Kevin French was terrified when he put everything on the line to buy his first construction company, South Portland-based Ledgewood Construction.
Indebted to a number of people, including his mother-in-law, French had many sleepless nights. And for the first time in his life he had a lack of confidence.
To French’s benefit, he’s had a keen understanding of the value of relationships. And from those relationships, he’s created unlimited opportunities for himself, such as the creation of one of the fastest growing businesses not only in Maine, but in the United States: Landry/French Construction Company.
But as French understands so well, one isn’t just handed opportunities. Perseverance has been a guiding principle throughout his life.
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French started out in the industry part-time while he continued in his previous career in law-enforcement. He worked for a friend’s company on the side and began to develop a knack for the field. When an emergency required French to take the reins of the company, he quickly realized he may have a future in the industry.
Eventually, a full-time opportunity arose scheduling paper machine shutdowns for International Paper. To do this work, he needed to learn software and terminology he had no familiarity with. Determined to succeed, he picked it all up quickly — even utilizing the software company’s technical support line to grasp the finer details.
French would remain with International Paper for a year before moving to major construction firm Cianbro for a six-month stint. His efforts caught the attention of Pizzagalli Construction Company, now known as PC Construction Company, who recruited French into a project engineer role.
But French knew he could do more for the Vermont-based company. Instead of taking on the scheduling work, he pushed for a business development position. Though initially his inquiries weren’t taken seriously, French eventually secured a meeting with the company’s president. During a face to face meeting, French began to convince him of his worth, though he still had more persuading to do.
To show he was cut out for the gig, French began making connections and cultivating leads that he passed on directly to the business development team. His eagerness and effort earned him another meeting with Pizzagalli’s president.
French recalls being told in the meeting that he was not quite ready for an executive-level position. Confident in his own beliefs, French’s response to the president was simple: you’re wrong.
Now that he had upper management’s attention, French was asked to sell himself to Pizzagalli as he would sell Pizzagalli to a client — in the form of a handwritten letter.
“I can’t write worth a damn,” says French. But he’d taught himself about software for International Paper, and that had led to further opportunities, so he got creative. French looked online for a professional writer, and found a match. He shared his stories, and the writer crafted a letter. French sent the letter off to Pizzagalli, and he was hired.
At that time, the company was doing $17-$20 million in business in Maine. The first year French was there, that increased to over $50 million. By the time he left it was up over $80 million. Part of French’s contribution was encouraging the company to open an office in Maine. The Portland location, still open to this day, has allowed Pizzagalli to have a permanent presence in the state.
For French, doing business development work was about building relationships. He made a point of not wiping his hands of a client once a deal was made, but instead worked closely with them to ensure things were going smoothly throughout the course of a project.
With revenue up and expansion underway, French loved his place at Pizzagalli. But once again, he began to feel that urge that he could accomplish more. So he reached out to find businesses looking for a transition, and several opportunities presented themselves. French was ready to go out on his own.
When he got word that Ledgewood Construction was available, French was initially disappointed as he considered Ledgewood to be a lesser value firm. He was convinced to sit down with the owner, though, and he immediately trusted that this partnership would work. While French recognized it would be a tough transition and he’d need to do some legwork to surround himself with the right people, he decided to dive in.
Financially, it took some work. French admits he was fortunate the banks knew him and trusted him from his time with Pizzagalli. His attention toward building relationships was paying off. Eventually, he was able to buy in for a percentage with a clause that he would buy out the owner at a certain point.
Disability RMS and the accompanying parking garage in Westbrook were two of the high-profile projects undertaken the company within the first three months of French taking over.
At the end of the job, French was able to completely buy out his share in Ledgewood. It was anticipated this would take 10-15 years to do so, but French had it bought out in under a year. He was also able to pay off the debt he owed his mother-in-law.
Under French’s guidance, Ledgewood’s revenue grew from $17 million from when he started to close to $56 million before deciding to sell the company to his partner.
So why leave and start something new? For French, it was all about taking time to reflect. After selling Ledgeworth in 2006, French and his Family moved to Sugarloaf before making his next move. But while French enjoyed his time away, a hunger still burned to get back into the field.
Part of French’s success is due to his mantra that you can’t do it alone. In building his own company, he follows the philosophy of “Surround yourself with people more intelligent than you. What value does someone serve if they’re not smarter than you?”
French kept this in mind when he looked to start his next venture. He partnered up with one of the most recognized, experienced and respected construction leaders in Maine — Denis Landry.
The different strengths of Landry, primarily centered around the operations side of the company, make him the perfect compliment to French and his ability to develop relationships and grow businesses.
As the new endeavor, Landry/French Construction Company, came into being, the contrasting abilities of the two have allowed it to flourish.
In 2016 alone, the construction firm earned a spot on Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest growing companies list, it’s been named one of the Best Places to Work in Maine and Landry/French even made the transition to be 100 percent employee owned by developing an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).
Kevin French’s career started with disappointment when his childhood dream of working in law enforcement didn’t pan out. He recognized his interests and his strengths and pushed himself and others in order to find success for himself and his business.
And while Landry/French began right at the height of the country’s economic recession — an incredibly tough period for construction — the founding partners’ combined experience, business relationships and business acumen have allowed growing construction company to flourish.
French’s efforts have helped to build Maine’s landscape and Maine’s economy, all thanks to the relationships he has been able to build, and of course, his unwavering perseverance. That’s why Kevin French is a Maine Icon.