Barry visits each jobsite weekly, attends owner–architect meetings, and acts as the production troubleshooter. “Because I see all these jobs, there's this phenomenal institutional memory I have,” he says. An active racing cyclist, Barry maintains an interest in craft that goes beyond the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. “Charles is competitive,” Goldstein says. And when Thoughtforms is called the best among Boston's artisan builders, it is not due to happenstance. “We always had that as a goal,” Barry says. “There was always a commitment to understanding what the standards of excellence were, and to pursue them. To pursue perfection.”
In that pursuit, Barry presides over monthly supervisors' and project managers' meetings that constitute something of a graduate program in the art of building. Outside experts are invited to make presentations, including an engineer who recently offered a six-part seminar on mechanical systems. Pete Hutchinski, whose maintenance and repair division handles small jobs for past clients, provides regular quality-control and product-performance feedback on finished projects. The meetings also serve as a forum for the supervisors and project managers to share their own ever-expanding knowledge base. “In an ideal world, a mistake is only made on one job,” Barry says. “It's hard to achieve that, but at least you have a shot at it if everyone is sitting together, talking.”
Barry says an important part of his role is “reminding them of our traditional values.” For Barry, who has a degree in architecture but never practiced independently, high among those values is respect for the architect's role and for the architect's intent in each project. “Because our roots are in design/build, we advocate the interests of architecture much more strongly. You can't build something without making design decisions. Architects' plans are never complete; there are always things left to the tradesman's discretion.” By exercising that discretion with good taste, good judgment, and full consultation, Thoughtforms has earned the right to approach most jobs as no less than an equal partner with the architect. For the past five years, virtually all the company's projects have been on negotiated contracts rather than bids.
Despite his nonconstruction background, Goldstein's role and personality have been equally decisive in creating the company that Thoughtforms has become. “I do a couple of things well,” he says, joking that none of them has to do with construction. “The things that I bring to the table are, I have pretty good communication skills, I've got good judgment, and I'm good with numbers.” Then, realizing he's forgotten something, he adds: “I'm good at selling.” That sales, a job Goldstein handles exclusively, almost slips his mind is a clue to how he approaches that task: as a straightforward process of informing and advising potential clients. “I don't do it with a technique in mind, but it turns out that being direct and honest is a very good way to sell.”
Goldstein oversees most of the business operations of the company, but among his duties one stands out in importance. “I do all the hiring,” says Goldstein, who seems to have an uncanny feel for candidates who have the makings of what he calls a “Thoughtforms person.” Goldstein's interviews tend to be longer than applicants expect, he says, because “I'm not always looking for the normal things. I'm really trying to judge who that person is.” Skill and experience count, but more important is “how much integrity that person has.” Grallert has seen the process from the other side of the conference table. “I had nothing to show when I came here, but he trusted me, and he gave me a place to thrive, and he's done that with so many people here.” The result is a tremendously cohesive team. “People are constantly bouncing things off each other,” Grallert says. “We're friends here. We're with each other when we're not here.”
The success of Barry and Goldstein's partnership rests in part on how little overlap exists between their areas of expertise. That division of labor has spared the company one of the biggest challenges most custom builders face: balancing the two sides of a split-personality business. Substantially free of the responsibility of running the business, Barry has been able to steep himself—and his crews—in the technical aspects of construction. For his part, Goldstein has been free to build both responsible management procedures and the human values of the company.
When Goldstein characterizes Thoughtforms as “strong on quality, strong on service, strong on management, and strong on ethics,” one senses that among these virtues it is the last that he values most. In the same way that Barry stresses craftsmanship and creative engagement, Goldstein stresses the business equivalent of the Golden Rule. “Just the basic old Bible stuff,” he says. “You treat somebody the way you would like to be treated.” He promises new employees, “You'll never be fired for making a mistake.” When something goes wrong, as it will, own up and we'll fix it. The attitude is contagious. New employees pick it up from their crewmates; subcontractors catch it from the Thoughtforms people. “And it moves through the company.”
