Episode 66: Charles Nabholz Discusses the Importance of Integrity at Nabholz Corporation

April 8 , 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Charles Nabholz is the Chairman Emeritus of the Nabholz Corporation. Charles' brother, Bob, founded Nabholz Corporation in 1949. Charles joined his brother in 1959 and has been with the company for over 60 years. He is an active member of Arkansas’ trade associations, including the local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors of America and the Associated General Contractors of America.

Charles is one of four 2020 inductees to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

Episode Transcript


00:05 Matt Waller: Hi I'm Matt Waller Dean Sam M. Walton College of Business welcome to Be Epic the podcast where explore excellence, professionalism innovation and collegiality, what those values mean in business education and your life today.


00:29 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Charles Nabholz who is being inducted into the 2020 class of the Arkansas business hall of fame. And the Arkansas business Hall of fame recognizes our Kansans whether by birth or by choice who have been successful leaders. The Arkansas business Hall fame is designed to honor preserve and perpetuate the names of outstanding accomplishments of business leaders who have brought lasting fame to Arkansas and Charles certainly has done that. He's currently Chairman Emeritus of the Nabholz Corporation, he has over 60 years of experience in this business. And thank you for joining me today.

01:13 Charles Nabholz: Glad to be here.

01:14 Matt Waller: So Charlie, you are the only inductee up to this point and this has been going since 1999, who has a brother who's also been inducted several years ago.

01:28 Charles Nabholz: Yes, and I'm so proud. I was so proud the day that my brother, he had passed away in 2000, and he was a selected following yeah, but he is 12 years older than me, he was the founder or company, and he's the one that gave me my first job, and I was very honored to follow him several years later, in the same honor being on the Arkansas Construction Hall of Fame. And it is unusual and I'm so proud that he set the pace for me and somehow or another I was able to follow on his path, but I was able to watch him as he developed the company, and I was able to learn a lot, he was a great mentor to me, and so I think about him every day because of the lessons that I've learned from him as a young man trying to learn the business and learn the ways of being a professional.

02:21 Matt Waller: It's amazing how many entrepreneurs have come out of Arkansas that have changed the world in many ways. And I know Nabholz has been profitable, a very profitable company through a thick and thin for many, many years, and that's hard to do to, what do you attribute that to?

02:44 Charles Nabholz: Well, you're exactly right. And we do have a record. And it was something my brother was proud of. And all of the, us as partners were proud of, even though some years of profit was very thin. But for... He started the business in 1949, and we've never had a year where we didn't make a profit. And that's very unusual in the construction business. But what I attribute it to is the Bob set the example and the other brothers who became business partners with him, we all agreed that we would not take a lot of money out of the company for dividends, but we all agreed to take a minimum salary and re-invest the profits back into the company. And I think that reinvestment of those profits stabilized the company where we could offset those lean years. Even though I said we'd never make, we'd never fail to make a profit, cash flow and being in the construction business, it's all about making payroll and being stable enough to pay your bills. And so quite often, in those lean years, when work was low, we were very thankful that we had left the profits in the company from former years. And I think to me, I always remember that as being one of the stabilizing factors for our long-term success was being able to say that we didn't take all the money out the company, we left it in the company for a long term so we could be stable enough to survive during those lean years.

04:10 Matt Waller: I noticed in your logo where it says Nabholz, above it there's a shield that looks like to me and a banner over the shield and the banner says, integrity. Is that one of your top values?

04:26 Charles Nabholz: Yes, it is. And that was established as a marketing tool. I guess you'd say. My brother Bob was a very humble person, and we grew up on the farm and beating your chest was something we didn't do. And we didn't think that was appropriate. And so when it comes time to decide whether or not we were going to use that logo, we talked about it. We talked about the fact that it sounds like we're doing something personal, bragging about ourselves. It's kind a little bit out of our character, but my brother had established reputation and myself as well as we came along and it seemed like every time we would talk about somebody, we would talk about us, our clients would talk and the word integrity came up quite a bit. And so we felt like that, that would probably be something we should brag about. And we decided to put it on our logo and put it on our hard hats, and put it on our shirts and put it on everything that we had. Our job site traders and so forth.

