Robert Sessley Jr. – 35 Years of Building a Better Community

“When a client becomes a friend, you have a client for life.” Robert Sessley, Sr.

Robert Sessley, Jr. was just twelve years old when he started his construction career. As an apprentice in his father’s remodeling business, young Robert was charged with various tasks and a lot of clean-up work. He spent his early years learning the value of hard work and earning the trust of his father. By fifteen, Robert proved he was ready to take on a larger role in the business and was given significant responsibility. His father empowered the teen to make business decisions and guided him along the way. Robert Jr. was creating building estimates, collaborating with subcontractors to get costs, and sitting down with homeowners to sell the job. He learned that really listening to the customer and giving them what they want is the key to good business and good relationships.

Robert Sr. showed his son the financial bottom line but said “however you get there is up to you. Make a living but provide quality and value for the customer.” Every partner was a friend – either before doing business or newly made through their work. And Robert Sr. always said, when a client becomes a friend, you have a client for life.” Words Robert Jr. lives by today.

Many life lessons were learned at the hands of his father – the value of hard work, strong ethics, making friendships and building an enjoyable life. Those lessons are at the core of Sessley Building Services today, and the inspiring philosophy of its owner, Robert Sessley, Jr.

The Beginnings of Sessley Building Services

After his young business education with his father, Robert received an athletic scholarship to The Ohio State University and became a three-time All-American wrestler, placing 3rd, 7th, and 8th in the country. He continued his OSU education in graduate school, studying architecture, city and regional planning and public administration until halfway through his graduate program, he read Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s 1933, The Mis-Education of the Negro, which made him realize his father had built a “phenomenal foundation of great work with great people who support him” and he had an opportunity to build upon that family foundation. An opportunity he should not overlook. According to Robert Jr., “I went to graduate school for business, but construction really aligns with my interests. I felt I could make a bigger impact if I went back and worked for my father, building on what he had already started.” From that foundation, Robert Jr. would grow and build life-long relationships, and turn the business into the success story it is today.

The Building of Sessley Building Services

While Robert Sr’s high-end residential remodeling business successfully supported their family, Robert Jr. had visions of building a larger business that would support many families and provide career opportunities in the community.

“My father did residential construction,’ says Robert Jr., “He really liked the building process. He was talented at building stuff. He loved working with lumber and granite and building from there. I take it to the next level. I enjoy working with HR, team building and connecting with customers.”

Robert spent the first years “legitimizing” the business – buying software and putting business and accounting systems in place. He expanded their network from home remodelers to commercial construction. Realizing that every home remodel client works somewhere and may have building opportunities there, he made a map of their clients, where they worked, and asked what other opportunities were there. With his growth strategy, they started doing light commercial construction like church additions and day care center expansions, doubling the business each year for the next five years.

Their network expansion led to great relationships in the commercial market. While he learned that commercial jobs pay better, Robert realized the scope of these larger projects was too much to manage on his own, so he started partnering with larger construction companies. As he grew his business and knowledge base, he realized that running a growing business would require more than just construction and partnerships, they needed human resources, accounting and administrative support, unfamiliar territory for the evolving business. “Sessley Building Services could execute the work but couldn’t manage running the business on our own,” said Robert. After talking to diversity and inclusion consultant, Nancy Tidwell, she made a life-changing introduction to Lonnie Miles, who co-founded Miles-McClellan Construction with Terry McClellan as a minority business. Miles who, like Sessley, was also African American, became a mentor to Robert, providing insight, guidance, and direction. He generously sent Robert to Miles-McClellan’s CFO to teach him how to administer projects and help him get paid.

Robert learned he needed a partner to help him grow. At the same time, there was a need in the Columbus market for a diverse, minority construction company. With Lonnie retiring, Miles-McClellan would no longer be minority owned. Miles-McClellan and Sessley Building Services realized it was mutually beneficial for them to partner. Diversity in their industry is “good for the city of Columbus and the industry. Matt McClellan and his team were “super committed to the opportunity.’”

“I want to add value to the company, which is what Sessley Building Services is doing with our partnership with Miles-McClellan Construction, a well-established company that has a legacy of being a diverse contractor and one of the former owners being an African American male. We are building something of value and as a complete organization to pass on to another generation,” says Robert Jr.

Many other companies approached Sessley to partner but had no understanding of his capacity or interest in growing his business. “They only wanted pass-through, transactional opportunities. No actual work for Sessley, just a name on their roster for a diverse business without an investment or commitment.” Once Robert realized that he saw through it and moved on.

