This week, Marcus sits down with Vince LaCoste. Vince is the owner of Bethel Engineering, an engineering firm in Mobile specializing in a variety of different project types. Watch this episode to hear Vince's story of his family business and how he takes care in decision making.
Produced by Blue Fish in Mobile, Alabama
Vince LaCoste: I'm Vince LaCoste, and I'm the president owner of Bethel Engineering.
Marcus Neto: Awesome, Vince. Well, it's really good to have you here.
Vince LaCoste: It's good to be here, thanks for having me.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, absolutely. So, full disclosure. Vince and I have known each other for a number of years, and Bethel, the company that he owns, is a client. But I think you have an interesting story to tell, so we're here to tell it. Why don't you give us some backstory, though? Tell us where you're from, where'd you go to high school, are you married, kids ... That kind of thing.
Vince LaCoste: Sure, yeah. I'm from Mobile, born and raised here. I graduated high school from UMS back in '93, went to south Alabama, became a civil engineer there back in '97, and was actually married in '95.
Marcus Neto: So, before-
Vince LaCoste: Yeah, before I finished college. My wife helped put me through college, so we've been married 24 years. We have a senior that's about to graduate UMS, and then we have a junior, a freshman, and a first grader. We're not real sure where he came from.
Marcus Neto: Excuse me?
Vince LaCoste: Yeah, but rules the roost right now.
Marcus Neto: Wow, that's really cool. So, why engineering?
Vince LaCoste: I grew up in a construction family. My dad was a contractor, my granddad was a contractor, and just grew up around it. I honestly thought that's what I was going to be to, but I was and am a mama's boy, and just wasn't going to leave home. There was not a degree here in town for construction, so the closest thing was civil engineering. My dad had the same degree and had gone off to be a contractor with that, so I picked that with the full intention of becoming a contractor, and God had different plans for me.
Marcus Neto: There you go. Did you go straight into engineering out of school, or did you go into the family business of-
Vince LaCoste: No, I did. My intention was to go into the family business, but about the time I was getting out of college, there was some turmoil in that family business, business turmoil. So that opportunity really wasn't there, so I had to just, like everybody, go get a job. So I got a job at a pretty big local civil firm, where I spent about six years just churning out design work.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, cutting your teeth.
Vince LaCoste: That's right.
Marcus Neto: Do you remember your first job? I don't mean your first engineering, I mean your first crap job. Were there any lessons that you still remember from that?
Vince LaCoste: One of the things I remember my very first day was a set of plans was plopped down on my desk. It was probably 500 pages, and I had no idea what I was looking at. They didn't teach you that in college, so I had no idea what I was looking at. I remember I was in a cubicle, and the cubicle next to me was a senior designer, he wasn't an engineer, but he'd probably been there 100 years, and he just looked at me, and I could tell he had seen that look before. He walked over and said, "Man, can I help you?" He stepped me through how to read plans, how to read contours, really taught me a lot those first few months and years that ... like I said, they didn't teach you in school. So I remember that specifically.
Marcus Neto: It's amazing to me, the ... I would assume that going to school for engineering, plans are like the output of most of what you do, and that they wouldn't cover that, it seems-
Vince LaCoste: It's covered, going over plans is covered. But looking at a set of plans that may be from a textbook versus the real world-
Marcus Neto: It's different.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah, it's completely different.
Marcus Neto: Wow.
Vince LaCoste: It was a very complex roadway set of plans is what I was looking at, and it was tough to follow.
Marcus Neto: How did you get started with Bethel? What's the story there?
Vince LaCoste: There's a few steps before I get to Bethel, but I actually left that civil firm and decided I was going to go into construction, I was going to do my own thing. I had a three year old, a two year old, and a one year old, and I was building a house. I figured I needed something else to do, so I quit my job with the insurance and the steady salary and all that, and started my own construction business.
Vince LaCoste: It became quickly apparent, and this is no offense to contractors, but it became quickly apparent that I wasn't quite mean enough to be a contractor. Just didn't have what it took to make that happen. So after about two years, I realized I was about to lose everything if I didn't do something, so I went back to engineering. I didn't want to go back to a big firm, so I got a job at a local, small engineering firm, and spent about six or seven years there, became a partner there.
Vince LaCoste: Then when I decided to start Bethel, it actually came out of a side hustle. I had a side hustle of engineering house plans, and that really begin after Ivan, the need arose.
