Spokane-based Baker Construction & Development began 61 years ago as a mom-and-pop real-estate agency in Swift Current, an outpost on the plains of southwest Saskatchewan.
Today the company is licensed in a dozen states and British Columbia, and earned the 2012 AGORA Award for outstanding large business, given by Greater Spokane Incorporated, the regional chamber of commerce and economic development council.
Company president Barry Baker recalls how his parents took on a line of steel structures commonly known as Quonset huts, relocated to Wenatchee in the early 1960s and launched Baker Steel Buildings.
“In Wenatchee,” he said, “if you were in the building business, you were heavily dependent on the apple and cherry crops. Once the buds set in April, everyone orders their buildings, and you had to finish them by harvest time.”
In 1972, when Baker was 17, the family moved to Spokane and bought out another steel-building company.
Today, Baker Construction & Development handles everything from commercial and retail space to military projects.
Baker discussed the company’s evolution during a recent interview.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of being part of a family business?
Baker: I remember when I was about 8, driving to jobs in Yakima or Moses Lake with my dad. My brothers and I would pick up garbage, sweep and fill caulking tubes.
S-R: Did you get a formal business education?
Baker: I earned a business degree from Central Washington University in 1977. I graduated on Saturday, came home on Sunday and started work on Monday.
S-R: Did you always see this as the obvious career choice?
Baker: No. I’d taken the Marine Corps aptitude test and planned to enroll in their pilot training program. But that was during the ’70s fuel shortage, and it was going to take another 18 months to get my wings, and I felt the business here really needed me. So I came back to Spokane and have been here ever since.
S-R: Do any of your siblings work for Baker Construction?
Baker: My younger brother, Doug, worked here 30 years before retiring. Another brother, Randy, is a developer. He doesn’t work for the company, but we work closely together.
S-R: What was a lesson your dad taught you about the business?
Baker: To take your work seriously, but have fun doing what you’re doing.
S-R: Did you have other mentors?
Baker: Frank Berglund, who worked for us as a project manager, was like a second dad. He taught me you can only do one thing at a time well, so don’t take on too much.
S-R: What distinguishes Baker Construction from other contractors?
Baker: We call ourselves consultant contractors. For instance, when we do a medical building, our goal is not just to build a great building – that’s a given – but also to enhance the patients’ experience. If we think about the patients, and not just bricks and mortar, that helps our clients fulfill their goal.
S-R: How would you characterize your leadership style?
Baker: It’s not from the top down or the bottom up. It’s from the center out. It’s very collaborative.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Baker: I absolutely love the people, whether it’s my partners, our employees or our customers. I’m on six different boards, and when I go downtown to meetings, it’s fun to be with fellow business people who have become my friends.
S-R: What do you like least?
Baker: Construction is a very competitive, stressful business. The margin of profit and margin for error are low. And it’s not like a service-related business, where you serve the same clients over and over, and if you do a good job, you know you’re going to have 90 percent repeat business next year. With construction, once you’ve done a great job for somebody, you need to go find a new client, because most clients only do one, two, three buildings during their career. That’s what’s driven us to other states. We’ll do a job for someone in Spokane, and then they’ll ask us to build something else in Seattle or Denver.
S-R: Do you send entire crews to other cities?
Baker: Typically we send a project manager and a superintendent, and work everything out of Spokane. Computers and digital cameras have made it a lot easier to keep it all centralized.
S-R: What are you most proud of about the business?
Baker: My brother Doug and I and (partner) George (Garber) took a business that had never done $1 million in a year and built it into a $50 million-a-year business.
S-R: What does it take to succeed in this industry?
Baker: The will to survive. We just about went out of business in the ’80s, when interest rates hit 21 percent. One lesson I learned then was the importance of keeping lines of communication open. If you owe somebody money and they call, talk to them, even if you can’t pay them. Now the roles are reversed, because this time people have owed us money.
S-R: What impact has the current recession had on Baker Construction?
Baker: We were doing almost $50 million a year, and it knocked us down to $22 million in one year. That was devastating. But we saw it coming, and were able to go into the recession well capitalized. We haven’t lowered wages, but we haven’t given raises. We did suspend our 401(k) plan, but when times are good again, we’ll share the profits.
S-R: Is business coming back?
Baker: Yes. Interest rates are better than they’ve ever been. There’s not a lot of commercial construction going on right now. But we’re better poised for growth because, unlike a lot of other guys, we’ve survived this economy.
S-R: What projects do you have in the works?
Baker: We have a large medical building going over in Helena. We just got the contract for a 12,000-square-foot tilt-up building out in the Valley. We have three bank branches going in Phoenix, and another bank branch going over in Ballard.
S-R: What has worked well or not worked well over the years?
Baker: We often do business on a handshake. The thing that has worked well is our trust in people. And the thing that hasn’t worked well is our trust in people, because every once in a while we get burned.
S-R: What are your short-term goals?
Baker: One is to update all our social media, so people are more aware of us.
S-R: What economic goals should the community at large focus on?
Baker: The two biggest things are continued development of the medical industry and keeping Fairchild vital. The other thing we need to focus on is aerospace manufacturing. We have a huge opportunity, because the West Side manufacturers don’t have any room to expand.
S-R: How do you relax?
Baker: I’m working on relaxing. I feel like I’ve been stressed since I was 22. But I have a great wife, a great family, and I like to boat, golf, travel and read.