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In tough times, one-man construction shop find ways to survive

Robert Sutherland
MinnPost photo by Wilt Hodges
With all the ups and downs of the construction business, Robert Sutherland considers himself a survivor.

Editor’s note: This is one of four articles by MinnPost interns spotlighting diverse Faces of the Economy.

What a difference a few months can make.

After nearly 30 years as a one-man construction shop, Robert Sutherland considers himself a survivor who has seen firsthand how quickly economic conditions and health issues can change daily life for him and his wife, Tammy.

He operates his company, Sutherland Home Improvement, from an office in the family’s modest Richfield home.

Over the past 15 years, he’s built his business slowly but steadily, relying largely on repeat customers and their word-of-mouth “advertising” for much of his success. “My wife calls me a perfectionist,” Sutherland jokes about his diligence in painting and construction skills. “I just like to do it right the first time.”

But by late last year, some of his work began disappearing. Bids on jobs came less frequently and had to be priced lower because of competition from other contractors.

“It was difficult. We came into the recession trying to pull out of a lean time,” says Sutherland, ruminating on the previous struggles that prepared him and his family for the nation’s economic recession.

 “It got to the point,” recalls Sutherland, “that I was contemplating getting another job.”

Small steps to economize
To get by financially, the couple found ways to economize. At home, they lowered the thermostat setting, cut back on leisure activities and traveled less frequently to see family. At work, Sutherland switched from driving a full-size van to a minivan that used less gas. He started transporting fewer tools, and he says he still “[is] always looking for every way to lessen my overhead.”

The start of 2009 proved no better economically but, finally, with the arrival of spring, Sutherland began seeing a turnaround. Business began picking up markedly because, he says, spring seems to give people “new energy” for remodeling and fix-up projects.

He knows that not all contractors are having the strong rebound he’s seen. “Many contractors have now shut their doors and gone on to do something else,” Sutherland notes somberly.

Sutherland, 48, the father of four adult children and grandfather of three, considers himself a survivor and knows he has a lot to be thankful for. His family faced some of the same economic pressures a few years ago, when he was nearly crippled by a chronic illness — a motion disorder sickness — for nearly three years.

The consequences for Sutherland, his business and his family, were devastating. Not only had the disorder caused him lengthy unemployment, but it raised concerns if he would ever wield a paintbrush again.  His wife, Tammy, began working at United Healthcare, becoming sole-bread-winner and covering the family under her health insurance plan, and replenishing the savings they had nearly depleted in medical expenses.

His two-and-a-half-year recovery was difficult, but he returned to work with renewed dedication, Sutherland said.

Optimism remains
In spite of all he and his family have been through, Sutherland remains remarkably optimistic about the economy, its recovery and his family’s future.  “I’ve seen business increasing, and people are learning to deal with [the recession]. The work being done is more out of a necessity.”

Right now, one of Sutherland’s main worries is the possibility of health relapse because of stress.

Even so, he’s at peace with his prospects, crediting the support of his wife for his attitude.

And for perspective, he keeps a reminder of his illness nearby — the cane he relied on during his recovery. “I keep [it] in my van, just to remind me when I get frustrated and think I should be able to push harder and push longer. I see the cane and am thankful I can walk, I can work. And every day I can go out and work, I count as a blessing.”

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