The first few weeks of 2013 should have been a pat-on-the-back festival at Bradenton-based window contractor and installer Key Glass.
Annual revenues at the 20-year-old firm closed 2012 at $9.31 million, up 55.2% over 2011, when the firm had $6 million in sales. The payroll hovered at near 50 employees, up from the mid-30s a few years ago. The recession's impact on the business was seemingly fading away.
But in early January the new projects pipeline just about froze. “We were bidding work and we were getting our asses handed to us time and time again,” says co-founder Greg Burkhart. “I was a grumpy, ornery SOB.”
So much for pats on the back.
Burkhart, however, didn't panic. He stood steadfast with the company's strategy: to grow up-market, through proactively finding subcontracting work on large-scale projects with national and global firms, both in the Sarasota-Bradenton market and in the Tampa area. That was different than the years prior to the recession, when Burkhart admits work was easier to get and there was little need to chase down leads and load up on networking.
The fortitude paid off. Key Glass started to win more jobs by springtime, and is now on pace to surpass $10 million in 2013 revenues. Some of the more recent projects the company won are on the Business Observer's list of the largest projects in the region (see Section B). That includes work at IMG Academy in Bradenton and The Mall at University Town Center in north Sarasota County.
The up-market strategy also aided the company through the recession, when it won several other large subcontracting projects. Those include the Sarasota Police department headquarters in downtown Sarasota in 2010 and a new patient tower at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where work began in 2011. “We enjoyed making the step up,” says Burkhart, who runs Key Glass in conjunction with his wife, Sheril Burkhart, and his son, Justin Burkhart.
The company also discovered new ways to execute a project by working with a few of the larger construction firms in the world. For example, Skanska, a $19.5 billion Swedish firm that was the lead builder for Sarasota Memorial's 220-bed Courtyard Tower, taught Key Glass the value of a pre-workday stretch-and-flex session. That's when employees, often times a collection of 300 people in a variety of construction disciplines, gathered 10 minutes early to stretch their arms, legs, necks and backs.
“We thought it was corny as heck at first,” says Burkhart. “But it was all for safety. What they did makes sense.”
With Key Glass now on the cusp of the fourth quarter, Burkhart says he's less cranky than the beginning of the year — to a point. “Our backlog is great,” he says, “but we aren't getting clear signals in the overall economy.”
There are several other challenges. For one, Burkhart, who founded the company with his wife in 1992, says the thin labor market makes hiring top people difficult. And while he craves more work for the company, Burkhart's cognizant of staying under 50 employees, so he can avoid more regulation in the form of the federal health care overhaul.
Burkhart, finally, says he guards not only against growing too fast, but growing in the wrong way by taking on too many unwieldy projects. “We try to be risk averse,” says Burkhart. “That can be hard because we have to turn down some opportunities.”