Miller Gorrie Builds by the Golden Rule
This year’s Southeast Legacy Award winner is a man of few words, but many good deeds
“He’s not the most loquacious person in the world,” notes a longtime colleague of Miller Gorrie, founder of Birmingham, Ala.-based contracting heavyweight Brasfield & Gorrie, just prior to Gorrie’s interview with ENR.
And it’s true that Gorrie is remarkably self-effacing for someone who has, over his career from age 28, used his life savings—all $45,000 of it—to jump-start his own construction firm and then grown it into one of the region’s largest and most successful contractors. With more than 2,600 employees working across the Southeast as well as Texas, Brasfield & Gorrie has earned the respect of competitors and clients alike.
No, Gorrie would much rather talk about other people, and how they’re essential to any contractor’s success, including his own.
“It’s usually his first comment on things we talk about,” says son Jim, who took over as the company’s CEO in 2011, with his father now holding the title of chairman. “He wants to lead by example and treat people the right way. He’s always focused on win-win and the long term.”
Characterizing himself as an entrepreneur first and a contractor second, Miller Gorrie earned a civil engineering degree from Auburn University. After stints with several building and engineering firms, he ventured into construction, as he enjoyed both the fieldwork and the opportunity to see things be built.
Purchasing the name of Thomas C. Brasfield Co. in 1964 provided an immediate entrée into Birmingham’s construction market, but Gorrie astutely recognized that he couldn’t grow his firm alone.
“If you have the best people, you will end up on top,” he says. “And we’re fortunate that we’ve been able to attract them to our company and reward them for their contributions.”
And those good people have come and stayed at Brasfield & Gorrie over the years, observes Hatton Smith, CEO emeritus of Royal Cup Coffee and Tea, mainly because of Gorrie’s reputation as “a proven winner.”
“When people win, they get respect,” explains Smith, who has collaborated with Gorrie on several civic and charitable campaigns. “There’s no ego about him, which is pretty remarkable given all he’s accomplished.”
The literal and figurative foundation for many of those accomplishments stem from Gorrie’s firsthand experience with reinforced concrete structures, gained during an early-career stint with the Daniel Corp.’s construction arm.
“I was comfortable with those kinds of projects, whereas many of my peers were not,” Gorrie explains.
When Daniel Corp. phased out its construction business in the 1970s, Brasfield & Gorrie snapped up its top field people, thereby gaining in-house experience with heavy concrete construction that gave the company an edge over other general contractors that relied extensively on specialty firms. The move also ideally positioned Brasfield & Gorrie for a boom in condominium construction along the Gulf Coast. From 1979 to 1984, the firm built more than 30 buildings, multiplying both its workforce and revenue in the process.
But as demand in that market diminished, Gorrie was faced with a decision—shrink or seek footholds in new markets. It turned out to be a simple choice.
“I didn’t want to shrink,” he says.
Brasfield & Gorrie’s initial forays into Atlanta and Orlando ultimately evolved into the company’s largest satellite operations, leading to eventual expansion into the Carolinas, Tennessee and Texas. Current projects include Bridgestone Americas’ 30-story, $232-million headquarters in Nashville; AvidXchange’s 200,000-sq-ft headquarters in Charlotte; and the five-story, 340,000-sq-ft M.T. Mustian surgical tower at Tallahassee Memorial Health Care’s campus. Brasfield & Gorrie is also part of a joint venture building Sun Trust Park, the Atlanta Braves’ $675-million ballpark in Cobb County, Ga.
However, not every decision in Gorrie’s career has been a winner. During the 1970s, one of the company’s first apartment projects, in Birmingham, nearly sunk his young company because, as Gorrie recalls, “we tragically misjudged what it took to build them.” Compounding the error for then-union Brasfield & Gorrie was using less-skilled outside labor for the job, resulting in a raft of quality issues.
Fortunately, Gorrie says, clients, lenders and bonding companies recognized the disastrous project as an aberration. They stuck with the firm, as did its key employees, allowing Brasfield & Gorrie to recover financially within a year and a half.
Still, Gorrie says, “it was a hell of a lesson.”
Gorrie has demonstrated the same kind of loyalty in many ways over the ensuing years, sometimes helping clients with projects awarded to other contractors.
“He uses a phrase, ‘givers and takers,’” says Charlie Tickle, chairman and CEO of Daniel Corp., who has worked with Gorrie on projects for more than 30 years. “Not everyone can be one or the other all the time and succeed in business, but Miller is a giver. He never tries to get the last word or the last contract.”
Perhaps the best-known example of Gorrie’s golden rule philosophy came in 2003, when a project owner’s legal issues brought Brasfield & Gorrie’s work on Birmingham’s half-finished 1-million-sq-ft “hospital of the future” to a screeching halt. Unsure when or if the project would be restarted, or if Brasfield & Gorrie would recoup its own investment in the job, Gorrie nevertheless made sure subcontractors and vendors were paid.
“Nobody saw this coming, yet he steps up to help out,” recalls Van Richey, president and CEO for American Cast Iron Pipe Co., a longtime Brasfield & Gorrie client. “After that, those companies would follow him anywhere. When it was time for his next job, they all wanted to work for him.”
The project would eventually restart—after a 10-year interruption—opening in 2016 as Grandview Medical Center (ENR Southeast 11/7/16 p. 8). But at the time, Gorrie says, it was important that the suddenly idled firms not suffer because of something beyond their control.
“We trusted that it would work out,” he says of the project, “and eventually it did.”
Jim Gorrie says that Grandview is but one example of his father’s sense of fair play.
“He always tries to do what’s right for the subs,” he says. “That builds trust that lasts a lifetime.”
It also inspires them to find ways to commemorate their trust in Miller Gorrie. In 2006, colleagues, friends, clients and employees quietly contributed funds to have the new 33,000-sq-ft home for Auburn University’s School of Building Design named the M. Miller Gorrie Construction Center.
Jim Gorrie says his father could not have been more surprised or humbled by the honor. Having often joked that buildings are named for those who have donated a lot of money or are dead, “he was quite pleased to see his name on a building for another reason,” Jim Gorrie says with a laugh.
For Miller Gorrie, a more satisfying legacy will be structuring Brasfield & Gorrie to thrive well into the future. Not surprisingly, he considers people to be the key ingredient toward ensuring that outcome, albeit using skills and tools unheard of back in 1964.
“The industry has become more professional,” he says. “Competition is tougher, so you have to be on top of things. And it’s unbelievable what’s going on in technology.”
Even so, not everything has changed since 1964. Even after more than a half-century, Gorrie says, “I still enjoy the business.”