When it comes to employer brand and a culture of collaboration, there is no better expert to turn to than Tom Nichols, President of Winter Construction. For Tom, connection and a “people are our most important asset,” approach to culture is his focus and competitive advantage. Culture fit is especially important in a highly collaborative team environment, and Tom has excelled at creating highly engaged, and high performing teams. Find out how Tom is redefining company culture in the construction industry in this episode of the Epic Company Culture Podcast.
President Winter Construction
As President of Winter Construction, Tom oversees the entire commercial construction group. In this capacity, he is always looking for innovative approaches to better serve Winter Construction’s clients.
Born and raised on a small farm in Puyallup, Washington, Tom learned from a young age how to solve problems and fix things that were broken. Finding someone else to do it was seldom an option; thus, he relied on his creativity and ingenuity to figure it out himself. Presented with a unique problem, he learned how to engineer solutions. That necessity bred in him lifelong passion and skill for problem-solving. Tom began his career working for a company that was based in Seattle, Washington. During these early years, he traveled all around the country to different job sites. Life on the road gets wearisome, however, and Tom and his wife settled in Atlanta in 1996. He joined Winter Construction and found there a culture in which he thrived. He loved Winter’s approach of challenging the status quo and always trying to do things better. Starting as a project manager with the goal to grow a stronger retail division, Tom worked his way up to Executive Vice President and then to his current role of President. Tom attended the University of Washington on a baseball scholarship. It was there that he realized that he could make a living building things. The possibility energized him, and he graduated with a degree in building construction. Still today he enjoys the challenges of a new project, the process of meeting those challenges, and the tangible results that he is a part of creating.
Norcross, Greater Atlanta
Good Experience Builders
Since 1962, Winter Construction has tackled the industry’s most challenging projects with expertise and agility.
Our Company Mission
Winter is more than a general contractor; we strive to be a strategic partner and trusted ally, delivering a good experience and outstanding results and building the foundation for success.
The Winter Philosophy
Exceptional building is about more than just great job site performance. It is about the trust we establish and the positive experiences we build with owners, architects, subcontractors, suppliers, and our employees. This foundation allows us to approach even the most complex projects with confidence, competence, and ingenuity.
Privately owned and operated, Winter Construction is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Ranked as one of the ENR Top 400 Contractors in the United States, Winter provides a comprehensive range of commercial construction services to the hospitality, retail, government, higher education, K-12, student housing, aviation, religious, healthcare, industrial, multi-family, recreation, and historic restoration market sectors throughout the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions.
The Winter Commitment
- Building beautiful, durable buildings and spaces isn’t enough.
- We build relationships by building trust. And, we build trust by embracing the same vision and values as our clients.
- We leverage our experience to make your project experience a good one.
From the Podcast Booth:
Series Quick Links
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast where your host, Josh Sweeney, will give you, the business leaders, HR professionals and company culture aficionados the knowledge you need to take your company culture to the next level.
Josh Sweeney: Hello, fellow culturists, and welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast. Before I get started, I’d like to thank Prototype Prime for this amazing podcast space. Today is part of the Culture Champions series. I’m joined here by Tom Nichols of Winter Construction. Thanks for joining us, Tom.
Series: Culture Champions
Tom Nichols: Thanks, Josh. Happy to be here.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, well, thank you. So let’s kick off with a little introduction to yourself, and a little about Winter Construction.
Introducing Tom Nichols with Winter Construction
Tom Nichols: Sure. I am a West Coaster that’s been transplanted here to Atlanta. Came here in ’96, but prior to that I was … I graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle and promptly got out of Dodge with my soon-to-be wife, and we traveled across the country and had the great experience of being in different cities, and finally got to that point of we needed to settle down and ended up here in Atlanta with Winter in 1996. Right after the Olympics, so we missed all that fun, but great impact to the city, obviously.
I’ve been with Winter Construction since 1996, and Winter is a private commercial construction business. We do have a business unit that does environmental contracting that almost acts as a subcontractor most of the time. But our core business is commercial construction. Schools, churches, courthouses, that sort of thing. And we’ve got about 150 salaried employees. We do about $200 million in revenue a year, so we’ve got a nice local business here in Atlanta.
