and calling employees to wish them a happy birthday.

Despite his passion for the subject, Allen is almost stumped when asked how he defines success in business. After some thought, he says, “Longevity, significance. Have you made a contribution to your industry, your community and the people who helped you? My goal is to bring dignity and empowerment to the people who actually get the work done. The laborers on our sites work hard. I want them to know if it were not for them, I wouldn’t have a job.”

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