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April 2010
Building Relationships
By Casey Jacobus

     Since its founding in 1941, Hickory Construction Company has honored its motto of ‘Where Quality and Integrity Still Exist,’ building its business by delivering a consistently high-quality, reliable service at prices that are fair and competitive.

     “It’s not just a slogan on our business cards,” says President Mark Baucom. “We believe it; it’s our way of doing business. It means people can trust us.”

     For 69 years, Hickory Construction Company has consistently raised the standards of the construction industry. While always on the cutting edge of new construction and management techniques, it has never wavered in its commitment to its customers. Its goal is to deliver top quality, trouble-free product within an efficient timeframe.

     “I’ve known Hickory Construction since the 1990s when they built the 34-unit townhome project at The Cliffs at Walnut Cove,” says Rusty Pulliam, president and CEO of Pulliam Properties, Western North Carolina’s largest full-service commercial real estate firm.

     “Things like the perfect fit of complex moldings and other architectural features, the perfectly installed marble and granite floors and counter tops, and the best exterior stone work I’ve seen, exemplify the firm’s expertise and attention to detail. You don’t pay extra for this exceptional quality; it just comes with Hickory Construction,” Pulliam affirms.

     Hickory Construction has become one of the largest general contractors in North Carolina, building residential, commercial and utility projects throughout the Southeast. Projects include the Hayes Performing Arts Center in Blowing Rock, The Ramble Living Well Center in Biltmore Forest, the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove in Black Mountain, the Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, the Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, and the Catawba River Raw Water Pumping Station in Charlotte.

     “We’ve enjoyed a great relationship with Hickory Construction for over 10 years,” says Arnold Jarrell, Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities Department project manager. “They’ve done projects for us ranging from small improvements to large new construction projects such as the Catawba River Raw Water Pumping Station. Hickory Construction’s one of the most ethical, dependable and highly skilled general contractors we’ve worked with.”

     Throughout its history, Hickory Construction has established long-term relationships with its clients, counting repeat customers for much of its success. The company has worked with Appalachian State University in Boone for over 40 years now, building approximately 25 percent of its campus.

     Their work wins praise from university partners like Alison Kemp-Sullivan, interim associate director of design and construction: “Of course Hickory Construction is large enough to build virtually any project, but it is small enough for their top management to be involved in every project and truly care about each one. They do top quality work and are very professional.”

 

High Performance

     Construction is a risky business. However, Hickory Construction has been able to thrive and grow largely because of the relationships it has forged with its customers, employees and subcontractors. The company has more than doubled its revenues since moving into its third generation of ownership about 10 years ago.

     “Four out of five construction companies don’t make it into the third generation,” asserts Baucom. “It’s a very hard profession and the risk is very high.”

     The current ownership team came together in the early 1990s. Baucom, along with Aaron Beam, Jeanna Flowers and Mike Odom, joined Graham Hunsucker, who has been with the company for 33 years, and Chuck Moss, grandson of company founder Robert V. Moss, to set the company’s course for the future.

     Historically, company revenues peaked at approximately $75,000,000 in 2005. In recent years, Hickory Construction has managed to weather the current economic recession despite declines in construction volume of 25 to 30 percent.

     Chief Financial Officer Jeanna Flowers says that diversification plays a key role in Hickory Construction’s success. While residential construction work has almost disappeared in the past year, Hickory Construction’s commercial and utilities divisions are holding up well. The utilities division is currently bringing in 30 percent of the company’s business, while the building division accounts for about 70 percent.

     “We don’t have a particular niche in the industry,” declares Baucom. “We don’t do highway work or build 10-story high-rises. But we do practically everything else.”

     Hickory Construction’s body of work includes virtually every type of commercial, institutional and residential building as well as public works. The company is especially well known in the areas of health, church, education and public utilities construction. Recently completed works include a $9.6 million renovation of Abernathy Laurels, a United Church Homes and Services Ministry facility in Newton, a $2.9 million pump station for the City of Lenoir, and a $9.7 million medical education facility for Gaston College in Dallas, N.C.

     Abernathy Laurels is one of Hickory Construction’s valued repeat customers. The company’s most recent project for the continuing-care retirement community was a 40,000-square-foot community center that includes a comprehensive fitness center with indoor pool and a juice bar on the lower level, a bistro, kitchen, and large multipurpose room on the first floor and a lounge and media area on the second floor.

     Although the magnitude of the project and the fact that the site was a tight one presented challenges, Hickory Construction was able to complete the project on time and under budget. The company’s a partnership approach to projects won praise from the customer.

     “Hickory Construction was able to work professionally and collaboratively with our management team, the architects and interior designers,” says Douglas Fleegle, president and CEO of United Church Homes and Services. “We’ve enjoyed a strong partnership.”

     The City of Lenoir is another repeat customer for the company. The latest project was to build a new water pump station to replace an outdated system that was failing. The new Whitnel High Service Pump Station serves the Lenoir, Sawmills and Hudson areas. Mark Edmistein, director of public utilities for the City of  Lenoir, who has worked with Hickory Construction on previous jobs, says he was pleased with the company’s work and the people assigned to the pump station project.

