n partnership with the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA), Innovation DuPage (ID) launched the Construction Industry Owner-to-CEO Business Accelerator, a program designed to support Hispanic, Black, female and veteran-owned businesses.
In the coming weeks, we will be sharing the inspirational stories of the inaugural class of the HACIA O2CEO program.
From a career at a household-name luxury tech company to carpentry, you could say that Jaime Villagran’s path to the construction industry was unconventional. Eight years as a high-level recruiter there taught him to identify and nurture the best talent but left him wanting more for himself and his future employees. Jaime combined his hobby of carpentry, empathetic nature and HR expertise to launch Construo Construction, a company that is setting a new precedent for customer service in the industry.
I sat down with Jaime over zoom to learn more:
I recognized that compassion and empathy were missing in the industry. Being connected to that emotional factor has been our bread and butter, not so much the construction piece, but the way we make our clients feel. "
Katie: Can you tell me a little bit about your company and what you do?
Jaime: Yes, definitely. The name of my company is Construo Construction and we’ve been in business for almost two years. We’re general contractors that focus mostly on residential remodeling and recently have incorporated commercial and industrial construction.
Katie: How did Construo Construction come to be? You’ve mentioned before that you used to work for Apple, can you tell me more about that?
Jaime: I've always had a passion for carpentry – for finish carpentry and for painting in particular. I was self-taught and later found mentors that helped me hone my craft. After working in the corporate world for some time, I made a decision to follow a dream of mine to own a business. So, I took the leap and started a business in construction.
I did a small remodeling job for a family friend and then referrals began to flow in. It made me realize that I have a knack for this and my soft skills could play a major role in the services we would offer.
There are many construction companies out there that complete the type of projects we do. But with my corporate background and experience, I wanted to customize the client experience in the remodeling world. I recognized that compassion and empathy were missing in the industry. Being connected to that emotional factor has been our bread and butter, not so much the construction piece, but the way we make our clients feel. From start of the project to the finished product ready to be delivered, it’s what continues to help our referrals grow.
Katie: How do you bring this emotional factor to your customers? What is that process like?
Jaime: Because there’s often confusion and many gray areas in remodeling, I think a lot stems from listening to – not so much the customer’s wants – as their ideas. There's a lot of careful probing, identifying and echoing back what our client is saying. Our moment of discovery with our clients helps us identify the look, feel and emotion they’re hoping to get from the investment they’re making in their home. Essentially, it's practicing how to stay quiet and actively listen to what our client is telling us. It is amazing the power silence carries when we're connecting with our clients, it gives them time and mental space to help you understand their thoughts, ideas and passions.
Katie: Well, that’s just a good life skill!
Jaime: Yes! [laugh] it’s helped me out in my marriage too [laugh].
Katie: Can you say more about your corporate background and how it's helped you in your own business?
Jaime: I worked with a luxury technology brand for close to 8 years and close to 16 years in telecommunication. My job there was to find talent, to identify opportunities with candidates that embodied the company’s values and could quickly adapt to the company culture. It was a great experience that helped me later identify the talent that I needed and wanted within my organization.
Unless you’re willing to deal with ambiguity, business is not an easy thing. If you accept that your life will change daily and are willing to adjust on the fly with little information, then you have a high chance of succeeding."
Katie: What was the triggering event that made you decide to leave and launch your own company?
Jaime: I was tired of the corporate culture. I decided, “This is it; I'm going to take the risk.”
I was in search of an opportunity that would allow for flexibility when needed, and at the same time, have the opportunity to scale the business as time progressed. I was fortunate to have a good career run with big companies, I was able to take chances, make mistakes and grow. However, that same comfort and secure income at times prevents you from following your passions, causing you to settle and accept your career and life for what it is at that moment.
In thinking about the construction world, it’s a very rigid business. It's a fast pace, emotionless environment all about production. It's not about the employee or client experience so much as about finishing a project, counting your profits and moving on to the new one.
My leadership background in sales and HR helped me identify how I can help my own employees and provide them the experience they expect or at times hope from their employer. How I can be there for my people who are swinging a hammer, chopping lumber and doing everything they’re doing in this so-called “manly trade,” while still giving them a work-life balance. For example, unlike a lot of construction companies that overwork their employees, we strive not to work weekends. I refuse to work my team on weekends unless there’s a project deadline that calls for it. That’s one of our core values. Each time we onboard an employee, we’re very clear that they won’t be overworked. We don’t do overtime unless absolutely necessary. Even then, overtime is on a voluntary basis.
This creates an environment where people want to work and want to do overtime - because it's not forced upon them. We want our people to be empowered, make their own decisions and do what they feel is right for themselves and for the organization. To achieve that, they need to be a part of the conversation and decision making.
Katie: Can you walk me through some of the steps you’ve taken in the process of building your business?
Jaime: You mean outside of all the headaches and pain and tears? [laugh] One of the biggest steps I took was building the right relationships. Identifying people that were great at what they did, checking my ego at the door and having the humility to say, “I’m new to this. This is not my wheelhouse, but it’s yours, right? How can we become better? How can we help each other grow?”
