How Construction Business Owner became the leading business magazine for contractors

For entrepreneur Wally Evans, the booming construction industry a decade ago presented a prime opportunity for business growth.

Shortly after acquiring Pumps & Systems, the world’s leading magazine for pump users, and founding Birmingham-based publishing company Cahaba Media Group in 2003, Evans was ready to expand.

In 2004, many economic indicators were pointing upward, with the industry surpassing some 2003 outlooks. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, construction spending in 2004 reached $998.4 billion, approximately 9 percent above the previous year’s level. Construction employment—particularly in the residential sector—was on the rise and would see a peak in April 2006 at 7.73 million jobs.

Acknowledging the hot construction market at the time and wanting to start other magazines, Evans focused his attention on the construction industry. The months of research and planning that followed would lay the foundation for Construction Business Owner magazine.

“I asked the staff to pull together all the construction trade magazines they could find,” Evans said. “We laid them all on the floor and looked at them for a long time. I knew if we were going into the market, we didn’t have to go in being No. 1, but we certainly didn’t want to be No. 50.”

During the next several months, Evans sought to determine what the industry lacked. After flipping through the pages of nearly 40 different construction magazines sprawled across his office floor, Evans and his team observed one key characteristic of about 70 percent of the publications: They were all about equipment.

“A lot of those were published by big, old successful publishing companies,” he said. “So, the first thing I knew was that it didn’t make sense to do an equipment magazine.”

Evans also noticed that a large portion of the existing construction magazines on the market were affiliated with an association, with editorial content heavily focused on industry news and what was taking place in Washington.

During this two-month research and evaluation process, Evans considered his own background in business. As the owner of a brand-new publishing company, Evans subscribed to a myriad of magazines about how to run a publishing business.

“I read those business magazines cover to cover,” Evans said. “Although I had business management experience at a big conglomerate, I realized there was a lot about running a small business that I didn’t know and had not been taught in business school or college.”

Evans determined that the one thing missing from the pile of trade magazines he and his team had gathered was a resource that would give contractors the tools they need to run better businesses.

“These guys know a lot about driving trucks or building buildings or moving dirt, but many of them don’t know much about how to run a company,” Evans said. “So when I looked back at these magazines that I had all over the floor, I realized they were all talking about how to buy and maintain equipment and what’s going on in associations. There wasn’t a good magazine about how to run a business. So, that’s where I decided this should be our niche. We’re going to talk about how you build and run a company.” With that epiphany, Construction Business Owner became a reality.

On May 3, 2004, CBO’s first editor jumped head first into gathering editorial, while Senior Account Representative Judy Rice picked up the phone to begin selling advertising space. In August of that year, the first issue of Construction Business Owner went to press.

Distinct from its competitors, CBO would offer its readers practical insight into construction business management, actionable business advice and other tips—everything from how to get a loan to when to call a lawyer to how to manage people.

“I remember the cover of our first issue was a picture of a construction business owner,” Evans says, “and the headline under his picture was, ‘You can build a building, but can you build a company?’ That became the whole mission statement of the magazine.”

In September 2004, the newly formed CBO team traveled to Vegas for MINExpo, their first industry trade show. The group strived to make sales, gather editorial content and make the Construction Business Owner brand recognizable.

“MINExpo was huge,” said Rice, who remains a vital member of the CBO sales team. “It was exciting to talk to our customers and let them know what we were doing. We passed out our magazines to customers that we had not sold. A lot of them said, ‘It’s a great concept, but how are you different? Convince me how you’re different.’”

According to Rice, that question has evolved into loyalty from her customers, who now say, “You serve a niche in the industry that no other publication serves.”

Since then, Rice—joined by other members of the CBO staff—has attended nearly 40 trade shows and countless industry events.

During those first few years, Construction Business Owner expanded and evolved to meet the needs of the industry and business owners who had been underserved by existing publications. In 2008, the CBO team was on track for a record year. By the time autumn rolled around, however, the Great Recession had taken its toll. The housing bubble had collapsed, large financial firms were folding, thousands of jobs across the nation were disappearing, and, to many, the construction industry seemed to have taken the brunt of the blow.

