Why a happy workforce is a prerequisite for success, according to Canter Construction

They always say necessity is the mother of invention – and I guess that’s what happened,” so begins our interview with Jonah Canter, owner of Charleston-based builder Canter Construction.

Jonah’s background is, self-admittedly, quite unique; it’s not one that you’d most associate with an owner of a construction company. He didn’t inherit the tradition, he didn’t enter the trade at 18 like many others; rather, Jonah began in the computer software industry.

As he recalls: “My career began with several software startups in the early 2000s, and one ended up being sold to Amazon. I started working for the e-commerce giant’s operational group, and through that journey I learned a lot about process improvements and how the implementation of Six Sigma can benefit an organization.

“But then it was time to leave Amazon,” Jonah goes on. “The hours were sky-high, and I wanted to go into an industry that needed some guidance. I landed on construction because I knew my skillset would be highly applicable.

“Though I began my career in a different discipline, I did in fact have a background in construction work, of sorts. I worked in dock building when I was at high school, for example. It was amazing for me to see construction as an industry that you could make a healthy living from without spending all your waking hours at work.

“So, when I left Amazon, not only did this appear to me as a win-win, but it also soon became apparent that there was a gap in the market for someone to go above and beyond with a truly outstanding product.”

For Canter Construction, that means services including bathroom and kitchen remodeling, specialty projects, deck building, and much more.

“When you’re first starting a company,” Jonah explains, “you’re basically bootstrapping; you don’t know what’s going on. Sure, you might know the industry well enough, but you don’t necessarily understand how you are going to build the business from Point A to Point Z.”

A foot in the door

For many, taking a business from A-to-B is hard enough – let alone all the way to Z. “One thing I did early on was crucial in helping to spring Canter Construction forward,” he reveals. “From the outset, I never wanted to pay for any kinds of leads, customers, or clients.

“Therefore, I began by emailing numerous local real estate agents in the Charleston area,” he continues. “I kept it simple, saying: ‘Hi, I’m a newly licensed contractor and I can take care of several things for you, including but not limited to CL-100 inspections and repair addendums.

“That got me through the door – oftentimes, that’s the hardest part of the process. It got me in front of people, potential customers, and agents from various firms. And the best part of it all? It was 100 percent free!”

The sweet spot

Though Canter Construction began with minor repair work, over time clients and agents began asking for more and more complicated projects. Today, it’s not unusual for the company to take on a home remodel with an $800,000 budget or construct a high-end $2 million custom home with the support of external designers and architects.

“We’ve found a real sweet spot within the industry, allowing us to flow back and forth between two types of building,” Jonah reveals. “That’s really important because, in a home building recession, the first thing that happens is people stop buying homes; they hunker down, and insist: ‘We are staying put!’

“But there’s often an itch for novelty and home improvement that needs to be scratched,” he adds. “They might start looking at their bathroom, screen porch, or open landing and think: ‘This would look amazing if it was remodeled.’ Alternatively, they might want to add 1000 square feet of extra space – the next best thing if you can’t buy a bigger home due to rising interest rates and so on.”

People first

In short, that’s the beauty of being well-positioned and dynamic: when the well does run dry, firms like Canter Construction can successfully pivot and keep active by focusing on, for example, remodeling and building different aspects of the home in a variety of styles.

A necessary part of being operationally malleable is cultivating an equally adaptive team of in-house employees and subcontractors. “We subcontract 100 percent of our work, so naturally it’s one of the most challenging aspects of the job,” concludes Jonah. “You can only imagine how many multiples of each trade discipline we are working with! At the end of the day, though, I treat subcontractors how I, myself, would want to be treated.

“Happy people will continue to work for you. Happy people will be by your side for years to come. The greatest source of pride I have is working with tradespeople and firms for five-plus years, knowing we’re building something remarkable together… again and again.”