Frank Martin embodies the entrepreneurial spirit. The ENR Southwest 2016 Legacy Award winner rose from laborer to carpenter at a Nevada subcontracting firm. But when he missed out on a promotion to supervisor, he and Frank Harris went out on their own and formed Martin-Harris Construction.
Founded in 1976 with just $5,000, Martin-Harris grew along with Las Vegas. Initially a renovations specialist, the general contracting firm now performs large-scale commercial and residential jobs such as the MGM Festival Grounds and the 22 story-tall Ogden Tower.
Headquartered in Las Vegas with licenses in Arizona, New Mexico, California and 12 other states, the firm placed 10th in the ENR Southwest Top Contractor’s ranking. The firm reported revenue of $214 million in 2014 and consistently ranks among ENR’s Top 400 Contractors in the nation.
But before Frank Martin led Martin-Harris to success, he says the road from carpenter to CEO was a journey flush with achievements and pitfalls. An early triumph, Martin says, came after about five years of building custom homes, when the firm managed to gain the trust of the handful of players that dominated Las Vegas in the 1970s and 1980s.
Developer Irwin Molasky became one especially key contact. He hired Martin-Harris for a shopping center on the northeast corner of Flamingo and Maryland Parkway. “In a 60-day period, Molasky took our company from building out about $30,000 per month to billing out $300,000 a month. He gave us the tenant improvements in every single one of those in-line stores in that shopping center. It was one of the first power centers built in Las Vegas,” Martin says.
By 1988, Martin-Harris hit $16 million in revenue. However, when revenue hit $32 million in 1989, an $855,000 credit line came due and it could not be met.
“That was a real sobering moment for me,” Martin says. “I had two choices. I could declare bankruptcy and walk away from everything or I could call someone.”
Martin called FMI Consultants, which sent Terry Kramer to check the books and business plan. Five days later, Kramer “sat down in my office and we did a 30-day business plan for recovery which I executed in seven days ... I worked 24 hours a day during that seven-day period,” Martin says.
Martin then took a nine-day accounting and management “sabbatical,” learning how to analyze a balance sheet and write a business plan.
“Ever since that time, every CFO I have had says I am one of the best they have seen with a balance sheet,” he says. “It was born out of the need to make sure that my company survived.”
Nine months later, he had paid off the $855,000 credit line and the company showed a profit in 1989. And Kramer became a lifelong adviser.
“It all came from writing a business plan,” he says.
Attack of the Shelf
Armed with his newly acquired financial skills, Martin-Harris persevered and grew with Las Vegas in the 1990s, hitting $124 million in revenue by 1997, $160 million in 1998 and $184 million in 1999. The Martin-Harris business plan soon included expanding to California.
A problem arose when the firm opened an office in California but left the measured growth details in the business plan on the shelf.
“We just left it on the shelf. I think it is still on the shelf somewhere in my office,” Martin says.
The firm leased a large office and transferred one of their top employees to run the branch—all before they had secured their first contracting job.
“There was a big gaping hole here in this office. [The California office] created a big sucking sound that sucked up dollars faster than I had ever seen,” Martin says.
Martin and his team went back to the plan and cut costs. “We had some extreme luck. We had jobs we bid on that we thought we would have 5% margin and it ended up being a 11% margin,” Martin says. “We went back to what we knew: write a business plan. Stick to the plan. Read the plan. Update the plan. But never, ever, ever put it on the shelf. It was a difficult lesson.”
In November 2014, Martin-Harris Construction was bought by Wyoming-based Big-D Corp., which also owns Big-D Construction, for an undisclosed sum. Martin, 68, will remain in his role as president and CEO through 2016 before serving as a consultant for five years after that. His son Frank “Guy” Martin was promoted to senior vice president and will transition to president and assume day-to-day management.
Family Drives Business
After arranging in 1979 to buy out Frank Harris, who continued to work with the firm until 1991, Martin-Harris became mostly a family affair. Martin’s wife, Bonnie, may not have been at the firm every day, but she was a constant support and raised their two sons who are both involved in the construction industry.
“I can never stop giving credit to my wife for being the support that she was during the formative years of the company, of our career. She took care of our two sons who I am very proud of. She raised them, and we make a joke now that the kids were hers for their first 18 years and I get them for the rest of their lives,” he says.
While Guy Martin will lead the company into the foreseeable future, Martin’s other son, Jared, recently struck out on his own and independently operates JBM Underground, an underground utility contractor.
Beyond the firm and his family, Martin remains passionate about Opportunity Village—a foundation that helps those with disabilities—and his church, where he mentors professional men on being the “spiritual leader” of their family.
But it is his passion for completing construction projects that will continue to define him.
“Everybody says on time, on budget. What should really matter to the client is if you can be ahead of schedule and under budget,” Martin says.