MMC Partnership: Things were vastly different with Miles-McClellan. While other companies called when a project was at hand, MMC was in no rush. They started building the mentorship and relationship well before starting any projects, evaluating how to grow in a way that benefits Sessley’s business as well as the city of Columbus. It was important to Sessley to pick a partner who would be in it for the long run, seeking “someone who trusts us, and we can trust. You don’t make a living on one project. You need to make sure it’s right.”

The two entities formed a joint venture partnership. “Miles-McClellan did the heavy lifting early on with the understanding that as we sell work, they will reinvest in the Sessley team so we can take what we learn and execute the work on our own.”

“If you want to grow a relationship, put some money between it.”  Robert Sessley, Sr.

The first project MMC and Sessley did together was Field, the new Crew stadium. It was there they tested Sessley’s capacity and what areas needed development. That project provided substantial data for growing Sessley and how they could work together. They also partnered with other building companies, working the joint venture with a strong sense of fairness between them. Sessley says they were all “wonderful partners with a great capacity building opportunity.”

Today the MMC-Sessley partnership is working on exciting projects like building data centers for Meta, Google, and Intel. These are what Sessley describes as capacity building projects that help him grow his business. “My staff works on huge projects, gets trained, then comes back with better experience, high expectations, and lots of training. It’s great for staff development and cash flow, which supports hiring more people.”

Diversity Investment ROI – Always a Win-Win!

Large projects like these that invest in minority owned construction businesses become good partnerships and important investments for the community. They are balancing acts that manage risk and the needs of the customer while also helping minority businesses grow. Robert sees it as a challenge opportunity to see “how big of a job we can do safely, that grows the company, and creates profit.” He cautions, however, that companies “have to stop pretending to use diverse contractors and actually use them and help them grow.” 

Sessley is proud to show his partners their return, so their risk of engagement becomes a good return of investment. He reinvests the project earnings into his business to grow and proudly thanks his clients, telling them what the ROI did for his business growth, saying, “Thanks to your partnership I hired x employees and am growing my business.” It is an opportunity to keep talking and be a team.

“Every client has their own culture and understanding of diversity training. It’s an opportunity to understand and get to know each other. It’s always a win-win! Partners want to say, I poured myself into you and it panned out into this and added value to my life.”

Sessley Building Services is taking off. They started with one employee and have grown now to seven. Robert admits he is still learning and making mistakes, but he gets through it. The challenge on his end is to continue to develop Sessley as a stand-alone diverse contractor, while the market pushes for more engagement and commitment. Clients of Sessley and Miles-McClellan are supporting minority owned businesses and receiving quality work. “The development of a minority contractor is always a win-win. Customers always ask how their partners are doing diversity. Some people fake it and have no interest in developing a diverse contractor. The best say there is value for minority businesses–let’s develop by supporting, giving advice, providing projects in their ability.”

“Don’t be the smartest guy in the room.”

As a collegiate athlete and hard-working business owner with an enterprising spirit, it’s not surprising that Sessley credits his success from relationships and coaching. His aspirations are always bigger than himself and he seeks advice from others, which gives him confidence. Robert has had “tons of mentors” in his life, from his father, to wrestling coaches, to his business relationships like Lonnie Miles.

“Surround yourself with honest, motivated, committed people. Good relationships always help you grow. Remember, everything is a teaching moment,” says Robert Jr.

 He often calls his mentors when in jam asking, “who else has been there?” always looking for guidance. He credits his early training with his father, where at an early age, asking questions was how he learned best, saying “I get this…I don’t get that, but I can do it” and “How does that conversation typically go?” My dad always said “Don’t be the smartest guy in room. Better to surround yourself with people who are smart and know what they are doing. If they’re good at it, you’ll get good at it.”

Paying It Forward

Robert insists he would not be here experiencing this level of growth without others investing in him, something he wants to pay forward in return, offering guidance to future minority business leaders. “Most people don’t need money. They need guidance, they need to learn.” Miles-McClellan has done an excellent job of mentorship and guidance in business ownership, marketing, development of employees, legal aspects, taxes, and financial statements for Sessley. Robert says they have a great relationship and play an active, engaging role with Sessley. “Of all the companies who approached me to partner, Miles-McClellan is the only one to make an actual partnership where it benefits all. It takes time to find people that fit with you and are ready to grow with you.”