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How Vets Can Transition to Construction — a Former Marine’s Advice

Luxury remodeler Jason Bliss believes military vets are a natural fit for the building industry. Here’s why 

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Jason Bliss is not your typical general contractor. He didn’t grow up with a keen interest in construction, nor did he dabble in DIY projects as a child. In fact, he became a combat engineer in the Marine Corps before running Benchmark Home Construction, Inc., a highly successful construction firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here he offers his take on the important skills that veterans bring to the building industry, as well as his advice for transitioning between the armed services and service-oriented contracting.

Vets Offer Valuable Skills

“I’ve always said that if I could hire nothing but Marine Corps vets, I would — because I know the work ethic and I know what they’re capable of,” Bliss says. “Even if they don’t have the aptitude for what we’re doing now, I know that it’s something that I could train them to do.” He believes that veterans develop strong character traits that directly translate to the construction industry, such as “not taking no for an answer,” he says, as well as “honesty, resilience, mental fortitude and hard work.”

Bliss is speaking from personal experience here. Although he had a father who was an ironworker and a brother who was a finish carpenter, he himself left the Marine Corps in 1999 with no experience in building. He was doing sales and business development for some Fortune 500 companies in the real estate space when the mortgage crisis of 2008 hit. 

“About 90% of my clients were out of business within a matter of a couple of weeks to a month,” he recalls. “I found myself in a really dicey situation. My position actually had completely dissolved, and I found myself trying to figure out what to do next” — a situation anyone leaving military service can relate to. And in true military fashion, Bliss did what needed to be done. He joined forces with two friends, one in the mortgage industry and one in construction, and got to work making over homes that had gone into foreclosure. And how did that pan out?

“We ended up growing from just doing homes in California — smaller jobs, $1,000- to $2,000-type jobs — into, I think, servicing 13 states within six months,” Bliss says. “We just grew into this massive field service management company.”

Tips for Transitioning Into Construction

Having seen his career evolve from military service to foreclosure fix-ups to the luxury remodeling space, Bliss is in prime position to offer advice to other vets about entering the construction industry. First and foremost: Believe you can do it.

“This was something that I learned very quickly on the fly,” he says. “To me, this business is more about passion than it is about technical skill. If you have the passion to do something, you can learn it very quickly.”

Second, don’t sell yourself short. “I think sometimes when getting out of the service, you don’t realize how many skill sets you have that can transition into what we do,” Bliss says. To the ones already mentioned, he would add “resilience and gumption.”

And third, join your local chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “We’re all committed to each other’s success and wanting to help each other. Nobody is a competitor,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity to share stories about some of our woes with other guys that are in the same boat.”

He also shares some advice in specific areas of general contracting.

Learn to adapt. While military service is highly regimented construction is a service-oriented job that requires adapting to the client and the circumstances. “We work with highly educated, highly savvy clients,” Bliss says. “We have to meet them where they’re at, rather than just getting stuck in the mindset of ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ I feel like we’re always having to change to match up with what their expectations are.”

What does this look like in practice? “If they’re a software engineer, then I’m really focused on itemizing things out,” he says. “If it’s a financial person, we might break down certain things more financially. We really try to cater to them and their language so that we can show them, ‘Look, we care about you, and we want to live in your world.’”

Get a solid onboarding system. Noticing red flags early can help prevent issues and client dissatisfaction down the road. Bliss worked with Aspire Institute to implement a solid onboarding process. Prospective clients now get a two-page questionnaire to return before the first meeting. Bliss says that “part of that questionnaire is, ‘First off, what is your working budget for the project? What’s important for you when you’re choosing to work with a general contractor? Is it the lowest cost or is it the best customer experience?’” If any red flags arise, “we’ll just be very upfront with people,” Bliss says. “And we’ve been absolutely blessed. This year already [three months into the year], we’ve booked out more business than we did all of last year.”

Educate clients. Even wealthy clients can balk at paying a reasonable fee for contracting work. Think of these cases as educational opportunities. Bliss says to such clients, “Tell me how much you’re willing to pay for your Mercedes to be worked on. You’re probably paying $400 to $500 an hour for that, and yet the most expensive asset in your life, you want to underpay for?” To underscore the point: “You’ve got a $3 million home and you want to pay somebody $25 an hour to come in and work on it? No, of course not.”

Bliss also emphasizes to clients that they’re paying for a skill set. “I educate clients now, and especially now that the labor shortage for the trades is so short, that we’re becoming that specialty skill set,” he says. “We’re becoming that degree nobody wants to go after, and yet, somebody needs to learn this stuff and apply this into your home.”

Manage expectations from the start. Make sure you and your clients are on the same page about things like communication style, problem-solving and time management. This is key to fostering a healthy relationship and avoiding frustration all around. “I think we’ve done a really good job of verbally managing those expectations so we start off on the right foot, so that when it comes time to actually do the project, we’re not finding ourselves taking phone calls at 10 o’clock at night,” Bliss says.

He also manages expectations around cost — which, given all the price volatility these past two years, might need more managing than ever — with an escalation clause in the contract. And “we also have implemented a PSA, professional services agreement, to get us through that design portion of the design-build,” he says. “Even if we ultimately don’t end up contracting with them for the work, we’re at least getting paid for our time to work through the design phase.”  

Let technology help. The construction industry tends to be slow to adopt new technology, but the benefits of today’s software programs are undeniable: They can help ease admin tasks such as invoicing, create more accurate takeoffs and estimates, and bring in leads through numerous marketing features. For lead management at Benchmark Home Construction Inc., which he’s been running for 13 years now, Bliss uses Houzz Pro. “It’s been a great tool for us,” he says. “The ability to go back and forth with some of the potential clients through the lead management has helped out quite a bit.” As an all-in-one platform for builders, Houzz Pro offers many other features to make jobs easier for everyone on the team too.

Workshopping the Future

In thinking of how to reach veterans and let them know how well their military and life skills can translate to construction, Bliss again turns to the idea of education.

“I think there just needs to be better education,” he says. “There are so many of us that are small businesses; we’re not a large corporation that can meet veterans as they’re coming out and offer them different workshops and seminars.” He believes in the potential of local workshops to reach vets — “where general contractors and builders like us have an opportunity to get in front of these guys and say, ‘Look, you may not have all the tools or all the ability right now, but man, we want you. We want your heart, we want your passion, we want your work ethic.’”

Bliss might be just the person to start this workshop trend. Consider, after all, how he got into construction to begin with: “When my back was against the wall and I had to make something happen, this is what I did,” he says. “And I made the most of it.”

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