Marcus Neto: So that was 2004.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah. That's when the need first arose, and inspectors started requiring engineers, because it used to ... You could take a set of plans on a knack and just draw it up at a restaurant and take them to go get a permit. After Ivan, things started to change, and they started requiring, in certain circumstances, engineers. Even more so after Katrina. This need grew where now, I would say 90% of plans, maybe more, have an engineer design.
Vince LaCoste: It started out as a side hustle that grew and grew and grew to the point where it became Bethel Engineering.
Marcus Neto: That's quite a side hustle, yeah, I was going to say. Go ahead, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt, but just knowing Bethel, it's quite the side hustle, because of what it's turned into.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah. We started about seven years ago, and started out just primarily doing residential structural. We probably did about 1,000 houses the first year. We're now doing close to 3,000 houses per year all across the Gulf Coast for large builders and small builders alike. We've also added where we do other services, but I don't know. It's been an amazing ride.
Marcus Neto: Yeah. I really love that you say that it was birthed out of a side hustle, because I think a lot of times, people think that they're just going to make the decision and they're going to leave their job and they're going to go and do whatever it is that they want to do. But the reality of it is even BlueFish was born really out of a side hustle. It was things that I was doing on the side to cut my teeth, if you will, because there are a lot of lessons that you need to learn about running a business before you really actually jump in full force, before you can really make the decision as to whether you really like it or not. What I found is that I myself, it really was something that spoke to me, being able to make the decisions that I felt like I needed to make in order to run the business and stuff.
Marcus Neto: But you said 3,000 plans a year?
Vince LaCoste: Yeah, that's pretty close, and it's peaked at that, probably been consistent at that for three years. I know that's a lot of plans, but they're not all brand new designs.
Marcus Neto: Sure, making modifications.
Vince LaCoste: A lot of them are a lot of larger builders who repeat those plans multiple times, and of course we're, as engineers, responsible for every one of them. So there is a set of plans prepared and stamped by us for every single time that house is built. But that's a large portion of what we do, but we do quite a few of just custom new plans every year as well.
Marcus Neto: Now, one of the things that I know you all deal quite a bit with is fortified.
Vince LaCoste: Yes.
Marcus Neto: What ... 'Cause I don't know that a lot of people really have an understanding of what fortified means, and I was just going to give you an opportunity to take a minute or two ... If somebody was to ask you about fortified, what would you say? What is it, how does it apply to the Joe Schmo homeowner, that kind of thing?
Vince LaCoste: It means different things to you at different stages. If you're building a house, I would say the majority of people are now building it to a fortified gold standard. What that means is you're meeting the requirements of what used to be called bronze. Now it's called fortified roof as of recently. Also, a silver level, and then you're adding things to get to gold.
Vince LaCoste: A common misconception is that it's going to cost a lot more money to build to that standard. It really doesn't. There's not a lot that's added, because most of the local building officials already require the supplemental things to the code. The very started point is a sealed roof deck. To get from that to silver, the major item you add is window protection. There's a few other things. Window protection, column supports, that kind of thing. But then gold adds the full load path engineering, which we do.
Vince LaCoste: So most plans are engineered, most plans have window protection, most plans have the sealed roof deck. So you're kind of building a fortified house anyway if you're building a house now.
Marcus Neto: It's just common practice nowadays.
Vince LaCoste: You just need to get the credit for it. So you need to hire an evaluator, which we do, to come out during the process of construction to document the process, so that you can receive the certificate and gain the benefit of having a fortified home.
Marcus Neto: And not holding you in any way, shape, or form for what you say, but what are people seeing, because I know that there's some insurance benefits, and that's the major reason why people do this, right?
Vince LaCoste: Yeah.
Marcus Neto: Are there any figures there on what, on average, so we have an out?
Vince LaCoste: There was a target. There was some legislation passed in Alabama, there were targets given of 30% for bronze, 40% for silver, and 50% for gold. I don't pretend to understand the insurance industry, but I know that's not cut and dry, and I know you do have to shop, you do have to talk to different insurance agents, and ask them, with a fortified certificate of a fortified roof, silver or gold, what would my rates be versus if I didn't have that? Some of them will give some kind of a la carte discounts, but some don't. So those are the target rates, though. 30% for bronze-
Marcus Neto: They can be quite significant for a single family home. If you've got 2,500-3,000 square feet, it's not uncommon to see insurance prices around $3,000.
Vince LaCoste: That's right.
Marcus Neto: So if you can cut that by even 25-30%, $1,000.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah, it's significant. It actually can qualify people for a better house, a bigger house, because that's part of your house payment. If you shave $1,200 a year off, you're shaving $100 a month off your payment, the mortgage.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, that's what, $7 per $10,000 on the average home price? So you can get quite a bit more home for that.