The Most Important Asset: People
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that’s awesome. So we found you because we were doing some analysis for another client, for some of our clients in the construction space, and we were looking at the perception from outside for employees that want to go join a company. Like, what does the about page look like? What does the careers page look like? And Winter Construction had one of the best ones we found. And so I thought it’d be amazing to have you on the podcast and just hear a little bit more about what goes into that in the background because, as somebody who would, if somebody was looking for a role in construction, they happen onto your site … I mean, it highlights, there’s a message from you in the video. There’s information about the schools you guys work with and recruit from, the events that you do. You can see the team orientation. I mean, all the social shows as many teams as it does buildings, which is kind of unique in a construction space. You’ve got a lot of buildings on Instagram, what people did as opposed to maybe who they did it with. So loved all of those aspects. So tell us a little bit about how that came about?
Tom Nichols: Well, it’s really a response to what we want to be and who we are, in a lot of ways, in that we realize that people are our most important asset. I know a lot of people say that, but we truly do believe that, and building buildings is nothing more than a team communicating with one another, and so we look for people that can really work well in teams and as part of that is intentionally recruiting those people, so we’re in a … We’re starving for talent in our industry, and so recruiting people that have passion, and most importantly, fit within our culture, is really important to us.
So we do everything we can to express to candidates and people that want to come work at Winter who we are. We are not the right fit for everybody. We know that, and we’re very open about that. But we try to sell that and project it up front, so when people do come, they understand who we’re about, what we’re looking for, and most importantly, if they fit within our culture.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, so the construction space is a little bit unique in that you have a lot of people traveling often, you know, out and about. How do you instill the company culture and the values in a very distributed environment when people are outside of the office all the time?
Tom Nichols: That’s a great question, and one that we quite honestly struggle with. We work really hard not to create these silos with project teams, because project teams become a family within the company. If you look at it from a building perspective, they’re out at a locale, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in Savannah or North Carolina or somewhere that it’s far away. It can be in Alpharetta, where a team is there for 12, 18 months working together and they become a family. But they also become disconnected from the mothership, so to speak, if you don’t intentionally bring them back in and create those two-way conversations.
Create to Connect
Tom Nichols: So we’re not perfect at it, but we do a lot of things to try to create the opportunity for connection, so as I mentioned before the podcast, I do a monthly video message that we send out to the employees just as another speaking moment for me to get in front of people, even though it’s not personal every time. We have corporate quarterly meetings where everybody has the opportunity to come in and hear what’s going on in the company. We regularly have meetings with our project managers and superintendents and different groups within the company to bring them into a central location. We don’t always do it at our office. We intentionally go offsite, whether it’s a bar where we’ll do games and that sort of thing, have some training, and then have a beer or two afterwards, but it’s that gathering that’s really important.
So creating those connections, we have a funstruction group that does events, everything from bowling to going to see Braves games, and so one, again, one size doesn’t fit all. We kind of create different opportunities for people to connect and stay connected to us at Winter.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. Funstruction. That’s definitely a new one for me. I like it. You said there was people that, you know, it’s about fitting into the culture, and so it’s a match for some people, it’s not a match for others. What are some ways that people are a match and what are some ways that they aren’t that you’ve seen over time?
Tom Nichols: Yeah, it’s, I think if you … The best way to describe it is, and these are cliches in some ways, is you’ve got people that are very collaborative and like to work in teams. I keep talking about teams. And then you have other people that have big egos and it’s all about them. So in construction, you find a lot of egos. There’s, for some reason, it’s a great environment for people with big egos sometimes. But that doesn’t always work when you’re working in a team, and what we do is … I like to tell folks that we’re professional problem solvers. I mean, every day we’re dealing with a multitude of variables that we cannot control, and every day is different.
And a team working together to solve those problems, we feel is so much better than one person on an island being a dictator and deciding what’s going to happen. And so there’s companies that are very successful in that way. We’re not one of those. So we like people that have, don’t take, you know, no ego with lack of confidence. We like people with confidence that are strong leaders, but we like them to be very collaborative, and being comfortable with really being vulnerable. It comes down to “are you really willing to put your problem on the table and help your teammates help you solve that problem?” Those are the kind of people we’re looking for.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, so you’re looking for those collaborative team members and confident team members, but the ones that aren’t that high-ego, army of one kind of style, dictator, leave that for other people to work in other environments, basically?
Tom Nichols: Exactly.
Josh Sweeney: So in that, and kind of identifying some of those things, going back historically before Winter, what was a culture you worked in that really resonated with you? Like what were some other things where you learned from and you wanted to carry it forward?
