Leadership

A Life of Climb Podcast Episode 7 – JEM Group CEO Jessica Meyers on building to improve lives

A Life of Climb Podcast Episode 7 Jessica Meyers

JEM Group President & Owner Jessica Meyers shares how increasing diversity has helped her women-led company raise the bar in the construction industry. Plus, she talks about the work it takes to cultivate an authentic leadership style and why she ties business growth to lives impacted.

Learn more about how Jessica has:

  • Established transparency with customers and mapped the customer journey to strengthen customer relationships.
  • Increased employee engagement through open communication.
  • Created a long-term approach to recruiting talent and built a team for success.

Transcript

Jessica Meyer: For me, when I think about building to improve lives, I really believe that the work that we do improves our employees’ lives, every subcontractor and vendor that walks on our job site, the clients who we’re building a building for. Could be adding a window to someone’s office or just the greater community. I feel like it’s that powerful.

Sam: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of A Life of Climb podcast. I’m here today with Jessica Meyer, CEO of the JEM Group, a construction services firm in Central Pennsylvania. Welcome, Jessica.
Jessica Meyer: Thank you very much, Sam.

Sam: Congrats on the amazing success you’ve had for now, I guess almost 20 years. And when I look at some of the awards besides just Vistage’s Lifetime Achievement Award, which is exciting, I look at Pennsylvania’s Best 50 Women in Business, SBA’s Women-owned Business of the Year, three-time fastest-growing company in Central Pennsylvania, General Contractor of the Year by the American Subcontractors Association, incredible involvement in philanthropy from the YMCA, Central Penn Food Bank, Salvation Army, Penn State Medical Center, all these incredible accomplishments. But let’s talk about how it all started because I think about where you are today and that it’s going to be fun to hear your journey. I have to start by looking at your background, communication major. Tell me how this happened that you even got in a construction business.

Jessica Meyer: Thank you, Sam. So I went to school initially as a political science major, changed to a communications major, was really just trying to figure it all out. During that time in my summer’s home, when I would come home for the summer, my stepfather owned a regional construction company, and I would work there in the summer. So that was really when I dipped my toe into the water. Still did not have my sight set on a career in construction, but had a little exposure. Fast-forward, I graduated from Penn State, started looking for a job, interviewed for some jobs in the communication field, thought I would give that a try until my stepfather approached me and he said, “Why don’t you come and work for me for a little while?” That for now turned into about 10 years working for him in a variety of positions.

My first assignment was I went and spent almost two years on a job site. So there was no cushy job in the office. Now I wasn’t using a hammer, but I was part of a project team that was managing a very large building program at a place called the Milton Hershey School. And that’s when I got to see firsthand the construction process and when I really started to get interested in having a career in that business.

Sam: How soon into it were you excited about it thinking, “This is what I’m going to do.”? So you start off on this project here, but how far were you into this career when you went, “I think this is what I want to do.”?

Jessica Meyer: I worked for eight years doing business development across a variety of sectors. And that’s when I really started to enjoy the business, got to work with a lot of different companies and sit with an organization and talk about an inception of a project, and then really get to see it through to the end. Really just enjoyed that process. So I would say once I got engaged in selling and helping bring people on board for projects, that’s when I knew I wanted to be in this business

 

Diversity in the construction industry

Sam: Well, you said one of the major reasons you started JEM Group was because there was and there is a real need for diverse contractors and subcontractors. So take us back to your thinking then in starting the company and how you plan to address that need.

Jessica Meyer: Yeah. So at that point in time, I was still working for my stepfather, a large regional contractor. They were doing a lot of projects in the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And on those projects, there were a lot of requirements for diverse subcontractors, sometimes 20%, sometimes more. And what I learned during that time is there really were a lack of diverse contractors, subcontractors in our community. And I saw an opportunity to form a business, a diverse business, woman-led business to address that need. And that need still remains today. I’m able to play my part and also try to on the projects that we undertake as a general contractor and construction manager, make sure that we have as much diverse subcontractor participation as we can. I think it’s really important.

Sam: Are there any big lessons along the way you’ve learned? Because there had to be some obstacles you had to overcome on this journey.

