CompanyEthos West Construction, Inc.
OwnerSaul Whitworth, Kenny Nichol and Elke Stevens
Ethos West Construction, Inc., eases construction burden, builds lasting relationships | SBDC
BELLINGHAM, Wash. – After working for mid-sized building contractors since the early 2000s, three longtime friends and colleagues were inspired to start a company that focused on building lasting relationships while easing the burdens that inevitably come with construction projects. Saul Whitworth, Kenny Nichol and Elke Stevens started Ethos West Construction, Inc., to extend their culture of honesty and integrity (their “ethos”) to improve the lives of their customers, team, industry partners and community.
Founded in April 2019, Ethos West offers exceptional employee benefits and growth opportunities. And it is known in the community for pitching in – with Habitat for Humanity building projects, for example, and with cleanup efforts after last year’s devastating floods in Whatcom County.
“We wanted to build ongoing relationships with the long-term care of our clients, employees, suppliers and community in mind,” Stevens said.
While familiar with their industry, the three were new to business ownership, and “none of us were strategic planners,” Stevens said. But they knew the Western Washington University Small Business Development Center had helped a friend start a coffee shop, so they contacted advisor Sherri Daymon at the Washington SBDC office in Bellingham.
The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 40 advisors in more than two dozen communities across the state, working to help owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. Advising is confidential, provided at no cost to the client and made possible through the U.S. Small Business Administration and funding partners including institutions of higher education, economic development agencies and business and civic organizations.
Friends structure business on planning, communication, teamwork
Daymon supplied the partners with a framework and worksheets for organizing their thoughts into a shareholder plan. They separately considered areas such as mission, values, finances, employees and communication, then gathered for discussion.
“The three of them have good management experience,” Daymon said. “And with their long friendship, they have good communication. I am impressed with how they make sure each one is heard. They are level-headed thinkers and planners who care about doing what is right.”
“We knew what we wanted,” Whitworth said about the owners’ goals for Ethos West. “But working with Sherri also helped us see what we didn’t want. It opened our eyes to questions we hadn’t thought of.” They considered the competition and how best to position their company for the size and style of responsive, custom contractor they desired.
And they determined how to maximize their strengths as the three shareholder/owners: accountant Stevens is the controller; Nichol is the senior project manager leading construction projects and overseeing project managers and crews; and Whitworth works on the front end with new clients to coordinate estimates, permits and contracts.
Investing so employees may thrive
Ethos West has grown in three years to include 27 employees who handle about 45 projects at any given time, though at various stages and of varying size. Health insurance is an immediate benefit. With a focus on continually improving the benefit package, the company in October began a 401K retirement plan for employees of two years.
“Our team is tight-knit and emphasizes quality,” Whitworth said. “We are looking for more employees and are invested in raising our team from within.” Two early hires have since advanced into management roles, he said.
Due to the 2008 construction downturn, the industry lacks skilled carpenters, “and we want to invest in the kind of training that will uplift our younger team members when a project allows,” he said. “This feels like our best hope for a strong, skilled team in the future.”
“We are focused on careful, intentional growth,” Stevens added. “We may not aspire to 100 employees, but perhaps might aim for 50 or 60 in the next five years.”
Building skills shared in community service
The owners’ investment in people embraces their community. Ethos West routinely sends crews, sometimes on immediate notice, to help Habitat for Humanity when its building projects are in a pinch for skilled labor. Ethos West covers its team’s wages during regular business hours, but also sponsors volunteer days for employees and family/friends.
Donations are made to nonprofit auctions – sometimes gift certificates or a “carpenter-for-a-day” item of eight hours of skilled labor.
When November flooding caused $100 million in damage throughout Whatcom County, the company offered assistance – including organizing and leading a day of cleanup work in the town of Sumas.
After an area landscaper lost her legs in an accident a year ago, community volunteers rallied to remodel her home to be wheelchair accessible. “This need was brought to our attention by one of our teammates, who felt called to help,” Stevens said. “We sent him and a team to help move the project along to completion.
“It wasn’t just us, but our hope is to be known as a company that will join in and help when a need arises.”
Planning to flourish alongside growth and change
To strengthen that commitment to service and longevity, the owners recently began working with Daymon on long-term planning.
“We don’t want to dwell on worst-case scenarios,” Whitworth said. “But we need to consider how a move away from the area or ill health of one of us might impact the business, and how we would resolve it. Sherri is helping us make sure we are not caught off guard if one of us leaves.”
Planning includes discussions about continued employee incentives such as bonuses, a more robust benefit package, management team compensation and the company’s future as owners and managers age and approach retirement.
“We have been quick to work on our plans and start our business,” Whitworth said. “Sherri’s counsel has cautioned us to create policies as we grow, to have them in place before we get there. She reminds us to be intentional.”
Learn more about Ethos West Construction, Inc., at https://www.ethoswest.com.
Learn more about the Washington SBDC at https://wsbdc.org.
Learn more about the Western Washington University SBDC at https://sbdc.wwu.edu.
By Cynthia King, Washington SBDC