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October 2005
Building Structures and Relationships
By Ellison Clary

“The Purpose-Driven Life” is not about Pat Rodgers, but the book’s title fits her. She and husband B.D. Rodgers have steadily fashioned one of the country’s 200 largest construction companies with dogged determination and an innovative flair.

“We’re proud of everything we’ve ever built,” says Pat Rodgers, who has been president and chief executive of Rodgers Builders, Inc. since B.D. Rodgers took the title of chairman in 1988. “We’ve been very fortunate to be involved in projects that I think have had a real impact on the community.”

She cites the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Gaston County. “We oversaw the entire infrastructure, the roads, the utilities and constructing the building,” she says of the development that started in 1996 on 110 acres near Belmont. “That’s an incredible project for the Charlotte region,” she adds about the facility that Rodgers Builders remains involved in through support for Fourth of July fireworks shows, butterfly exhibits and other events.

Charlotte native B.D. (Bonar Day) Rodgers graduated from old Central High School, earned a civil engineering degree at N.C. State University, and spent a decade at a Charlotte architecture firm. In 1963, he started Rodgers Builders from scratch. By the time Pat Rodgers came along in 1972, he had grown the company to about a million dollars a year in revenue and maybe 70 employees.

Pat Rodgers started as a part-time receptionist, having recently arrived in Charlotte from St. Louis. A struggling mother with no college degree, she needed to support two young daughters.

She worked her way up, first by taking business courses at Central Piedmont Community College to learn construction cost estimating, and later enrolling at Queens College. By 1982, when she got her contractor’s license, she’d become a part of Rodgers Builders’ estimating department. Soon, she made vice president and then executive vice president. By 1988, B.D. Rodgers could see that she was the person to run the company’s everyday affairs. It proved a profitable decision for the soft-spoken, modest founder.

After 17 years with Pat Rodgers at the helm, Rodgers Builders has 300 employees. She estimates revenues of the privately held firm at between $200 million and $300 million for the fiscal year ending September 30.

The pipeline is bulging, she adds. Among new projects, Rodgers Builders recently was chosen as the general contractor for 40,000-square-foot Billy Graham Library on the campus of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte.

That’s all the more impressive for the woman who remembers walking onto a job site in 1974 and bringing all activity to a standstill merely because she was a woman. She was wearing dressy shoes and, as she strode across a field, the ground grew progressively muddier. But she didn’t stop.

“I was proud of myself because I’d walked across that muddy field,” Rodgers recalls with a rueful smile. “The superintendent looked at me and said, ‘Next time, Pat, you might want to use that sidewalk over there.’ I was embarrassed, but I learned to be myself and never be afraid to ask for help. And a lot of people have helped me.”

Not all her early encounters ended happily. She vividly remembers when a managing contractor from another firm asked her to leave a construction site because he did not want a woman on the premises. That was in ’81 or ’82. “That wouldn’t happen today,” she says, adding that sex discrimination is waning.

 

Constructive Changes

A growing acceptance of women is one of many changes Rodgers has watched in the area’s construction industry. She’s presided over more than a few.

When Rodgers Builders was young, the Charlotte area construction industry was dominated by home-owned companies such as F.N. Thompson, J.A. Jones and McDevitt & Street. Now those and others are either owned from afar, merged into other entities, or out of business.

But Rodgers Builders continues to thrive with a mixture of healthcare, higher education and commercial projects, with some senior living, industrial and special projects thrown in. The proportions are altered a good bit since 1988, when health care made up maybe 90 percent of the company’s work.

“We built Mercy Hospital South,” Rodgers recalls from the 1980s. “At the time, it was only the second ground-up hospital that had been built in the Carolinas in a couple of decades.” Since that facility in Pineville, Rodgers Builders’ healthcare projects have included the Women’s Center expansion and renovation at Charlotte’s Presbyterian Hospital and preconstruction and construction services for a clinical services building at Concord’s NorthEast Medical Center.

As recently as 2004, Rodgers Builders ranked fifth among the nation’s top 16 healthcare general contractors.

Concurrently, higher education projects have mushroomed for Rodgers Builders with such iconic structures as the Academic Center for the Charlotte campus of Johnson & Wales University and the James H. Barnhardt Student Activity Center and Dale Halton Arena at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Gateway Village, the technology oriented complex that Cousins Properties helped Bank of America develop, illustrates the growing presence of Rodgers Builders in commercial and mixed use construction, but it is an example of much more. Rodgers Builders got the 1.1 million-square-foot project on the west side of center city Charlotte by forming a joint venture with Atlanta-based Hardin Construction Company. The resulting RodgersHardin collaboration built a landmark urban village.

