New Podcast: Investing in Human Capital to Create a Competitive Advantage

Tony Iannessa, CEO of BIG Construction, joined the podcast to discuss how he’s built a strong team through investing in hiring and employee training, shares his latest book recommendation for entrepreneurs and discusses plans for the future on the people side of his business.

Connect with Tony on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Follow BIG Construction on Twitter and LinkedIn.



























































































































Speaker 1: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast with Adam Robinson. He’s talking to today’s industry leaders and entrepreneurs about the people side of their business.

Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast, where we feature entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, and for the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring. Today, on the program, Tony Iannessa, founder and CEO of BIG Construction, located in Chicago, Illinois. Tony’s the founder and CEO. The business was founded in 2016, privately owned by management, 22 employees, and all kinds of good things happening. Tony, we are so glad to have you on the program today.

Tony Iannessa: Thanks for allowing me to be here.

Adam Robinson: You got it. Some fun facts, BIG Construction is currently leading the buildout of Hireology’s office expansion, so we’re taking the rest of the floor through conversations with Christen Calloway, who’s running the project here from our side. She mentioned that you would be a fantastic guest to have on the podcast, and so here in the middle of all the sawdust, we are sitting here in my office. Other fun fact, your business, pretty loyal customer base. 90% of everything you do comes from customers you’ve worked for in the past, so-

Tony Iannessa: Yeah. Word of mouth.

Adam Robinson: Pretty impressive. We’ll dig into the people side of the business, but before that, set the stage for us. Give us 30 seconds on what you guys do.

Tony Iannessa: Yeah. Simply said, we’re a general contractor that focuses on interior office construction. Over the last five to six years, we’ve really honed our technology company practice, so we work with a lot of companies like Hireology and many other tech companies in Chicago. It’s been great to work with founders, other founders of tech companies, and watch them grow and really try and learn from their culture and take some of the things that I’ve seen with some of the fastest-growing companies and then try and incorporate them into mine.

Adam Robinson: All right. If listeners want to learn more, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Tony Iannessa:

Adam Robinson: Okay. All right. 2016 to now is not a lot of time. You’ve got 22 full-time employees. Give me a snapshot of how that progressed so quickly.

Tony Iannessa: Yeah, so June marks two years exactly, so almost to the day-

Adam Robinson: Congratulations.

Tony Iannessa: [crosstalk 00:02:36] thank you. Almost two, it’s just a little over two years. I think Monday might have been the anniversary. June of 2016, it was just me sitting in a basement in the West Loop with a really, what I thought was a really good idea. Today, there’s 22 of us. We slowly grew from, in 2016, from one to five employees really, really organically as we picked up projects, essentially, but I was really a one-man band for a while. In February of 2017, my non-solicit agreement from my former employer was up, and I was able to bring over seven of my old teammates to join us in one day, so we went from five or six employees to double that very quickly. Then since February of ’17, we’ve, again, organically grown, kind of scaled up as the revenues has necessitated.

Adam Robinson: What’s-

Tony Iannessa: Have necessitated.

Adam Robinson: … driving the demand?

Tony Iannessa: Well, I think that corporate America’s expanding and spending money, and the demand for really good team members as far as the construction team goes has never been higher, so what we’ve been able to really, really capture is market share and maybe some of the smaller, more boutique companies like the tech companies like Hireology, really offer them a level of sophistication that they might be accustomed to getting from a huge company. Pay a little bit less and get a little bit more attention than they would on a smaller scale.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. It’s a great model. It’s working for us. I can imagine that you, like everyone else, is pulling your hair out trying to hire skilled trades. I mean, it is a national issue. For listeners tuning in that are in the construction business, contracting industry, or rely on skilled vocational talent for their product or service, I mean, what are you doing differently that’s enabling you to survive this kind of growth in this kind of a labor market?

Tony Iannessa: Yeah. It’s a great question. It’s incredibly challenging at the moment. I think it’s probably our single greatest challenge is the labor shortage, specifically as it relates to subcontractors, so we’re subbing out 90% of the work that’s taking place, and we’re relying upon electrical unions and HVAC unions, and we’re tied to using union labor in Chicago in most of these buildings, and so to the extent you can work with really, really great subcontractors, that’s what we’re trying to do. The only way that we’ve been able to garner the attention that maybe a bigger, more legacy firm would gain from some of these subs is just by treating them fairly. I know that sounds crazy, because historically there’s been that general contractor kind of pointing the finger down and bossing subcontractors around. Take a slightly different approach to it, and we look at the subs as partners just like we look at our clients as partners, so we really are not big on the top-down kind of approach.

