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April 2012
Building Longevity
By Heather Head

     In a marketplace dominated by the fast and the furious, where companies older than 5 years are considered established and many never make it past their first anniversary, Metrolina Builders is an anomaly. With 40 years of success behind them, the company has posted record profits almost every year during the Great Recession that obliterated many bigger names in the industry.

     Their secret? It’s simple and old-fashioned, but they prove every year that it’s not outdated: Take care of the client, focus on core competencies, and plan for the future. John Williams, who started the company with his father in 1972, says they continually delight customers by living their philosophy of “Excellence in what we do Integrity in how we do it.”

 

Designing a Destiny

     In 1971, Al Williams, a senior manager and engineer with a national steel company, was putting his son John through Kansas University’s engineering program. In addition to sharing a career interest, the two shared a love of hunting and spent many hours together in the wild, and were unusually close.

     So when Al began to think about starting his own construction business, the first thing he did was ask his son to join him. As a boy, John had a love and knack for building things, so the prospect of doing it as a career and getting to work with his father, appealed to him.

     Al had an idea for the business that was innovative, if not entirely unheard of, at the time. Most builders operated by bidding on plans, reacting to whatever came down the pipeline to them. Al planned to turn the process on its head, by marketing building services as a package with design and engineering, creating value throughout the design and construction process.

     Father and son set out immediately to find the right market for their concept. They looked at several cities around the country before narrowing it down to two: Austin in their home state of Texas, or Charlotte. One trip to the Queen City was all it took for them to make their decision.

     “When we got down here and had an opportunity to not only investigate the potential business climate, but to look at the living conditions and the beauty of the city,” remembers John, “it was a no-brainer. We were going to be here.”

     In February 1972, they hung out their shingle as Metrolina Builders and began marketing their turn-key services. John says their earliest challenge was simply getting to know people.

     “A lot of people that start businesses have leads and contacts before they even open their doors,” says John, “We didn’t have that.” Nor did they know the local subcontractors, suppliers, or other organizations necessary to support their work.

     What they did have, in addition to their concept, was the expertise and determination to put it together. They knocked on doors and joined associations. They built connections with vendors and subcontractors.

     But it was Al’s long-standing relationship with the steel manufacturer Armco that won Metrolina Builders their first big job. As the steel corporation’s official product representative in Charlotte, Metrolina Builders received inquiries from companies looking for the product, and provided them with turn-key proposals they couldn’t resist.

     That first big job was for a 40,000-square-foot facility in Matthews for corrugated cardboard manufacturer Stronghaven. Close on the heels of that project was a 62,000-square-foot facility off of Westinghouse for Pelton & Crane, a manufacturer of dental furniture and equipment.

     John describes the company’s development as focused tightly on the manufacturing industry at first, playing to their core strengths, and only gradually “tiptoeing” into other areas as they felt prepared for them. Unlike many builders, he says, they don’t hire and fire to suit the whims of the market—many of their employees have been with the company for 15 and even 30 years.

     Combined with their commitment to servicing every new project with the same level of care and attention, this means that every new project is weighed carefully before launching in. For instance, the first time a client approached Metrolina Builders with a large project that was over six hours from Charlotte, they respectfully declined.

     “We wanted time to gear up and make sure we could deliver the same quality product that we did in Charlotte,” explains Matt, John’s son and now vice president of the operation. “The project was to begin in two weeks and we weren’t ready for it yet.”

     The principal of that company called them up personally and said that in all his years, he had never heard anyone decline a job; he had to know why. Once he heard their response, he respected their position and said when Metrolina Builders was ready, his next project was theirs to build.

     “So we spent that next year gauging the subcontractor pool in the area and developing the right support team to handle these types of project,” says Matt. And when they were ready, the business came: Metrolina Builders built 4 large clubhouse projects up and down the Carolina coasts.

     John has been president of Metrolina Builders since 1984 and runs the company from a unique building they built over 25 years ago, with son Matt Williams and daughter Sarah working in accounting. He says that with a more aggressive—and risky—approach, Metrolina Builders could easily have grown faster and bigger. But it also might have met disaster, as many builders found out the hard way during recent years. Through all three generations, the family remains close, and the business remains a mainstay.

 

Building the Company

     Today, Metrolina Builders services the commercial, industrial, and institutional markets with design-build and traditional contracting and construction management services. They specialize in new buildings as well as interior renovations for retail, office, medical, restaurant, educational, religious, hospitality, automotive, industrial, and energy projects.