05:27 Charles Nabholz: And what it did not only for project an image of our company, which our customers validated, but it also made our employees very proud to be associated with the company that believed in integrity and had a reputation for integrity. It was really given to us by our customers.

05:47 Matt Waller: That's impressive. So, something sort of coincidental. We just, right now, as the Walton College is, we are starting what's called the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative, and the former Chief Ethics Officer of Walmart, Cindy Moehring is coming on board with the Walton College, to help us really instill Business Integrity concepts throughout our curriculum, practices, executive education. And it's such an important thing. If you look at our Values. Excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. The way we define professionalism includes integrity. It's already a part of our values, but we really felt like we should emphasize it more. So when I saw your logo, I thought I would ask you about it. And it is, it's one of those things that integrity can cost sometimes in the short run, but in the long run, it always pays off.

06:58 Charles Nabholz: You're exactly right. And my brother had a... When he left the company and retired, and we were talking about the company was growing outside Conway and he was concerned about the reputation that the company has had for integrity and it was personal to him, as it is me, and it is not only my brother and myself and our other partners, but the entire management team and our board of directors, and he said that he admonished the group and says, "I started the company and my brothers have joined me in the company and we have other shareholders in the company and we built our company on integrity and that's what we talk about." But he said that, "I just wanna let you know how I feel about it that if ever... If the company ever stops operating," he said, "my name is on the door, Nabholz. If the company ever stops, gets a reputation for operating with integrity, he says, I want my name taken off the door."

08:10 Charles Nabholz: And that's something I feel very strongly about, and when we would go and interview for a project and the right opportunity comes that I want to talk about that issue, I'll say the same thing that my name is on the door, but not only my name, but the names of everybody working for our company who share the same value, and if our company ever stops operating with integrity, I think a lot of people would want the name taken off the door. And so, that kind of rang with me for a long time and it really expressed my brother's feelings because his whole... No matter how many honors we would get from the construction industry, we've said some... We've had some honors from all different areas within the construction industry, but those honors wouldn't mean a thing to us if our reputation for integrity was ever destroyed. And I feel like everybody working for our company feels the same way. And it's a very important part of our corporate culture, along with other cultures that we feel that we're very strong in, but without integrity none of the other cultures will pretty make much difference.

09:33 Matt Waller: I even think one other part of your culture that I've been told about that I could see stems from integrity to some degree is safety. And the construction industry, of course, is there can be dangers involved from a safety perspective. How did you build a culture of safety?

09:55 Charles Nabholz: Well, we've always been concerned about the safety of our employees. And when the company was very young and safety was not a big issue or there would be sometimes minor accidents and sometimes major accidents, and there's insurance concerns, there's cost concern, there's a lot of issues, the safety of our employees was certainly a concern, and we needed to formalize a safety program, because we realized how important it was for our workers to be... Come to work safe and go home safe, and we were one of the first general contractors to hire a full-time safety director, much to the chagrin of a lot of our employees because they felt like it was a kind of a safety dotsy coming around and checking to see if everybody was following all the so called rules and it was...

10:46 Charles Nabholz: It took a lot of buy-in to get the employees to come onboard with a formal safety program where we did have certain rules like for instance we didn't wear hard hats when our company first got started. Now, the time we wore a hard hat is when we were on a core engineer job, and the reason we wore a hard hat then was because they required it. Those same employees would come back off of the core engineer job and complain about, if we decided that we wanted to start that process company-wide, "Well, we don't have to do that 'cause we're not working on a government job." So there was personal issues about the comfort level of abiding even by the safety rules that were beginning, was coming around.

11:29 Charles Nabholz: And then there were more national safety laws passed and we had to kinda follow those in addition to our own that we formally were implementing, and there were electrical issues on the job site, there were the quality of electrical cords, there were scaffolding issues on the job site, and so we formalized a plan where we had job site safety talks in the morning. At one time we had, and still do to a certain degree, we have stretching and exercises, because a lot of your injuries were due to not being prepared to do the job. A test and maybe some unusual lifting or some reaching and things like that, and wearing safety glasses, nobody likes to wear safety glasses.

