From his wide-ranging expertise in the industry to an unwavering stance on positive internal leadership, Mike’s impact on RE’s construction operations and activities as Chief Operating Officer is extensive.
Mike’s almost 30 years of well-rounded experience in everything from product development and project management to roles as an Expert Witness and General Contractor allows him to bring a genuine understanding to projects from a place of true experience.
Joining RE from a Fortune 500 builder, Mike has applied his construction experience to RE by standardizing our safety, security, schedule, cost, and communication protocols. Looking inward, he knows the importance of great company culture and is a strong proponent of the development of employees in their respective positions throughout the company.
Mike’s ability to balance impressive attention to detail with big-picture experience, internally and externally, is the pinnacle of Reconstruction Experts’ vision.
In This Conversation, We Discuss:
- How a COO can have good healthy engagement with your team and direct reports
- The systems in brand changing and how to operate them
- How to get your staff to feel confident to speak up freely
- How to instill a “people first” culture
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I had Michael Barclay, who is the COO for Reconstruction Experts. They’re a Johns Lyng Group company. They’ve merged with a company in Australia. The Reconstruction Experts Group is 350 people. Johns Lyng Group has 1,000. Michael, their COO, has been with the company for many years but started in the industry when he was eighteen.
He talks a lot about this merger that happened between the two companies. He talks a lot about the leadership conference they went to in Australia and what they would work on at a leadership conference of a 1,500-person company. He talks about the Imposter syndrome, belonging in a room, and trying to instill that confidence in all the leaders in the company. If you’re in this role, you belong in the room. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. He talks a little bit about decision-making and the humanity of the business. He gives interesting insights around culture and people inside a typical blue-collar construction industry. I think you’re going to enjoy the show and glad you’re with us.
Michael, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, Cameron. It’s good to be here.
I’m looking forward to chatting. When we were chatting before we got on, you said that you were in Australia at a leadership conference, which I don’t think many Americans get to say. There’s a reason why that happens. It’s a core part that we’re going to even talk about. Why were you over in Australia? Give us the backstory there.
It’s actually my second time over there. At the beginning of 2022, we partnered with an Australian firm called Johns Lyng Group, one of the largest restoration contractors in Australia. We were fortunate enough for them to see Reconstruction Experts as their platform for growth in the United States. We started to get to know who each other were. We went out in March 2022, which was quite a challenge because that was still very significant COVID lockdowns in Australia at that time. We had to promise our firstborn in order to get out there back then. This time around, we went out for a leadership conference in Byron Bay.
What was great about that is we were able to bond with the leadership in Australia and understand that they carry the same culture that we do, which is people first and culture and how we grow and empower our people. It was a great conference, and the fact that we got to spend time in Byron Bay, Australia definitely wasn’t a bad thing.
I’m not going to say the city that you could have been partnering with a company but it’s awesome that you get to partner with some in the great areas. You mentioned going to a leadership conference. Before I dive into asking a little bit about that, walk us through very briefly, what’s the size of Reconstruction Experts, which is the US company? What’s the size of the Johns Lyng Group in Australia in terms of number of employees?
The size of Reconstruction Experts here in the States, and we’re in multiple states within the country, is about 350 employees. The Johns Lyng Group is about 1,000 employees, maybe pushing a little bit over that when you contemplate them taking all populated regions of the country.
Years ago, I was part of an organization called College Pro Painters, which is the first acquisition of the first service group and then called CertaPro Painter, Paul Davis System, and all these brands in the services space. Our leadership conferences were pretty unique. What’s the leadership conference look like for a 1,300-person company? What do you cover? What skills are they working with you on?
Primarily, we spent time on how to work together as a team. We did a Lego building event and gave our teams opportunities to try and collaborate better and learn and take lessons away from that. It’s pretty interesting to see large companies building Legos, but it gets down to the task of how you work together.
A lot of the time, I’m thinking through decision-making. Many times, leaders feel like they need to be the ones to make the decision, and it all revolves around them, where decision-making should be collaborative. Decision-making should have a lot of contemplation. We’ve even talked about pre-contemplating and then contemplating in multiple steps before we get to execution. We talked a lot about that, why that was important, and the empowerment of leaders.