As a result, we bring them to the table, and we treat them like an equal partner. They tend to be more productive on our jobs. They enjoy working with us, because we’re not yelling, and screaming, and throwing things, which has historically been kind of the legacy construction method. We get better pricing, and we get sort of the attention that maybe somebody who’s five time our size would.

Adam Robinson: Wow. Okay, so what you’re saying is, you don’t have control over the workforce, not broadly. You’re relying on your subs to deliver, and just being better human beings is your competitive advantage.

Tony Iannessa: It really, it sounds crazy, but looking people in the eye and asking them to just do what you expect of them and treat them the way you want to be treated, I know it sounds crazy, but again-

Adam Robinson: It’s simple, but so few organizations actually pull that off.

Tony Iannessa: We don’t look at subs as like a sub … We don’t look at subcontractors as like a sub-tier version. We really, honestly, do look at them philosophically as a partner, a trade partner versus a subcontractor. I think, as a result, we get a substantial amount of attention from … I mean, we work with a lot of subcontractors that have been around 100 years. Huge, well-capitalized [inaudible 00:06:44] the 100, $200 million companies are working for us because they enjoy it. I think they’re more profitable, because people are happier, and their team members are more productive.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. That’s the theory.

Tony Iannessa: So far, it’s proven to be accurate.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. Fantastic. It sounds like you built a loyal following in your career, and you’re working with people that want to work for you and vice versa. What do you think inspires that loyalty in your approach to what you’re doing here?

Tony Iannessa: Well, thank you. I think, I’d like to think that’s true.

Adam Robinson: Seven people don’t follow you for no-

Tony Iannessa: Yeah, no, that was-

Adam Robinson: … reason.

Tony Iannessa: That’s right. I think when we, a couple things. One, we get to build great projects. We build great relationships with customers like you, but the most proud I’ve ever been is watching the people that I’ve trained and mentored and be able to say I really built their career. Three, well, four of us, four of the five of us on our management team all came up together through the ranks at our former employer. I think a lot of the reason that they left is because we all shared a similar passion for what we were doing and felt like just like anybody else with entrepreneurial spirit, we can do it better. I think the one thing people would probably tell you about me that they were inspired by is just passion, and so what I’ve done over the years is try and really harness that passion and make it positive. Sometimes, I can go off the rails and passion can be negative sometimes, too, but I really try and harness it into pushing passionately to help my team members.

Adam Robinson: As an alternative to other employers, that’s a differentiation in your business.

Tony Iannessa: I think that the differentiator for us, if you’re anybody, specifically a young person, in the career is to look and say there’s no glass ceiling. There’s no grandpa, father, son. There’s nobody saying, picking up Grandpa’s bad habits. There’s nobody looking and saying, “Well, this is how we’ve done things for the last 50 years, so this is how we do them.”

Adam Robinson: It’s such a good point. I mean, the construction industry is so patriarchal.

Tony Iannessa: It’s crazy.

Adam Robinson: It’s third and fourth-generation, particularly in Chicago. I mean, you’ve got some old-school founding families that do all the big stuff around here, and you see their names on all the trucks. How do you compete in that world? I mean, that, it’s, of course, stand out with something different. You’re telling me that the difference is how you treat people.

Tony Iannessa: For subcontractors, I would say how we compete, I love competing against the legacy firms for clients, because … Look, there’s probably as many types of clients that would say, “We don’t want to work with those young kids,” as there are a lot of clients who are like, “Wow, this is incredible what you guys are doing. We’d really love to be a part of it.” I think it’s probably polarizing, to a certain extent.

Adam Robinson: Sure, but in a good way.

Tony Iannessa: The good news for us is, tech, and financial services, and media, like trading firms specifically in financial services, love the story and have been incredibly loyal to us. We love competing with the legacy firms, because oftentimes, we’re working for clients that have a very similar story to us, and it’s not, “Hey, my dad, my grandpa started this business in the Depression, and then he handed it over to my dad, and then he handed it over to me.” How do you know that the best idea is winning, or that you’re getting the best team when it’s just family member handed down to family member handed down to family member?