I began doing that through building a strong relationship with my insurance agent, which you wouldn’t expect at all. The milestones that we’ve achieved really began with the support he provided in becoming an insured and registered business. In a very selfless manner, he made sure we did things the right way. He even began to refer clients to us despite not having seen our work – he believed in us from the beginning.
People like Jose, our insurance agent, helped me realize the importance of connecting with other business owners; many are willing to lend a hand as they too experienced a rough terrain in the infancy of their business. It’s a lonely road being a business owner but there are many willing to join you that have walked down the same path.
We’re at a point where we’re situated, we’re grounded. Now our focus is on becoming more organized, automated, professional and streamlined.
Katie: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow your path?
Jaime: If you have an idea, do it. You won’t know if you’re going to fail unless you take the chance. Believe we are stronger and more creative than we think we are and have allowed ourselves to be. Once the pressure hits, I believe the power of persistence is what really drives you to your goals and dreams.
Katie: What has surprised you?
Jaime: I’ve been surprised at my perseverance in the business and this new industry. My problem solving and ambition to compete in a professional landscape has helped me grow both as an individual and as a leader.
What’s surprised me most about the business is the realization that a majority of people still have some level of discomfort at what they’re doing. As outsiders we stand back, and we admire their perseverance, tenacity, talent and hard work, but they still carry an ounce of doubt that we all do in our minds. It’s easy to think ‘I’ll never be where they are’, but you don’t realize how close you are to being where they are. The only difference is they took the risk, made mistakes and reflected.
Katie: What are the most challenging aspects of owning a business? Most rewarding?
Jaime: Self-accountability. Doing what you say can sometimes be very, very hard when you're in over your head. Sometimes, you have things playing out in your mind that won’t play out the same way in real life. Figuring out a way to use your creativity, perseverance and relationships, as well as a willingness to always learn, change and adapt are some of the biggest hurdles of being a business owner. Unless you’re willing to deal with ambiguity, business is not an easy thing. If you accept that your life will change daily and are willing to adjust on the fly with little information, then you have a high chance of succeeding.
The most rewarding part of owning a business is being able to build an effective team, see their growth and recognize that you are helping them provide for their family. Helping them create the life they want through their hard work.
Katie: What keeps you going when things get tough in your business?
Jaime: My family. I have two older kids, 13 and 14, it’s forced me to be an example and demonstrate the opportunities you can create for yourself. They create the accountability I need to move forward.
Katie: Tell me about a challenge you have faced while starting or running your company and how you overcame it.
Jaime: The toughest challenge I have encountered has to do with our most recent project. I was contacted by a General Contractor in Georgia who had a commercial project in a warehouse in Bolingbrook. He had sent his crew to the project the week prior, unfortunately, they got into an accident and were badly injured on the way here. The contract was already signed, and the property owner needed his project to begin. The General Contractor had to scramble to find a company that could fulfill the exact same responsibilities. We were recommended last minute.
We’ve never done a project of this scale before. It was over 25,000 square feet of paint. We’d never done industrial cleaning before, and there were materials that we’d never worked as well, but I was very honest and transparent about our experience although I felt confident we could tackle the project. I asked for a few days to bid the project and potentially send out a contract if they decided to move forward. We were awarded the project, built a great connection with the General Contractors and have fulfilled other jobs for them. Although calculated, the risk turned out to be more rewarding than we had anticipated.
There’s a great Creighton Abrams quote that’s always stuck with me, and that’s “How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece.” So instead of looking at this huge warehouse of over 25,000 square feet of paint and everything else that was above my scale, I simply broke it all down into smaller sections, and focused on estimating the way I usually do. I got the estimate out on Friday, got the contract signed by Saturday, moved my team around from our other projects and began demolition on Monday. Now we’re four days into it and demolition finished just now as I walked out.
Katie: Looking out 3 to 5 years, beyond the obvious trends, what do you think will be the next big change in your industry?
Jaime: We already went through the 'DIY' phase and unrealistic 'flip a house in three days' phase. I think our industry is going to see a growth in professional remodeling/contracting. Additionally, there's also going to be a shift in what our clients demand from our contractors in terms of how they're treated, the process management and how they're made to feel throughout the project.
This industry is going to require a lot more soft skills in the future, it's no longer going to just be about the trades. Clients are paying top dollar right now for the trades because that's what they're used to.
Katie: Ah, so that's how you can shake things up? By bringing your more personalized and human approach to the work?
Katie: What have you most enjoyed about taking part in Innovation DuPage and HACIA's Owner-to-CEO Program?
Jaime: From the instructors to the resources and my counterparts, the program has been extremely helpful. The instructors have been wonderful and have taught us what we need to be successful in our business. I’ve loved the relationships I’ve been able to build with the other students. I am grateful for what Innovation DuPage has done for me, my team and all others involved in this program. They have truly given back to the community. I don’t believe they will ever understand the impact they made in our lives.