Tom Nichols: Well, the construction company I worked for before I came to Winter was a family-owned business, and I’ve only worked for two companies in my career. I’ve been very fortunate that way. But they had a great culture. It was a family-owned and run business, and what they … And we were working all over the country. And so what they instilled in me is that importance of connection that I talked about earlier is that they were very intentional, the family members, about coming out to remote locations in other states and taking the teams to dinner and spending time and that’s something that I’ve never forgotten.
And we try to, again, carry that over at Winter. Myself and others feel that way. We bring that into our culture, so that was one thing that really resonated with me.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, it’s interesting because we get a lot of people that have remote teams and all kinds of distributions of teams and it seems like one of the themes I hear over and over again in some of the best cultures is the management takes time to go out to those other offices. They go out to those other locations, and they make time to make those rounds. And that face time builds the relationship and the camaraderie and everything else in that organization.
Tom Nichols: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. It’s hard to do, and there’s several senior team members at Winter that do that, and we don’t all get to every job as much as we’d like to, but we are very intentional about doing that.
The Internship Program
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, so going back to just some highlights I saw from your website, there’s a big shortage in a lot of industries right now. You know, there’s lots more jobs available than can be filled. There’s new jobs that are coming on that didn’t exist 10 years ago. So there’s just shortages everywhere. And you go recruit from schools and other places. Tell me a little bit about your philosophy on bringing in people, training them, recruiting from schools … What does that look like versus an organization that is always looking for somebody that has 20 years of construction experience?
Tom Nichols: Yeah, well, we do both because, as much as we want to have this farm team that we constantly groom and allow us to grow, you need to do both. So on the entry level, to speak to those first, again, we’re very intentional about how we do that. We have targeted universities that we go to. We try to get interns in and do internships with us as early as freshman years, as their freshman year, and allow them the opportunity to see who we are for an extended period of time and vice versa. And so we have a lot of success with our internship program.
The University Recruiting Fairs
Tom Nichols: We also have, within the universities and recruiting fairs that we attend, we really concentrate and bring the best of the best from each school into a central day or recruiting day, we call it, where we bring them in and there’s typically 10 to 12 individuals. And we do everything from a workshop where they do some real world problem solving, as a team, and we kind of observe that. We do some rapid-fire interviewing, kind of speed-dating interview type stuff. We expose them to leaders within the company. And it’s a two-way sort of dating period for a whole day for 10 or 12 folks, like I mentioned. And we’ve had good success with that because it, that extended period gives you time to get to know one another.
But again, internships is where we’d really like to recruit those entry-level folks. And then, we’re constantly just networking for people that have experience in our industry. And, you know, who do you know that knows somebody sort of thing. Word of mouth is where we get our best candidates. But it’s a struggle. There’s not a lot of talent out there, as compared to the demand, and it’s one of our biggest priorities is to constantly be recruiting folks.
Train on Consistency
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. So what has been one of the challenges you’ve had in kind of the … Well, you mentioned the farm team system. I know that one of the things we realized as a company early on was we didn’t have everything in place for a really solid training program. So it was harder to bring in less experienced people because the training program wasn’t in place. You know, what challenges did you maybe have in the past that you’ve already overcome in building that farm team, or you know, the intern program and things like that?
Tom Nichols: Yeah, I think the hardest thing in our type of work where you have these separate teams that I keep talking about is if you let it, different teams will kind of develop their own systems and process. So you’ve got to train on consistency. And so we have a lot of procedures. I mean, we’re a risk management based sort of company, just by the nature of what we do, so procedures is not difficult for us to come up with. So we just transfer that into a training procedure, really.
And where we’ve evolved over the years is from just on-the-job type training with an outline of things that new people need to be trained with to being a full-time recruiting and training manager that focuses on these training modules that we’ve developed and consistently delivering training that is applicable to all team members, and it’s just that constant reinforcement. So where we are in that evolution is full-time training manager with a very robust training calendar that is something that’s a big focus.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that’s awesome to hear because I keep working with clients, running into companies, interviewing, and a lot of them still seem to be looking for that really experienced person, and there’s just not enough of them out there, it seems like. Given the shortage, you know, you have to have some other strategy to bring people onboard and think further out into the future.
Tom Nichols: Exactly.
Josh Sweeney: So it’s good to hear that you’re focusing on that full time. So another thing we noticed was your team events. So a lot of team building, team activities, things like that. I have to ask, was there one that you did that just didn’t work out, that was just like a blunder? I always love hearing these because I’ve heard quite a few of them, but, you know, anywhere you just thought it was going to be an amazing experience for everybody that was like, “Eh, we’re not going to do that one again”?