Marcus Neto: Now, do you remember the first plan that you did for somebody as a side hustle that made you think that there might be something do this?
Vince LaCoste: I don't remember the first plan, but I definitely remember when I got started, that honestly there was a lot then that I didn't know that I probably should have known.
Marcus Neto: That's the story of a business owner.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah, it is. We ... I saw we, at that time, it was me. It was me at night after the kids went to bed. I'll tell you what I did. I went out and bought $500-600 worth of books that I couldn't afford at the time. Just put them on a credit card. I bought $2,000-3,000 worth of software I couldn't afford at that time, and I just started studying. I just started learning, and I started perfecting the craft. It was local designers that draw house plans that gave me that first shot. They needed somebody. The inspector was saying, hey, you've got to have an engineering, and most large engineering firms aren't going to touch a house. There was opportunity there, so I went out and knocked on some doors and got the work.
Vince LaCoste: The specifics of the engineering has developed and grown in understanding houses are complex. In many cases, much more complex than a commercial building. Your building here is basically a rectangle.
Marcus Neto: Somewhat. It's a trapezoid.
Vince LaCoste: There you go. I didn't look at it from the sky. Yeah. It's simple construction, as opposed to the house.
Marcus Neto: Sure, four outer walls and the ceiling and that's it.
Vince LaCoste: The house, in order to make it look ... have that curb appeal, there's cut-up roofs and hips and gables and the roofs can get complex, the houses can get complex, and it's knowing when to analyze all those pieces, versus knowing when to just use some prescriptive methods and understand that you've got enough covered there.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, it's really cool. If you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in running their own business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?
Vince LaCoste: I really would say do your research. The first time in my 20s that I started, it was all just off of grit and desire, and just, I'm going to go out and wrestle the bull by the horns and do this. It didn't matter, the consequences. I didn't even think about that. I just went and did it, and it failed. The second time, after weeks and weeks and weeks of research and prayer and seeking advice and making lists and writing out a plan.
Marcus Neto: Checking twice.
Vince LaCoste: All of this stuff, my wife was finally like, it's time for you to make a decision already, just because I really believe in doing your research. I really believe in dotting your I's and crossing your T's and don't go into something blindly. I would say do your research.
Marcus Neto: It's interesting that you say that. But I almost want to push back on you and say because you had the first iteration that failed, there was quite a bit that was learned out of that. Now, I was listening to another podcast recently. It's actually the guys that run Diesel Brothers, the TV show, have started a podcast. So they were talking about business owners or entrepreneurs almost need to be dumb enough to think that they can do it better than the others.
Marcus Neto: So even though you had a business that failed, you were still ... And please take this the right way ... You were still just dumb enough to think that you could do this thing differently than anybody else could, or that you could make it better or you could do it ... There was something different about the way that you were bringing it, and it's not necessarily ... You understand, I'm not saying that in order to be a business owner, you're not an intelligent individual.
Marcus Neto: But there's something about the tenacity or the grit, as you put it, that comes out of that belief, I can do it differently. I can learn those lessons, I can go out and get it, and I wonder ... You did a lot of planning and everything. But I wonder if it's the first experience you had of failure that really propelled you, because you weren't going to stop at anything in order to make it successful the second time, because you had tasted failure. I have a failed business prior to BlueFish as well, and when I started BlueFish, I was like, man, there's nothing that can happen. This has got to succeed. I have no choice.
Vince LaCoste: Well, I'll say too, in my years prior to starting Bethel, I worked with a lot of developers who ... We do civil design as well, subdivision design, where someone buys a property and they throw all their marbles in it and try to sell a subdivision and double your money. So I worked with so many people who had come through my doors that just really had nothing other than ... Hey, I'm just going to get rich. They didn't do all their research, they didn't really manage their risk well.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, that's a different kind of dumb.
Vince LaCoste: I saw that over and over, and the majority of the people that came in trying to develop ran into that, especially with the crash that occurred 10 years ago.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, 2008 cleared all those people out.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah, it did. So, I don't know. I was very cautious, because it takes more than want to, it takes more than grit, it takes more than an attitude. It actually takes some skill, it takes some knowledge, it takes perfecting your craft. I think there's so many people that think, hey, I've got this dream, I'm going to go do it. You spend a little time perfecting your craft before you go do it.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, get some experience under your belt, that's right. I would completely agree with that. Anything you're currently working on that you can share with us?