Grallert describes a chain of mutual respect that begins with Barry and Goldstein. “They really take care of their people,” he says. That includes competitive pay, good benefits, and a profit-sharing plan. But Grallert places more importance on his sense that Goldstein and Barry recognize and respect their employees as individuals. Out on the job, that respect takes the form of a creative flexibility. “Everyone is recognized for what they have,” Grallert says. “Each jobsite has a supervisor and a project manager, but if you asked each one what his job description was, they would all be different. No one has tried to make it a system here.”
“What we've tried to create,” Barry says, “is a place where everyone feels ownership of what they are doing. We really try to push authority down. It's very much a bottom-up company.” As a result, he says, “We've had incredibly low turnover.” Flexibility in work roles and the opportunity for employees to make a unique place for themselves in the company are a powerful incentive to stick around. The nature of the work is another. “The work is challenging, it's unique, and people feel like they're part of something,” Barry says. Working at this level “is really a privilege, and I think all the craftsmen appreciate that. Because it is a privilege.”
“People don't tend to leave of their own accord,” Grallert agrees. “I bounced around for years and years, and here I am. And I'm not going anywhere. I've got it too good.” When employees do leave, it tends to be either to try a different career or to start a business. Goldstein says, “I can't think of one who's left us for another company.” Those who set out on their own in construction don't get the back of the hand, either. “If we can, we give them some work.”
The company's approach to its customers reflects the same search for the highest ground on which to build a relationship. “We really see our role as a fiduciary for our clients,” says Goldstein. In nearly all its projects, Thoughtforms is on the job by the preliminary design stage, offering cost feedback and value engineering input. Even without detailed plans, the company works up an exhaustive budget proposal, including labor-and-materials breakouts for items like lineal feet of rake board. That fine-grained detail, based on decades of completed projects, gives clients a welcome sense of control. That control extends also to choice of subcontractors. “We put things out to bid,” Barry says. “And if there are no specifications created by the architect, we will create the specs before we put it out to bid.” The process allows Thoughtforms to offer clients options that other builders can't. “Very often we start construction before the design is even completed,” Barry says. “I'd say that's more the rule than the exception. Our clients feel that time is not an expandable commodity. They understand the risks, but because we can provide the controls, they feel much more comfortable with that.”
Thoughtforms earns the trust of its business-savvy clients with a process that is remarkably transparent. “We charge 15 percent overhead and profit,” Goldstein says. “All our books are open.” The company does not mark up materials, so its small markup on labor yields a gross margin that Goldstein puts at “16 percent, tops.” And that trust has proved well founded. “We've been in business for 22 years,” Goldstein says. “We've never been in litigation with anyone. We've never had a lien on one of our projects.”
Twenty-two years ago, Goldstein and Barry did not envision that their company would someday employ 70 people and earn annual revenues up to $35 million. But adherence to their founding principles—a commitment to excellence, dedication to ethical business practices, and the idea that the character of a company is defined by the people who work in it—led them on a course that in hindsight seems clear.
“Opportunities arose,” Barry says. “Opportunities to build projects coincided with opportunities to have people who were capable of participating in those projects—a ratcheting up. That just kept happening, and we kept getting bigger and bigger.”
The satisfactions of the work keep the ball rolling. “Our clients are indulging in support for the arts,” Barry says. “We're the lucky ones who get to participate in that process.” With that reward, he says, “people come and they stay and they learn and they succeed. Because of that, it's allowed us to grow. We don't lose that experience.”
“We have a saying here,” Barry says: “‘Problems should be solved, not admired.'” It is an apt motto for those who qualify as Thoughtforms people. “What they really are are problem solvers,” Barry says, “and it's very satisfying when they get problems to solve.” And each hurdle surmounted builds the company's fitness for the next. Today, it is a house shaped like a school of fish; tomorrow, who knows?
Whatever the next challenge, Barry says, Thoughtforms' people will proceed as always: by using their heads. “Building is just a set of problems—technical problems, money problems, people problems—and it's a matter of keeping pressure on them so they get solved.”