Spotlight – Jime Fontaine, CEO/President, Tella Firma Foundations
Tella Firma CEO and President Jim Fontaine
(DALLAS/FORT WORTH—Oct. 5, 2016) Building businesses has been a life-long passion for Jim Fontaine, but the idea to build a business in the construction industry surprised even him. When a bad thing happened to his dream lake home, he turned it into a “sometimes bad things happen for a reason,” and then turned that lesson that into a new business path.
How were you introduced to construction?
Growing up in a family of 11 in Wisconsin, my father built most of our house and did lots of construction. So helping him out as a child, I learned everything from pouring concrete, to framing buildings, to putting in plumbing and electrical work. It wasn’t as much of a career for him as much as it was a necessity for him to be able to afford to put his family under a roof.
Did that soon steer you on a path to a construction career?
I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and moved to Texas in January of 1981, taking a job at Texas Instruments. So my background is really in electrical engineering. From Texas Instruments, in 1983 I moved to another company called United Technologies-Mostek. It was there that we came up with our idea for our first company. We started that company in 1985 with a bunch of engineers from Mostek and Texas Instruments. So my history has not really been in construction, my history has been in starting product companies that were geared to revolutionizing different parts of the consumer electronics industry. I built four of those over a period of 30 years.
The idea for the first one was to revolutionize the photography market by building the world’s first color electronic darkroom; back in 1985, you couldn’t do what you do today with pictures on computers. That was our vision and we did that. I did three other companies after that, and the last was a company called Microtune, which was formed in the late ‘90s and went public in 2001. I was CEO of that company beginning in 2003 until it was acquired in 2010. We grew that company from zero to $110 million in revenue and we also revolutionized the television tuner industry; we were the first ones to put a television tuner on a chip. Everything that we did in those four companies we did with the goal of revolutionizing a market. Attempting to dramatically change the way things were done is a very difficult challenge.
How did you turn your attention from electronics to the construction industry?
I indirectly got acquainted with the construction industry. After my company went public, I built my dream lake house on Lake Texoma. It was a large stone and log house I had planned for 15 years, and I was the general contractor. It had a basement, and basements aren’t done around here. I was so proud of it; it took a year to build it right on the cliffs. A year later, I started having cracks in the foundation, and the floors and the walls started cracking and doors wouldn’t open. It’s a beautiful place, but I would literally pull up to it and be nauseated thinking about what had been done wrong.
What did you do?
I was at a Cub Scouts camp with my son sitting around a campfire with the dads and I was talking about the situation. Tony Childress, one of the dads, said he was a structural engineer and that he would take a look at my house; that’s how I got to know him. He came out and took a look at it, and said it was too bad he didn’t know me earlier because he had just invented a new product in 2004 that could have saved me from this problem. So that was my introduction to the product, which is now our company. It basically is a bolt and sleeve system that goes into the slab at the time of construction that sits on top of piers. The concrete slab is poured normally but once the slab is cured, small covers over the bolts are opened and the 1¼-inch diameter bolts are turned with big wrenches and the slab slowly raises off of the ground, which leaves a protective void between the slab and the ground. The slab is elevated and has a turndown beam so you can’t see underneath the slab, and you’ve basically built a very low-cost pier and beam system. Soils can move up and down without affecting the foundation.
How did you help grow Tony’s idea into Tella Firma?
Tony Childress is the principal at Childress Engineering, a large structural engineering company in Richardson. He really invented this product for his commercial and residential clients. So this started by word of mouth being designing this into their structures. Over the years, Tony got to be quite a good friend, and in 2010 when I sold my company, he tried to convince me to take this product and build it into a company. I refused at first but in late 2014 we came back together and put together a business plan. What had happened over those years is that they had done quite a few homes and had a quite a bit of history of it in the ground, the product had evolved. So we took that, formed Tella Firma and acquired the intellectual property; Tony is still on our advisory board, and we really built a team to go do the same thing that we had done four times before, and that was to go out and revolutionize the building industry. In all of our past companies, we have attempted to revolutionize the industry. And that’s what we’re trying to do now, is revolutionize the mass market, first focusing on DFW. We are expanding into Austin and San Antonio, where they have very active soils on the east side of town, but we also have apartment complexes going up right now, bidding on commercial warehouses, and building commercial buildings and schools. We’re approaching 1,000 foundations that have been put into the ground, and we’re just trying to improve what we do to make this more affordable and bring it to the commercial and residential markets.
