Hard work and compassion for community help build a successful business

Small Business

Shawn Fernau began working in the construction industry long before he knew he’d make a career out of it and become a business owner.

Over the past two decades, he has learned the ins and outs of construction, and since 2014, he has run Shawn Fernau Construction in Ainsworth, Nebraska.

Things didn’t start as well as Shawn hoped. He started out renting a building and in late 2016, he purchased a building to house his company. One month later, on Christmas Eve, he faced a major setback when the building burned. His tools, which were inside, were a complete loss as well.

“I had to basically start from scratch,” Shawn said. “The building was really old, and the people I bought it from were supposed to carry insurance on it for 30 days after I bought it, but they had none. I needed a substantial amount of money, but had no collateral for it because it burned.”

At this point, Shawn was introduced to the Center for Rural Affairs, and things started to look up. He applied for and received a loan administered by the Center with funds provided by the Business and Innovation Act (BIA).

BIA is a program of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and provides the Center with the resources necessary to provide technical assistance and lending capital to Nebraska's small businesses. This program works at the state level, exclusively in Nebraska.

Not only was Shawn able to pay for extensive cleanup after the fire, he was able to put up a brand new building. He replaced his tools as he could afford to, with help from a GoFundMe account started by a friend. 

Today, what started as a one-man operation has expanded to four to seven other employees who build new houses and do drywall, trim work, painting, and more.

Lori Schrader, Center loan specialist, worked with Shawn over the past few years and has seen him progress as a business owner.

“Shawn is excellent at his construction job—he’s extremely organized and careful about the type of work he does,” she said. “He is very well-known in the Ainsworth area and runs two construction crews, due to being so busy. So, to say he went from nothing at the beginning to having two crews speaks volumes.”

He and his workers have expanded from mostly residential builds to putting up commercial buildings as well. And recently, he started subcontracting roofing and concrete work out to other companies.

Shawn feels strongly about providing as many services as possible to his clients, and about keeping small businesses alive in his hometown.

“In a small community like this, you kind of have to be full service or you can’t survive,” he said. “I love the small town feel and knowing the people I work with are also my friends. My employees are like family—we do things on the weekend together. We’ve formed this small, tight-knit community.”

While Shawn loves owning a business and values his work family, he cautions others looking into starting their own businesses right now.

“Because of the pandemic, there are product shortages and material fluctuations,” he said. “Under normal circumstances, start out small and work your way up. Don’t try to do too much all at once. I made that mistake and it’s very overwhelming. You can also take on a very big financial burden by trying to have many employees right off that bat, because you’ve got their families to take care of now too.”

He recommends the Center to any would-be entrepreneur looking for a leg up. In fact, one of the construction projects he’s working on wouldn’t be moving forward if he hadn’t suggested the Center to the owners.

“The Center is an excellent resource,” said Shawn. “My wife and I have been very satisfied with them. There have been some hard winters that we worked with them to miss a payment or two during hard times and add it on to the end. They’ve been really great to work with.”

At some point down the road, Shawn hopes to let his workers take over the manual labor aspect of the work while he takes care of the paperwork and general contracting end of things. Eventually, he hopes to retire, leaving one of his trusted employees to run the business for generations to come.

At a glance

Shawn Fernau Construction, LLC
Shawn Fernau
160 S. Ulrich St.
Ainsworth, Nebraska 69210

Read about our recent work at the Nebraska Legislative hearing on Feb. 8, 2022, and proposed changes to the Business Innovation Act.