Focus on Leadership: Third generation leader of M. Frank Higgins and chairman of Starnet, Steve Cloud, shares the joys of family business – July 2023
Interview by Kemp Harr
Steve Cloud owns Connecticut-based M. Frank Higgins & Co. alongside his wife, Kathy. Steve studied geology in college, not intending to enter his family’s business but, after a series of family losses, was compelled by his father to join and was named president before the age of 30.
Steve runs M. Frank Higgins with a focus on leaning into the values of family business and saying “yes,” prioritizing the relationships with both customers and vendors.
This year, Steve was elected chairman of Starnet and will be handing over more of the day-to-day operations of M. Frank Higgins to his son, Travis, in order to focus on strengthening Starnet.
Q: Tell us the story of your family’s history in the flooring business that led to you and your wife at the helm of M. Frank Higgins.
A: Michael Francis Higgins (Frank) was my maternal grandfather. He dabbled in the flooring business in the Boston area after WWII and established the business in Boston in 1946. Frank concentrated on work at military bases. In 1951, he was awarded a large project at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. In order to support that project, he opened a branch office in Hartford, Connecticut. Operations began on January 6, 1952 and continued as a branch of the Boston office until 1966, when Frank gifted the shares to his only daughter, my mother Ellie Cloud, and his nephew, Al Higgins.
Frank passed away in 1969. Ownership remained as is until the ’80s when it changed from my mother to my father, Jack Cloud, because of my mother’s health issues. In 1988, my mother passed away from cancer, and it was assumed that Al, who was younger than my father, would take over ownership and eventually pass the business to his children. That quickly changed when, in 1989, seven months after my mother died, Al surprisingly passed away.
I had entered the company in 1985 directly out of college. When my father lost both his partners within seven months and was dragged through a tough settlement with his partner’s estate, he came to me and said, “Do you want this business?” I was 24, married with one child and one more on the way. I knew nothing more than to put my head down and grind through it. In 1992, at age 29, I was named president of the company. My father passed away in 2006.
In 2008, M. Frank Higgins landed the largest project the company had been contracted for to date. It was a new hospital bed tower. The project went very well, and it set us up for the future.
Throughout all this time, my wife, Kathy, was a high school physics teacher and an awesome mother. As we became more successful and our last child was getting ready to go to college, Kathy retired after 26 years as an educator. Having dabbled in the business for years and now retired from teaching, it was natural for her to enter M. Frank Higgins officially. Since 2011, she has learned every aspect of the business and, together, we have taken M. Frank Higgins & Co. to another level.
Q: What were you planning to do with your geology degree before you were tapped to become the third-generation leader of the company?
A: Looking back, studying geology at Notre Dame may not have been the best preparation for running a business. I was the last of five boys, and my parents were more interested in a great education than worrying about who might want to continue to run the business. As with many family businesses, it is often the desire of the parents to not have their children enter the business. While at Notre Dame, I quickly found that the geology curriculum met my goals for a solid education with critical thinking skills. In addition, the girl I was interested in was also in geology. What more reason did a 19-year-old need? Ultimately, I received a superior education, which has helped me through life. To top it off, I succeeded with that courtship of Kathy, which will total 40 years of marriage in 2024.
Q: You and Kathy seem to complement each other in your roles at work. What is the secret to making this work?
A: We have a lot of practice. As I mentioned, we are closing in on 40 years. I think you hit the nail on the head that we complement each another. We are opposite personalities attracted to one another, and that makes us a very strong force. We also share similar values and often have comparable goals. I also learned early on from my parents, “Happy wife, happy life!”
Q: How does a family-run commercial contracting business remain competitive in this time of consolidation?
A: Family business is an American institution. Yes, our industry is changing, but I believe there will always be room for family businesses. The culture and values that we bring to the market are not what corporate America exemplifies. We truly care about our employees and their families. We provide a culture where people want to come to work. They have a say in how work is accomplished. Our field labor force is multi-generational, and we work hard to recruit and develop our employees. We proudly provide additional educational opportunities that are not offered by our competition. Lastly, we work very hard every day to provide a safe work environment that is best in class for everyone.
