Trust the process

July 1st, 2014 / By: / Feature, Management, Perspective

James Gallagher manages projects from conception to completion–by paying attention to detail and practicing transparency.

At the end of the day our work isn’t only about making a sale; it’s about engaging in relationships where we understand client application, identify and capture projects’ needs and then see them all the way through,” says James Gallagher, president of Tensile Integrity Inc., Burlington, Ont., Canada. “Usually these are long-term relationships that require a lot of back and forth as we engage in the iterative process of pinning every aspect of the projects down.”

Born into a family that owned a tent and awning business (Robert Soper Ltd.), it’s not surprising that Gallagher’s career has been driven by a desire to provide creative fabric structure solutions. He worked mainly in the tent rental side of the business, which eventually led him down the path of custom air-supported, tension and frame-supported structures, including starting a separate division of the company that focused solely on tensile structures. In 2010 he left the family business to launch Tensile Integrity, which designs, supplies and installs custom-engineered fabric structures. “My last stage in the family business was on the manufacturing side. I was in partnership with my brother Lincoln, who is a terrific operational guy, but I was more geared toward sales and design service work,” Gallagher says. “I was taking us on a diverging path that didn’t always support the operations and manufacturing side of the business. Since each of our approaches require their own disciplines, I decided to start my own company.”

Keeping the team on track

To be able to provide clients with reliable solutions that are a mix of structural integrity and aesthetic appeal, Gallagher set out to surround himself with the right people to do the job—but he did not want to manage employees. “I’ve had employees and the kind of overhead that goes along with that, and I knew I didn’t want to structure Tensile in that way,” he says. “So I’ve aligned with contractors, consultants and vendors who share my philosophy and ethics, and it’s worked out really well. I’m not hiring and firing people. The people working with me are here to self-perform, and I think they have greater aspirations of what they want to accomplish than if they were being managed as employees.”

Though Gallagher does not have full-time employees, aside from an administrative assistant, management is a critical component of his work. For each project, vendors and contractors involved include steel, cables, raw fabric materials, fabric fabrication and installation, insurance, legal and accounting. He uses a shared milestone tracking calendar to keep all parties on track and follows up with multiple calls and emails. “If someone is falling off it will affect everyone else, so I stay on top of them,” he says. “My version of the schedule is very detailed. I document with emails if necessary to have a record of what’s on track and what’s off track. And I make a lot of scribble notes in my master schedule—it’s not all neat and tidy.”

Gallagher says the most important person to keep in the communication loop, however, is the client. “I’m very particular on this; there is a clear chain of command,” he says. “I’ll communicate with anybody under the sun, but I have only one customer. I make sure that person is always being copied and that there’s one conduit for information.”

Transparent problem-solving

Part of keeping the communication lines open for Gallagher is being transparent when problems arise, something he learned the hard way. “Early on I would try to solve problems by myself because I was embarrassed that not everything was on track,” he says. “But I realized you gain a lot more support if you let people know early on and invite people to contribute to the solution.”

Usually the problems have to do with delivery delays, but one problem Gallagher recalls had to do with design. He discovered a component that was built into a functional base was undersized during fabrication, which affected the entire project. Gallagher agonized over possible solutions, bringing sketches to the engineer to get his input. “We solved it, but afterward when I told the client and installer what I’d gone through, they both had suggestions that also would have worked. If I had shared the issue with them sooner I would have had a lot more creative solutions to choose from,” Gallagher says. “Things worked out in the end, but I could have saved myself a lot of grief by sharing the process with more people right from the start.”

Step by step

Gallagher approaches each project by breaking it down into five steps: concept development, design, approval and final engineering, fabrication and installation. Though he is engaged in each step along the way, his strength is in taking the vision created by the architects and designers and making it a reality. “Once they’ve created a concept, in a way I poke holes in it to make sure they’re thinking beyond the basics to include considerations of functionality such as drainage, access and maintenance.”

To move projects along, Gallagher uses a design development checklist developed by Marc Shellshear, IFM, MFC, senior vice president of sales and administration at USA Shade & Fabric Structures in Dallas, Texas. The checklist expands on process considerations, including: the market segment that will drive the needs of the project; the structure style the client is looking for; the items needed for engineering development; what the design-build expert or fabric engineer can provide; the application; logistics; and items needed for design development. “It’s a great resource I’d love to point people in the direction of,” Gallagher says. (Gallagher will be presenting Shellshear’s checklist at IFAI Specialty Fabrics Expo in October 2014.)

As he takes on a project, managing consultants, vendors and the client—with transparency—there is one thing that Gallagher keeps in focus. He keeps the end in sight. “I try not to get too caught up in the moment,” Gallagher says. “I look ahead strategically to where the next step of a project will land us on our way to the finished product.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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