Many times, leaders find themselves unsure if they should be in the room. There was a very consistent message of, “You belong here.” There were people like myself who were the CEO of RE, Reconstruction Experts, but then there were also folks in the JLG mindset. It is creating a lot of small businesses where they put business partners over top of them and drive deep into their marketplace. Some of them are fairly new and young in their careers, so they can find themselves unsure if they belong in the room. We worked hard to make sure that they felt comfortable there.
That’s a unique concept. We hold an event called the COO Alliance, the network of COOs from around the world that meet. I remember, at one of the events, one of the guys put his hands up and said, “I feel like a fraud.” He told me at lunch. I went back into the room and said to all the COOs, “How many of you ever feel like a fraud in your job?” Every single person’s hand went up. Brian, who’d said to me at lunch, turned and looked around. He started laughing. He goes, “I’m good now.” There’s something that’s beautiful about that. You need to give leaders, regardless of their age or skill level, the confidence that they do belong in the room. Was it a discussion you did that, or was there some vulnerability exercises? How did they approach that?
There was a discussion around it, and they have an amazing leader by the name of Curt Mudd. He had an impact on the industry, both for Johns Lyng Group and many other multinational companies as their HR leader. It’s taking the time to understand who people are. We spent a lot of time on brand mapping and opening up to these younger leaders to be able to talk about what the branch and the experience of the branch should look like. When you’re talking to young leaders about those types of things, it starts to empower them because they’re being heard. Many times, they have better ideas than we do.
I want to ask you about that in terms of the consultative approach or the collaborative approach in getting people’s buying on stuff. Is it a complete Kumbaya group hug, where you’re trying to get everybody to agree, we all get along, or sometimes the leader making a call even after listening to everybody, or is it a balance?
It’s a balance. In all reality, I don’t believe the Kumbaya is the way to get things done. I don’t think we have movement or growth without disagreement. That breaks into the other piece of the business. We look at it as a trust-based environment. I know that I can, and we talk a lot about the relationship between the COO and the CEO. We have a very trust-based organization here to where disagreement is good. We want to make sure people can collaborate together, and people feel empowered to provide their opinion and don’t feel like what they might say is wrong.
What matters is when you get into that collaboration, you have to set the ground rules. Maybe the leader of that group, if it’s me or somebody else, will say, “We’re going to spend the next hour collaborating on this. If we can come to a decision as a group, great. We’ll go forth and conquer and be all behind that decision.” If, for whatever reason, we get to the end and there’s not a decision, then there’s going to be an executive decision. It may be me. It may be somebody else within the group. At the end of the day, we have to move on in a direction.
You talked about the trust-based environment. How do you and the CEO build trust with each other? This does follow the whole policy on these five dysfunctions of the team with the fear of conflict and good healthy engagement. How do you and the CEO have a good healthy engagement? How do you have a good, healthy engagement or conflict with your direct reports? Can you speak to both of those?
It’s all about making sure that people feel empowered to raise their hands at any given time. Throughout your career, you don’t have all the answers. Many people feel like they need to put their heads down and figure it out. If they don’t figure it out on their own, they’re a failure. Quite frankly, they’re a failure when they don’t raise their hand and ask for help because we haven’t been given that opportunity to step in and give the assistance that is required of leadership. The same thing works with my direct reports, especially myself, the CEO, and all the other people on the C-suite side of things.
We had a meeting, and all of us had different opinions as they related to a topic of discussion. What was great about it is everybody could provide their opinion, and they knew that the CEO wasn’t going to come in and tell you you were wrong. He’s going to listen, understand, and come back with some good feedback. I don’t have to be afraid to talk to my CEO about anything within the organization, good, bad, or indifferent.
This partnership with Johns Lyng Group, is it an acquisition or a partnership? Where does it fall in that spectrum?
It was an acquisition. They took over the primary shareholder from where we were, which is private equity health. They came in as permanent capital and took over that piece of the business.
How has that transition been from working with the PE firm to working with a strategic partner?
It’s been amazing. I do believe there’s a place for private equity. They can take some small businesses and help them grow. It’s a breath of fresh air to be able to come in, limit debt on your balance sheet, and have permanent capital to have a company that wants to grow with you over the years as opposed to having a 5, 6, or 7-year horizon with private equity that could potentially cause changes in leadership and direction of business goals. Now, we can lay out what I feel is a 50-year plan and know that we can stick to it because of this.
