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5 Lessons Learned from 20 Years in Business

By: Alison McLennan | October 30, 2023

Topics: Design-Build Remodeling Tips

Two decades ago this month, Tim and I took our first tentative steps into the world of business ownership. We were newlyweds with our first mortgage and plans to start a family. We had no idea what we were getting into—in life or in business.

Twenty years later, I’m looking back at a road that’s had its share of ups, downs, and hairpin turns. The journey has been anything but easy, and we’ve made our share of mistakes. But what I feel most of all when I reminisce is gratitude for all we’ve learned along the way.

Here are some of the top lessons that have shaped my life since McLennan opened its doors in 2003.


#1. A good team makes you better than you could ever be alone.

One of the biggest mistakes we made was waiting too long to build a team. For nearly 15 years, Tim and I wore every hat in the company, constantly stretching ourselves thinner to cover all the bases of our growing business.

We were burned out and ready to close up shop when someone finally convinced us to hire help. The team that surrounds us today has revolutionized our business and our lives. They are talented, dedicated, encouraging, and compassionate. With each passing year they make me better, and I hope I do the same for them.


#2. Every project—large or small—is a gift.

When Tim and I were starting out, we lived one job at a time, so gratitude for each project came easily. But soon we were busier than we could handle, and gratitude got buried by our task lists. 

And then, in late 2008, the economy fell apart. As we navigated the Great Recession, watching many of our peers go out of business, we gained a deeper and more lasting sense of gratitude for the gift of work. We realized how quickly things can change, and that you should never take for granted in the busy times what you would miss in the lean times.

To this day I say a prayer of thanks for each new project, and the homeowner who has decided to place their trust in us. May we, and our team, never take that trust for granted. 


#3. Invite people to tell you the truth in love.

A few years ago Tim and I joined a peer group of remodeling business owners from all over the U.S. and Canada. We get together with these non-competing companies every six months to conduct case studies on one another’s businesses and provide helpful (often difficult) feedback. We all invest time, energy, and money to be there for each other, not only at our on-site case studies but in the day-to-day over Zoom, on Slack, through email, or over the phone. 

This group challenges and inspires me to face my fears, be honest with myself, and make hard, vital changes for the better. We know how to tell one another the truth, but we do so with love. Trusting and inviting others to be honest with me is uncomfortable, but invaluable.


#4. Say no to good things so you can say yes to the best things.

As a creative entrepreneur, my brain is constantly bombarded with ideas and inspiration. I see opportunities all around me, and have an inherent drive to build something from nothing. 

In years past, my inability to filter out the “good” from the “best” led to weeks, months, maybe even years of inefficiency and distraction. It wasn’t until we, as a company, learned to be selective about saying yes that we really began to gain traction.

This lesson is why McLennan Contracting no longer takes every type of home improvement project. By saying no to some types of work, we’re able to hone and streamline our processes so we can be the best at other types of work. We’ve chosen the path of specialist, rather than generalist, and we—and our clients—are happier for it.


#5. Intentionally create space for rest and connection.

One drawback of being married to your business partner—it’s impossible not to bring work home with us. When you’re both driven individuals, you love your team and business, and you enjoy working together…let’s just say Tim and I talk shop at home more than we probably should. (Our kids would certainly agree.)

We’ve always emphasized that we want our team to have a healthy balance of work and rest. Our need for this is no less than theirs, but we tend to neglect it in our own lives—that can happen when you carry the responsibility of making payroll. But that’s no excuse for neglecting healthy rest and connection with others.

It’s essential to have a community of friends outside of work—someone who sees us, not our business. Someone to remind us that we aren’t what we do for a living, and help us recalibrate our identity when work tries to swallow it up. 

Just as important are the hobbies that draw us out of a productivity mindset and free us to just have fun. I’ve seen many of my peers gradually walk away from their hobbies as they’ve gotten older—as have I—and I think it’s largely because we don’t make space for things that don’t feel productive. It’s time for that to change.

These lessons, and so many others, are constantly reframing my perspective and showing me how much more I have to learn. Business ownership is hard, exhausting, and sometimes a little scary—but it’s also an incredible teacher that will enrich your life if you maintain a coachable spirit.

Whether you're a fellow business owner, a Lancaster homeowner, or just a visitor passing through, I hope this post brings you encouragement and a fresh outlook as you continue on your own journey of learning.

Written by Alison McLennan

Alison McLennan is President of McLennan Contracting. She and her husband, Tim, co-own the business and are passionate about creating a company culture that is characterized by collaboration, diligence, and continual learning. When Alison isn't envisioning new horizons for McLennan Contracting, she can be found reading a mystery novel, spoiling her dogs, or planning the family's latest cross-country RV trip.

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