Q: What sets your business apart from your competition?
A: WIT: Whatever it takes! I will never say no. This creates its own set of challenges, but the customer always remembers that Higgins will do whatever possible to complete the task as needed with the most professional quality installation available. We are in the beginning stages of a large hospital project where the architect specified a material for a challenging location. I was concerned, not because we did not have the qualified installers, but because the facility does not have a good history in the maintenance needed for this application. This issue was raised to the owner, and all parties met to discuss it. My recommendations are now being implemented. The owner, through previous projects, knows what Higgins brings to the table and heeded our recommendations.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of business today?
A: Is business harder to do today, or is it that our perspective has changed? Labor has been and will remain the biggest challenge. This issue is not limited to simply finding people, but finding people who understand the meaning of having a work ethic, fit within your culture, want to be trained and want to show up to the office or jobsite. We work with the local carpenters’ union to recruit installers. Its introductory class is held at 6:00 p.m. one evening a month. They lock the doors at 6:01 p.m. to prove a point about showing up on time. You can’t imagine the number of people who miss this class because tardiness is now an accepted behavior.
Other challenges coming out of Covid are payment terms and the schedules general contractors (GCs) dream up. Having our own labor force requires us to be efficient on every project. That is often counter to how GCs run their work today.
Lastly, it is my belief that business has always had its challenges. Rising to meet or exceed those challenges is what makes a great company.
Q: How do you pick which suppliers to integrate into your business?
A: That’s easy! Being in Connecticut, the vast majority of our vendors are exceptional within their field, and I am happy to call them my friends. We all want to do business with our friends. Combine working with friends, our reputation and the ability to influence specifications-this allows us to guide the owner/designer toward the best solutions. As chairman of Starnet, it is critical to work with our vendor partner pipeline, and this approach allows us to stay within those parameters.
Q: Who are your mentors, and what did they teach you?
A: We have many people during our lifetimes who influence us. I can think back to my high school English class and the teacher I had for two years, who introduced me to readings and poetry that I would never have been exposed to otherwise.
As for mentors, I would say family. As mentioned earlier, I lost my mother in my early 20s; she and my father taught me everything that I needed to know. This education included strong work ethic, family values and respect for others. This has given me the basis for success. In addition, I am the youngest of five boys. Watching how those values guided my older brothers through life reaffirmed how I needed to act.
Q: Do you have a business or professional philosophy that you can share with our readers?
A: It might seem basic, but the key is to work hard every day, be honest and fair to all those around you, and good things will come your way. As a prominent U.S. ski team coach once said, “Show up. Get the job done. No excuses.”
Q: How do you plan to balance your time bet-ween serving as chairman of Starnet and the leader of M. Frank Higgins?
A: I have been working within my business for 38 years. Over the last few, I have been doing a better job of working on the business and not in the business. I need to continue leading but also transfer the day-to-day operations over to my son, Travis. The chairmanship will help with that transition. Travis is the fourth generation, and he is doing a great job within the business. As his leadership continues to develop, I will continue to remove myself from the daily business minutiae, giving me more time toward the duties of chairman.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish as chairman of Starnet? What are the biggest challenges the group faces?
A: I must acknowledge the wonderful job the past chairs have done. Not only Chuck but those before him have worked tirelessly to bring Starnet to where it is today. If I do nothing more than stay the course, it will be a success and the co-op will be in a better place.
Having said that, there are many challenges in our business. With the help of the new board, we can work to provide the membership the tools and knowledge needed to navigate those issues. I have mentioned both succession planning and education. Both topics are very relevant today for all industries. Developing tools for the membership that can take them step by step through the processes would be a forward progression.
Q: What do you do for fun when you aren’t focused on growing M. Frank Higgins and Starnet?
A: I try to live by the saying, “Work hard, play hard.” Throughout my life, I have been able to participate in some wonderful activities. These include racing Porsches at various tracks around the country and captaining a motorboat on which Kathy and I traveled the New England coast searching for the best lobster roll.
We are big foodies and enjoy fine wines. During recent travels, we participated in city culinary walking tours and found that to be a wonderful way to learn about the character of the city and enjoy what it is most famous for.
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