Have there been any changes in leadership or any transition after they’re coming in and changing? What are they coming in and changing?
What’s great about it is Johns Lyng Group spent many years trying to decide who was going to be their platform for growth in the United States. The CEO of Johns Lyng Group, Scott Didier, has his CFO and a bunch of other people chasing after him of, “This is a great company. Look at their balance sheet and EBITDA number. We should get a bar with these guys.” He’s like, “I don’t care about any of that until I meet the people.” They spent 3 or 4 years looking for a group that had the right people.
If you ask, did they change anything? No. They were insistent on the fact that the leadership group that’s here, our CEO, CFO, and Chief Sales Officer, were going to stick. If we weren’t going to stick, they needed to know that we were going to carry on what they bought. We thought we had a deal. When we’re going through this process, we’re like, “We want to close in October.” They were like, “No.” They were slow rolling, and we couldn’t understand why. The reason why is they couldn’t come over from Australia during COVID in a way so they could meet us face to face.
Finally, they were able to pull it off. They came out. I spent a week touring with their COO, and then the CEO came out and spent another week touring. The questions that he asked our teams weren’t about numbers. They were like, “Tell me about who you are. Tell me about your family. What do you like to do? Are you into sports? What drives you? What motivates you?”
Not that we didn’t already do this, but a big change from the Johns Lyng Group coming in is in our hiring world and mindset over skillset. We’re getting into where we do no resume interviews. The first interview we ever do is if I need somebody that has a degree in a particular field. That’ll have to be a prerequisite. I’m not necessarily concerned about their skillset as I am concerned about their mindset. The belief, now Reconstruction Experts and Johns Lyng USA and Johns Lyng Group, is if they have the mindset, drive, energy, and passion, then the rest will fall into place.
I love the approach to it all as well. I heard that a great approach to interviews is to tell the candidate in advance the questions you’re going to be asking them and then say, “This isn’t a stress testing meeting. This is just a conversation. I’m going to ask you these questions. Let’s talk about them.” It humanizes the whole thing. What about the systems in brand changing? Are they going to do anything related to changing the brand or the systems that are being used? What’s happening there?
Systems, not so much. Of course, we have to try and pull together our ERP and our accounting systems and make all that work, but that’s pretty typical with any acquisition and/or merger. We got to pull the books together. By far, they want Reconstruction Experts to run the business that they’ve always run. The difference is they also want to include all the other brands that they offer in Australia.
Reconstruction Experts is a large-scale reconstruction general contractor. Our business is anywhere from $50,000 to $15 million in projects and up. We’re able to achieve a lot of market dominance by focusing on everything from the $1,000 drywall job to the $50,000 restoration work. It’s a lot of insurance-type business. There are several different brands, and RE will become one of those brands, and RE is now part of the Johns Lyng USA brand package.
It’s like the first service group of companies where you’re part of something. They’re not going to rebrand your business. You’re just now a part group of the Johns Lyng Group. Your business will have some other services you can cross-sell or will be a part of. That’s really cool. You mentioned empowering people to raise their hands. I want to go back to that. How do you do that? How do you get people to feel confident to do it or to be able to do it when in a room of people overpowering them?
It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. For instance, when I came into this role as COO, prior to that, I was the VP within the Colorado region. There were people in California and Texas and some people in the organization within Colorado and Florida who didn’t know me well enough, at least as a leader. It took sitting down and taking time with them.
If we’re going to go through the P&L of the business or certain metrics as it relates to performance measurements, it’s not only sitting down and going, “Here are your numbers. What do you have to say about that?” It’s sitting down and opening up the numbers, understanding where they came from, how they were able to do good, or where they may have challenges, and then starting to slowly learn that I’m there to help.
One of the things that, if you talk to any of my direct reports, I consistently tell them is, “I work for you. You don’t work for me. My success is your success.” It’s so that they feel that way and truly believe that their success is of the utmost importance to me. At the end of the day, that’s how I become successful, and they know that they can raise their hand. That’s the driving force from the direct reports I have to the folks they lead as well.
You’ve been at Reconstruction Experts for many years. Did you rise up in the organization, or have you always been in this very senior role in the company built around you?
