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July 2006
Structured for Satisfaction
By Ellison Clary

Edifice is poised and ready for rapid growth. The 28-year-old general contracting company turned $120 million in revenue in 2005 and anticipates even better returns in 2006. Edifice is licensed to build in 22 states, is committed to reaching even further across the nation, and enjoys a stellar reputation for professionalism and on-time delivery. Despite all this good business news, Eric Laster, the firm’s owner, president and CEO, insists growth is not his main focus.

“Happiness and satisfaction are more important,” Laster, 50, says. His quick smile and infectious laughter attest to both qualities. “You’ve got to create a culture and environment where your customers and employees can be satisfied and your employees enjoy their jobs on an everyday basis.”

That said, Laster acknowledges that growth will continue.

“I think we can double our revenue in five years, easily. I think that’s going to spread some happiness,” he adds with a chuckle.

Edifice has specialized divisions in the retail, entertainment, office, industrial, civic, religious, educational and medical building industries as well as a separate division for special projects.

“I’ve always wanted to grow the company,” Laster muses. “But it’s more about giving people opportunities. It’s letting the people grow right along with the company.”

Customer satisfaction is a high priority for Laster and he builds that satisfaction on honest relationships with clients and by minimizing their feelings of risk. Division leaders know the industries they operate in and anticipate the challenges associated with those industries. Maintaining specialized divisions allows Edifice to meet project requirements on time and within budget. These qualities are not easy to come by in the construction business and Laster knows he needs to keep his employees happy to keep his clients happy.

“If quality employees are happy, they’ll do what it takes to produce satisfied clients,” Laster confirms. “Compensation is one piece of it. I come from a very poor family. I assume that pay, to everybody who works for Edifice, is important. I think it’s the employer’s responsibility to understand where the pay should be. I can’t ask for more than I pay for.”

Laster grew up in a construction family in Burlington, N.C. His father was a masonry contractor and his grandfather was a concrete contractor. He was hanging around building sites by the time he was 6 and was pushing a wheelbarrow at 11. He left East Carolina University in 1979 to join a small contractor in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Laster’s voice takes on more emotion when he speaks about employees that have not gone in the same direction as the company. He describes letting an employee go as “one of the most difficult parts of the job.”

“Because of my background, I have an affinity for the people in the construction industry,” Laster says. “They are men and women that have trained in the field to do their work. They’ve learned to build complicated structures without having formal education.”

Providing the right equipment for each job is another key to employee contentment, Laster says. In addition, time off must be adequate and fair and bonuses must be properly accounted for and distributed. Employees need to know their colleagues are working with them and not against them. That goes for employers, too.

“I come to work whistling in the morning and I leave whistling,” Laster says with a laugh. “I believe I’ve created an environment where everyone here would tell you they enjoy coming to work. We’ve put together a group of people that has become as much family as interrelated employees.” 

 

Personal Growth

Laster learned as he grew with Edifice. He joined the company in 1987 from S.C. Hondros & Associates in Charlotte, where he’d moved to get back to the Carolinas. The pair of architects who had founded Edifice in 1978 hired him to run the fledgling custom home construction company.

By 1990, he owned 50 percent of the company and in 2000 he bought the rest of Edifice, which has always been privately held.

Listening to Laster, it’s easy to see he’s a natural at his craft.

“I like to smell the dirt when it turns,” he explains. “I like to see the concrete go down. I like the whole thing.” He adds that he enjoys driving through Charlotte and seeing how the structures Edifice has built have changed the city’s  footprint.

Edifice’s headquarters and only office is on West Morehead Street near Bank of America Stadium where a growing list of businesses are creating a renaissance  in once-  abandoned warehouse and manufacturing facilities. Edifice was among the first to relocate in the area when Laster bought a building in 1998 that Coca-Cola constructed in 1930 as a bottling plant.

Today, Edifice is pressing at the seams of the 12,000 square feet in its tastefully decorated facility and Laster is looking for a bigger home, which will be in a yet-to-be-determined Charlotte location. He muses at the present value of the property, he spent about $650,000 for the land and building combined. The land alone is probably selling for $650,000 to $700,000 an acre today.