Having created other businesses, was it an easy decision to create Tella Firma?
No; it’s extremely difficult to build a business up. I always tell other entrepreneurs, “All start ups start up with zero revenue.” Of the businesses I’ve started up, I’ve had a single, a double, a home run and a strike out. The last company was a home run; we sold the company and went public, but I was frankly a little hesitant just knowing how difficult it was going to be to revolutionize another industry, much less the construction industry which is going to be much more hesitant to adopt new technology compared to the electronics industry. But the technology was such a simple idea it was like, why hadn’t someone thought of this before? From a business perspective, this had some real legs and also the market side of it is big. It’s just that we knew that it was going to be a long process and we’d have to put together a team. I approached it very cautiously and put together a business plan.
What do you enjoy about your work?
I enjoy bringing a better solution to the marketplace. Not only are foundation problems expensive, in my case, they’re very expensive; mine was $175,000 in foundation repairs to fix my house, and it broke my heart. There are true heartbreak stories of people who have foundation problems and it affects a lot of people. It’s not curing cancer, but it is curing problems. Also, I just love the construction industry. I love watching things being built, I love going to framed houses because it smells of wood – everything about the construction industry, I love. I love to see things done in a high-quality way.
How would you describe your company’s culture?
It’s a small company. We try to promote a culture that everybody in the company is an owner, everybody has stock options or ownership of the company. It’s very important to us that if the company succeeds, everybody ultimately has success as well, and everybody who has joined the company has taken some level of financial sacrifice to be part of it. I think the culture here is one of really wanting to deliver a high-quality solution really geared to satisfying the customer. We also try to have some sort of work/life balance; we do things monthly as a team that are a little on the fun side, but we realize people have family commitments as well.
How do you spend your time away from work?
Part of it is work-related; I joined an angel investor group called North Texas Angel Network. It’s like a real-life version of “Shark Tank.” There’s a group of 50 of us that have been successful at business and are trying to help fund new start ups but also help advise and help them along their way as well. I became the chairman of that group, and we funded about 10 different startups, mostly in healthcare.
On a personal side, most of my hobbies have revolved around my kids. I just sent the last one off to college, he was actively involved in crew in high school and I was actively involved in that as one of the parents. Then I have other activities at the lake house, like boating and things of that sort.
Tell me more about your children. Are they interested in the industry?
Interestingly enough, my daughter graduated from the University of Texas (UT) with an architecture degree and my son is a starting freshman at UT in civil engineering. Although [construction] wasn’t my degree, I’ve got two kids now in this industry.
Do you enjoy challenging yourself?
I do. Starting companies and building companies is a bit of a drug. You get the energy and the buzz from when things go well; 80% of the time, you struggle, but the 20% of the time when things go well that’s your drug and when you feel great. But that’s kind of the way it is with a lot of things; it’s a climb and a struggle. The symbol of our company is a [Sisyphean] guy pushing a boulder up a cliff, which is what it’s about, you’re pushing a boulder up a hill; you can’t take the pressure off, otherwise it will roll right back down the hill.
What do you hope the future holds for you?
Well, this is going to be my last rodeo as far as being a CEO of a company. My plan is to get this up and running. I try to mentor the younger people in the company so that every single person in this company – should they choose to run or start their own company someday – we’re going to train them how to do that. Part of it is training people here to be leaders as well. The mission of the business is to try and revolutionize the industry and be financially successful for the employees, investors and everyone that has surrounded the company. For me, I see that as a five-year mission, and by then, I feel I will be taking on more of a board role and you’ll see me working in start-ups of other companies. I doubt I’ll ever retire in the true definition of retirement. Offering an environmentally friendly solution for multi-use projects, Tella Firma Foundations provides a patented process of elevating a slab-on-grade foundation above the ground to create a protective void.