How do you keep a family-owned construction company in business for 100 years? “I’d like to say it’s because we’re super special,” says Wm. Winkler Co. President Brian Winkler, “but a lot of it’s just hard, nose-to-the-grindstone work and recognizing opportunities when they come along.”
Adaptability also has a lot to do with longevity. “Technology has caused so much change over the last 20 years,” he says. “Everything – from laser screeds to stringless curb machines, GPS, accounting and management software – is different. It’s a whole new world.” Winkler objects to reports that productivity hasn’t improved over those 20 years. “We’re getting more done with fewer resources. We’ve found ways to work smarter. You can’t succeed today just by putting your back into it.”
Although the industry’s been slow to adopt communications technology, that, too, is changing. “All our foremen have iPads rather than carrying around a three-ring binder and a big set of plans,” Winkler says. “The field resisted at first, but they got on board when the technology proved the point.”
William Winkler, Brian’s grandfather, launched Wm. Winkler Co. in 1919 in Spokane, Washington. Brian’s father, John, the oldest of 11 children, eventually took over the company and then sold it to a brother. Brian bought out his uncle in 1999. Now the fourth generation is poised to come aboard. “The oldest two of my three sons love the idea. Both are in engineering school, but will work someplace else first to get experience outside the company.”
Continuing success is never a given, but adhering to business basics helps. “We prefer to work with customers face to face,” says Winkler. “Sure, we use e-mail and cell phones, but it’s necessary to develop relationships. We get involved early in the process as a team member rather than tackle the project with price. An old friend once told me you begin with price and end with cost. The cheapest price isn’t always the best value.”
Wm. Winkler does heavy civil construction and virtually anything related to concrete, from flatwork to paving to tilt-up, for customers throughout the Northwest. Revenues in 2018 were around $33 million. The company owns and services equipment, a capital-intensive approach that provides flexibility and control.
“You can buy machinery, but you can’t buy people. We treat everyone fairly and have lots of father-son workers, brothers, three generations of families that have worked with us,” says Brian of his company’s 150 employees. “It’s not easy to find good people, but the people around Spokane grew up around hard work.”
After 100 years in the industry, one might expect burnout, but you won’t hear that from Brian.
“I never had any desire to do anything besides construction. I spent time with the Seabees (U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion) before coming back to the company. I’ve known since I was a kid that concrete and dirt were for me. It’s great: I do what I love every day.”