When we tell our story, you can tell if we’re pitching a huge corporate client, they’re not going to really be interested too, too much in our story, but we really want to play up our actual story for clients in the tech sector, in the media sector, and in trading, specifically.

Adam Robinson: It makes a big difference.

Tony Iannessa: Yeah.

Adam Robinson: It absolutely did for us. Let’s talk about your team building. You mentioned probably a third of the team are folks you’ve worked with, and then the rest are organic. How are you going about finding that next person for your team, not the subs, but your actual organization? Do you have a process you’ve developed?

Tony Iannessa: Yes.

Adam Robinson: How are you doing this?

Tony Iannessa: I’m happy to say that this has been my, really one of my main focuses the last 90 days, really six months, but really putting the process in place the last 90 days. We work with Predictive Index. We have … It’s interesting, because because the demand is so high for new talent, we get résumés all the time from recruiters, and you don’t really know who’s good, or bad, or ugly, or different. What we end up doing, ultimately, is if the résumé comes across and it’s anywhere close to what we’re looking for, we ask that the candidate complete, too, a personality assessment from Predictive Index and then an intellect assessment, similar to a Wonderlic. What that does right out of the gates is, it really eliminates people that aren’t that serious about the opportunity.

Adam Robinson: Sure.

Tony Iannessa: We take our culture very, very seriously, and so to the extent we can create an image, and even really feel like this is kind of a special club to be a part of and you’re going to have to go through a little bit of initiation, we do it. Then also, I would say, we’re investing a ton of time and money once people come on board and training and mentoring, so we want to make sure that the person is the right fit, and putting the right person in the right seat on the bus is really important. I’m thinking of a candidate in particular. A résumé came across, got a referral from someone. He took, his résumé had absolutely nothing to do with construction, no … If you looked at it, you probably would have thrown it in the garbage, but we pushed, our CFO pushed. He took the Predictive Index, and he knocked it out of the park as it relates to the specific tasks of the job that we were looking for. He’s come on board, and he’s been incredible.

Again, three months ago, six months ago, we would have thrown that résumé in the trash, because we were looking at it going, “Well, he doesn’t have any construction accounting experience,” but all of the personality assessment that he took said, “This is a perfect match for what you’re seeking.”

Adam Robinson: So it’s work style, not job experiences, in your experience.

Tony Iannessa: I would … Yes. In our industry, specifically, especially for a company that’s trying to do things not like they’ve been done for the last 50 years, we focus much more on personality. Like job descriptions, for example, we just redid all of our job descriptions as part of the Predictive Index component, because what the personality assessment does is, it’s got a set of guidelines that you kind of pump into the computer, for lack of a better word, and then the candidate will go on and sort of complete an assessment, and then it matches it.

What we’ve done in the job descriptions is, we’ve really focused on five things, six things, three things, whatever it is, for that particular job. “You do these great here, you will be successful,” as opposed to, “Here’s 50 things, prerequisites, and here’s all the legal language.” That’s all in there because of our HR requirement, but there’s like an executive summary that’s like, “Look, if you do these five things great, you will excel at this company.” That was just really important to me.

Once we get through that process, meaning the candidates sort of met or exceeded the needs that we’re seeking, we bring them in and we do a behavioral interview. Behavioral interview is not, “Tell me how you handle conflict.” It’s, “Give me a specific example in which you had to deliver a client, a budget that was over what they wanted to spend, and how did you handle it?” Just that little tweak there … Do you ever listen to Barry Deutsch, or have you seen Barry-

Adam Robinson: Yeah.

Tony Iannessa: … Deutsch speak?

Adam Robinson: Yeah. Yes.

Tony Iannessa: “You’re Not the Person I Hired!”

Adam Robinson: Yeah.

Tony Iannessa: Barry Deutsch put together this whole candidate scorecard thing and really, so in addition to the personality and the intellect, we then go through the behavioral interview, and then a candidate scorecard, and then the decision is made based on real data. A year ago, we’d be getting résumés, people would be spending two, three hours interviewing people, and the feedback was after the fact. “What’d you think of that person?” It was, “Oh, he was a great guy,” or, “Yeah, I think she could do the job.” It just, we were never getting to a decision of, “Should we hire this person?”

