Bob Arban is a model of how to work your way to success

From Humble Beginnings Fairness, honesty and hard work lay the foundation for a successful business By Kimberley K.

When the company Bob Arban worked for was sold 25 years ago, he decided it was time for him to take the plunge into the entrepreneurial world. He started his own truss construction company, opening the doors — or, more precisely, the barn doors — for Arban & Associates in his own backyard.

“I got into the truss business in 1971 in Fort Lauderdale,” Arban said. “I was a young fellow, 20 years old, and I followed the industry. I jumped from job to job, getting promotions along the way.

“In 1985, I was working for a company in DeFuniak Springs, and they sold out,” he said. “I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to own and operate my own truss company. My wife, Jonice, and I got to talking about starting our own business. I told her, ‘I’m not getting any younger.’

“We went to the bank, used our credit cards and started the company in the barn behind our house with $4,000. Friends and relatives helped us. We operated out of the backyard for about two years.”

When Arban went to the bank with his business plan, “I wasn’t prepared for the banker to ask me how much I wanted,” he said with a laugh.

Located in Ponce de Leon, about six miles north of Interstate 10 in Holmes County, the company has long since moved on from that backyard birthplace to greener pastures. Around 1989, Arban & Associates relocated to State Road 81 on a 40-acre parcel of land the couple had purchased some years earlier.

Arban’s company creates mostly wooden roof trusses for home builders, as well as some steel trusses for commercial use and floor trusses. He supplies builders in Northwest Florida and southern Alabama.

The workers’ craftsmanship is the unsung hero of construction. It doesn’t contribute to the visual aspect of a home; it is the backbone of the structure.

“A lot of people don’t realize that although trusses are a hidden item, they are one of the most important aspects of a house. Without those trusses, the house is going to fall,” Arban said.

Now 60 years old, in recent years Arban has taken more of a back-seat role in the day-to-day operations.

Born in Savannah, Ga., Arban grew up in northern Alabama until the family moved north to Michigan, where he stayed until he graduated from college. At that point, he had had enough of the cold weather and moved back south, to Fort Lauderdale. He got a job working the third shift in a factory. A friend of his was going to the unemployment office to see about work, and Arban decided to tag along. Admittedly not planning to apply for a job, he was scruffy-looking, with a beard and jean shorts. But once at the office, Arban asked if they had any openings for a draftsman. The employment lady hesitated and said yes, they did, but that she thought the company was looking for someone more clean-cut.

“I told her, ‘Just give me the damn phone number,’” Arban said. “I went home, cleaned myself up and applied for the job at this truss company. They didn’t want to hire me at first, but I told them to try me out part time for a couple of weeks. I think I earned $2.65 an hour. It worked out, and I was hired full time. I stayed there for a year and half.”

Only one of the couple’s four boys is in the family business. Arban’s stepson, Tony Alford, along with longtime employee Ed Bowers, who has been with the company for 17 years, primarily run the company.

“They have been with us long enough to know want we want and expect, and we don’t have to hold their hands,” Arban said. “They are the backbone of the company.”

Arban has always placed a lot of stock in his employees. When he and his wife were trying to decide on the name of the company, Arban initially wanted it to start with “Associates” and then “Arban.”

“It felt like that was our biggest asset,” he said. “Without the associates, we have nothing. When I say associates, I mean customers and employees. Without them, I’m an average guy. I’m nothing special.”

Skip Miller, who owns and operates Key Lime Construction LLC, a home-building company in Valparaiso, Fla., has been using Arban & Associates trusses exclusively for about 13 years because they are “very honest and dependable and a great business partner.”

“They are very easy to work with as far as design,” Miller said. “When the inevitable problems arise on the job, they are very easy to get ahold of. They are very professional and realize time is money.”

Over the years, Arban & Associates has grown steadily, at first adding a 6,000-square-foot building. Later, it doubled the size of that structure and added another 12,000-square-foot building, as well as more front-office space. In all, the company has approximately 28,000 square feet of warehouse, office and manufacturing space.

Despite continued growth, Arban & Associates took a hit just as most construction businesses did when the economy went south.

“It has impacted the company pretty hard as far as the number of houses we are able to do in a week’s time,” said Ed Bowers, co-manager of the company. “Overall, production is off quite a bit. Instead of overseeing two or three guys, I’m now doing their roles. This year is a little better than last year by about 15 percent. Last year was the worst year.”

Prior to the economic downturn, the company employed 30 people in the production department and seven employees in the sales and front office. Now, there are six employees in production and two running the front office.

During the downturn, Arban said they did not have to do a massive layoff. Instead, as the workload slowed down, a lot of employees decided to move on to other things on their own. One young man, for instance, was in the National Guard and decided to take an opportunity to go overseas with the Guard.

Today, Arban said the company is “doing more than surviving” despite the economic climate.

“In the boom years, you get to rockin’ along and everyone is busy and everyone is making a lot of money, and you don’t realize how much money you are wasting,” he said. “Prior to the recession, our biggest challenge was controlling the growth. This has been good for us to become more efficient. It has helped a lot of people in the industry in that respect.”

Through his almost 25 years in the business, Arban has weathered many changes and learned some valuable lessons.

“We’ve tried to minimize our mistakes,” he said. “Our biggest mistake was when the boom started, we weren’t quick enough to jump on that wagon. We had the ability to repay money, so we were probably a little too conservative back then. If I had the advantage of hindsight, I would have jumped on that wagon sooner.”