Alabama Contractor Adjusts to Changes in Order to Keep Company Thriving

Adapting to shifting business dynamics keeps Southern Directional headed in right direction

Alabama Contractor Adjusts to Changes in Order to Keep Company Thriving

The Southern Directional field crew includes, from left, Josh Burr, new growth foreman; Tristan Hood, hydroexcavator operator; Matthew Gray, skilled laborer/fuser; Jessie Ingram, drill operator, and Philip James, drill foreman/locator. Their equipment includes a Vermeer MX240 mixing system, and a Vermeer D40x55 S3 Navigator directional drill.

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How companies handle adversity often serves as a litmus test for success. Take Southern Directional, for instance, an underground-utilities and directional-boring company in Alabama that was flying high after getting hired in 1999 as a subcontractor to lay a fiber optic line across the state of Alabama — part of a national cross-country project.

It was the first job for the newly established company, founded in 1999 in Alabaster, about 15 miles south of Birmingham. “That project opened the door for us,” says Tina Calma, who owns the company with her husband, Matt.

But in early 2001, the company faced a sink-or-swim moment when a larger firm acquired the general contractor on the project. The new company then renegotiated contracts at less-favorable rates that the Calmas found unacceptable.

The blindside hit forced the couple to step back and re-evaluate their company’s direction.

“We pretty much had to revamp and refocus overnight,” says Tina Calma. “We were so laser-focused on just fiber optic lines that we were missing the big picture — that we needed a more diverse customer base.

“We were so busy satisfying one client that we weren’t building a company,” she continues. “It forced us to step back and decide what kind of company we wanted to be — what direction Southern Directional should go. It definitely was a pivotal moment.”


The shift in focus was fruitful. Today Southern Directional is a well-diversified business, handling underground-utility projects that typically involve installing, replacing and relocating utility lines. About half of the projects involve directional boring. Clients include privately owned utilities, municipalities and the Alabama Department of Transportation, along with occasional work for the federal government.

“It helps a lot when you’re not confined to one particular niche, such as fiber optic lines,” Calma points out. “We continue to respond to economic and political changes. We adjust to what our communities and clients need, whether it’s building new municipal infrastructure or relocating utility lines to accommodate a new emphasis on improving highways.”

Customers also drive the company to diversify. After completing a waterline project, for instance, a client might then ask if Southern Directional also does gas lines. That underscores the need to do top-notch work that generates repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals, Calma notes.

“If customers see your integrity and the quality of your work, they’ll ask you to do more,” she explains, noting that the company has grown organically because of these requests for additional services.

“It’s a more gratifying way to grow as opposed to following some kind of master business plan,” she says. “Sometimes when you try to force things, you pursue avenues that don’t match your vision.”


Around 2008, the company faced another game-changing moment of reckoning amid an economic recession. This time, the circumstances prompted the Calmas to reflect on internal changes as opposed to shifts in external markets.

“After the market downturn, we realized we were trying to grow too quickly,” she explains. “Instead of focusing so hard on growth, we decided to step back and focus on quality, not quantity.

“We also realized we had to somehow differentiate ourselves in the market,” she adds. “So we extended that focus on quality to our employees — building a true team and solidifying our leadership.”

A funny thing happened in the ensuing years: As the focus on quality deepened, the quantity of work increased. “When we focused more on quality, we found that quantity becomes a natural byproduct,” she says. “When you do the right things, good things happen.”


The Calmas’ entry into directional drilling was a natural outgrowth of their respective career paths. Both had established careers in construction-related businesses. But they eventually decided to form a company and call their own shots.

“We wanted to create a family-owned business that operated more like a team and a family than a corporation,” Calma explains. “We wanted to avoid treating people like numbers — create a place where team members feel valued, are treated with respect and encouraged to improve themselves.

“As a result, we work very hard on creating a great company culture, based on core values,” she continues. “They’re more than just a set of rules. They cover values like always doing the right thing. Caring about others. And integrity in the workplace.”


Of course, plenty of companies say they want to create vibrant corporate cultures, but merely pay lip service to the concept. So how does Southern Directional make it happen?

In short, the company incorporates its core values into everything from the hiring process and employee training to performance evaluations, promotions and employee pay.

For example, after job interviews, prospective candidates receive what Calma calls a core-value score. The score is based on candidates’ answers to interview questions specifically aimed at determining their values, she says.

“Is it always accurate and right?” she asks rhetorically. “No. People can fake what they want to fake. But it’s still one of the best ways to find out what people are all about.

“We can always teach skills, but not character — that’s something they either have or they don’t have. So we ask questions that try to get at their character.”


In addition, the company holds a 30-minute meeting for all employees once a month, usually accompanied by breakfast or a lunch. After presenting a topic related to a core value, an employee who’s nominated by a supervisor — or sometimes even a customer — receives a small award for exemplifying one of the company’s core values. The reward usually is a gift card to a local business.

“It’s nothing huge, but it’s recognition that reinforces our values,” Calma points out. “We try to make a pretty big deal about it.”

In addition, job evaluations, promotions and employee compensation all are linked to how well employees follow the core values. “This makes those core values live and breathe, instead of just paying lip service to them,” she says.

While it’s easy to envision construction workers rolling their eyes at the touchy-feely aspects of core values, Calma says the program works. She says she periodically gets phone calls from clients that praise employees’ conduct and performance.

“I recently had a resident call just to tell us that one of our flaggers (on a road-construction project) makes his day because he’s always smiling and saying good morning to people as they leave the neighborhood,” she says.

“So we stood that flagger in front of the whole group at a meeting and said, ‘This is what it’s all about,’” she notes. “Sometimes living a core value is something as simple as just being friendly.”


The company also provides in-house leadership training, which Calma says reduces turnover and indirectly leads to better customer relations through employees’ personal growth and professional development. Any manager who supervises more than two employees must attend ongoing training sessions, she says.

Those employees also meet once a month as a leadership team, usually to discuss a book everyone is assigned to read. Attendees also discuss challenges they face as leaders and what it means to be a leader, Calma adds.

Is the program, now in place for nearly two years, making a difference? Absolutely, Calma says, pointing to low employee-turnover rates. She also cites the positive results of 360-degree reviews, in which employees provide their managers/supervisors with feedback about their performance.

“Plus, a lot of our people have been promoted and moved up throughout the company,” she adds. “I absolutely attribute that to our leadership program.”

Looking ahead, Calma says the company will continue to focus on building its teams and leaders, improving operational efficiencies and building business relationships — three primary cornerstones in the company’s success.

As for growth, she also expects more in the years ahead. But the company has no specific goals in mind. Instead, growth will emerge as a byproduct of building on the company’s core values, she says.

“If you invest in people and encourage personal growth, expansion happens organically,” she says. “And at that point, the sky is the limit.” 


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