I rose up through the organization. When I joined the company years ago, we were about a $30-million-year company. We had started branching up into a few different regions, such as California and Texas, and I was running projects. One of the best things you can do to get ahead in the company is to fix something that’s broken. I had a project that was broken, and I fixed it. You get the attention of the leaders, and the next thing you know, they can fix things.
I keep going back to this. I fixed it for building relationships. I build relationships with the client, the engineers, and my team. Once again, it goes back to trust. People trust that you’re trying to fix something and make something go well. They’re going to allow you to do that. If they don’t trust you, they’re going to push back on you consistently.
Are you cognizant of how you build relationships, or has it become second nature to you after all these years? Can you tell us specific things that you do to build relationships?
I owe certain levels of my relationship building to our Chief Sales Officer, Ally. When I first started with the organization here, I knew I had to build relationships. I started my own business when I was eighteen years old in restoration. You can’t be eighteen if you don’t know how to build relationships. I was always prideful of like, “I’m going to do it well,” and that’s what they’re going to like about me because I’m going to do it well.
I had this engineer on that project, and she had known him for a while. She knew that he was an influencer in the industry. She’s like, “You got to buy him some Jamba Juice. You got to bring him some coffee every once in a while.” I’m like, “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do this well and he’ll like me for that.”
It turned into no. Get a personal connection there. Understand who that person is so that when you have an issue, you ask for that next line of business. They’re going to more of giving it to you, at least give you an inside track of what’s going on. It seems so common sense, but it struck me years ago as such an important factor that I continually push that. Let’s face it, that’s a sales trait to be able to build those relationships. At the end of the day, we may be this big great general contractor, but we’re a sales company working on homes and buildings.
You touched on something I’ve said for a while. Every great salesperson is amazing at customer service. They have to be, but not every great customer service person can sell. There’s a complete disconnect there. The only way you’re going to do that is by staying connected with the people. It’s clearly worked well for you. Talk about the “people first’ culture. What does that mean? How do you instill and live that?
You have a book that says, “Here’s what to do and how to treat your people well.” It comes from the heart. If you look at our business, our core values are, “We are driven to be the best. We do the right thing. We work together, and we enjoy the journey.” It starts right there at our core values. It’s we. It starts everything as we. If everybody feels like we are a we, then they don’t feel like they’re an island anywhere. We live and breathe those core values.
The other piece is, as I said before, our statement or slogan of “Love Your Place Again.” Who says that? What contractor says love your place again? Not many. It starts there, and then it goes into your daily interactions. I could be walking down the hallway. There’s not a hierarchy that anybody feels here like, “There goes the COO. I can’t say hi to him.” If anything, it’s quite the opposite. It’s an open-door policy. People can come in and voice their concerns or questions. They don’t necessarily feel like there would be any retribution, even through the ranks.
I had an individual come into my office that said, “Do you have time for lunch?” He’s an estimator within one of our divisions. I’m like, “Probably not lunch, but let’s find some time to sit down,” because I want to hear him out. I want to understand what he wants to communicate about. The organization is set off that way to continually have what you want to call an open-door policy and that supportive mindset. As I said earlier, my success is your success. How do we continue to drive that through the organization?
The open-door policy where people can come to you is critical. The other layer is the skip-level meetings. Do you run skip-level meetings? If you do, can you talk us through those?
We don’t run skip-level meetings. It’s not because it’s a bad idea. I don’t think we’ve contemplated that, and there’s probably some benefit there. What I do is I have a regular one-on-one session with my direct reports on a regular basis. They then take the valuable information that we may garner on that, or I may take the valuable information that I hear from them and present, I don’t want to call it policy changes, but present opportunities for change based upon the information that they’ve given. They then can get that back to the next level. I’ve contemplated the skip level. It may happen organically, but we don’t do it specifically.
As a specific tool, it makes sense. You talked about the core values. I’m curious about what you do to live the core values systems internally, but more than living too. How do you reinforce them? Are there some systems around that? I know that you know them. I know there’s more there. Walk us through what you do.
A lot of it is celebrating them. If you have a situation to one of the core values is doing the right thing and somebody made a decision for our client to do the right thing, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Say, for instance, we did have a situation where a homeowner had a medical condition on a project, and the project manager went down there. They went above and beyond to resolve the situation and get the first care response. That’s a great thing. He probably felt good about it, and the team was wonderful about it. The whole company knew about it. The whole company was able to understand, like, “What did this guy do to do the right thing or go above and beyond?” You can’t have core values and not celebrate them when people are embracing them and running with them.
