Self-Taught MBA: ‘The Elements of Building,’ a new book by Mark Q. Kerson
There’s only a handful of books aimed at the business of building. Of those, only three talk turkey to remodelers and small homebuilders, and none were written recently. So it’s about time for an update, and The Elements of Building: A Business Handbook for Residential Builders and Tradesmen fills the void with plentiful practical advice for today’s young craftsman-turned-entrepreneur, and with just enough wisdom to make the older builder smile and nod his head in agreement.
A Very Different Business Book
The Elements of Building: A Business Handbook for Residential Builders & Tradesmen derives its name from the seminal grammar guide written by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. In this little gem of a style guide, the authors manage such concise and precise prose that they shrink volumes of grammar into about 100 lively little pages that tell just about everything a writer really needs to know. Mark Q. Kerson wished he had a similar, condensed business guide he could refer to 30 years ago, when he decided to trade his hammer for a briefcase. He never found such a guide.
So Kerson did what most of us do, he learned life’s lessons the hard way–making mistakes, and then making corrections. But unlike most of us, he kept a diary. Now in retirement, Kerson travels fulltime and enjoys the fruits of his financial and personal success. But the road to success became a painful journey at times, which could have been made easier for Kerson if he knew then what he knows now. So in the hopes of smoothing your path, Kerson opened his diary, sharpened his pencil, and over a three-year period wrote a concise and very precise business handbook for the seasoned tradesman going into business for himself. “Some guys think you just need to know the trade, and they know it well, but business is more than just knowing your trade. It’s a trade unto itself,” Kerson told me over the phone.
An Integrated Approach
You’ve probably heard the cold cliché, “it’s just business, not personal,” but Kerson disagrees, and rejects this attitude outright. For him, life as a whole is a very personal affair. So you won’t find him swimming with sharks or winning at the full-contact sport of business. Kerson knows that for the average remodeler or local homebuilder, there’s little to separate the attributes of business from those of a quality life. As such, The Elements of Building is a business book in the traditional sense, with chapters on accurate estimating and strict job-cost accounting, marketing strategies, personnel management, and hiring good clients, but Kerson, who earned an MBA from Eastern University, sets the tone in his opening chapter, where ethical principles lay the foundations of success, “honesty is a builder’s most basic tool and a customer’s most basic requirement,” he writes in the opening chapter “Rules, Ethics, and Opinions.”
Kerson believes that the environment you create at the workplace is by and large the environment in which you will live. So choose your business partners, employees, subcontractors, and especially your clients with great care, and then treat them with unwavering respect. “It’s all life, there is no line between life and business,” he told me.
Yet Kerson manages his message in a way that does not come across in the slightest preachy, or moralistic. This is a practical guide to having a business you can enjoy, as well make profitable. I asked Kerson how he would distill his business philosophy into the three most basic lessons he’d like to pass on, and this is what he told me:
- Ethics underpins everything.
- As hard as it is, put your tool belt down and focus on building and managing your business. Otherwise, go work for someone else.
- Build a community of human resources, people that like their jobs, get along well together, and most of all, hire good customers.
And then he summed it up for me with something we all know is true, “You cannot come home with a good attitude and have a wonderful personal life if you had a lousy day at work.” And you need to add up a lot of good days to have a truly good life.
Following a robust chapter on ethics, which covers everything from the practical benefits of honesty to gratitude and humility, Kerson gets into the nuts and bolts of the business with enlightened writing on business strategies, personnel and subcontractor management, getting work and working with clients, a review of computer systems available for accounting and job costing, and detailed chapters on working with professionals, such as designers, engineers, realtors, and inspectors. The appendix includes sample forms and an excellent bibliography.
Mark Q. Kerson cut his teeth as a carpenter in Vermont before moving to Pennsylvania where he became a businessman builder. Now he's a snowbird and spends his time traveling. But he didn't wait until retirement to be happy, he engineered a good life through good business.