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April 2008
Constructing Value
By Ellison Clary

     A friendly approach coupled with determination to add value characterizes the way Carmel Contractors, Inc. serves clients when building projects in the Carolinas and around the Southeast, according to its principals Nathan McLamb and Scott Tuttle.

     McLamb and company president Tuttle use dogged determination to get their foot in the door of a prospective client. When they win an audience with the right person, they show him or her how Carmel Contractors can add value as a general contractor. “For every dollar we spend on a project, our customers have come to know we will strive to get the most out of it,” affirms Tuttle.

      As the Charlotte firm celebrates is 25th anniversary, the construction veterans credit their steady growth to pleasing project owners, winning multiple jobs from them. And they are convinced it is because they bring value for clients on the projects they do.

­     “We’ve always said there’s no better business than repeat business,” says chairman McLamb, who started the company in 1983.

     A good example of that is the company’s current project for Lowe’s—the Home Improvement Center under construction in South End, site of the 175,000-square-foot home and garden center that will open soon as part of a mixed use development on South Boulevard. The $30 million Lowe’s   project is one of about four dozen stores Carmel Contractors has built across the Carolinas for the Mooresville-based home improvement giant.

     Its repeat business results from a bond of trust that Carmel Contractors has built with Lowe’s executives who rely on McLamb and Tuttle’s firm to perform to its high standards and rigorous schedule.

     Two executives of Lowe’s who say they like doing business with Carmel Contractors credit them as “one of the quickest and most cost effective contractors we work with.” According to both Mike Harless, vice-president of engineering and construction, and Tony Cook, director of engineering and construction, South Region, “We have very few issues that come up when we work with Carmel Contractors.”

     “Lowe’s operates in a fiercely competitive environment and they expect us to help them build economical stores, with a quality finish and timely completion. Our team is committed to this and we will do whatever it takes to accomplish this,” says Tuttle.

     Carmel Contractors has a similar relationship with Pep Boys Auto. Some years back, McLamb heard the auto parts retailer was planning new stores in the Charlotte region, so he traveled to Philadelphia to speak in person with the Pep Boys headquarters executives.

As a result, Carmel Contractors was given the opportunity to build the Pep Boys facility on North Tryon Street. Construction honchos at Pep Boys soon came to appreciate McLamb’s ability to negotiate the maze of municipal bureaucracy. He got proper city approvals and smoothed potential regulatory snags.

     “We’re going to hang in there like a bulldog and do whatever we’ve got to do,” McLamb says. “They appreciated that.”

     That project on North Tryon led to others for Pep Boys in Charlotte, followed by others in Columbia, Gastonia and Fayetteville.

 

Building Determination

     “Once we do the first building for a client, it’s a very high probability that we’re going to do two or three or more,” McLamb notes.

     Believing that a contractor should be able to understand a client’s objective, and then form a team that includes architects and subcontractors to work efficiently through the construction cycle, is McLamb’s way to bring value to the client.

     Carmel Contractors is bringing value to the Lowe’s on South Boulevard by working through unusual constraints, explains Tuttle. Because condo units wrap the Lowe’s building, space is tight and coordination is critical.

     The Lowe’s rooftop parking deck brings its own set of challenges. Usually, Tuttle says, Carmel Contractors thinks about a project from the ground up but, for the South End store, the team must take a bird’s eye view. “Waterproofing and structural loads, the roofing system and the concrete deck are paramount on this project,” he says.

     Needing to think like the owner plays to a strength of Carmel Contractors. Its size keeps it nimble and readily adaptable to any unusual situation, Tuttle explains, as does its disregard for titles and hierarchy.

     “These owners have project managers and people who look out for the development,” he says. “We try to make it so those people have to work a lot less, because they’ve got Carmel on their team. They know we’re going to look out for them.”

It’s all part of delivering quality projects on-time and within budget, Tuttle and McLamb agree. It’s all part of bringing an owner value.

     A big reason Carmel Contractors can do this is its dedication to training employees. McLamb says the firm has been active with the Carolinas Associated General Contractors (AGC) since they incorporated in 1983. He and Tuttle encourage employees to take advantage of seminars and other educational opportunities offered at the Charlotte office.

     “We’re constantly challenging ourselves,” Tuttle says. “You can always do something better. That’s why we send our employees to education and training seminars. If you can come away with at least one idea or improvement it will help you and your performance. It’ll help us. We’ll be better.”

     Stephen Gennett, president and chief executive of the Carolinas AGC, confirms that Carmel Contractors personnel attend a wide variety of sessions that deal with topics such as supervisory training, safety, legal decisions and green building precepts.

     “An association director’s dream” is how Gennett describes McLamb, who has served on his board. “He’s unselfishly committed to the cause of the industry he’s made his living in,” Gennett adds.

      A renovation for the AGC building on Euclid Avenue presented a special challenge for Carmel Contractors.

      “It was a real messy retrofit,” McLamb remembers. Besides major upgrades, Carmel Contractors constructed about 35 percent more space in a two-story addition. And the work went on while the AGC continued to operate on the premises.