Talk about your growth as a leader. You’ve been in the organization for many years. How have you grown? What are you focusing on growing now? Are you growing in a new trajectory or a new transition in your organization?
I touched on that a little bit in the beginning when we talked about when you belong in a room. As I grew, I went from a project manager to running a branch to running the state. At every level, you start to pull away from the core of what we do. First, I’m on the project. That’s where the rubber meets the road with the client. Next, I’m in the office and working closely with the folks that are on the project. Now, at the position I’m at, you’re 30,000 feet above the work that we’re putting in place, and you can’t do it all.
At every step of the way, leaders have a tendency to want to be able to do it all. I have all the answers, and I know how it gets done. It’s finding that opportunity to know when you can trust your people. I’ll let them make mistakes. If they’re not given the opportunity to make mistakes, they’ll never learn the way that you did. Every time you take a step in a leadership role where you’re farther up in an organization, you’re that much more removed from the client. It’s stressful for people that have grown their business. For instance, I started my career at home doing the work and controlling every single thing to where now it’s like I’m not there, and I have to be okay with that.
Being okay with not controlling everything is a challenge that I see in a lot of leadership. It’s one of the things that I work to train all of my people on. We had a situation where my ops manager in one of our regions had a challenging situation. He was upset that he didn’t know about it prior to it. I said, “It’s okay,” because, at some point in time, you can’t know everything. You have to go back now and say, “How could we have avoided this? What systems and processes maybe do we have to put in place?” You can’t control it and be upset that you didn’t know about it prior to it happening. It’s the same thing that I learned every day.
One of the other things is I grew up in the organization. I started in this industry when I was seventeen years old. I won’t say how many years I’ve been in it, but it’s been quite a while. I always have this mindset of, “I’m the young guy in the organization,” because I started young, and I’m not anymore. I have to prove myself continually, and it’s not proving myself anymore. It’s proving my organization. It’s not about me. It’s about the product of the organization and the people. I went through a bit of a mindset change a few years ago when I took the COO role. I realized I was finally at that level where nothing was about me anymore. It was all about the organization. Every step of the way, you take a step away from that.
I’m curious about two parts of your business right now. We’ll speak to this one first. It would be hard to find anyone in Gen Y and the Millennials, which were the 26 to 46-year-olds. How do you find any of them that want to be in the company for more than two years? Let alone 15 days or 2 to 3 years even. Is that an issue for your business or your industry? If not, what have you done to attract and retain people in that cohort?
As the years go by, more and more people are moving around. First of all, culture. I want to make sure that people are working in an organization that they feel good at. In many large companies like ours, folks feel like a number. They feel like maybe it doesn’t matter. They come in for our paycheck, and that’s it. In our organization, one of the unique things about what we do is we are working in an occupied space. Most of the work we do is folks having something repaired, and they’re not leaving their home. Inherently, that means we’ve got 8 to 5 days, and nobody wants you on weekends.
We sell that hard with our employees to say, “I’m not going to put you to the grindstone through sixteen-hour days and weekends like many commercial builders, and new construction people will do.” They have a good work-life balance for the most part. We’ve been working hard over the years from a competitive standpoint, whether it’s 401(k) or additional benefits associated with vacation time. What can we do to consistently keep our people happy with not only the product offering that we have but also the culture that they work with them?
I love that answer. I love the whole grasping of what’s really important. The sixteen hours is horrible. There is no work-life balance there. In fact, you can give it to them. It’s really powerful. I want to go back to the eighteen-year-old Michael Barclay, who’s starting off in his construction career. What advice can you give yourself when you’re just starting out that you know to be true now?
Always believe in yourself. The times in my career where I’ve maybe taken a step back and I feel like I’ve always been on a pretty good trajectory, it’s always when I’ve second-guessed myself and didn’t believe in myself. I can’t state anymore that the more you believe in who you are, what you do, and you can do something, you will accomplish it. I’m happy with where I’m at, but I definitely think that a couple of steps in the road could have been resolved by an older me talking to a younger me.
Michael Barclay, the COO for Reconstruction Experts, the Johns Lyng Group Company, thank you so much for sharing with us on the show. I really appreciate it.
Thank you, Cameron. It was a pleasure.