Laster did more than play a hunch on the location. He scouted the site, which is a half-mile from Center City and a stone’s throw from Interstate 77, driving by it at all hours.

“I felt very comfortable that this was a great area of Charlotte that people for some reason had overlooked or didn’t understand,” he explains.

 

Diversification Hits Pay Dirt

Laster decided early on that it was important for Edifice to diversify, so he made sure it kept at least one civic project going. That emphasis grew into an important market and now Edifice can point to three schools it has built in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system: Philip O. Berry Academy of Technology High School on Alleghany Street; E.E. Waddell High School on Nations Ford Road; and Hopewell High School in Huntersville.

Laster also found a niche for Edifice in building movie theaters throughout the eastern half of the United States. The company has built more than 200 theaters, including Regal Cinemas Stonecrest on Rea Road in Charlotte.

But when the theater industry became overbuilt in the late 1990s, it hit Edifice hard. “In one year, around the late ’90s, I went from maybe 60 projects to two because the movie theater industry had built up so quickly,” Laster says. “That work really kind of went away.”

Still, Edifice kept all its employees and turned a profit, something it’s done each year since Laster came aboard.

“Fortunately, I had started to reposition and remarket Edifice in other types of industry,” Laster explains. “That was a big turning point. We started focusing on the Charlotte market and other types of industries.”

Emphasis on quality work and finishing on time helped. Edifice recently completed a $38 million bus operation and maintenance facility for the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS).

“They did a terrific job on a complicated project,” says Ron Tober, chief executive of CATS. “They brought that project in on time and under budget.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The company that has done most of its work in other cities now has about 75 percent of its projects in Charlotte. Edifice has grown strong in religious construction, a big plus in the “city of churches.”

Laster credits Bryan Knupp, senior vice president of Edifice, for the thriving church segment. Knupp left Rodgers Builders 10 years ago for the opportunity to concentrate  on churches.

“Church-building was an attraction to me, I enjoy it,” Knupp says. “Now I’ve taken on more responsibility in managing and running the company.”

 

Community Contributions

Edifice has positioned itself to contribute to the regional community. Not only does it contribute in a variety of markets such as industrial and retail construction, but it is also active in charities.

Laster turned a company fishing trip last fall into a relief effort for victims of Hurricane Katrina. He led 18 Edifice superintendents on a hands-on mission in Pascagoula, Miss., to restore damaged housing and a local church.

“We bonded more down there working side-by-side,” Knupp says, “than we ever would have on a boat catching fish.”

Knupp and other Edifice employees volunteer to work on Habitat for Humanity projects and Laster serves on the board of the organization’s Charlotte chapter. He regularly travels to El Salvador to work on Habitat for Humanity houses there, and Edifice has donated its services to build The Habitat ReStore and offices on Wendover Road.

Laster has been active in Habitat for Humanity for 15 years because “Habitat is a hand up instead of a hand out. People aren’t given anything; they have to be responsible, they have to work, they have to put in hours to get their own home and they have to pay for it.”

Bert Green, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Charlotte, praises Edifice and Laster. He calls the work Edifice has done on Habitat for Humanity facilities “a major contribution” and acknowledges that everything Edifice has done has been “on time and of excellent quality.”

“I’m proud of all the buildings we’ve built,” Laster says. “There’s not a bad one out there.”

Laster, his wife Kim and their two children enjoy traveling, and recently climbed Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro.    

            But Laster also enjoys staying close to home, tooling around Charlotte where his company’s handiwork envelopes him.

“I get to attend a church that Edifice built (Christ Lutheran Church on Providence Road),” Laster says. “Someday, our daughter will be married in that church.” I get to go to the movie theater that Edifice built (Stonecrest). I get to go to the country club that Edifice built (Longview).”

After pausing for a moment, Laster credits Edifice’s success to the strength of its workforce.

“Edifice has never been about me,” he says. “I really believe we’ve got the best people. I’ve tried to stay small, stay behind the scenes and get everybody else in front.”

And he’s sure that strong growth    is ahead.

“We’ve got a financially sound company with a good reputation,” he says. “We’ve built a stable foundation.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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