(Note: this is the sixth in a series of stories on UAFS alumni entrepreneurs. If you are a business owner and a UAFS alumni and would like to have a story written on your business, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
When Sandy Dixon decided to start Turn Key Construction Management and enter a male-dominated field, she had her skeptics.
But she did not dwell on the negativity of naysayers. Instead, she relied on the business fundamentals she was taught through her classes at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, then Westark Community College, to navigate her company through its early years.
“The education I received in my business classes gave me a fundamental understanding of business that was vital to be successful,” she said. “You don’t spend more than you take in, you hire the right team and you make smart, well informed decisions.”
Dixon began her career in construction later in life after owning a staffing company for ten years. Growing up with a father who worked in the construction industry, she was familiar with the ins and outs of the field and saw an opportunity to enter a profession that allowed her to continue to connect with people, accomplish tangible goals and use her business skills in a field where exceptional quality is an expectation.
To gain experience and knowledge, she began working with a local general contractor, starting small, with construction projects ranging from $50,000-$100,000. After steadily growing the company for five years, Dixon decided to open her own construction company giving herself the flexibility to pursue the types of projects that interested her most.
“As a business owner, I would be able to control what projects we pursued and how they were handled,” she said.
Forging a career as an entrepreneur in a male-dominated field such as construction was a paramount task. Add in the economic downturn from the Great Recession, and it became even more challenging.
“I knew with limited jobs to pursue and obtain, I had to make sure all of our construction costs were known and limit the surprises,” Dixon said.
She didn’t let the challenges of the endeavor dissuade her. Instead, she focused on being a “limited risk taker,” pursuing projects appropriate to the business’s size and avoiding any that made her uncomfortable as a business owner.
“I didn’t pursue projects that I didn’t feel comfortable with,” she said. “I started very small, but as I oversaw those projects, I was growing because I was working with teams of individuals that had done larger projects.”
She also kept in mind the knowledge she learned in her business classes at UAFS – namely, the importance of assembling a team of reliable and competent individuals.
“That education helped me understand just how important it was to have a great team, because you can’t do it all,” Dixon said. “And I’m very lucky to have a great team. Most our people average 20 to 30 years of experience in the area of commercial construction. They’re the people that make us efficient and respected as one of the most competent and competitive construction companies in the state.”
“During the Great Recession, we were fortunate to maintain and keep our heads above water,” Dixon added. “But having survived the lean times we have continued to grow as the economy has improved.”
Slowly, through a realistic business approach that focused on quality, those $50,000 projects became $1 million projects, then $2 million and $4 million. They constructed banks, renovated and remodeled public schools and erected medical clinics.
Now, 10 years later, with several hundred projects completed and a staff of 15 employees, Dixon is eyeing even more growth by opening a location in Northwest Arkansas.
“We had superintendents in Northwest Arkansas who had to drive down here to work on projects and that didn’t really make sense,” she said. “And if we are pursuing projects in that region of the state, they really like having a local presence. So it just made sense for us to open that location.”
“Moving forward, we are identifying special niches of where we would like to focus our time. I know we cannot be everything to everyone, but we are good at constructing commercial buildings, public schools, public entities and private clients that enjoy our approach to both personal and professional services,” Dixon continued.
All the while, Dixon remembers the importance of the education that laid the foundation for her current success.
“To some degree, when we’re younger and directly out of high school, we don’t always see that vision of why education is important to us. But without my college education I would not have had the knowledge to operate and be successful in the construction industry,” Dixon said.