Adam Robinson: What inspired you to do this? I mean, to, I think we talk about on this show if you want to be good at this stuff, you got to declare your intention, but then you have to actually do something about it, so you have to put some kind of process or system in place, and somebody, by God, has to manage this thing. I mean, so for a 20-person firm, not easy, a lot of time. Was there a moment where you said, “Enough,” or you just, you go to, was it, what, in a Vistage meeting or [crosstalk 00:15:37]-

Tony Iannessa: Yeah, Vistage has been instrumental as it relates to just putting processes in place for growth. I’ve got a great group of folks that are on my CEO’s group, and many of which are much, much older than me and have gone through and had hit some of the landmines that I’m trying to avoid, but it’s really simple for me. It’s always been really simple for me. This is a human capital business, so we sell really no tangible asset, and all we have is going up and down in the elevator every day. To reinvest in our company, we’re not a software business, so if we’re going to reinvest, there’s no development. There’s no ops. We have to develop our people, and so what better way to do that than to start by investing human capital like day one?

Adam Robinson: Yeah. You mentioned core values a few moments ago. Talk about those for your organization.

Tony Iannessa: Okay. Well, we have four. One of them’s trust. I think everyone has trust in their core values, so we did that in a lot of ways because contracting is really based on trust. You can sign all the contracts in the world that you want and have every stipulation in there, and at the end of the day, you, as the client, is saying, “We believe that these guys are going to do what they said they’re going to do.” That’s always been really one of my Iannessa principles is just do what you say you’re going to do. It’s really simple stuff, but it’s so hard to do, and if you’re not going to do something, don’t say you’re going to do it.

Trust is just really important, and if we look a client in the eye and say, “We’re going to meet this date, June 23rd, 2018,” that’s the date, and there’s no coming back from it. That’s just been pounded into our culture, mostly from me, because it’s a personal principle of mine. Big ideas I’m really, really, really, really proud of is the second of the four. Ideas, so did you read Ray Dalio’s Principles book?

Adam Robinson: I haven’t read Principles, but he, and this was in the newsletter a couple weeks back, he published a eight-part video animated series on the Principles book, which I thought was just an exceptional primer. It was a half hour well spent.

Tony Iannessa: Yes.

Adam Robinson: I did watch those.

Tony Iannessa: I would encourage, that’s the book that I’m reading right now, and it’s a long read. It’s like 800 pages. It’s-

Adam Robinson: Yeah. It’s, I got-

Tony Iannessa: It’s a commitment.

Adam Robinson: … volume angst on that. That’s a big one, and it, carrying … I like to read actual books-

Tony Iannessa: Same.

Adam Robinson: … so toting that bad boy around is not going to be fun.

Tony Iannessa: It is like a dictionary. It’s funny. It’s like, so I’ve gone back and forth on the Audible version and then the written version, but Ray Dalio’s idea is, he functions Bridgewater Capital as an idea meritocracy, and so the best ideas win, whether they come from me or they come from one of our interns. That is absolutely how our business is run. It sounds crazy, but we have the grinders in the company, like I want to hear from them like, “How can we improve this process?” Because I have a lot of ideas, but I’m not the one really grinding in the work out anymore every day, so I have … It’s tough. It’s tough to get entry-level employees to feel comfortable going to their direct reports or even me and saying, “Hey, I’ve got an unpopular idea, but I really think I need to voice it.”

Bridgewater has absolutely knocked that out of the park to the point where they have like 24-year-old analysts emailing Ray Dalio with the leadership team copy telling him that his presentation sucked. Maybe that’s a little far out there, but to the extent we can get candor from our team, I’m constantly for that, and it’s just making the environment comfortable for folks to come in and say, “Hey, I got an idea. That’s where the big ideas comes from.” Big drive is kind of just inherent in anybody who would … All of us left half-billion-dollar organizations, safe, comfortable, great jobs to come and do this because we had big drive. We’re constantly striving to improve, and so that one I’m pretty, that one’s kind of easy, so it’s trust, drive, ideas. There’s a fourth one. Look it up. Oh, experience. Kind of dovetailed into that.

