Chairman and CEO of Landry/French (Scarborough, ME), a 100 percent employee-owned commercial construction company.
By Liisa Andreassen
As chairman and CEO at Landry/French, French directs the company’s strategy and overall vision and is focused on business growth and talent acquisition. He’s driven the company to be one of the most successful construction management firms in Northern New England with revenues of more than $150 million, earning spots on the Inc. 5000 and Engineering News-Record’s Top New England Contractors. In 2021, he and his partner, Denis Landry, were named the Mainebiz Business Leaders of the Year.
“I generally always start looking at a new project by concentrating on all the rewards before I will concentrate on the risks,” French says. “Placing the right team on the project and empowering them to make decisions greatly reduces the risks.”
A conversation with Kevin French.
The Zweig Letter: I watched the video in your online bio. What made you initially take that leap of faith to start your first business? What is one of the most valuable lessons you learned from that first business that you brought to the table in co-founding Landry French?
Kevin French: I’ve always been a risk taker. I like to be a little nervous and uneasy. It keeps me on my toes. I get bored quickly and am always looking for that next challenge. I tend to look at risk through the eyes of optimism. My first business taught me what debt is all about. It scared me to death to be in the hole, but with a lot of hard work, it can be overcome. When we started Landry/French we had no debt. Also, when I started the first company, I was not as confident as I am now to surround myself with smart people. Now, I do. Hiring high-performing people has allowed us to be up by 350 percent in seven years.
TZL: How do you anticipate COVID-19 permanently impacting your firm’s policy on telecommuting?
KF: We are a construction company and we need people to come to work every day. We have not had any issues working in a “normal” setting. I’m not a fan of telecommuting. I know it works for some, but I like a team atmosphere, filled with a lot of collaboration. I enjoy stopping by people’s offices and meeting in the hallways, talking about their projects, or whatever needs to be discussed.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
KF: The majority of my time is working on the business, and very little in the business. We empower all of the team members to make decisions. On the occasion when they do need to come to me for help, in many cases they have a solution and want to confirm their thoughts.
TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?
KF: That is a simple one: Tell them the truth about good news and bad news. I want them to be part of the team and keep them informed throughout the process. Just do what you said you would do. Reputation is everything in our business if you want to have the great clients. It doesn’t take long for a bad reputation to spread.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
KF: My wife allows me time flexibility, and she knows there are days when I may be home late. She has always provided me with support in regards to my schedule. Having the home support makes the job so much easier and is a huge help in not providing another layer of stress. I can remember earlier in my career, I was home late almost every night. Those were the days when I was trying to make a name for myself, working long days and building on my network after work.
TZL: What skills are required to run a successful company? What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
KF: Having the confidence to hire people smarter than yourself. For many years, I have sought out top talent, and have been willing to pay them for the value they bring to the team. Our clients see that our employees are some of the best in the industry and they know they are in good hands.
When I first started out, we didn’t make it a priority to seek out top performers and accepted average performance. We didn’t want more overhead, and felt we couldn’t support higher overhead. We concentrated on why we couldn’t hire high performing individuals versus why we couldn’t afford not to hire high performing people. Since embracing this approach, we have made the Inc. 5000 list for fastest growing companies and our projects have become more complex in nature, larger in size, and more profitable.
TZL: Tenacity and perseverance have apparently paid off. Can you give me an example or two that illustrates these attributes?
KF: About five years ago, we had an opportunity to take on a project that was our largest to date. A lot of the team looked at the negatives, while I saw the positives. I said we were going to do it despite all the naysayers. It was that project that made all the difference in the world when it came to building the confidence of our team. Since then, we’ve never looked back. And more recently, we were asked to develop a facility for Abbott Laboratories. Landry/French’s rapid response construction delivered a 120,000-square-foot facility in a record 90 days, allowing the client to ramp up production of COVID-19 test kits. The renovations converted an existing Olympia Sports Distribution facility in Westbrook, Maine into sophisticated lab space.
The project included 17,000 square feet of administration and office space, 50,000 square feet of clean manufacturing space, and 11,000 square feet of laboratory space that includes a BSL II lab. Building infrastructure upgrades included 37,000 square feet of new mechanical mezzanine for the new air handling equipment and compressed air system. The project included adding three new electrical services and a new chilled water plant and generator yard.
Under normal circumstances, a project like this would take about 18 months. We hired extra staff and I was personally on the job for 67 days. We completed the job within a few hours of our end goal. Perseverance and tenacity pay off.
TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?
KF: Upbeat and optimistic. I generally always start looking at a new project by concentrating on all the rewards before I will concentrate on the risks. Placing the right team on the project and empowering them to make decisions greatly reduces the risks. When faced with a decision that needs to be made, I concentrate on the positive energy of the situation and generally I can find it. It helps me solve issues quicker and takes a lot less energy than concentrating on the negative aspects.
TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?
KF: We are an employee owner company. The success of the company’s financial performance shows up in their wallets. Becoming an ESOP basically gave every employee another retirement fund. We also have a 401(k) program that matches their contribution up to 4 percent
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
KF: Our turnover is around 3 percent which speaks volumes about our leadership practices. Most everyone enjoys coming to work every day. Our culture encourages all the employees to act like it’s their own business, because it is their business. Our leadership treats everyone with respect and we value each other’s opinions.