      Gennett remembers the company’s willingness to do whatever was necessary to make the project work, sometimes adding a needed, detailed touch.

     McLamb and Tuttle give much credit for their AGC success to Tim Demmitt of Charlotte’s Overcash Demmitt Architects, designers of the makeover.

     “We always enjoy working with Carmel Contractors,” Demmitt says. “They make our lives easier, which we always look for in a general contractor. They help eliminate problems.” Demmitt also designed the building at 8030 England Street where Carmel Contractors maintains its office.

     In 2007, the two firms collaborated on restructuring for Archdale Marketplace, an aging shopping center on South Boulevard that needed reconfigured, smaller tenant spaces.

 

Building a Company

     Today, Tuttle says, 75 percent of Carmel Contractors business is retail and most of the rest is office and medical up-fit, renovations and additions. But that wasn’t always the case. The company has evolved over the years.

     McLamb started Carmel Contractors to complement a residential building firm owned by Allen Tate and Walt Hendrix with commercial construction. By the end of the 1980s, McLamb had bought out both Tate and Hendrix and Carmel Contractors was finding success in condo developments.

     McLamb worked with Dennis Rash, who was leading the community development arm of what became Bank of America, to build various condo projects in Third Ward.

     “Nathan and I got along well,” Rash recalls. “He was open to suggestions. He provided good construction quality and got things done on time. He was a very honorable person to deal with.”

     When the multi-family market went south in 1989, Carmel Contractors branched into office buildings, medical offices, church facilities, shopping centers and retail construction. Tuttle joined Carmel Contractors the same year.

     Shortly thereafter, Carmel Contractors forged its relationship with Lowe’s. That has lasted, McLamb and Tuttle believe, because they take the trust of Lowe’s and their other clients seriously.

     “We’re service oriented,” McLamb explains. “We call ourselves contractors and we are. But the bottom line is our clients are entrusting us to spend their money wisely. And they trust us to make sure the building works when we’re finished, that it’s watertight and the air conditioning works.”

     McLamb has a near-encyclopedic memory for past Carmel Contractors projects. As he strolls company hallways lined with color photos of them, he names each one and relates detailed tidbits.

     The majority of the company’s work is in or near Charlotte, a full 90 percent of its work being in North and South Carolina, but it also serves clients in Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

     Tuttle, 47, has run the firm for the last three years as McLamb, 68, gradually assumes more of an advisory role, albeit an active one. McLamb says he likes the 15 to 20 percent growth in volume he’s seen on Tuttle’s watch.

     Then he adds a caveat: He doesn’t buy into the construction industry’s fascination with volume of business. When rival companies have experienced remarkable growth streaks, he says, he’s admired them but never envied them.

     “Construction is a high-risk business,” he says. “You can do the right thing for many years and you can get one bad job and—boom—you’re gone.”

      He’d rather turn in a solid performance on a job and—besides make money—have the owner truly like the end result. Like in the case of ParadoxFilms, Inc., where commercial film maker Stuart Owens hired Carmel Contractors to transform an old worn and torn 13,000-square-foot warehouse from the ’50s into a modern television and recording facility to serve advertising and entertainment clients from around the globe.

Owens’s goal was to build a studio facility that was functional yet fun and inviting to clients; he saw the project as an important investment in the company. However, being a small business owner, he had to be very careful not to over-extend finances while attempting to create an environment that would leave a lasting impression.

     “With the help of the team at Carmel Contractors, I was able to achieve exactly what I set out to accomplish,” says Owens. “First-time visitors to our studios almost always say they had no idea a place like this could be found in Charlotte. With the help of Carmel Contractors, that’s the reaction I had hoped for and achieved.”

     “I want us to be the first contractor an owner thinks about when he’s getting ready to do something different,” McLamb says, hewing to the line of repeat business where relationships are tight.

      Despite rumors of construction slowdowns, Carmel Contractors remains busy. One of their more recent client additions is TJX Companies, Inc., parent of retailers T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. Of their more recent construction projects: they just finished a Lowe’s near North Lake Mall last November and soon will start another in Waxhaw. A shopping center near I-485 on Providence Road is also in the works as is a 30,000-square-foot neighborhood center in Fort Mill, near Baxter Village.

     Recession concerns cloud Tuttle’s vision of 2009, but given the current backlog of work, he is cautiously optimistic.

     “We are not averse to growth,” Tuttle says. “You’ve got to grow to keep your people happy. We want to be the best mid-sized construction company in this market. We will keep on offering full service and a can-do attitude.”

     What will Carmel Contractors look like in five years? Tuttle hopes the company will still be in its current offices but will have expanded into more of the 4,000 square feet that’s leased to other tenants. And he sees some modest employee additions.

     As Tuttle and McLamb noodle on how to celebrate the Carmel Contractors silver anniversary that officially occurs in May, Tuttle adds, “We look forward to the next 25 years. Not only Charlotte but the two Carolinas will see fantastic opportunities for business expansion and growth. We’ll be right there with our customers every step of the way.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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