Mississippi Builder’s Legacy in the Gulf
Inspirational, passionate, creative. That’s how colleagues in the Mississippi construction industry describe William “Bill” Yates Jr., whose career began more than 50 years ago.
In 1960, a contracting company that Bill’s father, William “Gully” Yates, helped start with his brother after World War II won a bid for a three-story dormitory renovation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Bill was in his sophomore year there, studying engineering. Gully visited his son on campus and said to him, referring to the project: “I thought you might look after it.”
It became the project that sparked Bill’s lifelong interest in construction. “This experience helped me realize early on the importance of adequate project management and to always know the financial status of your project,” Bill says.
After Gully sold his interest in the small contracting company, he and Bill established W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Co. in 1964.
During those early years, Bill managed some of the firm’s first projects while earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1963 and his law degree in 1965. Bill also was an ROTC cadet during his time at Ole Miss and received an Army commission upon completion of his undergraduate studies.
“My two years after Ole Miss in the U.S. Army was a lesson in leadership that I feel helped shape my career,” Bill says. “I was fortunate to be the officer in charge of the projects and plans section of the largest NATO training area in Europe.”
In 1967, he returned to take on the role of chief operating officer at W.G. Yates & Sons. Today, Bill serves as chairman of The Yates Cos., based in Philadelphia, Miss., while his son, William G. Yates III, continues the family legacy as president and CEO of W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Co.
“After returning from the Army and as Yates [& Sons Construction] began to grow, there are several projects that impacted me and the company,” Bill recalls. “One was a seven dormitory project in north Mississippi that was 10 times larger than any project to date. The success of that project gave me the confidence to expand operations,” he says.
“Sometime later, a forest-products project that far exceeded the client’s expectations, and which resulted in many more projects, helped me understand the importance of strong and positive client relationships,” Bill says.
His personal mantra—“bigger than me”—and his steady leadership have lifted the company beyond its regional roots. Over the course of three generations, he has led the firm to become the largest contractor in Mississippi, according to ENR Texas & Louisiana’s Top Contractors ranking.
The Yates Cos., still family owned—with its dozen-or-so operating companies that include W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Co.—reported worldwide revenue of $1.68 billion in 2016, with $670.9 million of that total generated in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas.
“The largest challenge I had [over the course of my career] was being a small start-up company competing with much larger companies for projects. I had to convince clients that we were capable and that we would follow through with every commitment that we made,” Bill recalls.
Growth Through Diversity
In the 1970s and 1980s, Yates led the firm through diversification and vertical integration efforts. Then in 1990, when the Mississippi Legislature legalized dockside gambling on the Mississippi River and along the Gulf Coast, the firm, under Bill’s leadership, decided to specialize in that sector. To comply with the law, casinos had to be built atop floating barges, so The Yates Cos.’ team developed a unique way to offset tidal-surge fluctuations. The firm continues to be an industry leader in that type of construction.
Some of the largest projects tackled by The Yates Cos. during Bill’s career include waterfront casinos. One of those was the Imperial Palace (IP) Casino Graving Dock in Biloxi, recognized as the 2015 ENR Texas & Louisiana Best Project of the Year.
The largest project the firm completed in its 50-year-plus history was the 3.2-million-sq-ft, 32-story, 1,780-room Beau Rivage Hotel & Casino, which first opened in 1999. The 150,000-sq-ft casino portion of the project sits atop a semi-submersible barge structure that floats 20 ft above sea level. That, in turn, rests on five barges anchored by steel pipe piles driven 110 ft deep in the Mississippi Sound. Hurricane Katrina damaged the Beau Rivage in 2005, and The Yates Cos. helped rebuild it.
Since 1994, The Yates Cos. has assisted on numerous reconstruction projects after more than 15 hurricanes and tropical storms.
“The entire Yates organization helped those in need after several storms,” Bill says. “[That included] after Hurricane Katrina, as employees near and far rose to the challenge of helping their colleagues who lost so much on the Gulf Coast—it was our saddest moment and our finest hour.”
Other major projects under his leadership include the Nissan Automotive Manufacturing Plant in Canton, Miss.; the Mercedes Sprinter Van Manufacturing Facility in Ladson, S.C.; and the Volvo Manufacturing Facility in Charleston, S.C.
“One of my greatest achievements is to have built a company that is larger than myself, that is strong, and that will continue to be strong when I am not part of it,” Bill says. “After the company had realized some growth, I felt a deep commitment to employees to be successful. We have so many talented people involved with the company, and their passion to succeed has inspired me to help us be the best company we can be. I am not ready to retire and hope that I can continue to bring value to Yates as its chairman.”
