Just a few hours before the biggest interview of his life, Brett Plano ’89 was on the verge of panic. He and his team at Plano-Coudon Construction were about to sit down with the executives at Guinness, vying against national competitors for the chance to build the first Guinness brewery in the United States since 1954. During the practice interview, nothing seemed to be going as planned. Brett, stumbling over his words, tried to instill confidence in his team but felt the greatness of the opportunity weighing on him with heavy significance. They had come so far to get to this point; to win the bid for this project would be the apex of the company’s 20-year existence and an unparalleled milestone in Brett’s much longer professional journey.
At an early age, Brett was exposed to entrepreneurship, drive, and the value of the dollar. When he was just 10 years old, he was cutting grass for his older brother, Brian’s ’85, lawncare business. Brian went off to college four years later, leaving the business and its 18 customers to Brett. Now a high school freshman and lacking an all-important driver’s license, Brett had no way to make it over to the other neighborhoods to which his brother had expanded. So, he hired Matt ’88 and Joe ’88 Stevenson, who were a year ahead of him at The Mount, and together they grew the company to about 45 lawns throughout Catonsville.
Brett was able to save nearly $15,000 to put towards college – the importance of which had been ingrained in him by his father, who was a first-generation college graduate. Brett decided to pursue a degree in engineering at Virginia Tech and all the while held onto the “entrepreneurial bug” that had helped him get there.
After college, Brett knew he wanted to work in construction; he wanted to be out in the field, not stuck behind a desk. He got a job at Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, where he gained valuable experience managing clients like Shady Grove Hospital, Towson University, and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His colleague and soon-to-be business partner Ryan Coudon managed a similar portfolio of high-profile clients.
“I never lost the desire to be my own boss. Though, that was never really the impetus – it was more the idea of being able to control my own destiny,” Brett says. “Ryan and I ultimately saw that there was a sector of the market that was underserved. A lot of the bigger companies would put their newest employees or lowest-tiered managers and field people on smaller projects. We felt like we could make a difference in that small-to-middle market and serve it better than anyone else, coming from a large company perspective. So, that’s what we set out to do.”
In 1998, Brett and Ryan set up shop in the basement of Brett’s Federal Hill home. Subcontractors were greeted at the door by Brett’s dog – their enthusiastic, slobbery receptionist. They would roll blueprints open on the kitchen table and discuss drawings. Downstairs in the “office,” two folding tables served as desks, and when the first employee was hired, he was assigned the crack between the two – computer balancing awkwardly over the gap. In 1999, Plano-Coudon was awarded its first project: a sidewalk for Morgan State University.
Around the same time, Brett returned to The Mount looking for ways to give back. He ended up joining the Board of Directors, sharing his experience and expertise in construction as a member of the Plant Committee. He contributed to several projects, including the building of the Smith Center. While no longer a board member, Brett continues to support Mount Saint Joseph in a number of ways, both as a current parent and an alumnus.
“I have a fond place in my heart for Saint Joe,” says Brett. “I was the kid who was smart but underachieving in public school. I attribute Saint Joe for putting more focus on the academics that I needed to be successful.”
Now, he is helping current Mount students discover what they are passionate about by hosting members of the Business Club for professional shadow days or “externships” at Plano-Coudon. Those students would learn during their tour of the 14,000 square-foot, newly renovated office space that today the company employs 95 professionals across two locations – a far cry from Brett’s basement and the two-man team working to build a name for themselves.
While there have been so many milestone moments in the company’s 21 years, one will always stand out in Brett’s mind: competing for the contract to build the Guinness Open Gate Brewery. After struggling through the practice interview, Brett felt uncertainty creeping in. When he and his team walked into the meeting, however, they shed their nerves at the door, let the adrenaline kick in, and walked out with a handshake and an affirmation from the Guinness executive: “That was the best interview I have ever heard,” he told Brett.
“It was a one-of-a-kind project to be a part of,” Brett says. “It was fun for so many reasons, and it gave me gray hair for so many reasons. It has just been a milestone from how we got it, to the size of the project, the cool factor, and ultimately getting to build it. Now it’s a place we can go back to and show people what we’ve done. It ended up being five projects, $40 million, and we had to design it and build it in 14 months. We established credibility with owners and subcontractors for being able to pull off things that were normally reserved for the big boys in people’s minds.”
As massive an undertaking as the Guinness brewery build was for Brett’s team, it was not Plano-Coudon’s only successful project that year. They also recently completed their first project for the National Aquarium and built an award-winning 15-story residence hall for Towson University, proving again and again that smaller companies can still make a big splash.