As most entrepreneurs will tell you, starting your own company is no easy feat. We sat down with Ray and Nancy Nunn to reflect on Nunn Construction’s early days and learn what drove Ray to start his own company and help sustain it for 40 years.
As the son of a banker and grandson of a cattle rancher, both of whom had their own businesses, ambition and the importance of freedom was instilled in Ray from an early age. At eight years old, he remembers having a conversation with his father about what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A dentist?” his dad offered up since the local dentist seemed like he had a good gig, but at that same moment, out the car window, Ray saw a train going under a bridge and confidently said, “An engineer.”
That dream persisted to the University of New Mexico where Ray studied engineering along with business law and accounting. At the time, construction management programs didn’t exist, but an early mentor encouraged him to go towards construction rather than design and engineering. Ray agreed that sitting behind a desk was not the ideal work life for him. The thing he still loves most about construction is how it allows you to see and touch the substantial product of your work, knowing it will last for decades and be used by all kinds of people.
GETTING STARTED IN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY
After graduation Ray had a rough start at his first job, coming face to face with the challenges that can occur in construction between the “field educated” and “book educated” sides of the industry. His first project was a trial by fire, but he progressed quickly at Hensel Phelps and worked hard to gain the respect of long-time superintendents in the field and learn as much as possible from them. OSHA had just entered the scene in 1970 and Ray remembers helping train and implement the many new regulations across the company.
Next, Ray took an opportunity to work with GE Johnson Construction and moved from Greeley to Colorado Springs. His drive and ambition, which led to ownership opportunities and a Vice President role, also unfortunately resulted in feeling overextended and burnt out at age 29.
Ray recalls, “It’s no surprise that ambition and burnout can come hand in hand. As I found myself with more and more responsibility, I also began thinking that if I’m working THIS hard, I might as well be working for myself.” However, it was not an easy choice to strike out on his own. He respected the many mentors and opportunities given to him, and he had a young family at home. On one of his famous yellow notepads, Ray listed advantages and disadvantages of staying versus going.
One day, at 31 years old, he came home and let Nancy know he had decided that he did want to start his own company and he had just quit his job. After her initial shock, she gathered herself together and stood solidly behind his plan. “I didn’t want Ray to be 80, look back and regret not starting his own company. I knew he could do it and I never doubted him.”
LEADING WITH HONESTY AND OPTIMISM FIRST
Nancy’s unyielding support and encouragement was a pivotal foundation for Ray and Nunn Construction. She always believed in Ray and her positivity mantra that “things always work out” carried them both through periods of doubt and fear, especially in the first few years. Ray credits a strong work ethic, dedication to picking yourself up after failures, surrounding yourself with people that believe in you, and not wanting to give up as the keys to overcoming a fear of failure.
Ray’s goal for Nunn Construction starting out was first and foremost to build a solid reputation. To do that, he believed that focusing on quality and creating reliability through meeting schedules were top priorities, as well as building strong relationships with architects and owners. “You’re only as good as your last job” is a common phrase you’ll hear from Ray to this day, and he always committed to being honest and fair even in those hard first few years.
He freely admits that especially in the ‘80s, these values didn’t always result in jobs to build in an industry focused on low bid work at the time. He saw other contractors get projects simply because their number was the lowest, whether they were transparent about how they got it or not. Even though there were many sleepless nights, and it took 6 months to land their first job, Ray remained dedicated to always being able to look himself in the mirror rather than sacrificing his integrity to land a project.
Many new construction companies do not last 5 years, and Ray not only wanted to last more than 5 years, but be a small company that could build large, complex projects. He knew those types of projects would require Nunn Construction to develop greater sophistication and relationships with high-quality subcontractors. However, things were far from glamorous in the beginning. Nancy remembers that their VERY first office was their home but with children Tyson and Lindsey, ages 10 and 7 at the time, their house was a popular neighborhood gathering spot. Trying to ensure their phone was answered “Nunn Construction, how may I help you?” was a big ask.
“You’re only as good as your last job.”
Eventually, Ray found a tiny office space off Garden of the Gods Road near the railroad tracks. Trains would shake his plan table, and there was no heat in the bathroom or makeshift waiting area, but Ray wanted to be frugal and not rely on borrowed money to fund the company. He’d simply pick up the plans that rolled off his table daily and put on a hat and an extra pair of wool socks in the winter.
Within the company’s first 2 years, his confidence and the legitimacy of the company grew exponentially; from their first job at Circle Baptist Church to building faith-based spaces, to school construction, and eventually their very first Class A+ office project expanding the Center for Creative Leadership.
WITHSTANDING THE YEARS WITH TIMELESS ADVICE
New companies starting out today may not count a typewriter, oversized desktop computer, calculator, and a big yellow wheelbarrow as their key early acquisitions like the Nunns did. Ray reflected on the qualities that shape Nunn Construction and have stood the test of time:
- Be honest.
- Do what you say you’re going to do.
- Do it right the first time.
- Be fair in all your dealings.
- Lead by example.
- Help make your employees successful and take the backseat as their leader.
Our leadership remains true to these values as our foundation. As we look to the future, we strive for those qualities to never change about Nunn Construction and are grateful to have worked with so many other organizations that share these same values.