The Driveway Company

An Interview with Ben Callahan, Owner of The Driveway Company
By Joel Vrana and Xiaoning Zhao, Creighton University MBA students

At the start of this semester we were asked what we knew about ethics. It is safe to say we all had a solid basis of exactly what it was. However, during the semester we would come to find that good, ethical people are sometimes hard to find. Even with ethics being at the forefront of most of the media, government, and our workplaces, people sometimes make unethical decisions for a multitude of reasons. That’s not the reason we are writing this article though. We are writing this because we managed to find one of the genuinely ethical people in the local Omaha business community. That person is Ben Callahan. He is a recipient of the 2014 Better Business Bureau Integrity Award.  From the moment we walked in his office it was clear that Ben was not the typical CEO you would expect to come in contact with. He was down to earth, very personable, and more than willing to take time out of his busy work day to have this discussion. Ben grew up in Colorado where he experienced many factors that molded him into the person he is today. After high school he got involved in a company that did work on different parking lots throughout Omaha, from there he made the right connections and was able to go off on his own and formed The Driveway Company. He has been with The Driveway Company ever since. The Driveway Company is located at 4944 S. 114th St. Omaha, NE. They offer professional maintenance services for concrete such as crack & joint sealing, concrete repair, mud jacking, concrete driveway sealing, and exterior concrete sealing in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas.”

How do you get into this industry?

“I grew up in Colorado. I did not go to college after high school but that was a different time where it was not as important to get a degree. Through hard work you could make your way to places you want to be, that’s what I like to think I did. After high school I worked with a parking lot development company, specifically working with painting and also some other jobs with parking lots, like crack sewing, new layouts and new designs etc.  From working with this company I was able to network and make the connections needed to find some side jobs I could do on my own, or with the help of a few others. I thought to myself that this was an opportunity presented before me that I could not pass up and I decided to enter the industry. I formed The Driveway Company and slowly built it into the company that it is today through old fashioned hard-work and grit.”

What do you like most about the work you do?

“As I said before I really enjoyed the work I did out of high school and I figured if I had found something I enjoyed from a young age that I should stick with it.  I like the fact that it is residential, and by this I mean a majority of my clients are home owners and not city governments, or businesses. Not that I have anything against those customers, there is just something about working residential jobs that I enjoy more. Maybe it is working one on one with people and getting to hear their feedback and know exactly who is enjoying the work that we do.   Another positive is that the industry has a quick pay process and it is usually a one day job. Who doesn’t want to be paid quickly and work in a new area daily? After all, these were things I had in mind when I designed the business.”

Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you?

“It’s something about who you are, how you see yourself, and really how you want to be seen. Ethical people are more concerned about others then themselves. They strive to please people and don’t have to think twice about the decisions they make on a day to day basis. In my eyes when you do something right, you get a really good feeling about yourself. This feeling alone is enough to sway me to always make the right, ethical choices. However, if you only are an ethical person to a certain extent, that can really cut back on not only your happiness with the work you do but also your overall happiness with life.”

Do you think there is a difference between “personal ethics” and “ethics in business”? Or they just go hand in hand?

“As I said before I see the two going hand in hand. If you are not an ethical person outside of the business world you are not going to be an ethical person in a business setting. I like to think that my upbringing made me into the person I am today and I would identify myself as being fairly ethical. Throughout my life I was lucky enough to have good role models who have reinforced strong moral and ethical standards. As I said, if these items had not been present in my life I may have ended up an entirely different person with poor ethical standards.”

Is there a formal ethics program in your company?

“No, there currently is not a formal ethics program. It is something we have considered but at the current state of the company people know and understand exactly what is expected of them and really do not need a formal program. I like to think that we have a standard for the people we hire. We hire people who we know will be ethically sound and once again this has led us to not needing the program at this time.”

What’s tolerated and what’s not?

“I like to think I set a good example for my workers. I work alongside everybody, and set an example. People have told me that the thought process they have is simply, what would Ben do? This makes me feel good because I have never had a problem with people making poor choices. I feel like I have set a standard of the right and wrong things and people have certainly noticed.”

The Ethical Omaha Project of the Business Ethics Alliance has identified the Omaha business core values to be the following: Accountability, Community Responsibility, Financial Vitality, Integrity, and Moral Courage. Can you elaborate how they fit your company and what they mean to you?

"All of these standards in one way or another fit into our company. As I said, we don’t directly have an ethics program but we definitely exemplify these values.

Accountability- We strive to provide the best possible service to every single one of our customers. In this industry we rely on word of mouth and recommendations, so naturally we have high standards and if we do not meet those we will gladly redo a project.

Community Responsibility- In my opinion, this goes hand in hand with accountability. We do not want to leave any of our customers with bad memories. In regard to customer service or the quality of product, we want everything to be positive.

