Business is picking up for Hentzen Contractors

Diversify, stay connected with the market and keep a close eye on the dollars without compromising the quality of work. That's a quick summary of how Hentzen Contractors has been able to make it through 2010.

"Some people say, 'Right now, it doesn't matter what value you provide, people can't afford it,' " company president Bernie Hentzen said. "We're finding some work has to go on. You just have to be ready to provide the best value."

Over the past year, The Eagle has taken a periodic look at the local economy through Hentzen Contractors. Today, we conclude that series as 2010 comes to a close.

It's been a tough year. Just not as rough as 2009, the worst year in the history of the 47-year-old family business.

"We feel like we have enough work to keep everyone busy," Hentzen said. "And they all get paychecks."

Nothing like 2009.

"There were times in 2009 where we were out looking for projects to bid and couldn't find them," Hentzen said. "It's turned around a little bit. We're getting a few more calls."

Just not enough to reach the annual goal of $10 million in sales. Hentzen figures the company will come in about 5 percent under that total.

While the company has had more projects in 2010 than last year, Hentzen said the value of those projects is down.

Citywide, there are fewer projects — and less value.

Through the first 11 months this year, there were 12,437 building permits issued by the city, a 7 percent decrease over the same period in 2009. The value of all those permits totaled $4.12 million — 2 percent less than the same stretch last year.

The value would have dropped even more if there hadn't been several permits issued this year for projects created by the $370 million school bond issue.

For Hentzen Contractors, commercial work has come back the past six months, while residential has slowed down some. That's opposite of what the company saw in 2009.

Hentzen said the company is back to being closer to its traditional model — 60 percent commercial, 40 percent residential. Green remodeling remained one of its residential mainstays.

A big boost for the commercial side was the company getting more work from McDonald's, its largest customer.

The company has built more than 60 McDonald's stores over the years but had none in 2009. It completed a new one this summer in Wellington and has done several remodeling jobs for McDonald's, Hentzen said.

In fact, the company increased its employee total by one this year to 42 after hiring a commercial supervisor to help oversee the remodeling of McDonald's stores, Hentzen said. One of those projects is being done this month at the McDonald's at 411 S. Broadway.

Diversifying this year has meant going back to the company's roots. Bud Hentzen, Bernie's father, started his business in 1963 by doing fire restoration work, and that same line of repair work gave the company a big boost this year.

But not by accident.

"We've made ourselves more visible and available to do fire repair," Bernie Hentzen said.

The company kept up its fire-repair estimation training, and it hooked up with programs run by some large insurance companies.

Staying connected with customers and the market for Hentzen Contractors has gone beyond getting out for face-to-face meetings.

Besides its regular website, the company is also deep into social media.

"Our reputation was built up with word of mouth," Hentzen said, "but it's not just by word of mouth anymore. It's Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.

"That's the new word of mouth."

While Hentzen acknowledged the company isn't exactly driving the social media charge, he said, "We want to make sure that we use social media to at least get the lead to do the face-to-face."

Some of those contacts help the company stay on top of new products and market needs, such as the growing number of remodeling jobs for senior citizens who want to remain in their homes.

"You would be amazed at how much stuff we find through Facebook," Hentzen said. "It's where a lot of business is being done."

Material costs generally didn't rise in 2010. Lumber prices have remained flat. Plastics and steel have jumped a little.

"Not big ones, little ones, and then you forget," Hentzen said. "But they're there."

Health insurance is another matter. Like other companies, Hentzen Contractors saw a double-digit increase this year of providing its share of the coverage for employees. But Hentzen was able to whittle the provider's original offer of a 16 percent jump down to 11 percent.

Going into 2011, Hentzen looks at his project schedule and smiles slightly.

"We're pretty happy with our backlog for the winter," he said. "We have enough indoor jobs going on that if we get shut down by the weather on one or two outside, we can generally move them to jobs on the inside.

"But the next quarter is the toughest one."

It always is in the construction industry. It just happens the first quarter of 2011 comes at time when the economy is still struggling to find a footing.

"You just have to be ready to provide the best value," Hentzen said. "You have to be creative and persistent.

"You gotta keep your eyes open all the time."

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