As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
“The biggest challenge is quickly figuring out the new normal,” says Ethan Collier, president and CEO and founder of Collier Construction, a longtime urban residential construction company, “because we have to get it right to be in business two years from now.”
Collier Construction felt the effect of the lockdown almost immediately on sales.
“When the stay at home order was announced, we saw some really dramatic reduction in the number of showings and contracts on new houses,” Mr. Collier says.
“We are in an interesting space because we build in the downtown footprint between the ridge and the river, for the most part, where we have the greatest density of people living, working and catching dinner or happy hour. This was also the greatest “danger zone” for transmission of COVID-19.
“I feel like a lot of those people really responded to the crisis. They went and put themselves in quarantine. They did not feel safe going out. They didn't go to open houses. They didn't go house shopping.”
As buyers shifted so did Mr. Collier, quickly, just like he did during the last recession. He armed himself with a PPP loan and changed the focus of his staff; less production to adjust to the impending oversupply in the 37408 zip code and an increased emphasis on understanding the buyer.
“If we aren’t going to respond to what our buyers need then we are not going to have buyers, particularly when those in the market dramatically decrease. So, we did that. We made significant changes on how we were serving those clients and we saw an immediate response in June with our best month we have ever had in terms of sales.”
With a rapid recovery in the works, Mr. Collier remains focused on the day-to-day business operations in the midst of social distancing and Zoom meetings.
“These are hard, hard times for sure,” he says. “This is definitely not my model for business. I thrive off of being in community with people, from our subcontractors to our architects, the Collier staff and of course, the customer. I miss just being with people.”
While Zoom meetings and phone calls now fill his days, Mr. Collier has been able to find some of that positive energy from his staff as they utilized the space in their office to social distance while continuing to work together, in person.
“We had to respond quickly with personnel furloughs, contend with the same unknowns of a dynamic situation facing businesses across Chattanooga. Certainly, this has created anxiety, even fear at times in all of us. And to see how my staff has responded by supporting each other and filling in the gaps created by a workforce reduction, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to cover… that’s unity. We are surviving an economic plane crash together or something like that. The crisis has produced a greater bond at Collier.”
The same thing happened with friends in the industry who became more intentional about reaching out during the peak of the lockdown.
“A lot of good encouragement from people I would not otherwise hear from in a month or two, calling me every day,” Mr. Collier says. “And, going, ‘How are you doing today? How are you feeling? Here is what I am doing today. Here is what I am thinking,’ probably some of the best conversations I have ever had in my business career.”
It’s a career that has so far lasted more than 20 years. One Mr. Collier did not anticipate as he finished high school.
“I didn't know I had a knack for it. I needed a job, so I applied at Wheeland Foundry. I applied at the railroad. And, I applied at a construction company. I got a construction job.”
The day after he graduated from high school, he moved out and got to work. It was 1996.
“I loved the people I worked with and I loved the fact that when I finished work at the end of the day, I could see what we had built,” he says.
Six years later, he started his own company. It was just he and one guy and they were mostly doing kitchen remodels and screened-in porches. As opportunities grew and Mr. Collier observed the state of innovation in residential design in Chattanooga, he realized opportunity was knocking at the door.
“When we really started looking at what it was going to take to bring innovation to design, both in the unit we were building and the surrounding community...we realized we couldn't do well on a single lot basis,” Mr. Collier says.
“What we build typically would not work if it was embedded among other houses that were more traditional. In order for us to take our residential construction to the next level, we had to buy an entire piece of land, develop the roads, the infrastructure … and fill it with our design so they would create a sense of place, of community.”
Driven by this strong sense of place, Collier Construction began to innovate how people lived downtown.
“There are certain places that we have all been where it’s just right, that sense of design, symmetry, green space. The architecture, the trees, the buildings, it feels right. All of us have experienced this and for most of us, it has been on vacation. Why can’t we have that every day? Why can’t we have that at home?”
Longing for this sense of space for others, Mr. Collier felt there was a future for a high quality urban residential developer in Chattanooga but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He surrounded himself with great minds that have helped him create these places on the Southside, Northshore, downtown proper and the central business district.
The most influential was Christian Rushing, before he passed, along with architects Eric Myers, Trey Wheeler and Matt Winget.
“I have learned so much from them, I couldn't possibly do their jobs,” Mr. Collier says. “What they have done is they have helped me put into form what it is that I have intuitively sensed on what space needs to be like in the actual home and community environment. I really can’t take credit for it.”
Like many successful small business owners, Mr. Collier has a strong desire to figure things out and get the job done.
“Building houses and neighborhoods is not easy. You manage a great number of interests and relationships, sometimes at odds with one another. You have to have a level of tenacity. You just don’t quit. Yes, the relationship may be broken at the moment, or the zoning doesn’t support the designed density, or the common space is insufficient to support community gatherings, but we are going to fix it.”
His advice to other business owners is to hire good people.
“When we think of good people we generally think of the task or problem-solving. But I would add that we need to make sure those are good people to be with,” says Mr. Collier. “That they are life-giving, committed to the mission, bring energy to the company, both by pushing and supporting the company and by being able to receive both support and corrective feedback ... You will live or die on how well you build that community. When there is great chemistry in your office, you can overcome anything. With the right minds, the right people and the right attitude you can build some great businesses.”