Tom Nichols: You know, nothing jumps out.
Josh Sweeney: Okay.
Tom Nichols: As much as I’d like to tell an interesting story behind that, I think the hardest thing is just everybody’s so spread out and not everybody’s in the same place with their family situation, what they want to do. And so we’ve realized, you know, attendance, even though people love the events, getting attendance to whatever it is, whether it’s a kickball game or cocktails after work or going to a Braves game, it doesn’t all appeal to everybody, nor do they have the time.
So we’ve kind of taken a step back and said, “Look, we’re not going to be able to hit everybody. But let’s create those opportunities, and if we get 10 or 12 people, that’s great.” And those 10 or 12 people can interact and get to know one another better and have a good time, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, and are most of your work in the state or all over the place, so … You mentioned, like people don’t have to be really far. They could be in Alpharetta.
Tom Nichols: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Josh Sweeney: So, you know, I know with remote teams, you can end up going … Your remote person can be in another city. They can be in another state, another country, which can be challenging, but is it mostly in the southeast, or how does that look for you?
Tom Nichols: It’s, over the last 20 years or so, it’s mostly the southeast.
Josh Sweeney: Okay.
Tom Nichols: We’ve worked all over the country, but 90% of it is within states contiguous to Georgia. Presently, we’re in a great time where we’ve been able to be pretty selective and most of our work is in the state of Georgia. We do have work in other states, but it’s harder and harder to get people to travel. So we’ve been very intentional about focusing on work in metro Atlanta. Again, we’re in a great time in a great city, and a lot of opportunity here, so presently, most of our work is in the state of Georgia.
The Road Warriors
Josh Sweeney: Okay, yeah, and that’s kind of what I was getting at is kind of the travel aspect. Because I know there’s a lot of road warriors out there, and people, I think I talked to another dad the other week, and he’s gone Monday through Friday, and then in town Saturday-Sunday, and then out again. I know that can be super challenging, so even though it’s local, your guys are still going out, guys and girls are still going out onsite a lot. Do they stay out there, or do they generally travel back home or?
Tom Nichols: Yes. Well, so we have both. So we do have the road warriors that do that travel, and we try to make it as convenient as possible. And some people just like that sort of work, and so they’re typically traveling for a couple weeks and coming home every other weekend, and again, we’re creating those opportunities for them to connect back.
So the local projects, typically we have teams onsite. So yes, they could be a mile down the road from their house or 70 miles depending on where they live in metro Atlanta. We face that challenge, but that’s really the industry we’re in, is people need to be onsite typically as a team. But with technology, we’re getting better and better about working remotely, per se, and using the technology to our advantage to take out the challenge of traveling around Atlanta or across the southeast, for that matter.
After Sketches and Faxes
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, so what does that look like from a construction perspective? Like, I mean I know your typical ones are like, “Well, I would normally fly out, but now I’m going to have a video meeting.” But you guys are building buildings. So how does technology play into that?
Tom Nichols: It allows for us to have quicker communication than I would say is, technology does … That it’s more accurate. So in the old days, before video calls and all that, it was a lot of sketches and faxes and then it became emails and now, it’s you can Facetime somebody and show them a problem and deal with it that way. So we’re getting better at solving problems faster and having better information is part of it. But as it relates to our teams, it’s the softwares that we use and the tools that we have and electronics allows us to really do our job, not all the time, but in a lot of cases, without having to physically be at a job site trailer, for example. I mean, there’s a lot of paperwork that happens that can be done anywhere. It could be done at Starbucks. It could be done here at this facility,
Josh Sweeney: I’m like a project manager, I can take a picture of something, you know, a challenge we had that was caused by a vendor. You know, maybe it’s poor drywall installation or something, and that photo can just go right back to the team at the home office. They can start taking care of logistics on that while I’m working on the next thing, right? To keep the momentum going.
Tom Nichols: Yep.
Josh Sweeney: Something along those lines?
Tom Nichols: Sure.
Josh Sweeney: Awesome. So what sort of systems and processes in the construction space … Like I’m assuming, I’ve seen a lot of iPads. I did some things with CAT and some other dealers, like heavy equipment iPad apps for doing quotes straight from the trailer before. What other things do you see that have just made a major change?
Tom Nichols: Well, drawings are not any more physical drawings.
Josh Sweeney: Giant blueprints.