 

Joint Ventures Make Dollars and Sense

Though not everyone at Rodgers Builders thought it would work, the joint venture made sense to Rodgers. The two companies had worked closely in Pinehurst, N.C., on a retirement community that had a healthcare component.

“At the end of that project, Gateway was beginning to be developed,” Rodgers says. “So we interviewed as RodgersHardin. They had a relationship with Cousins Properties in Atlanta and we had a relationship with Bank of America. We are now on our ninth project with Hardin Construction Company.”

That led to other joint ventures. Rodgers Builders has collaborated with Charlotte’s R.T. Dooley Construction Company on six projects. Among those are the club level upgrade at Bank of America Stadium and new TimeWarner Cable offices in Arrowood Business Park.

Now Rodgers Builders is working with Rentenbach Constructors Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., as RodgersRentenbach to build a major addition to Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

To succeed, Rodgers emphasizes, joint ventures should be with partners that share core values. For Rodgers Builders, those include creating quality projects that satisfy clients, and doing so with integrity, Rodgers says, adding that it also involves concern for employee safety and for the community.

Besides a lesson in joint ventures, Gateway provided the company and Rodgers a lesson in diversity. Bank of America specified that at least 15 percent of the construction work be done by minority- and women-owned subcontractors. RodgersHardin exceeded that goal. “We’re very proud of that,” Rodgers smiles as she points out a zero tolerance for discrimination at Rodgers Builders.

Providing an opportunity for deserving but struggling companies helps Rodgers Builders long-term, she adds. “The contracting field can be very limited and we need to help grow some firms,” she says. “We have a subcontractor program manager who interviews minority firms, qualifies them and helps them wherever we can to work on our projects.”

Relationships with minority-owned firms gave Rodgers Builders a boost in pursuing higher education projects financed by State of North Carolina bonds, Rodgers says, because these projects specify minority involvement. The company is building a performing arts academic building at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and an information technology facility at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Rodgers points out that, with her at the helm, Rodgers Builders qualifies as a woman-owned business. But the company never has used that to its advantage; Rodgers feels that status should be reserved for those who need it most.

 

Building Strong Relationships

Perhaps that feeling emanates from Rodgers’ strong desire to mentor. That, she says, is rooted in her remembrance of help she got from lots of people when she was learning the ropes. Rodgers mentors both for those in the construction business and folks in other disciplines, for “probably more women than men,” she says.

One mentoring recipient who praises her is Judy Rose, athletic director for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Personally and professionally, I’m a better person for knowing Pat,” Rose says. “There’s a lot of loyalty when Pat is committed to you.”

Rodgers is also committed to keeping people involved in her company’s operations. “Not long ago,” she recalls, “a young man came to work for us and when I asked him why he chose us, he said, ‘Because I went to your Web site and you looked like a very inclusive company.’”

Eric Reichard started at Rodgers Builders as a field engineer 14 years ago and is now a senior vice president. “I’m impressed with our people,” he says. “It’s a family business where you get to know the owners.”

And though Pat and B.D., who married in 1991, own nearly all the Rodgers Builders stock, they have instituted a strategic plan to spread that ownership among a group of senior leaders. A succession outline also is taking shape.

“It is not our intent to sell the company to outsiders,” Rodgers says. “We want to allow those who have worked so hard within the company to have an opportunity to move into leadership roles.”

The strategic plan germinated in the aftermath of a blowout Christmas party for about 900 at Charlotte Country Club two years ago. It was a gala celebration of the company’s 40th anniversary. “We decided to ensure the future for the folks who are coming up in the company now,” she says.

Once other executives take a bigger role in day-to-day management, what will Pat do? “I’ll be in the business another 10 or 15 years, but not as active on a day-to-day basis,” she says. She can spend time with her three grandchildren, but that’s not enough for a person who runs four miles a time or two a week. She’s also fond of snow skiing and travel.

Active in the community, Rodgers chairs the Mint Museum board and serves on many other civic panels. She’s also a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Task Force. CMS educated her daughters.

Going forward, she’s eying organizations that address poverty issues, especially those that deal with single-parent homes where the mother is trying to juggle child rearing with work.

“Somebody asked me what my proudest accomplishment was,” she says, “and I said I hope I haven’t done it yet. I still have a lot of things I want to do.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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