Class of 2013
Christopher Rice, a past president of the St. Cloud Builders Exchange, brought a focus on energy efficiency to his third-generation business with LEED certification.
What are you doing now?
Continuing in my position of president and chief executive at Rice Building Systems in Sauk Rapids.
How did the 5 Under 40 award affect your life?
The 5 Under 40 award helped everyone at our company be recognized for the work we've completed for our customers for almost 60 years. It was an honor to be selected with such an accomplished group of individuals.
Other big changes since you received the award?
Our company continues to grow with our customers, both in employees and our geographical work area. We are currently working on a new office in Glencoe for our southern and metro clients and continue to look for more growth possibilities.
What will make the St. Cloud area greater in coming years?
Developments underway such as the expansion of the convention center and the new YMCA center, along with continued developments of key corridors such as Pinecone Road and the south St. Cloud areas.
Originally ran: January 19, 2014
As a third-generation CEO at Rice Building Systems, Chris Rice balances tradition with new practices.
The company, which dates to 1953, flourished under his grandfather, Jack Rice, and later his father, John Rice.
But it's seen perhaps its greatest growth since Chris Rice took over.
In 2009, he decided to build a new corporate office/warehouse across the street from its previous location in Sauk Rapids. The business, which now encompasses architectural and design services, general contracting, construction management, development, maintenance and other field services, has 36 employees.
Rice has cultivated longtime relationships with clients to build several major projects in recent years, including Fifth Avenue Live!, the Marco headquarters on Heatherwood Road, Coborn's grocery stores in western North Dakota and a major remodeling at St. Cloud Hospital. As a result, Rice Building Systems has generated $50 million in annual revenue.
How much of a destiny was it for you to go into the family business, what were your early experiences with it and do you draw on that today?
"I don't think it was expected of me; I think it was always hoped. ... It's tough for businesses to keep going from generation to generation.
"We like to talk about how we're a family company. I have young kids (boys ages 6 and 8). I hope they go into the business someday, but it's not expected. I spent a lot of weekends visiting job sites with my dad. We'd get breakfast Saturday morning and then drive around town and check out projects. I kind of did whatever it took growing up — pushing brooms and picking up garbage.
"I absolutely use what I learned all the way up to today. It helps knowing that a lot of what we do, I at least did a little of it, working out in the field for a number of summers and even sometimes in the winter. It helps to relate to the work you're asking your employees to do."
In recent years, Rice Building Systems has grown significantly and been involved with many high-profile projects. How have you positioned the company for that?
"We've always been proud to be known as a company that works with clients over the long term, companies like Fingerhut and Coborn's and Larson Boats and Genmar (Holdings). Those are 10-, 20-, 30-year-old relationships we have. That is one of the things we're most proud of.
"All we did really was just leverage that experience when going out and trying to solicit some new work without jeopardizing any of the relationships we have. I think it makes us better as a builder and stronger to diversify a little ...
"We get to know their business and we try to help them get better at whatever they need to do — whether it's through design, construction or planning. We try to learn every aspect we can that will help us design the best building for them."
What have you learned and how has business evolved working on some of these recent big projects, including the building of grocery stores in western North Dakota?
"We've learned a lot. We've learned what we're good at and what we really need to improve on. We've really learned on the logistical side of the business, making sure materials and labor is ordered and delivered well in advance, because things come up and, if you're out in western North Dakota and you don't have something, there's nothing you can do ...
"Planning and detailing a schedule is one thing we've learned through a trial by fire. You can't take anything for granted. Hopefully, that will make us better locally where it is easier to do business because we've had that experience."
In the last few years, Rice Building Systems has started offering 3-D modeling, remote cameras to follow construction progress and is increasing its use of tablets at job sites. How has has technology affected your growth?
"I think a lot of those ideas are cultivated from the new people we have. They bring ideas like ‘Why can't we do it this way? Why can't we make this better?' Some of our customers are asking for it. They're expecting more real-time updates and knowledge of job sites. Those are tools that will hopefully provide them what they're looking for and they allow us to do our job a lot better.
"We can see what is going on at any job site now — as long as there's cell service. It's been great. It helps because — and I hate to say whether it's good or bad — our guys almost feel like Big Brother is watching over them. I don't mean that in a bad way. But you certainly are aware of it. Our guys are and our (subcontractors) are. I believe they try a little better and at least make sure things look better. Job sites are a little more organized and clean. It also helps us track progress. If it's a bad day, we know whether it's wind or some other issue, we can tell. We can also go back because everything is archived. We know exactly what was performed on a certain day on a job site last year, if we want, and that's very valuable if you're trying to figure out when a task happened and how long did it take. It's a record-keeping thing and a safety thing. ...
"We got into 3-D modeling a couple of years ago after we had some software issues and were deciding what to do and we decided to make the change then. We're continually trying to do more of it. It helps a lot of our customers visually going through the design prospect to actually see what they're getting. Blueprints sometimes are tough to read. If you give them examples, whether it's flashy renderings or 3-D images or videos of what the inside or outside of an office is going to look like, it helps us do a better job of satisfying them."
How have you continued or expanded on your grandfather's idea to develop, own and lease buildings?
"We're trying to grow that side of our business. ... That's something that started with my grandpa, Jack. A lot of the reason it started is because he had such good relationships with customers. Fingerhut and Larson are examples that came to him asking if he would build it, own it and lease it back to them. We've almost always held onto properties we build and lease. We rarely sell them. We don't flip them.
"I think that shows we're in it for the long term. It's a hedge against ebbs and flows in other parts of the business. It allows us to be better builders because when we do one of those (build-to-lease) projects, we're almost on the client side of it. We're building it for someone, but we're also building it for ourselves."
You have become certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. What is the future of LEED building, and how might it affect construction in Central Minnesota?
"I think some of the LEED portion of building has slowed with the economy, but the green aspect — I don't think that will ever go away. I think it's good design and construction methods. A lot of it is driven by economics. People want to go as green or environmentally responsible as they can, but only up to a certain payback or ROI. We got into it because our customers were asking what they could do to shed some utility costs or be better stewards of the environment. That has driven some new ways of designing and measuring.
"We can model buildings now and get very close to what the actual utilities and operational costs for these buildings will be. Those almost always far exceed the construction when you look at them over a 20-year period or more. Incremental savings from added insulation or other efficiencies greatly increase. Being able to show our customers that is something we couldn't do five or 10 years ago. ...
"I think St. Cloud is primed for a lot of growth. There are a lot of great companies and companies with great values around the area that people want to be a part of and grow with. The family-orientated nature of our community is incredible. You don't see that a lot of places. It's fun to be a part of and we'd like to think our small company is in line with those values. We have great employees and we wouldn't be where we are without them."
Family: Wife, Jasmyn; two sons.
Education: Bachelor of science, construction management, Colorado State University.
FYI: Rice represents third-generation leadership for a company that has been family owned for 60 years and headquartered in Sauk Rapids since 1966. He started working on job sites at 14 years old and became president and CEO in 2008.
Rice is a past president of the St. Cloud Builders Exchange and is LEED AP certified. In 2009, he decided to open a new office/warehouse building with large windows and skylights to save on electricity costs, carpet made of recycled materials, toilets and sinks that use 25 percent less water and highly efficient heaters.
Since he became president and CEO, revenue for the business has jumped almost 400 percent. Find more at www.ricebuildingsystems.com.