Assembling the right team for success

Jessica Meyer: Yes. There were many. Speaking to the woman working in a male-dominated field, you have to remember that I’d already been working in construction for about 10 years. So when I started JEM Group, that wasn’t one of my biggest concerns. I was pretty comfortable being the only woman in a room, walking onto a job site or being the only woman at a pre-bid. But what I was concerned about was the fact that I was starting a business when I was 30 years old and had never run a business before. I did not have a technical background. So lesson learned for me was making sure that I was putting the right team around me. That was the right consultants, having the right attorney, CPA that could talk financial language to somebody that didn’t have a strong financial background. I mean, all of those things needed to be assembled so that I was prepared to launch the business. So those were the things that I was really thinking about, much more so than the male-dominated thing.

I also say that I grew up with two parents that told me that I could do anything. I remember my mom was coaching my soccer team when I was probably in second or third grade, but I was the only girl on the team that year. I grew up in a rural community in Somerset County and girls didn’t really play soccer. And I remember the one day my mom sent me off in the field and she just said, “You go out there. You’re just as good as those boys.” And I think when you have people like that in your life and you hear those voices at those moments when you’re doubting yourself, that was important for me.

Sam: What a great story here. Well, I mean, I want to ask about a few of the projects because some of them are pretty cool. Would you describe if it’s possible, is there any way to describe what the ideal JEM customer is? Who are the people or the perfect projects or the people you work with? Maybe just as a synopsis, that would be helpful.

Jessica Meyer: I think there is an ideal customer, for sure. I think when we’re able to do business with customers that we can have relationships with, that we’re not just building one project, where we have a purpose and values that are aligned. I think that’s when the best outcomes and collaborations occur.

Sam: That’s what makes business fun, when those all can connect. That’s when it’s really fun. I mean, when I look on your site, when I hear about the projects you’ve done, REI, Susquehanna Art Museum, of course, I was going to ask about Hershey’s Chocolatetown. Tell us a little bit about those projects. When you think about the fun behind them, the excitement behind them, what’s been the most fun project you’ve worked on? Is it Hershey’s Chocolatetown? Tell us that.

Jessica Meyer: That was certainly an exciting project because it was very public. Hershey Entertainment Resort owns and operates that facility, and they wanted to reimagine the front entrance and customer experience as you entered the park. And that is Hershey’s Chocolatetown. So there’s a lot of buildings there. Super exciting project. But what made that project really special for me and for JEM is Hershey Entertainment Resort has been my client for many, many years. They always came to us for their smaller projects, not for the big ones. And every year, I would go in and I’d meet with them and I said, “Hey. This is great. We’re so grateful for the business, but we can do more. Let me tell you what we’ve been doing.” And I would go in, and I would tell our story every year, and the director of construction there, who I had a good relationship with, he’s like, “I hear you, Jessica. Just be patient. Just be patient.”

Jessica Meyer: So finally, Hershey’s Chocolatetown, everybody knows it’s coming. And I get a phone call saying, “We’d like you to submit a proposal for this.” So very long story short, we did the project. It was very successful. But what was really special for us is it really put us on the map as a small, woman-owned business that was capable of doing large, complex work. And so it really was a game changer for us, not just doing the work and doing it well, but really has springboarded us into being able to be tapped on the shoulder for a much larger project.

Sam: Yeah. I would imagine from a business development perspective, just like you said, when you are able to jump into a project like that, it just opens a door to say, “Hey. We proved ourself here.” If you could encapsulate the JEM difference, when people work with JEM, what’s the difference that when you’re out there talking to people about the real value of working with you, what’s the key difference that they’ll get in working with your company?

Mapping customer journey

Jessica Meyer: So when I think about that particular project, we really thought about what is it going to take to win and get across the finish line? We’ve got to look at every single project that we undertake, understand the complexities. We put together the right group of individuals and really customized that experience for the clients and for the project. And that’s what really makes the difference, not just having this cookie-cutter approach. We took the time probably about five years ago to map our customer experience and customer journey. It was after I saw a Vistage speaker.

Sam: All right.

Jessica Meyer: That’s a true story. And I said, “I want to do this.” And I hired a consultant, and that has made a difference in how we’re doing business with our customers and how we’re transacting and keeping us consistent in following a process. And I do think that that makes us different than other contractors in the region.