     While sometimes a client comes to Metrolina Builders with plans already drawn and looking only for a general contractor for the project, most clients choose Metrolina for turn-key design-build services, beginning often as early as site selection.

     By coming in on a project early in the process, Metrolina Builders is able to ensure that the entire project meets the client’s functional, aesthetic and economic needs by value engineering at every step of the process.

     “We create a team environment where all the important players—owner, architect, engineer and builder—are at the table from the onset of the project,” explains John.

     “We investigate every option and provide real-time cost data of each design decision before it’s committed to, giving the owner more control over what’s going into the project, so they can prioritize where their dollars are spent,” continues Matt.

     “This concept of value engineering, was born out of over-budget projects, where a building is designed, put out for bid, and it comes back over budget. Then the designer solicits the contractor to see where they make changes to bring the cost down, but by that time you cannot capture all of the savings and lose some in redesign fees.”

     Metrolina Builders plans cost-saving features into the project before it goes onto paper, often saving 10 percent or more on cost without affecting quality, appearance or function. Matt says the value is obvious to any company that has done business with Metrolina Builders and as a result, repeat customers constitute nearly 90 percent of their business.

     “The input of Metrolina’s team proves to be invaluable over the course of the design and construction process,” says Aaron Ligon of Ligon Commercial Real Estate. “More importantly, Metrolina gives us a sense of security, that the interests of our company are constantly being looked out for and protected.”

     The sentiment is echoed repeatedly among other clients. Patty Stumpf of Drs. Burrow & Case Orthodontics says they’ve worked with Metrolina Builders for 13 years on projects ranging from ground-up to minor facelifts and calls Metrolina Builders their “builder of choice.”

     “It is rare in this day and time to find people that do what they say they will do,” she adds. “Metrolina has done that on every project, and with the highest professional quality.”

 

Surviving the Recession

     Matt remembers a conversation a few years ago in which his father and the father of another family-owned business were teasing the two sons that they had never had to weather the hard times. Within months, it struck—the Great Recession in construction. In 40 years of business, says John, he had never seen the market get hit so hard and so fast.

     Right at the beginning of the construction collapse, John and Matt looked around at the market and knew not everyone was going to survive. And they were right—over the next few years, several of the city’s biggest names in construction went under along with many smaller players. But Metrolina Builders was not among them.

     In fact, says Matt, they did more than survive. They have grown. For the past three years starting in 2009, the company has posted record profits. They have added staff and expanded their offerings.

     Their secret? “Honestly, as simple as it is,” says Matt, “our strategy was to hunker down, operate lean and mean, and service the clients that we have—exceeding every expectation.”

     It was not so much about cutting costs, he adds, although they did their fair share of that as well—analyzing every dollar that went out the door. “But the bulk of it was in this notion of focusing on our core clients and performing for them, rather than casting a wide net and diluting our efforts,” explains Matt.

     They looked at the markets they were serving and strove to position the company to be less dependent on those most vulnerable to the recession, and to focus energy on those deemed most recession-proof.

     “We became highly focused,” says Matt. “A lot of people became more desperate and started reaching for whatever jobs they could get, adding risk to an already extremely risky business. We recommitted to our conservative focused approach to growth, and it served us well.”

     “Our strategy to survive performed better than we thought it would,” says John. But while economic indicators appear to be improving for many industries, John says the worst is not over for construction. “The only miscalculation we had was that we said if we could survive for three years, the market would be back. Now we’re looking at each other and thinking we’d better prepare for another three years.”

     Unemployment remains unusually high in the construction industry—John estimates between 30 and 35 percent. And while companies are beginning to expand again, the glut of previously constructed buildings available in the market means very few of them are considering new construction. “In construction, it’s going to be a slow burn coming back up,” remarks John.

     Meanwhile, Metrolina Builders plans to stay the course with their successful business model, always remembering that, as John says, “Our reputation is on the line with every job we do—we are only as good as the last job we completed.” They may not post record profits again this year or next, but they have remained financially strong and when the recession finally ends, they will be poised to service the pent up demand that always follows a recession.

     “In a family business, there’s a legacy to protect, and a future legacy to prepare for,” says Matt. “We stay true to our culture and our philosophy, have never put financial performance over what we think is the right thing to do, because we’re here for the long haul.”

     With that proven attitude, they’re likely to be around for another 40 years.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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