CONNECT WITH ISAAC:
This week on the show, I have Isaac Barlow, who is a serial entrepreneur in the construction industry. Isaac shares his story of how he managed to scale his businesses in such a short amount of time. And his story begs the question: Is it possible to scale too quickly?
Welcome to the show, Isaac. I’m super excited to have you. Go ahead and introduce yourself.
Thanks, Tanner. It’s a privilege to be here. So my name is Isaac Barlow. I’m the owner of Olsen Construction, Artists and Millwork, Revere Cabinetry, and Vision Tracks, project management software.
Awesome, man, that sounds like you got a lot going on. How did your journey as an entrepreneur began?
Well, I have a tendency to go back too far and to be too detailed. So I’ll be as brief as possible and not bore your guests. But I I’ve been in construction my whole life, started when I was about 15, 14, 15 working for different construction companies in the summer. When I got out of high school, I started right into concrete, worked for about a year, year and a half with a concrete company, moved on to framing, moved on to siding and moved into cabinetry when I was about 19 or 20 and learned how to install cabinets. And I did that for about three or four years and found my niche and finished carpentry. And around 2007, 2008, when the recession hit, we ran out of work and I went into electrical. A little bit of electrical, started trying to go to school, ended up getting shipped to Phoenix and Reno and all different types of places to stay busy.
And the company I was working for doing electrical ended up running out of work, and we got laid off there. And I ended up out in the Midwest all over the Midwest, building tornado dome shelters. And that was really interesting, exciting, stressful work. And I started that in 2011 and worked my way up to manage a crew. Yeah, year 2015, all the way to 2015. It’s about four years. And when the market picked back up in Utah, I brought my family back and started Olson Construction. So all along the way, I’ve told a lot of my employees this, when I’ve spoke at company meetings all along the way along the whole journey, I’ve always searched for a company that didn’t cap me.
And when they get to the top, I don’t want my company to be structured in such a way that that’s it. They just hit a ceiling and I lose these people that I’ve invested in for so many years.
I wanted to go as far as I could with them, I felt like I was a pretty loyal employee. And every one of those companies either had a ceiling that stopped me, or they didn’t have a culture that was say conducive to my thinking. And I ended up seeking other opportunities. Every company, I worked for a great company, but as I was working and growing, I thought, I want to create a company that will be able to retain people that think like I do, that are driven, that are ambitious, that want to be owners. But it’s just not the status quo. And when they get to the top, I don’t want my company to be structured in such a way that that’s it. They just hit a ceiling and I lose these people that I’ve invested in for so many years.
And I just thought, how do you create a company you’re able to retain those good people and not lose them? So the best thing I could come up with is just structure a business that could give them ownership, some type of ownership. And if we retained a person that did not specifically have a passion for one of these construction companies, we would be able to branch out into another company. So that’s kind of how we got started those. That was my thought process. So when we came back in town in Utah, we created Olson Construction, started installing cabinets for small suppliers that I knew. We got introduced to the multifamily lane, desperate need for quality installers there. And we just skyrocketed just boomed. I went from four installers to 40 in almost eight months. Yeah. It almost bankrupted us.
I know now when people say don’t grow too fast, I had no clue what that I met before, but I know now many reasons you don’t grow too fast, but, but yeah, I just figured we did we did a good job, and of course we were custom cabinet installers and we came into the multifamily lane. All this product was coming flatbed out of China and we just brought those same skills, same knowledge, same work ethic from the custom field into the multifamily lane. And we just grew really quickly, but I just, as we were growing, I just thought we’re continuing to be limited in our ability to create value establish a flow become more profitable due to the suppliers that we were installing for, see where weren’t in supplying the product we were just installing.
And we were, we were just at the end of the whip of everybody shoddy product poor designs poor management of the projects. Oh, we just had so little sir such a little control of the product. So we kind of got pushed in order to survive. We got pushed into supply. So we sent a few of our guys over to China, opened up some accounts with some large suppliers over there and brought over product and start a supply ourselves. And that was about 2000 what, 16, 17, probably 18, somewhere around there, 2017, 18 whenever the tariffs and as we were bringing in product and those tariffs it, we thought if we’ve got control of the supply chain this far, and the prices go up, we might as well, we’re going to have to go to Vietnam or we’re going to have to start manufacturing our own.
So we pulled the trigger on our own manufacturing equipment. Got it purchased. We had two or three guys that had spent 20 or 30 years in cabinet manufacturing. So we had the knowledge in the company. So we brought it in and then about three or four months, we were up and running. So that’s where Revere Cabinetry came from. That’s manufacturing facility and artists and millwork held all of our installers. And we’ve got about 40 or 50 millwork installers from St. George to Salt Lake. And we just slowly started building our own product and getting it out on sites and separating the companies. We split up some of our people, some came in to start manufacturing, some stayed out in the field to install. And now in those two companies, we take on cabinets, countertops, and doors and trim installing, and we produce all of our cabinets out of our manufacturing company Revere well, all along the way and building these companies Olson Construction was the parent company.