12:13 Charles Nabholz: Once you have an eye put out, it kinda makes a believer out of you. And so these little increments along the way helped us to get the employees bought in on the safety program. But more importantly, the idea that when people work safely The quality of work is better, and the customer gets a better job, and our insurance rates are less. And so it took about, I'd say a 15 to 20-year program for us to really get a good buy-in from all the employees on the safety, and it starts at the top. And that's when we felt like that, you know, if we have... Implement a full-time safety director, and whatever it takes to get a culture of safety in our company it was gonna be important. And I think we broke ground early on in that, and you know every contract that we know now has a safety program, but it was a slow process.

13:14 Matt Waller: The construction business requires a lot of skill in the area of project management. How did that start, how did that evolve, and what do you see is the future?

13:26 Charles Nabholz: That's the key to our company being able to do as much work as we do as we develop constructors. There are people that have developed, either by through education, or through on-the-job training. They get the experience to not only building the building and working as a craftsman, but having some engineering experience, having some architectural experience, understanding all of the the disciplines that it takes to get a project built for our clients. The project manager is a key to... It's kinda like being an individual entrepreneur, you're working for a large company, you're working for medium-sized company. If you're a project manager, you're expected to take that project, and sometimes it starts with the client even acquiring the work. And so the project manager has to understand what it takes to get a construction built, has to understand the requirements that the architects and designers have, the expectation of the building, and the owner's expectation. And so the project manager is really like an in-house entrepreneur who takes a client, and handles the project from the groundbreaking to the ribbon cutting.

14:37 Matt Waller: That is so interesting. I've never heard of project management being referred to as entrepreneurial, but I see it in hindsight, it makes a lot of sense because entrepreneurs have to be very good at understanding what customers want. They have to be very good at turning problems into opportunities, and they have to be scrappy. So I see your point, that's a really interesting insight. If you could give advice to students in the Walton College, it's a big business school, you know, we've got over 6500 students, and they've got lots of opportunities, they make big decisions you know in terms of internships that they take, the job they take after they graduate, those kinds of things. And the job market is very good, so they're getting good jobs, and they get them fairly quickly. But is there any advice you would like to offer?

15:38 Charles Nabholz: I always envy people who know what they wanna do, when they're... If they're in college or whatever stage in life, particularly young people that know that they either wanna be in the construction business, they wanna be a doctor, or a lawyer, or any other type of profession that there could be passionate about, and passionate is a key word. And I would say to all the people in the business college to find out first of all, "Do I really wanna be in the construction business, or do I wanna be an architect, or do I wanna be an engineer?" And follow that passion, and even if you have to change jobs after you realize it's not really what you wanna do. But look for the job you can have, where you can see an opportunity to grow, but find that passion for that particular occupation or business that you wanna get into. And I tell our people a lot of times when I have an opportunity to talk, I was excited about my job even though I had no idea if I could succeed at it. But I grew up on a farm, and my brother had started this business, that I... All I could think of from the 10th grade on was, "I'm gonna go to work for my brother when I get out." And college was not on my radar. But I learned it, and I liked it, and I couldn't wait to go to work every day.

17:03 Charles Nabholz: And I realize as time went on, not everybody got up in the morning, and excited about their job. And I just thought, something is wrong if you can't be excited about your work. Now, every day is not gonna be a wonderful day on the job, there's gonna be bad weather, there's gonna be times you don't feel good. But if you don't have that generally feeling that I'm excited about my job, then you really need to look for something else. So if... My advice would be to try to learn that passion early on, and follow that avenue whichever direction it takes you. And you may have a couple of forks on the road to take, but look for that passion. Looking back at the end of the day, and saying, "I've accomplished something." And then be able to look to the future, and think of, "What else can I do?" Our philosophy is that we want every employee to be proud of the company they work for. And instead of saying, "I work for Nabholz," They can say, "This is my company."

18:04 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC PODCAST, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C PODCAST. And now BE EPIC.

Matt Waller

Matthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.

His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.