Out of the mouths of babes, life-changing advice

By Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune, December 31, 2009


A photo of John Quinlivan

John Quinlivan’s executive job kept him on the road most of the time. After a comment by his 6-year-old daughter, he knew it was time to go in a new direction.

John Quinlivan allows as how there was a load of “personal angst” attached to a job that kept him away from his wife and two young children three weeks a month.

The breaking point came late in 2004, when Quinlivan, a vice president of national accounts at Qwest Communications, returned from a week in Boston just in time to catch a flight to Utah for a skiing vacation with his family. After he changed his clothes in his SUV and boarded the plane, his daughter, Lauren, then a precocious lass of 6, chided him in startlingly mature terms.

“She said, ‘It’s not normal or healthy for a grown man to be changing clothes in his car,’” Quinlivan recalled. “Then she added, ‘Oh, and by the way, you missed the father-daughter night at school.’”

That was it. Within weeks, Quinlivan quit his job and embarked on a career for which he admittedly had minimal training: He founded Gordon James Construction Inc., a Maple Plain general contracting company that uses the first and middle names of his late father. His background in the field: His father was a contractor, and Quinlivan had managed construction of a coffee shop that he and his wife, Kimberly, own in Maple Plain.

Despite his lack of experience, plus the lingering decline of the housing market and the collapse of the economy, the company thrived: Revenue climbed from $1.6 million in 2006, the first full year of operation, to $3.6 million in 2008, and continued growth through 2012.

Not bad, considering the industry is in the midst of “a very trying time, with a lot of competition for a much smaller piece of the pie,” said David Semerad, CEO of Associated General Contractors of Minnesota.

So how did Quinlivan beat the odds? On top of the decision to target both residential and commercial projects, 18 years in sales and sales management taught him the value of attentive customer service. It was confirmed by an informal survey he conducted.

“Whenever I was in the coffee shop, I’d ask people who had built new homes in the area whether they’d hire the same contractor again,” Quinlivan said. Out of 100 people queried: “Thirteen said yes and eight said maybe,” he said. The 79 who said no cited late completions, over-budget expenses, and unresponsive follow-ups.

It gave Quinlivan his strategy for building his business on word-of-mouth. Attorney Jason Pfeiffer was impressed: “He was personally involved from the design phase to the lot selection to the construction,” Pfeiffer said of his home’s construction in Orono. “And from a pricing perspective, he worked hard to push the costs to where they needed to go.”

In short, Quinlivan “listened and he understood what we wanted,” Pfeiffer said.

Gordon James operates the same way it did when everything began in 2006 – attention to clients’ detailed wants, quality construction, and communication. Give us a call and you’ll understand why word-of-mouth referral business is our best marketing.