We branched Artists and Millwork and Revere Cabinetry out of Olson Construction. Olson Construction holds the B 100 license. That’s our general contracting company. And with my knowledge of the industry, I’ve been in it so long we decided to take on a couple of projects, ourselves, building a couple homes. So we branched out and started Olson Construction, building their own homes and homes for other people. And that’s currently what I’m doing. I’m getting that branch up and running well. We have managers sitting in at the top of Artisan and Revere doing quite well. And as we were building these companies experiencing, well, you probably know how it goes, poor cashflow, personnel issues, client issues, you name it well, all the issues and stresses that come with quick growth. I was constantly looking for the balance of yeah, stable, stable growth. That’s the key, right? Stable growth. How do you achieve stable growth? You can’t grow too slow or you’ll get wiped out and you can’t grow too quick or you’ll get wiped out.
So as I was going along the journey, I got introduced to the theory of constraints or TOC, it’s a management philosophy. And I was just fascinated by it. And I had a, a consultant, a business consultant that was, he’s an expert in TOC come in in 2017. And he dissected the company and drew it out on a marker board and showed me the potential in the market, showed me the potential in my own team like I’d never seen before. So we got introduced to that philosophy and that just opened my mind like I’d never had it open before. I saw potential like I never seen before. And I saw that the, the start stop, start, stop, start, stop environment that exists, especially in construction. But I think in almost any project management is staff, especially in the construction industry. It’s the cause of so many issues that we deal with low product, low productivity, low profitability, strained relationships, you call up general contractors and they’re screaming and the subcontractors are screaming back.
We just couldn’t find a really good software that could do it for us, so we started building it.
And if you can’t tell, I’m just a construction worker, but this is what I deal with. I’m an owner. I’ve lived through it for years. And, and anyhow, long story short, as we got introduced to this philosophy, we were actually right in the middle of creating a project management app that could help us track our cabinets and countertops better through a piece rate system. We looked for a software that could track a piece rate. That’s what we paid on. And we just couldn’t find a really good software that could do it for us, so we started building it. And when I got introduced to this philosophy, the consultant that I brought in basically said, that is all we need is another software that is tracking costs or tracking the wrong thing. And that confused me.
I was like, what do you mean by that? And he said, it’s cost. It’s the focus on costs. That’s causing so many issues in this industry. People are focusing on the cost and focusing on the wrong metric, what they should be focusing on is productivity. That’s the way to make money, improve productivity, not save or cut costs. And there are so many people, everybody from the top down is cutting costs and it causes a terrible domino effect all the way down causes overextended projects, causes delays. Like I said, strained relationships, low productivity, low profitability, projects over budget that, you know, we started, we started changing or taking the software in a different direction. And we started tracking throughput and productivity showing businesses, a live dashboard of the productivity and profitability of their field teams. So they could see how much money was made every single day. And that’s how Vision Tracks got started. And now we’ve got that in the hands of 20 different companies across the Valley, across the state. And I’m also pushing that as well. So anyhow, hopefully that wasn’t too long. I was, like I said, I have a tendency to be long-winded, but that was from start to finish. So that’s where we are.
Yeah. I actually liked that you went into some, that much detail because I feel like a lot of people don’t really do that. And I think it’s good to see, you know, where you started and how you ended up where you are now. So spore companies, right? How do you manage all of those? You got managers in place that kind of run the day-to-day stuff, or are you heavily involved with those?
Yes, we do have managers at the head of every company. It’s actually interesting. As soon as you asked the question, I just smiled and went back about four years and just closed my eyes and went, man. It was, it was a journey. Sweat, blood, and tears, for sure. But we do have a trustworthy people at the head of every company. I have a partner and he oversees Artists and Millwork, the operations of Artists and Millwork and Revere Cabinetry. Of course he has managers, project managers in both those companies right-hand and that help him. And I’m out pushing Olson Construction. Right now, I visit all of our project sites and I’ve got superintendents on sites right now as well. And I do most of the selling actually for support and sale for Vision Tracks different we have different what you call them communication lines. We created Slack channels for our largest customers on Vision Tracks’ electrical, concrete, and plumbing companies that allows us to communicate directly with their operations managers in these companies. And we tied it into the developers. So as we’re developing features and Vision Tracks, we update them and also ask for their advice. We’ll send them mock up designs on different features and ask them what they think and ask them for feedback and so on. So that really helps because we’re running lean for sure.
Well, I have to say I’m just blown away at what you guys have been able to do and just four or five or six short years you know, to go from just a small cabinet installer to, you know, four companies, all, all unique in their own way. I think that’s really amazing.
It was really necessity that drove us.
