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Hang Tough

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. September 5, 2014
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Multiple Gulf Coast construction businesses lined up for a revenue growth parade over the past year.

For starters, 71 of 100 construction firms on the 2014 Gulf Coast 500, the Business Observer's ranking of the largest companies by revenue in the region, reported a sales increase. Some reported revenue increases of more than 10%. Others, like Palmetto-based Zirkelbach Construction and Sarasota-based Kellogg & Kimsey, grew by more than 30%.

But one company is distinctly absent from the growth list: Willis Smith Construction.

The Lakewood Ranch-based firm is an area construction bellwether, with a long list of public, noteworthy projects going back four decades. Yet sales fell 35.7% from 2012 to 2013. That turned a $68.4 million company into a $44 million company. It also dropped Willis Smith from the largest independently owned contractor in the Sarasota-Bradenton region to the fourth largest. Zirkelbach, Kellogg & Kimsey and University Park-based CORE Construction Services of Florida have all surpassed it.

“It boiled down to a handful of projects that got delayed,” says Willis Smith President and CEO Dave Sessions. “We can't control when a project will start.”

Sessions says three projects specifically were postponed for all of 2013 into 2014, a situation he says was connected to financing and normal for construction. A similar blip hit the company in 2011, when sales dropped more than 15%. The good news: Sessions says with the delayed projects back on the books, and other work, Willis Smith will grow sales around 60% in 2014 and get back to around $70 million.

The sales dip, even one Sessions calls cyclical, delivered a series of management challenges at Willis Smith. The firm, for instance, turned away work in anticipation of projects that were delayed, says Sessions. It also misappropriated staffing.

But Sessions never panicked. He made some counterintuitive moves to preserve the firm for better days. One was to maintain the payroll at 65 employees. “We found a way to keep everyone busy and strategically added staff during that period knowing it was just a matter of time before the work would begin,” says Sessions. “The statement 'all your assets walk out the door at 5 p.m.' is true.”

Sessions also reminded his managers about a core company value: Don't hyper-focus on sales growth. In a competitive sector like construction, where a dozen firms will bid for one job, that can be complicated to execute.

“We don't set revenue goals, never have,” Sessions says. “Our goal is to maintain the course and be able to adapt to market dynamics and adapt to clients and create challenging opportunities for our employees.”

Projects that will contribute to the 2014 rebound include a 24,000-square-foot innovation center at Venice-based drinkware firm Tervis; a 93,000-square-foot glass plant facility for Venice-based impact resistant window and door firm PGT; and an $11 million addition at Bayside Community Church in east Manatee County.

Area general contractor Willis Smith founded the firm in 1972. He sold it in 1979 to an employee, a tradition that's carried on through Sessions, who joined the company in 1988 in a project manager role. John LaCivita, another onetime project manager, bought a minority ownership stake in Willis Smith in 2004.

Sessions hopes some of the company's young leaders will eventually become owners. “That will be the future of the company,” says Sessions. “It's important to us that this company remain locally owned and locally operated for a long time.”

At a Glance
Willis Smith Construction

Year Revenue %growth
2010 $51.50 million
2011 $43.30 million -15.9%
2012 $68.40 million 58%
2012 $68.40 million 58%
2013 $44 million -35.7%

Source: Willis Smith Construction

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon


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