Building a Legacy
Jul 25, 2019 12:07PM
By Scott Stewart
The transcontinental railroad brought prosperity to Omaha during westward expansion, and many of the companies with the deepest roots in the city can trace their fortunes to those boom times.
Union Pacific built the railroad. First National Bank of Omaha extended credit to pioneers. Kiewit began building hotels and warehouses to accommodate growth in the late 19th century.
One of the area’s oldest companies, NP Dodge, started out a decade prior to Nebraska statehood and is now the longest-running, family-owned, full-service real estate firm in the country.
“There are a lot of companies in Omaha that have been around for 100 years. Why? It’s because they never lose sight of their customer, they’re transparent, and they always do the right thing,” said Debra Graeve, president of NAI NP Dodge, the commercial real estate division of NP Dodge.
NP Dodge began in a small office in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1855. The company only had five employees in 1945, but it has grown to more than 450 real estate agents, staff, and managers today, spread across seven divisions. Nate Dodge is the fifth person named N.P. Dodge to run the company, maintaining a family connection that has spanned more than 16 decades.
While family ownership can foster a legacy, some companies thrive through ownership changes.
A.C. Busk founded a small masonry company in 1884 that soon began to offer general contracting services. Roy M. Lueder joined the firm in 1920, and two decades later owned the company and had changed its name. The company has changed hands three times since then, but its legacy lives on.
“In 135 years, to have a company survive five ownership transitions—really only one of which was family—we think is kind of remarkable,” said CEO R. Brad von Gillern, the company’s fifth owner. “We do business like we want to be around another 135. We don’t make short-sighted decisions.”
How to Build a Legacy
Companies that have built a lasting legacy value many of the same things: ethical conduct, transparency, relationships, employees, and the importance of adapting to changing marketplaces.
Graeve said the bottom line is never forgetting who your customers are, especially following a problem or when there’s an ethical misstep.
“We’re quick to act,” Graeve said. “Some companies lose sight of that or they may not deal with something as quickly as it should be dealt with—or even sweep it under the rug.”
Accountability is important for financial goals, too. Von Gillern said he shared Lueder’s business plan with the company’s employees in 2013, and it brought everyone together to achieve success.
“If I had kept it to myself, we never would have hit it,” von Gillern said. “If you share it with your people, they’ll embrace it and they’ll produce results that will take you there.”
Of course, external factors can get in the way. If you don’t plan for a downturn while the market is hot, work can grind to a halt when it cools. However, companies that build strong relationships, especially in good times, can keep their doors open during a recession.
In commercial real estate, Graeve said many off-market deals come together because an agent connects a buyer with someone whose property isn’t listed but would be willing to sell for the right price. To be successful, real estate agents need to identify trends, know the marketplace, and predict what’s going to happen next. Ultimately, the game requires knowing the players and bringing them together.
That’s often what it takes to win work in many other fields, too.
“Companies don’t do business with companies; people do business with people,” von Gillern said. “I know that I’ve had a successful project if, at the end of the project, I’ve made a new friend.”
When work dries up, Lueder relies on hard-bid work from public entities to provide financial stability. Even though most of the company’s business comes from negotiated bids, those hard-bid projects were still available when the market tanked in 2008, and the company knew how to win those contracts.
“We didn’t do great, but we did OK,” von Gillern said. “A lot of people that were heavily reliant on developer-driven work failed during that time or struggled dramatically.”
Lueder employees were told during the Great Recession that the company had a plan in place to avoid pink slips. That boosted morale and fostered an environment where those plans could be executed.
“It was like we were all in a foxhole together,” von Gillern said. “It was a bad situation, but it was a good outcome for the company.”
Successful companies should help clients who are struggling during a downturn. When the economy improves, the work will return—so long as those clients are still around.
“Sometimes just offering help, maybe for free—folks don’t forget that,” Graeve said. “Clients don’t forget that you were willing to go above and beyond to be willing to help them.”
Having a workplace where employees are valued, and where their needs are met, is another important foundation for a successful company. Von Gillern said he found it’s important to make adjustments to attract and retain talent.
“Early on, we bought in on the negatives about millennials,” von Gillern said. “Then we realized that it isn’t necessarily a negative. You have to figure out how to capture the things that are important to them.”
Toward that end, the company established maternity and paternity leave policies, as well as a sabbatical policy, which are unusual within the industry. Improving the mental health and happiness of its workers boosts their productivity, which in turn improves client outcomes, von Gillern said.
“We’ve always been a company that took care of its people,” von Gillern said. “We’ve taken traditional values that we’ve implemented for a century and we’ve modernized them into ways that are relevant for people today.”
Lueder also embraces cutting-edge technology to deliver cost-savings and higher quality. Von Gillern said Lueder is using a laser scanner to create an image of the Blackstone Hotel that shows its existing condition, which can then be compared to blueprints.
“The two don’t always match,” von Gillern said. “We can fabricate materials off-site with confidence that they’ll fit when they get there.”
Those younger, tech-savvy employees bring new ideas, too.
“One of the things that we had to learn to stop saying is, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it, and that’s the way you should do it,’” von Gillern said. “It turns out that some of these folks have better ideas than we do. Some of the new ways of doing things are way better than the old ways of doing things.”
Some of Lueder’s competitors have been left behind due to unwillingness to embrace new approaches and technologies, von Gillern said. Graeve said that’s true in real estate, where technology—such as the website Zillow and apps that provide an offer within minutes for unlisted property—only heightens the competition.
“For a company our age, you have to be flexible,” Graeve said. “You have to change with the times. If you don’t, then I think those companies go by the wayside. We’re always looking ahead. We respect the past, but we’re always looking for how we can do things better.”
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