I was thinking also, I’ve talked to a lot of people and they’ve said, wow, how do you do it? I don’t know how you do it and stay sane. And, and I said, well you probably think that I do it for greed or, or I’m just overly ambitious, or I just am a workaholic and so on any other synonym to those words. But it was really necessity that drove us. Like I said, we grew up kind of unexpectedly fast and Artisan with the cabinet installation and lost a lot of money and lost a lot of good people. And we stabilized, learned a lot of things and, and had no intention of going to China. I was perfectly fine installing cabinets for the suppliers we had, but they, they just couldn’t keep up with us.
So I that’s what I said, we got pushed into supply. We said, if we want to stay alive and keep the people if we’re responsible for the people’s livelihoods that we have and want to keep good people, we’ve got to grow, we’ve got to go out into supply. So that’s what pushed us there. We had no intention of starting a manufacturing facility, but when the tariffs hit we’re like, okay, now what do we do? Do we go to Vietnam or do we start our own? And I looked at two or three different guys and they said, well, we’ve been doing it for 20 years. And I said, okay, let’s start manufacturing.
And so that’s just a prime example of, you know, the obstacles that we face while we’re trying to grow and the pivots that we have to make to make it work, right? And you know, a lot of people will look at obstacles like that and think, why is this happening to me? But in reality, it’s a good thing, right? Because it forces you to reinvent yourself. I mean, looking back now at your past, in the history of your businesses, are you glad that you made those decisions?
Yeah. Yeah, I believe so. Last page isn’t written yet, but from where we sit right now. Yeah. I’m grateful that we made the decisions. Yeah. We’ve learned a lot, met a lot of good people. And to me, that’s, that’s the greatest joy is meeting new people, good people, new connections, learning from them basically creating lasting friendships. In fact, our motto in Artists and is building lasting value. So that’s what setting out to do. We want to be extremely valuable to every person we touch.
I love that. And, you know, relationships are everything when it comes to business, right. And, you know, relationships from the outside as well as the inside. And you mentioned that you wanted to structure your business in a way that made please want to stay at forever night. So what do you guys do to keep your employees around?
If you have ambition and you have drive and you know how to get up in the morning and just push yourself to excel and everything you touch, the best you can be in everything you touch, you have a place at my table.
So we structured the businesses this way. If I can explain it well, I’ll explain it the best way I can. So Olsen Construction, like I said, as the parent company of Artists and Millwork and Revere Cabinetry, and then Olson Construction is owned by Olson Operations. It’s the mother company. And also Olson Operations owns Vision Tracks. Well, my partner and I are, you could say we were sitting around a table an ownership table in Olson Operations. And right now that table has two chairs, but the second we see that somebody in our organization, any one of our organizations we’ve got about 70 people, 70, yeah. 70. So for people in all the organizations, the second we see that they are hungry for growth, they’re entrepreneurial minded they’re loyal, they’re driven, they’re disciplined. And all those qualities that make an excellent leader. We continue to give them opportunities, opportunity after opportunity, after opportunity and, and rise them, raise them up, both in pay and positions in the companies. And I’ve told them time. And again, there is no ceiling above you. If you have ambition and you have drive and you know how to get up in the morning and just push yourself to excel and everything you touch, the best you can be in everything you touch, you have a place at my table. There’s only two chairs there now, but we can easily throw a third in. I know how to do it. So that’s the way it’s structured.
Hmm. I really love that. I think that that’s probably just the best motivation you could possibly give an employee, right. Knowing that they have that opportunity right. In front of them, they just have to go get it, right? So, Isaac, what would you say your secrets scale are?
Well, I read a book one time. It was Good to Great. And I don’t remember everything in the book, but two things I remember really well. He said that the good to great leaders learn to put their best people on their biggest opportunities and something else I remember really well was he said the companies that went from good to great had employees that loved one another. And I specifically remember that word. He said they actually had a love for the people that they worked with. And that resonated with me. I believe it, because I just look back on my own experiences, all the people that I’ve worked for and the people that influenced me the most in the businesses that I worked for were people that I felt were sincere and that they honestly wanted to help me grow, wanting to give me opportunities not holding me back or exploit me, you know, what I mean, get as much out of me for the least amount of pay.
So I’ve tried to always abide by correct principles, implement correct principles in every organization, in every part of my life. And I’m no professional at it. I’m still learning every day I learned something new, but I would say that if I had to pinpoint something that’s influenced our success or our growth more than any other, it would be just the, the golden rule treat people like you would like to be treated, be the best you can be. Everything you touch, be the best you can be. And don’t operate on emotion, operate on principles, something along those lines you can tell I’m not eloquent. I’m just a construction worker.
Yeah, no, that’s great. And I definitely agree with that. I mean, another thing that I think probably has had a big influence on your ability to scale is just relationships in general, right? Especially in construction because it’s very relationship driven, right? Isaac, what’s a good way for anyone listening to get in contact with you.
Well, my business number, I can give him my business number. I can give them the email. My number is (435) 212-0620. My email for Olson Construction, the general contracting arm I’m pushing right now is [email protected].
Awesome. And we’ll, we’ll also link up your website addresses in the show notes as well as your contact information. Again, thank you, Isaac.