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WITH VIDEO: 'Army Strong' more than a slogan for RLS

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When Bob Schopfer joined the Army as a teenager, he didn't know just how much the experience would influence his life.

He went to college thanks to his time in the field artillery, getting an engineering degree from Penn State. And after working in the construction field — from laboring on sites over summers in high school to working for firms during and after college — he used his veteran status to land a small-business loan.

He started RLS Construction Group in June 2010.

“It was me and one part-time bookkeeper,” the Dillsburg-area resident said.

Today, the business has about 30 employees. It’s gone from $85,000 in business in 2010 to nearly $18 million this past year.

The federal government is RLS’s largest client; the company has won contracts for design and construction work on Veterans Affairs facilities from Wilkes-Barre to the mouth of the Susquehanna River in Maryland.

But there’s more to RLS’s success than just Schopfer’s military connection.

“We’re like a family here,” he said from his Mechanicsburg office in Hampden Township. “Every one here, I have to care about. I can’t fake that.”

There’s a return on that investment, he said.

“My employees want to work efficiently and at a high-quality level,” he said. “That leads to repeat business and, ultimately, lower prices for clients because of those efficiencies.”

Remarkable growth

RLS’s success certainly is remarkable, said Jack Zimmer, president and CEO of the Keystone chapter of Associated Building Contractors Inc., a building contractor advocacy and support group.

In the industry, 2008 was the last big year of work, because many projects were on the books before the onset of the Great Recession, he said.

“Then the faucet turned off,” he said.

From 2009 to 2012, times were tough. Construction volumes in the midstate were reduced 30 to 50 percent, he said. Unemployment in the industry was more than 20 percent.

“Places that never laid people off, even when work was slow, were laying people off just to stay in business,” Zimmer said. “Some owners weren’t paying themselves, making a sacrifice to stay afloat.”

What made RLS unique is the niche it filled, Zimmer said.

Landing numerous contracts from the federal government and supplementing that with commercial projects, such as tenant improvements, let RLS grow.

“In the case of Bob, he found a niche that they could provide,” Zimmer said. “They found a place that they could provide good, quality service and win a fair share of work.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers assistance to small businesses owned by veterans. VA spokeswoman Josephine Shuda pointed to the agency’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.

The office’s website details items including the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business and Veteran-Owned Small Business programs designed to give veterans a helping hand.

“Our goal is to help Veteran-Owned and small businesses contribute most effectively to the important mission of VA,” Tom Leney, executive director of the agency’s Veterans and Small Business Programs, says on the website.

Schopfer didn’t realize his military service could be a competitive advantage.

“I didn’t know about the program,” he said. “I started looking for an SBA loan because I had no capital. I just checked the box. Then I was inundated with emails.”

From the business received there, RLS was able to increase its bonding and get more financing from banks. Schopfer also realized he had to hire some help. The part-time bookkeeper, Barbara Persun, became the full-time chief financial officer. He also brought on fellow Penn State grads as well as a few veterans.

“Our greatest strength is our loyalty,” Schopfer said. “We put loyal people in front of our customers, and that translates into real money.”

The future

As for the future of the company, Schopfer said he expects financial growth to level off in 2014. But that doesn’t mean the company will stop growing.

After moving from his home office in Carroll Township to a suite near Mechanicsburg in November 2011, Schopfer said he is looking to build a permanent headquarters for the operation.

In the meantime, the company is continuing to focus on safety — “The most important thing I do is send people home to their families every day,” Schopfer said — and further diversifying customers. RLS recently landed a state contract to do work on the Forum Auditorium, which is adjacent to the Pennsylvania State Library in the Capitol complex.

Having grown so fast, Schopfer said, the coming year will bring time to better improve internal processes and smooth out some rough edges.

But through it all, the hard-bid, low-bid contract company remains Schopfer’s lifeblood.

“To me, it’s very personal,” he said. “You hear people say, ‘It’s nothing personal, just business.’ Not for me. I know it might sound cliched, but I think it inspires us to work hard.”

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