Tom Nichols: They’re electronic things that reside in somebody’s mainframe, but the biggest change that I’ve seen, for us from a technology standpoint is that we’ve got realtime information on our job sites anywhere.
Josh Sweeney: Got it.
Tom Nichols: And so we use iPads, and there’s different softwares, but we use a program that allows real-time access to every drawing and detail, and our folks are really good at being able to pick up a detail that’s very specific, right in the corner of the building that they’re looking at without having to look at a big set of blueprints. And most importantly, because the drawings are ever-evolving with changes and updates and just evolving in the process, and the challenge before this technology existed was, you never really quite knew for sure if you had the current, updated set of drawings.
Information in Their Fingertips
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Tom Nichols: And so there was a lot of mistakes being made for people just not having the right information, and now, everybody literally has that information at their fingertips, and that’s huge for our industry.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I mentioned this on another podcast, but one of my first companies was a telecom company. It was all fiber, low-voltage infrastructure and things like that, and we dealt with it all the time. It was like, I mean, it was even at the beginning, you know … You would quote a job and send them a quote and say, “Here’s how many drops there are. Here’s where they’re going to be.” Like, “Oh, you must’ve had the old prints. You know, we need an updated quote.” You know, and you kind of knew that that was just going to be the job the entire time. Like we can’t even get a quote out with the new prints, much less then it would happen on the job. Well, it’s been changed again. And you know, we’d go back to the GC’s room and look at prints and look at the new ones and carry around little sheets of paper, all before iPads.
Tom Nichols: That’s right. So all that’s gone now.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I mentioned this on another podcast, but one of my first companies was a telecom company. It was all fiber, low-voltage infrastructure and things like that, and we dealt with it all the time. It was like, I mean, it was even at the beginning, you know … You would quote a job and send them a quote and say, “Here’s how many drops. I can’t imagine how much easier it is nowadays with real-time, you know. You get the updated drawings, and you know something else has changed.
Tom Nichols: That’s right.
Josh Sweeney: That’s awesome. So is there anything else you’d like to share about Winter Construction and the company culture there?
Tom Nichols: Well, it’s … yes. We’re very fortunate to be in the market that we’re in. We’ve got some great people, and I’m really pleased at the maturity of our team. I mean, we have a lot of people that have been there for a long time, and it’s fun to work with a team that has, the trust has been built for many years. And that’s a lot of fun. And we talked a lot about recruiting, and one thing that we’re very focused on right now is just developing that next level of leadership, and so this year and over the next 12 months, we’re investing very heavily in leadership development and training, and we’ve kind of developed some in-house programs with the help of some folks who are going to help facilitate for us some leadership training.
And we’re really excited about that and what it’s going to mean for us at Winter over the next 10, 20 years or longer, hopefully. So fun time to be at Winter.
Leadership: Soft Skills Over Technical Skills
Josh Sweeney: Very cool. So the leadership, I guess, that’s the one thing you’re looking forward to in the coming months is all that leadership growth and training for the team. My last question, what’s one challenge that you’ve had that, within building the company culture that you want, what is something that maybe surprised you at how difficult or challenging it might have been to overcome or a challenge you’re dealing with now?
Tom Nichols: I would say it’s all wrapped up into the leadership, is people in our business that typically get into construction are very technically oriented. And that’s what allows them to succeed early on in their career and as they develop more skills and get into project management and become senior project managers and higher in the organization, less and less of the technical skills are required and more and more of the soft skills and communication skills and how to deal with different types of people becomes so much more important.
And that’s a challenge in any industry, and we’ve certainly faced that, but again, we’re trying to address that with our leadership training that we’re going to be doing, and being aware of it’s the number one thing that gets you there, but then saying, “Okay, what are we going to do personally to make it better here at Winter?” And we’re taking those steps.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. Knowing that there is a challenge is kind of half the battle right?
Tom Nichols: Yup.
Josh Sweeney: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I appreciate your time.
Tom Nichols: Thank you, Josh. It’s been a pleasure.
Speaker 1: Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode of the Epic Company Culture podcast with Josh Sweeney. If you enjoyed this content, please subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For additional content and transcripts, visit EpicCulture.co. If you have questions or topics you would like us to address or expand on, tweet us at EpicCulture1 or email at podcast@EpicCulture.co.
Podcast Highlights and Resources
- People are our most important asset.
- Create different opportunities for people to connect and stay connected.
- We are very intentional.
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