Vince LaCoste: In the past year, we have launched the civil engineering side at Bethel. Civil is actually what I've done longer than the structural that we do now. I started as a civil in my first job. So just for those that don't know, civil design is site development, it's subdivision design.
Marcus Neto: It's all the sidewalks and the roadways and the sewer systems and working on all that stuff.
Vince LaCoste: That's right. Roads, curb and gutter, that kind of thing. We have been growing that side of our business, and we're committed to growing that more this year, so that's where we're focused, and we're excited about that move, excited about opportunities that are out there.
Vince LaCoste: The other area of growth that we're pursuing is on the fortified side. Most of our fortified evaluations have been in support of our engineering department. We design a house, we're going to go out there and be your evaluator on that house. There's a huge market for re-roofs. Houses that we as Bethel have never seen or touched, but if you're getting a new roof on your home, that's the perfect opportunity to receive a fortified certificate, and that's why IBHS has recently changed that bronze certificate to what's called fortified roof.
Marcus Neto: I'm going to stop you for just a second. You just used an acronym that most people aren't going to know, but what does IBHS stand for?
Vince LaCoste: It's the Institute for Business and Home Safety.
Marcus Neto: Very good. I know because we do work with you and with Smart Home America, their role, but they're the overseers that help shape policy and stuff like that as it pertains to fortified. Is that accurate, it's their role?
Vince LaCoste: Yes, that's correct. They have recently changed this bronze designation to a roof designation, and it makes it a little easier to obtain. You still have to seal the roof deck, but there were some other elements that they moved from that category into the silver that dealt with how the gables or the overhangs were constructed.
Vince LaCoste: By doing that, it makes it to where roofing contractors or homeowners getting their roof redone, have a pretty easy opportunity to get that designation and get that discount, and if a hurricane comes through and blows off the shingles, the whole point of that designation is to keep water out of your home and to keep you in your home.
Marcus Neto: Nice.
Vince LaCoste: So we are really trying to grow into that area as well, market ourselves to roofing contractors and homeowners and grow that side, so that that fortified side is not just in support of engineering.
Marcus Neto: It's really ... The roofers are already going to do the job, so it's almost like an added benefit if they can work with you to get the homeowner that designation, because then it's just like icing on the cake. They're going to get that money back within the first, probably six months to a year, and then everything beyond that is just saving them additional funds.
Marcus Neto: What does a typical day look like for you?
Vince LaCoste: We have four children, so it looks different now than it did when I was younger. I don't go in super early. I try to see them off to school. Probably when I'm in the office, I'm there between 7:30 and 8:00 most mornings.
Marcus Neto: That's super early, Golly what was super early. Gosh.
Vince LaCoste: I don't get to do as much of the nerdy engineering stuff that I like to do as I used to, because we have delegated most of those tasks out to others. I still get to do a little bit now and then, but it's managing our workflow, it's managing our schedule, it's checking, 'cause I do check every single plan that goes out. I'll have time during the day where I review the work product. What are we sending out the door? A lot of time spent on the phone with clients. It's busy, and it's nonstop, and I tell you, it really suits me well, because when I was at a larger firm, I actually worked there six years, and I worked on a lot of projects. But those kinds of projects, you worked on for years. The very first day I was there and the very last day I was there, I worked on the same project.
Marcus Neto: Oh my God.
Vince LaCoste: Six years.
Marcus Neto: That would drive me insane.
Vince LaCoste: It was. It was difficult for me, because I like a fast paced work environment. You think about 3,000 plans a year, plus a couple thousand fortified houses a year, that's a lot of little things that I get to pick up and put down and just ... Fast paced.
Marcus Neto: Well, you also feel like you're accomplishing something when you send off those-
Vince LaCoste: I do. And I love driving down the road with my kids and being like, that whole subdivision there? I engineered every house in there. See that house over there? I've been out there. You've got to see ... So it's stuff on the ground.
Marcus Neto: That's pretty cool.
Vince LaCoste: It's stuff you get to see. There's a lot of people in engineering that work their whole career and see very little built.
Marcus Neto: That's got to be wild, 'cause I know some of the projects that you're talking about, even just taking the I-10 bridge, for instance ... Will the people that have been working on the engineered plans for that, will they ... They probably won't be at the same company when it's finished.
Vince LaCoste: No, they probably won't be. I remember one of the firms I was at, that bridge was talked about when I was in my 20s.
