Paul Sutton has a lot to celebrate this summer.
The Minnesota native will mark 20 years in Colorado in the coming months. His company, Peak Structural, is fast approaching its 15th anniversary, it’s been nearly two years since he bought his current headquarters in Palmer Lake and, as icing on the cake, Sutton and his team recently earned the Pikes Peak Small Business Administration and Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado’s Small Business Week awards for Family-Owned Small Business of the Year and Small Business Person of the Year.
Still, Sutton found time to speak with the Business Journal this week about reinforcing the structure beneath his team, meeting and exceeding expectations, and living the entrepreneurial dream.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from Minneapolis, but I’ve been here 20 years this summer, so I’m calling it home. I’m claiming the state. I definitely love it here and have no plans to go anywhere else.
I left Minnesota in high school and came to Colorado from Kansas City. My wife [and co-founder Lisa Sutton] and I were ready for a change.
What were you doing in Kansas City?
General contracting. The change wasn’t so much vocational as it was about the environment, the climate, the mountains — all the things people love about Colorado.
Did you move here to start Peak Structural?
That happened a little later. When I first moved here in ’97, I spent the first few years continuing with general contracting work and some new construction — a lot of larger renovation jobs. By the early 2000s, I knew I was looking to specialize in something. I wanted to find a construction-related business that just any Joe with a pickup truck and a contractor’s license couldn’t necessarily get into.
Did you start in Palmer Lake?
No, I started the business in 2002 out of my home. I had a home office and rented a storage locker with two employees. From there we moved into a rented facility on Fillmore [Street], and from there we bought a small commercial building downtown on Sierra Madre [Street]. We were there for a number of years but had badly outgrown that place. The opportunity came up to buy this building and it seemed like it would be the perfect geography. We do a lot of work in Denver and it’s a great jumping-off point.
What inspired this business?
As a [general contractor] we had a job that required putting in some foundation piers. It was a large renovation project and we were adding on to this home. … This was 2001 and I contracted with one of the more well-established, credible companies in the foundation marketplace in Colorado Springs. I was so dismayed by the service I received from the subcontractor in terms of poor communication and irresponsible behavior on my job site, which is a reflection on me. … If that’s how they’re making me feel, how would the average homeowner feel?
I researched this niche market of structural repair and reinforcement and found that was pretty typical. There were seven or eight companies in the area and customer service was not a priority.
What sets your company apart?
The standard here and what I want to train into everybody … is to think, ‘How would I want to be treated as the customer?’ It’s easy to flip that around. We’re all somebody’s customer every day. What do we expect when we’re turning over our hard-earned money for a product or service? We want to be treated well. We want the experience of working with that company to be great. … The community seems to have responded well to this kind of service. Between 2002 and 2012, one by one, pretty much all those other companies have closed their doors. Today, in the Pikes Peak area, we do the overwhelming majority of work — more than 70 percent of the work of this nature.
How has the company grown?
Like so many classic American entrepreneurial stories, it started as me and a couple guys. … As recently as 2013 there were 12 or 13 on our team. Today we have about 80. The last four years have seen rapid growth. … We’re constantly looking for good talent. We even have a full-time recruiter now on staff who does nothing but work to find the best talent we can for each of our departments.
You recently won not one, but two, small business awards?
We won [the SBDC and BBB’s] Small Family Business of the Year. At Peak, my wife and I are the owners and independent local managers for the company. One of our daughters works here as an accountant. One of our sons works here as needed. Our oldest son is on our board of advisers. … He lives and works in Denver but is very involved in quarterly board meetings. It’s a lot of fun. As any honest family business owner will tell you, there are challenges mixing work life and home life.
And the Small Business Person of the Year award?
It’s meaningful. The board that vets that award — there’s a process advancing candidates. When you get to the finalist stage they want financials and all sorts of sensitive information and they dig in and make sure the numbers add up. … I feel humbled and grateful we were selected for those awards. There are a ton of great companies and entrepreneurs. It was a great pleasure and honor.
How do you remain an effective leader?
Leaders need to reinvent how we engage our staff and how we develop other leaders. I participate in something called the School of Entrepreneurship. I travel out to the East Coast about every six weeks for two days of classes.
I also attend a local Vistage [executive coaching] group. It’s the oldest CEO peer group in the United States. We meet monthly and the people in the group are all CEOs or owners of companies. As peers we help each other with case studies — discussing the challenges of growth or the access to personnel, HR stuff, anything. It’s a fertile learning environment and people come from within all industries. There are so many similar challenges regardless of the field you’re in.
I’m a firm believer that any organization can only grow to the level and caliber of leadership that ownership is willing to achieve.
What’s your favorite thing about this job?
Building the team. … About two hours ago we had a meeting of all our department heads. It was a strategy meeting and we were talking about the next six to 18 months. To see this group of managers develop and become more effective leaders in their respective departments, as well as develop effectiveness in how they connect with peers and get things done — building the team is what I really get excited about.