“The phones just stopped ringing,” Evans recalls. “Businesses stopped spending. Orders got canceled. Marketing budgets were cut. September 2008 was a record month in terms of billings, but things collapsed after that. I remember standing in front of our staff in December 2008 and saying, ‘Look, some of you are fairly new and young, and you may not have seen what it’s like to live through a recession in the working world, but you’re about to go through it. Our strategy for 2009 is to be here in 2010.”

With a conservative and nimble management style already in place, Cahaba Media Group kept expenses in line with the revenue that supported them and tightened its belt. Despite the far-reaching financial crisis, Cahaba Media Group never experienced a losing year.

“An important thing about recessions is that they end. The companies that work twice as hard during recessions to prepare for coming out of them are the ones who end up surviving,” Evans says. “We burned up the phones and had a lot of long conversations with customers, saying, ‘We need your support.’” A few loyal advertisers, Evans says, understood this principle and helped CBO weather the nation’s financial storm.

“Those companies that are forward-thinking will actually increase their marketing during a recession to take market share from their competitors,” Evans says. “When the recession ended, those that increased marketing got stronger. I was grateful for those advertisers that were willing to step up and not just go dark during that time.”

With the support of dedicated advertisers and a team devoted to keeping the magazine afloat, CBO was able to emerge from the nation’s economic slump and thrive in the years that followed.

“I remember one night in early 2010, I woke up at 2 a.m.,” Evans said. “I couldn’t sleep, and I said to myself, ‘I am tired of this recession, and I refuse to participate any longer.’ I got up and had a series of ideas in my head and went to my office and wrote them all down.”

In an effort to grow business and not cut back the way other firms had, Evans listed business processes to add or eliminate, hires to make and ideas for new magazines. During this time, Evans and his team also collaborated on ways to make CBO better than ever.

“Construction was digging out,” Evans said. “That was also the time we hired a new editor, Jeana Durst. She really helped move the magazine to the next level. She did a lot to increase the magazine’s quality and its expertise and reputation in the industry.”

Durst, former editor of CBO, spearheaded a brand redesign that was launched in March 2011. The purpose of the rebranding, Durst says, was to offer readers more consistency in the look and feel of the magazine and to demonstrate that CBO addressed both office- and field-focused content from a business management perspective. To accomplish that goal, the team separated the magazine into “In the Office” and “In the Field” sections that remain in place today.

“We knew we were talking about the topics that people expected and wanted to read about like accounting, risk management and business strategy, but we were also talking about how to get the best ROI on equipment and technology,” Durst says. “We decided to break it up to more clearly communicate what the magazine addressed and show readers we were in tune with ‘in the field’ type topics.”

Now, half of each issue of the magazine is dedicated to office-oriented material, including risk management, business strategy, workforce management, accounting and marketing. The other half dives into field-focused topics—equipment, jobsite safety, financing, project management and technology.

“Readers like the separation,” Rice says. “That’s where we stand out from the others. In fact, a competitor once told me, ‘We wish we had thought of that.’”

Ten years and 120 issues later, Construction Business Owner has a loyal following of nearly 40,000 subscribers who seem eager to share the magazine’s unparalleled perspective. Ben Ashburn, former estimator and current lecturer at Murray State University in Kentucky, has been reading CBO for four years and says he regularly uses the magazine in his estimating, scheduling and management courses to teach his students real-world construction management strategies.

“You guys are my go-to for class,” Ashburn says. "CBO has very relevant topics. The textbook is one thing, but I try to put as much real world as I can into class. A lot of your articles are written by people who work in the real world every day, and the topics are usually right on with the topics I’m trying to teach. It’s really good material for students to know that this isn’t just theory we’re talking about in class.”

Ashburn says he requires his students to read CBO articles and write reviews on the content. He also encourages his students to subscribe to the magazine so they can continue to learn valuable industry information when they begin their careers.

As more construction professionals like Ashburn rely on CBO as their go-to industry resource, it will continue to grow. Evans says the industry is vast, and contractors will always need up-to-date tips and advice for managing a business. As long as that’s true, Construction Business Owner will stand out as the leading business magazine for contractors.

“The old cliché that it’s lonely at the top is true,” Evans says. “There’s no big manual on the shelf that says this is the right answer, especially today when things change so fast. Our mission to the reader is to help you outcompete the other guy, and the way you outcompete is to become a better manager and to work harder and smarter. Our mission is to give our readers the tools to do that.”