Financial Vitality- Like any company we obviously would like to make a profit. To our company though money is an afterthought, we care more about providing quality service then we do making money. If we need to delve into our profit to finish up a project to our standards then we will do that.

Integrity- I like to think of integrity as facing your problems, not sitting and arguing with someone. In the sense where a customer could consistently be upset with the quality of service and I never want to sit there and argue with them the whole day. I simply state our case honestly and come to the solution that will benefit both of us, but mostly make the customer happy.

Moral Courage- To me moral courage is having the ability to step up in a situation where you know something is wrong and take a stand against it. Specifically at The Driveway Company there have been times where we have underbid jobs and not had everything we needed to complete a job. To always provide the best service we cut back into our own profits instead of providing a subpar service.”

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle.

“There are a few that come to mind, As I alluded to before, situations where we under bid a job are certainly ethical situations that we have an easy time dealing with. On one hand we could work with the materials we have budgeted for and get the job done at a slightly lesser quality. To our company though, it is a no brainer. Spend the extra money needed to get the job done to the highest quality. I mentioned before that when you do the right thing you get a good feeling. Situations like this always give me a good feeling. Another situation we have found ourselves in is one that revolves around contracts. One instance comes to mind when a customer insisted that we had discussed some additional services that were not in the contract. So I took the customer aside and tried to talk out the situation. Unfortunately we could not come to an agreement, so I just thought to myself, how can I fix this? I knew I wanted the customer happy, so I simply asked, what can I do to make you happy with our service? The customer offered a solution and that’s what I did. In an industry like ours customer happiness, and in turn word of mouth, is so important that sometimes you must be willing to take a hit to your profit in order to make someone satisfied”.   

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively hard to handle.

“This one is a little tougher to think of, as I said, I like to think I am an ethical person and in turn do not have a tough time when faced with ethical decisions. However, there is one situation that comes to mind that was pretty difficult to handle. There was a time when I was approached to try out a new product that a company was developing. We applied a coat of the product and it did not look right. We then applied another coat and it still did not look right. After the third coat I knew something was wrong. The product was not going to hold up for very long and the customer would have to get service done on their driveway within the next two years. So I thought, what are the chances they would know it was our fault. That did not sit well with me though; I did not feel good about that resolution. In the long run I knew that if I wanted to be seen as a good person and even see myself as a good person I needed to make this situation right. The customer may never have known, but I always would. So I told them the situation and offered to completely redo their driveway. In the end the customer was very grateful that we came forward and fixed the situation. I once again was left with the good feeling that one gets when making a quality ethical decision.”

Why did you call the previous two situations ethical?

“I would call them ethical, because it is not a comfortable situation or one that you deal with easily. It seems either situation could be the correct answer. We would either lose money or lose clients.  We cannot just focus on money right? As I have said multiple times, for me, feeling good as a person is more important than profit. I believe profits come after good business.”

Are there unethical behaviors that give your competitors an advantage?

“Not really. In this industry in Omaha we do not have a whole lot of competition. In some cases you will see companies underbid certain jobs knowing that either they won’t make a large profit, or will use lesser materials. That is really the only unethical behaviors that I have seen.”

Have you had any ethical mentors?

“I would probably say that if I had to name one person who had a positive influence on my ethics it would be Father Ringle. He was a pastor at my church growing up. I never directly sat down and got lessons from him or anything like that. He just walked the walk and talked the talk. You could just look at him and want to be half the person that he was. His influence certainly helped me through the years.”

How do your upbringing and family values play into your ethical development?

“In a way, my mother was a really good role model. She may not have personally known that she was being ethical. The work ethic and love she had to support our family certainly helped to mold me into a better person.”

What does the BBB Integrity award mean to you personally? How do the employees feel?

“It is not about the award. Do not get me wrong I felt honored to receive the award. At the end of the day though I was just being myself and somewhere along the line that got noticed. It certainly does not change who I am at all or how I do things. It is nice to have some reassurance that I am doing the right things in the eyes of the business community. As for my employees, they were a little more excited than I was. They took it as a huge honor. All the work they have done and choices they have made were not meaningless and they felt great to be rewarded.”

What are the biggest challenges thatface young business professionals today?

“The focus today seems to have gotten out of whack. By this I mean that the focus in the business world has become more about money than anything. Young business professionals may give in to pressures that they feel will help them make more money. I am worried that if we keep this focus we will start seeing more and more unethical behavior. As I said earlier, the profit should come second and it should be more focused on your happiness and the happiness of those affected by the business you are doing.”

Any tips for dealing with them?

“Don’t be afraid. Fear makes people take actions that they normally wouldn’t take. Whether that fear is brought on by financial issues or the chance that you could get fired, do not let it get to you. Be who you are in every situation and do what will make you feel happy and allow you to see yourself in the way you want to be seen.”