Building to improve lives

Sam: Your tagline at JEM is “We build to improve lives”. And talk to me about that positioning and why you think it’s so important to connect what you build to the people that it impacts.

Jessica Meyer: Yeah. I love that question. So several years ago, we were going through a planning process, and that’s when the buzz about Simon Sinek, “What’s your why?” and everybody started talking about purpose and our facilitator challenges, and they’re like, “Well, why are you doing this other than to make money and give people jobs?” And I kept coming back to building to improve lives over and over again. And I presented that to my team and they were like, “Yeah, that’s it.” And for me, when I think about building to improve lives, I really believe that the work that we do improves our employees’ lives, every subcontractor and vendor that walks on our job site, the clients who we’re building a building for. Could be adding a window to someone’s office or just the greater community. I feel like it’s that powerful. And so we have rallied around that at JEM. We talk about it at our company. We talk about it outside of our company, and it’s become part of our brand and a part of our organization.

Sam: I know we’re still seeing the impacts in many businesses of the COVID pandemic. And I know that construction industry has impacted through things like supply chain challenges, labor shortages everywhere, inflation. What are some of the big learnings that maybe you gained during the pandemic, and how are you applying them to your business today? Such a hot topic among CEOs.

Transparency with customers

Jessica Meyer: We realize that we need to be adaptable and have a flexible game plan at all times. You talked about supply chain and prices changing really daily in some cases. Maybe not that volatile right this second, but there was a period of time where our subcontractors wouldn’t hold a price for more than 24 hours. And so one of the things that’s disruptive to our clients, it’s disruptive to our ability to manage budgets. And so our approach with our clients is just to be 100% transparent at all times about what’s happening and what we’re doing. It’s really the only way to manage the situation. And quite frankly, it’s worked really well, bringing our clients in under the tent, letting them know where things are at all times. Got to be ready for anything.

Sam: Completely agree with you. I think that’s such a great point about transparency. I’ve seen so many businesses struggle that tried to craft a new story, a new strategy, a new plan, and then just change on you instead of just talking with your customers about what challenges you have because they’re having the same challenges as everybody else. You talked about being transparent. You also described your leadership style as authentic. I wonder what that means to you and why do you think it’s important for a leader to be authentic in order to build trust? Tell us a little bit about that.

Authentic Leadership

Jessica Meyer: So to me, being authentic starts with honesty, being able to really listen, and sometimes being vulnerable. I think all of those things help build trust within a team. That’s something that I try to lead with. I can tell you a little story. Last week, I was out on a job site visiting one of my superintendents, as I often do. And he’s going through some personal struggles right now in his family. And I stood there, and I listened to him for 20 minutes. And after I listened to him, it turns out that I had had a very similar situation that he was facing. And I shared that with him, and he listened to me, and then we parted ways. And fast-forward to yesterday, he and I were talking on the phone about something. He said, “I wanted to let you know how much that conversation that we had last week meant to me, the fact that you were willing to, as the CEO of the company, share something personal like that. It made me feel like I’m not on an island.”

And I think that, me being a little bit vulnerable, sharing something, he never thought… He’s looking up thinking, “Oh. She’s a CEO. Her life is perfect.” And I think being real with people and letting them really see you and having that honesty, I think it builds trust and a connection and engagement. That’s what authentic means.

Sam: It’s a great story.

Jessica Meyer: Yeah. Thank you.

Sam: Where did you learn that? Is that something that you had a mentor that helped model that? Where’d you learn that?

Jessica Meyer: I know I spent a lot of time as a younger person, as a younger leader, thinking I needed to be or act a certain way.

Sam: All of us. Yeah.

Jessica Meyer: And that takes a lot of work. I don’t want to do that anymore. And so I think for me, that word authentic resonates with me, and I work at it. It’s not natural because you spend all these years, “I’m the CEO. I need to behave a certain way and be a certain way.” But it’s not natural. So I think now that I’m more mature and comfortable in my own skin and comfortable as a leader, being authentic just feels right.

Sam: Makes life easier too, doesn’t it?

Jessica Meyer: It does make life easier.

