Last Tuesday, HYPEsters attended a luncheon with Michael Kolakowski, President and CEO of KBE Building Corporation. The company works throughout the Northeast and MidAtlantic from its offices in Farmington, Connecticut, Norwalk, Connecticut and Columbia, Maryland. Under Michael’s leadership, KBE has grown over the last 57+ years from the in-house construction arm of a major Northeast retail developer to an independent firm working in multiple markets including Education, Senior Living, Government, and Corporate. This diversity has helped KBE weather the vagaries of the economic market. Today, KBE’s annual construction volume is in in excess of $300 million.
Born and raised in Wallingford, Connecticut, Michael had aspirations of making it big on Wall Street, and planned to major in economics and finance at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Always having a passion for building things, Michael spoke with the Dean of Construction Engineering at Fairleigh Dickinson and never looked back. Between his junior and senior year, he was hired by Konover Construction, which would later become KBE, for a summer job. Konover was without an estimating department at that time, and despite not having yet graduated, Michael took on the task. After a successful summer he was offered a job, and went back to finish his last semester before returning home to work. Now with a degree in Construction Engineering, he found himself working full time as an Estimator, enjoying the small and growing organization where he was able to “get exposed to anything and everything” in the world of construction. This exposure gave Michael an invaluable frame of reference and experience in every aspect of the company, making him not only well rounded, but keeping him from being pigeonholed in one area.
When Michael was first hired, he was asked by Konover’s CEO what he wanted in his career, to which he responded, “I want to sit where you are sitting.” Through hard work, this dream would eventually become a reality, with Michael promoted to President/CEO at the age of 32 and ultimately purchasing the company in 2007 to become the principal owner of KBE Building Corporation with his two partners. This journey was not without some teachable moments. Michael told the group of a time early in his career when he felt he was fully prepared for a presentation, and within minutes, realized he was as abysmally unprepared, as the client made very clear to him. This experience was career-shaping for Michael, inspiring him to be “more prepared than anyone else that I come in contact with,” he said. In his book, there is no such thing as being over prepared.
In addition to preparedness, Michael is also a firm believer in the idea that “you can’t be successful without surrounding yourself with good people,” and he continues to build his business on great people. Through listening and openness, he can channel their expertise and knowledge and create better outcome for clients. Trust is a common theme at KBE, because “when you have trust, it develops loyalty,” said Michael, with both employees and customers. Many KBE staff have a long tenure with the company. Michael and his leadership team are always looking at how they can improve as an organization, always wanting to learn something new, and try something different. Michael believes in “having a plan, and working the plan,” keeping staff organized and on the same page.
Michael was asked about his mentors and tips for success, crediting his father, high school shop teacher, and Simon Konover, who first hired him, as three impactful individuals in his life. Each encouraged him to work hard and have dreams, and to never take anything for granted. Michael believes in always honoring commitments, no matter how hard they might be for you. If you can’t honor the commitment, he says, tell the other person directly. He suggests networking as a great way to build your connections through organizations such as HYPE. Be prepared for these contacts to reach out for your help as well, and know that “the greater network you have, the more successful you will be.”
Regarding sacrifices he made on the path to his success, Michael admits that “you have to work harder than anybody else” in order to succeed. This often means late nights and early mornings, but surrounding himself with great people has helped make it manageable. In regards to growing in your career, Michael advised attendees to have confidence in themselves, respect for their supervisor, and of course, be overly prepared for the conversation. KBE provides opportunity for growth. With clear growth plans for developing staff and to improve work environment, this is just one way the organization creates a family-like culture with an emphasis on communication. Dedication, integrity, innovation, and pride are four core values that help to create a culture of communication, where employees are not afraid to talk about situations and share ideas.
KBE is known for its great philanthropy, with Michael and his partners instituting the “50 Ways to Make a Difference” program that was launched in 2009. While this culture of giving back has been in the company from the start, the 50 Ways program engages a core group of employees who organize volunteer efforts. Employees donate time in the form of volunteer hours, supporting everything from the military, to the elderly, to youth and schools, to awarding 34 scholarships to graduating high school seniors from local technical schools. Michael and his team believe in saying “thank you” to the communities they work in, and KBE employees support the effort wholeheartedly, engaging their families in volunteering as well. It is clear that Michael and KBE believe in caring for the neighborhoods they work in just as much as they care for their employees.
Thank you to Michael Kolakowski and KBE for hosting a great luncheon. Check out all of the photos on our Facebook!
– Hartford Young Professionals & Entrepreneurs (HYPE)
Photo Credit: Hartford Young Professionals & Entrepreneurs (HYPE)