Big experience. The team that comes to the table, though the company’s two years old, comes with decades of experience, specifically working together, and then we actually have four or five really, really seasoned veterans in the field that have been doing this for three decades, some four decades, so we do bring a ton of experience, but we pair it with a little bit of that drive. That’s really our balance that we found to work.

Adam Robinson: How are you making those manifest in the interview process? Assessments like Predictive Index, or Caliper, or others, Wonderlic, are all great at profiling, but your way of doing it, how do you assess that?

Tony Iannessa: Like whether a candidate’s going to fit in?

Adam Robinson: To big ideas.

Tony Iannessa: That is-

Adam Robinson: How do you assess big ideas?

Tony Iannessa: That is the hardest. That is the hardest part of it, so you can have the greatest process in the world, but you got to use your eyes and your ears, too. The idea, I guess, behind the process is like, “Let’s eliminate a lot of the guesswork. Let’s get a lot of data on the table,” but at the end of the day, the people that are doing the interviews, in my mind, and maybe idealistically, know the culture, and they should know if the person’s going to fit or not.

Adam Robinson: There you go.

Tony Iannessa: You’ve got a ton of data here, which is great, but there’s still some subjectivity to hiring, because-

Adam Robinson: Yeah. We’re human beings.

Tony Iannessa: You got to deal with people. Exactly.

Adam Robinson: Yeah. Yeah. Very good. If you look back over the last couple of years and then your previous experience, is there a philosophy you can point to and say, “You know what? If I’m going to sum up my approach to the people side of leading this business, this is how I do it”?

Tony Iannessa: Well, I am a firm believer in letting people take as much responsibility as they’re willing to take at any level, no matter what their age is, no matter what their experience is. I’ve let people make mistakes and learn from them and taught, used it as a teaching experience rather than a scolding experience. I’ve been, there’s been, I can count on my hand, probably one hand, how many people have actually let me down over the years that have worked for me that I’ve given that responsibility or freedom to. I can think of two right now that haven’t exceeded the expectations. I can think of 20 that have.

Adam Robinson: Pretty good return.

Tony Iannessa: No question.

Adam Robinson: Return on trust is-

Tony Iannessa: No question.

Adam Robinson: … high there. Flip side of that equation, then, what are some things, as you sit here today looking at the future of the business as it relates to the people side? What are some things you know you need to do differently?

Tony Iannessa: Well, I think one really, one low-hanging fruit for myself and our CFO by the end of the year is formal KPIs, key performance indicators. Again, we’re a 20-person organization, so it’s everybody’s pretty stretched thin. We haven’t had the time to really sit down, but I think when it comes to performance reviews, we really need to have very key, very specific key metrics to sit down at the end of the year, or quarterly, and say, “Here’s what you’re tracking towards. Here is how you get to where we need you to.” My staff is, our average age is under 27, and I’m probably not that far off from the millennial generation myself, but they want to know where they’re going, how they’re going to get there, and to see a roadmap. I certainly do, always have, so to the extent we can provide KPIs, I think we’re ahead of the curve there.

Adam Robinson: If you were, because we land the plane here on the show, you look out over the next year, if you were to come back on this show a year from now and tell us whether or not you did the most important thing or took advantage of the biggest opportunity in front of you as it relates to your culture and growth in the people side of your business, what will you be telling our audience in a year happened?

Tony Iannessa: Two parts. I think, well, maybe multiple parts. The first would be really honing in on the recruitment process and having really formalized KPIs in place tied to compensation. Then the third would be, which is a big one for career development, would be to have a formal career development, mentoring, and training program in place, so just kind of simply said, “I want to be able to define success in every role. I want to communicate it effectively, and I want to measure it, and I want to reward those people that are overachieving, and I want to sit down and see how I can help the people that aren’t.”

Adam Robinson: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the final word. You’ve been learning from Tony Iannessa, founder and CEO at BIG Construction. Tony, thank you for being with us on the program today.

Tony Iannessa: Thank you very much.

Adam Robinson: That is a wrap for this week’s episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast, where we’re featuring entrepreneurs and business leaders whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, author of the book The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at Thank you for tuning in. We will see you here next week.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to The Best Team Wins Podcast with Adam Robinson. You can find out more information about Adam and his book, The Best Team Wins: Building Your Business Through Predictive Hiring, at Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next week.