Marcus Neto: The I-10 bridge.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah. I'm 44 now. It's been talked about for 20 years, and I remember one of the older engineers there actually had built a little wooden model out of it, and had it ... He enjoyed doing that. He was a woodworking guy.
Marcus Neto: Just out of curiosity, because it doesn't pertain to you per se, but was his plan a suspended bridge as well?
Vince LaCoste: I don't think so. What I remember seeing is just the lower main bay way bridge, not the big spans. So I don't recall what he had there.
Marcus Neto: That's fine, I was just thinking, I wonder how much it's changed in 20 years, because I guess there are some things that are going to stay true regardless of who's actually doing the plans.
Marcus Neto: Now, when you look to the business world, and I don't mean Mobile, I mean the larger business, the national business world ... If you're standing in line at the grocery store, you see a magazine with somebody's picture on it. Is there one person that maybe motivates you, and you think that person, the way that they think about business and the way that they approach business and stuff like that is something that you aspire to?
Vince LaCoste: I'm going to be very boring and say no. Honestly, I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm not really a student of other people, I'm really not. I enjoy reading, but I don't really read about business. You could ask me any business book, and I will tell you, I probably haven't read it. I don't know, I know that's probably the wrong answer, but it's the truth.
Marcus Neto: No, it's all good.
Vince LaCoste: The truth is, I go by my instincts, and haven't really sought out a lot of other information.
Marcus Neto: Actually, that's a really good answer, because I think sometimes we don't trust our own gut, and we seek to find that information in other people's experiences, and the truth is you have to go by your gut, because you're the one that has to live with the consequences one way or another.
Vince LaCoste: Yeah.
Marcus Neto: I guess I'll ask my next question, but it's, are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward? You can skip the books and podcasts, because we know that. But what about people or organizations?
Vince LaCoste: Yeah. I have a couple of very close people. I won't name them, but I have a couple of people that I bounce things off of. I'll tell you, my dad was one that was very important. He passed two years ago, but I find myself all the time wishing I could call him and-
Marcus Neto: Bounce some ideas off him.
Vince LaCoste: ... ask his ideas. But I know he was early on in my business, I was talking to him all the time. I now have two or three other guys that I'll just call and say, "Hey, I've got this situation. What do you think?" So I do look to others that have been successful on a personal level. It's just, I haven't really spent the time with the books or the podcasts a whole lot.
Marcus Neto: Absolutely fine. What's the most important thing you've learned about running the business?
Vince LaCoste: People. Take care of people. You can go conquer the world, you can get rich, you can do all those things. But you got to take care of people. I hesitate to even give this quote, 'cause I don't know if I'll get the wording exact, but I have in my office the Maya Angelou quote that people will forget what you say, they'll forget what you do, but they'll never forget how you make them feel. I think about that all the time, 'cause I have been an employee, and I have been made to feel bad, and we have good people at Bethel, and I know they're going to make mistakes. But at the core, they're a person that matter.
Marcus Neto: Right. They wouldn't be there if you didn't care.
Vince LaCoste: That's right. So I care about them, and I want them to know that. I want them to never leave my office feeling bad. They may need to leave my office and correct some things, but that's just business and learning and life.
Marcus Neto: That's really excellent. How do you like to unwind?
Vince LaCoste: I really don't unwind a whole lot.
Marcus Neto: Come on, now. There's got to be something.
Vince LaCoste: I love to travel, but my idea of travel is not laying on a beach somewhere and just relaxing. I like to go to new places and see new things and be busy while I'm unwinding, so I love that.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, active exploration.
Vince LaCoste: I do. Honestly, I do love to unwind by just nerding out sometimes and researching technology and that kind of thing. If I'm at home on a Saturday, I'm doing something like that. So, I don't know. I'm a nerd that way.
Marcus Neto: That's really cool. Well, tell people where they can find out more information about Bethel if they need some of your services.
Vince LaCoste: Well, you can certainly visit our website, bethelengineering.net, or give us a call, (251) 661-4747.
Marcus Neto: Awesome. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?
Vince LaCoste: One last thing on where to find us is our Facebook page, so, yeah. We are there as well. Marcus, you asked me to do this probably a year ago, and I just stayed busy, and-
Marcus Neto: Yeah. I'm consistent. Persistent.
Vince LaCoste: You are persistent, so I appreciate you reaching out. I have enjoyed this. It is fun to talk about, and we love to help people. So if anything we said interests any of you, give us a call, reach out. Thank you.
Marcus Neto: Awesome. Well, Vince, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking with you.
Vince LaCoste: Thank you.