     “They’ve got some good folks,” Edmistein attests.

     The David Belk Cannon Health Education Institution was the company’s first job for Gaston College. Hickory Construction began work on the 85,000-square-foot facility in January 2008 and turned the project over to the owner in August 2009. The state-of-the-art building has 12 classrooms, laboratories, an auditorium, two conference rooms, two exercise rooms, a therapeutic pool and treatment facility, as well as office space.

     “I have nothing but good to report,” says Kenny Hunt, who monitored the project for the State Construction Office. “Everything went smoothly.”

 

Competitive Strength

     In addition to a reputation for quality and the strength of its relationships with customers, Hickory Construction has an additional asset. Travelers Insurance Company, the nation’s largest bond underwriter, has underwritten a $100 million bonding capacity. This provides the company with a high ceiling on work that can be bonded and provides one more competitive edge in today’s tough market.

     The lifeblood of a construction company is its bonding capacity,” asserts Baucom. “And we’ve been with Travelers for 29 years.”

     Another competitive advantage Hickory Construction enjoys is its leadership in sustainable or “green” construction.

     “The construction industry has long been seen as an environmentally destructive and often unhealthy force”, says Chuck Moss, vice president and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professional.

     LEED certification is the recognized standard for determining building sustainability, and the optimum indication that a building project is truly green. Hickory Construction currently has four projects in progress that are seeking LEED Silver, Gold and Platinum certifications.

     “The demand for LEED certified projects will undoubtedly continue to grow,” Moss adds, “and the industry will continue to invest in LEED Accredited Professionals and green building techniques. At Hickory Construction we were early in embracing this eco-friendly endeavor and have invested significantly in green construction. As the green construction movement matures, we’ll help the construction industry become more efficient, reduce the impact projects have on the environment, and noticeably improve indoor air quality, thereby improving health.”

 

People Make the Difference

     Project Manager Graham Hunsucker worked his way up the management ladder at Hickory Construction—all the way to owner. During his tenure, he has watched the company go “from calculators to computers” and attributes their success to their willingness to go “the extra mile, to ensure the customer gets a quality product.”

     “We build a good building,” he says. “We do a good product. We let the owner, our employees and our subcontractors know we care about the project.”

     As a full-service general contractor, Hickory Construction completes work on a design/build, negotiated or hard-bid basis. For its design/build and negotiated clients, it has developed a process it calls the Team Build Approach (TBA) in which the owner, architect and Hickory Construction staff work together, beginning in the design phase. This allows the company’s construction experts to offer cost-saving ideas during the planning stage that wouldn’t otherwise arise until time and effort were wasted in the construction phase.

     “TBA provides owners with a product that better fits their needs, as well as cost savings from improved efficiency, minimization of change orders and business interruption, and faster project completion,” says Baucom. “We approach our projects from a partnership perspective.”

     As an example, when the company built the Fine and Performing Arts Center for Western Carolina University in 2003, problems with the project developed as a result of the defaulting of multi-prime contractors. Joe Walker, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management at the university, praises Hickory Construction’s approach to solving the problems.

     Hickory stayed the course and worked with us and the project team in a professional manner,” says Walker. “Many contractors would have stopped work, but Hickory Construction persevered. The Fine and Performing Arts Center still looks like new and is one of the most recognizable and beautiful buildings on the Western Carolina University Campus.”

     Every project Hickory Construction undertakes is assigned both a manager and a superintendent. Both know the project inside out and they are always available to the customer.

     Many of the employees have worked at the company for their entire career. Two veteran employees were honored at an awards banquet last summer for their 40 years of service.

     “The most critical factor on a jobsite is the general contractor’s superintendent”, says Fred Hoyle, president of Hoyle Plumbing, a subcontractor who’s worked with Hickory Construction for decades. “The successful projects we’ve worked with Hickory on speak for themselves as to the professionalism and quality of Hickory superintendents. You just can’t beat experience.”

     Hickory Construction has 20 superintendents who average over 20 years with the company. “This level of skill, experience and loyalty translates into unmatched quality, efficiency and professionalism on our projects,” adds Flowers.

     Mike Odom, who heads up the Utilities division, says the company culture is one of the things that attracted him to the company in 1995.

     “Hickory Construction is not just a business; it’s a family,” he says. “It’s a place where you can work together and share your ideas. It’s a very stable, consistent company, filled with high performance people.”

     Above all else, however, Hickory Construction Company builds the schools, the churches, the YMCAs, the power plants and pump stations that provide people with the services they need. Buildings like Hickory’s landmark Corinth Reformed Church, built in the 1960s, and the recently completed Snow Creek Elementary School in Catawba County (the first LEED Silver project of its kind in North Carolina) reflect the company’s commitment to quality and stand as the company’s legacy.

     “It’s a very hard profession,” says Baucom. “The satisfaction comes in making a difference. We build tangible structures that will provide lasting benefits to the community for generations, and everyone in the Hickory Construction family takes a great deal of pride in that.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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