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Tampa Bay Area
Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 2, 2009 10 years ago

City Builder

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Page McKee of Hardin Construction Co. has been the man overseeing the development of many of Tampa's signature commercial projects.

Page McKee of Hardin Construction Co. has been the man overseeing the development of many of Tampa's signature commercial projects.

REVIEW SUMMARY

Industry: Commercial construction
Business: Hardin Construction
Key: Hiring a strong team, building close relationships with customers and delivering the product on budget and on time.

When it was under construction, the Marriott Waterside Hotel in downtown Tampa started booking its first guests to arrive in March 2000.

But the general contractor, Hardin Construction, didn't find this out until December 1999. Hardin planned to finish building the hotel in April 2000.

It was up to Page McKee, senior vice president for Hardin and head of its Tampa operation, to get the job done 30 days sooner. Pulling together the workers, they set about shifting into overdrive.

In March, the day the first guest arrived, McKee stood by as a worker finished the last broom sweep of the lobby. The lobby furniture, in boxes on the third floor just a few hours before, was unpacked and on the first floor.

Just as a worker dropped the last of the construction debris into a garbage bin, the first guest walked into the lobby.

“It was an interesting finish,” says McKee, 53, one of nine shareholders at Hardin.

The other Hardin projects on the Gulf Coast of Florida weren't that dramatic. But the projects include some signature buildings.

Those included the K-Force headquarters building in Tampa; the Ritz Carlton, Sarasota; Nielsen Media world headquarters in Oldsmar; more than seven schools including Freedom High School and Liberty Middle School; Ventana
Condominiums; Grand Central, Parkside on Bayshore Boulevard; 345 Bayshore; The Plaza on Harbour Island; and The Westin at Rocky Point.

Hardin is completing a large Marriott timeshare resort on Marco Island, and the Spa and Guest Tower at the Ritz Carlton near West Palm Beach. Altogether, the compant has completed more than 150 projects and 15 million square feet of commercial development and high-rise residential in the Tampa Bay area.

The constant in these for the past 12 years has been the leadership of McKee, a man with a deep baritone voice and the manner of a Southern gentleman. His management strategy: Surrounding himself with good people and working closely with clients to get the buildings done on budget and on time.

“It involves keeping your word, meeting your commitments, letting everyone know internally and externally that they can count on your firm to deliver,” McKee says. “If you want to build something together, start with building trust.”

When McKee moved to Tampa in 1996, Hardin was a $250-million-a-year company wanting to grow. It had offices in Atlanta and Tampa. Within two years, Hardin was a $500-million-a-year company and half of that revenue was in Florida. Today, the company has five offices and has approached the $1-billion-a-year mark

Sweet home Alabama
McKee was born and raised in Opp, Ala. Some say Opp stands for the City of Opportunity, McKee says.

His father was an executive with a textile company and his mother's family was in the furniture business. They both worked hard and instilled that work ethic in their son. They provided a strong religious base and showered him with positive encouragement. They gave him confidence that he could succeed.

McKee attended Auburn University, at first considering the study of architecture. But after a while, he grew disillusioned by it. Then he looked at the building science school and realized it was a cross between engineering and architecture, with many business courses. That appealed to him more and it offered better career opportunities.

McKee was intrigued by the industry when he learned that one out of every seven dollars spent in this country is spent on building. McKee found that the construction industry creates more millionaires each year than any other industry. It also creates more bankruptcies than any other industry.

“It's fascinating to collaborate with the best developers, architects, and engineers to create a high profile building that may reflect a city's personality for decades,” McKee says. “Every project is different, every team is new, and every day is exciting.”

McKee started estimating projects, then managed a project, then multiple projects, and eventually started managing managers.

“Every step was fun and exciting,” he says.

McKee lived in Atlanta for 17 years after graduating from college, working for Hardin in various roles, and then he moved to Tampa.

Coming to Florida
McKee came to Tampa right after the 1996 Olympics. Tampa was growing, Hardin was resurrecting the Tampa operation and it brought McKee in to lead that project.

Hardin, based in Atlanta, opened the Tampa office in 1978 and had several great years until the market slowed in the late 1980s. It maintained the office with a reduced staff for several years, but it didn't have a general manager in Tampa. In the mid 1990s, Hardin wanted to grow the company and decided to rejuvenate its Tampa presence and position for what it thought would be an upturn in the Florida market.

That strategy resulted in Tampa becoming McKee's new home and Hardin building a number of high-profile big projects, including the Capital One campus, Citibank campus, the Centro Ybor entertainment complex, the Marriott Waterside Hotel and other signature projects.  

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hardin built the Westin Hotel and the first office building on Harbour Island. It also built the Tampa Bay Office Park, the SunTrust office tower, the downtown Tampa Hyatt, the Grand Sheraton and Urban
Center complex in Westshore (now the Intercontinental Hotel), the Brandon Town Center mall, the Hyatt and offices at Rocky Point and several smaller office parks.

Hardin tries to recruit and hire the best and is selective about the people it hires and has a formal process that helps insure attitudes and work ethics are compatible. It has a new employee orientation program and multiple leadership programs for employees as their careers progress.

There are online courses available through the Hardin U program and the company provides training on new technologies and developments such as LEED construction.

“We insist on integrity, encourage innovation and try to provide opportunities to all of our associates,” McKee says. “We consider our customers to be our partners and their success to be key to our success. Most of our clients are repeat customers. We have built over 50 projects for several customers and over 72 with one of our valued clients. You don't get called back that many times if you're not providing good service.”

Challenges, lessons
One of the biggest challenges in the Tampa operations McKee faced and overcame was preparing Hardin for the growth of the residential market before the current downturn.

Five years ago, Hardin didn't build condominiums in Florida because of a company policy. However, McKee recognized the demographic changes taking place and foresaw a tremendous growth potential in urban residential in its own backyard. He prepared for this by developing resources and systems to allow Hardin to be able to produce the highest quality product in an efficient manner.

He implemented a warranty and owner satisfaction program specifically for condominiums. McKee's planning gave confidence to his partners to proceed into a new market and positioned Hardin to become the premier builder of high-rise condominiums and to hold the largest share of market in the Channelside, Harbour Island, and Bayshore districts.

The most recent challenge for Hardin and its competitors is the construction slowdown.Two years ago, Hardin was a $800 million to $900 million company. Today, revenues are down about 40%.

“We do see a sharp decline for 2009 and possibly into 2010,” McKee says. “In these times, you simply do the best you can.”

Still, the biggest CEO lesson he has learned while running the Tampa office is to be patient. Even after losing bids on some jobs, a number of customers have come back to Hardin with the jobs. One developer, planning a South
Tampa condominium, called McKee on Christmas Eve to tell him that he was changing his mind and going with Hardin.

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