Sam: Let’s talk about mentorship. I know you talk about this being important to you. And along with building your teams, can you take us a little bit through your philosophy on mentorship and how are you working to grow this next generation within your company and even within your industry? Tell us a little bit about that.
Long-term approaches to recruiting talent

Jessica Meyer: I had so many positive mentoring relationships along the way. I think sometimes people were mentoring me and they didn’t even know it. And I really want to give back and make sure that I’m paying it forward and mentoring other people. And been a big sister for Big Brothers Big Sisters. I’ve I mentored a student at Harrisburg University, our local university. So I try to do that one-on-one and then I try to encourage other people within JEM to have those mentoring relationships. But related to mentoring and encouraging the next generation of construction leaders, that’s something that I’m really focused on in our team at JEM. You mentioned earlier about labor shortages. One of the reasons there are labor shortages is we have an aging skilled labor pool right now and we don’t have enough young people going into the trades. We’ve been, excuse the term, brainwashed for years that you need to go to college to be successful. And it’s just not true.

Sam: I agree.

Jessica Meyer: It’s just not true. So we are talking to kids early, as early as four years old, about construction. And those conversations are pretty simplistic for the four-year-olds, but up into the high schoolers. This year, we had a co-op student working with us from the local technical school carpentry program. He was with us in the fall and the spring. He was excellent, and we just hired him full-time. But I really think for our industry, we need to be out there as construction leaders talking to students when they’re young about how great it is. And that’s something that we’re really invested in personally at JEM, is developing that next generation. And it takes time. Our first job is to serve our clients and build buildings, but we’re not going to be able to build buildings if we don’t grow our workforce.

Sam: That seems like a terrific cause. I just love the statement you made there, that to go into skilled trade is an incredible career. People can have incredible lives doing that. We definitely don’t educate people enough on that. It’s exciting to hear somebody really thinking about that because I just think that somehow, like you say, everybody gets programmed, that you got to go on this path. Any secrets you have right now on hiring and retaining great people? We talked about the supply chain. This is also on the minds of CEOs, hiring great people and keeping great people. Anything you are learning at JEM that other listeners might be able to learn from you?

Communicating with your team to increase engagement

Jessica Meyer: Talk to your people all of the time. Stay connected. Make sure that they know that they matter, that they have a career path, that they are an important part of your organization. That is really, to me, it’s very basic and fundamental, but in the course of a busy work environment, I don’t think it happens enough, and we’re all vulnerable right now. And if you’re talking to your employees and you’re listening to your employees, you can hopefully get ahead of that. All the other basics, of course, compensation. But beyond that, making sure you have that great culture of listening and making your people feel important and engaged and being transparent and honest and authentic. Those things to me matter just as much as the compensation.

Sam: What do you see as the next big challenge for JEM on the horizon here as you figure out your next path? I think you’ve set a goal to get to 100 million. What’s the next big challenge to get you there?

Jessica Meyer: I think that we just talked about it. I think building the team to get us, sustaining the team we have, and building that next generation of JEM Group leaders to help us get to $100 million. We work in a great region and area in Pennsylvania and we’re very thankful that work is plentiful, and we’re working really hard to build that team. There’s a lot of focus here on career development and training, and that will be pivotal for us to springboard and hit that 100 million in revenue with 100 team members improving 100 million lives. That’s what we’re striving for over the next 10 years.

Sam: Makes a fun place to work when that’s part of the story, when people really see that kind of impact. I love that. Is there any other advice you could give other leaders?

Jessica Meyer: We talked about mentorship. I would just say you’re never too old for a mentor. As a leader, I always look for ways to get better professionally and personally, and I think mentorship, whether that takes the form of a Vistage peer group, which is really my primary source of mentorship, or a trusted colleague, or even an advisory group, I think that if we want to continue to be the best leaders that we can be, having somebody that you can talk to and support you and help you grow, I just think you’re never too old for a mentor.

Sam: Well, thank you, Jessica, for spending time with us today. What a great success story, and really appreciate the insights that you shared. Best of luck in the future.

Jessica Meyer: Thank you so much, Sam. It was great being here.

Sam: Thanks for joining us for this edition of A Life of Climb podcast. Friendly reminder to please subscribe or follow the podcast to get all the latest episodes. And please visit vistage.com/podcast for more resources to support you on your leadership journey.

 

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Sam Reese

Sam Reese is CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses. Over his 35 year career as a business leader, Sam has led large and midsize organizatio…

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