Although the past few years have been crushing for many enterprises working in and around the construction industry, some firms have managed to stand tall by reinventing and reinvigorating themselves, even as the recession continued to bear down on sector after sector. Now that the bad economic times are lifting, ENR Midwest offers you an overview of those companies that have taken deliberate steps to position themselves for even greater growth and recognition in 2011. From a contractor that found a fresh image by building new headquarters to a supplier that is bringing to market a healthy alternative to plastic wall guards, here are six firms in the Midwest region worth watching this year.

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Englewood Construction

Dressed for success

While many industry players simply hunkered down to wait out the Great Recession, Lemont, Ill.-based Englewood took a bold step: building a new corporate headquarters. The mid-size general contractor, which specializes in retail, restaurant, and shopping center work nationwide, overhauled a 14,000-sq-ft grocery that increased company space by 5,500 sq ft and presented Englewood with a gleaming new image. “I had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about whether to do this, but it kept our guys busy, and we got a great deal,” says Englewood President Bill Di Santo.

To further enhance its prospects, Englewood expanded into new business sectors, including hotels and educational facilities, and wooed foreign retailers while U.S. clients took a pause. The contractor also embraced social media with the launch of industry blog HardHatChat.com, a forum that gained Englewood greater exposure and, more importantly, work.

Its efforts have paid off. Based on work in the pipeline, including a new American Girl store near Washington, D.C., Di Santo predicts 2011 revenues will surpass the firm’s record of $38 million.

“We did what we had to do to get through the recession, and positioned ourselves to take off when the market got better,” says Di Santo. “I really think 2011 is going to be a great year.”

Alpar Architectural Products

Reinventing plastics

Lisa Britton was working for a company that made wall-protection products with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) when she learned about the hazards it posed to human health and the environment. She also had a child with serious endocrine problems related to plasticizers.

Minneapolis-based Britton urged her superiors to make a safer product, but they weren’t interested. So she did it herself. She hired a chemist who not only developed a bio-based polymer—essentially a plant-based plastic—but also a material that met Class 1 requirements for flame-spread and smoke density. Alpar employs the polymer to manufacture crash rails, corner guards, hand rails and sheet-wall protection. She’s the first to receive a fire rating for a PVC alternative.

This year marks Britton’s first full year in business, targeting $1 million in sales. “It was hard to convince people to invest in a new building product in the middle of a recession, but I was passionate,” she says.

Faith Technologies

Keeping it lean

An electrical, specialty, and technology systems contractor in Menasha, Wis., Faith responded to the recession with a lean construction program. It also hired a productivity director and formed a building information modeling (BIM) pre-construction team to expand its integrated design. The internal retooling helped Faith bid more aggressively, says Chief Revenue Officer Tom Clark. The company found new business in military bases and food-processing markets—sectors that gained growth as the federal government sought to improve facilities for returning veterans, and financially strapped consumers traded nights out for nights in.

Although volume and employee count remain flat, Faith’s backlog is 13% greater than a year ago. Clark projects revenues of $240 million to $250 million. “Even in a down economy, some people are spending,” he says. “You have to adjust to find that type of work.”

Clayco

Finding gold in green

Even before the recession kicked in, Clayco was developing a specialty in sustainability. The design-builder built one of the first green roofs in St. Louis and one of the two LEED Platinum commercial buildings in Missouri. That resume is a definite draw: About 70% of clients go for some level of certification.

But that’s not the only reason the company kept revenues at about $700 million during these lean years. It also invested heavily in technology by hiring a chief information officer and beefing up BIM capability.