The consensus among Bill’s colleagues is that he has a way of inspiring those with whom he works.
“With Bill’s unique style of leadership, he hires people to do their jobs, then gives them the tools and freedom to do their jobs. In doing this, employees desire to give their best efforts in their jobs,” says Kenny Bush, vice president at The Yates Cos.
William R. Purdy, partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP in Jackson, Miss., has worked with Bill for more than 30 years. Purdy says that Bill is passionate about everything he does. “Although degreed as an engineer and a lawyer, Bill Yates’ major contribution is his creativity and infectious positive energy. He has an unusual combination of intense focus as well as a personal warmth, which tend to make people go all out for him,” Purdy says. “He quickly identifies the essentials of the problem and what must be done to solve it.”
Colleague Chet Nadolski, senior vice president at W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Co., calls Bill the Tom Brady of construction. “When you are on Bill’s team and he calls the play in the huddle, you know you are going to score, period,” he says.
Nadolski recalls when he first began with the firm as an assistant project manager, Bill showed up with the team on the night shift at 2 a.m. during a concrete placement.
“He made a point to speak to the team and connect with us. His simple thank you has stuck with me, and I have since tried to emulate his behavior and have the same genuine care and thoughtfulness of the people we work with,” Nadolski says.
Bill is also known for “rallying the troops,” particularly on complicated projects with difficult schedules, adds his son, William.
“One example in the mid-1990s comes to mind. It was the largest project that the company had ever built, and we had a tough schedule. It seemed impossible to many of the team members,” William recalls.
“Bill felt the team was looking for excuses and blaming others, so he brought everyone together in the middle of the project, looked around, and told everyone, ‘We are all in this boat together. Let’s come together, help each other out and finish this project.’”
That moment became the turning point for that project: The team met the schedule, and the project’s success helped to shape the destiny of the company, William says.
“He has a complete and total passion for building, and he is committed to making sure that we do what we say we are going to do,” he adds.
When the firm’s Biloxi office, located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Bill petitioned anyone who would listen that his company wanted to help, Nadolski recalls.
“Bill has a unique way of breaking complicated problems down to manageable and logical steps in a process,” Nadolski says. “Bill and I were soon called into a senior level meeting with BP, state officials and others joining in via conference call. I was under the impression we were being solicited to provide manpower and/or equipment, but instead BP informed us they had an even larger task—they needed help with retrieving, cleaning and processing the hundreds of miles of boom located in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Despite having only heard about the problem for an hour or so, Bill told the BP team he had a solution.
“We spent the next hour sketching out what Bill envisioned, and we committed to having a working model in place in about a week’s time,” Nadolski explains. “Ultimately, the plan was approved and what Bill envisioned earned a U.S. patent for receiving, cleaning and processing the oil containment boom coming out of the Gulf of Mexico. The process Bill created proved to be the most efficient process created to date, profitable and listed as a best practice by the U.S. Coast Guard for future spills.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement that “Bill Yates is one of the most respected business leaders in Mississippi. Not only has he built one of the nation’s most successful construction and engineering firms, but he has also helped with many charitable and philanthropic efforts throughout Mississippi.”
Beyond the workplace, Bill has taken on a variety of voluntary roles in the industry and community, including stints as the president of the Mississippi chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, chairman of the University of Mississippi Foundation and president of the Mississippi World Trade Center.
He has also mentored the next generation through The Yates Cos.’ investment in education, such as a scholarship program for the children of employees as well as the Yates Scholars in the School of Construction Annual Scholarship Fund. It awards scholarships to undergraduate or graduate African-American students in the school of construction at the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University. The Yates Cos. also provides internship opportunities for scholarship recipients.
In 1991, Bill was selected as the Mississippi ABC’s Construction Man of the Year, and in 2000, he was inducted into the Ole Miss Alumni Hall of Fame. Bill also is an honorary lifetime board member of the United Methodist Hour, and in 2004, he received the Hope Award from the Mississippi Division of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“As governor, I am always comforted to know the Yates Co. is on a project. When construction of a professional baseball park was in trouble, it was Bill and William Yates who stepped in and finished the job,” Bryant said. “The loss of that park would have been devastating to Biloxi and the entire region. But there was Yates to pull the project out of the abyss.
“When other firms fold, it is W.G. Yates & Sons that Mississippi turns to for rescue,” Bryant added. “Ports, bridges, ballparks, shopping centers and so much more exist today because of the professional determination and engineering ability of Bill Yates. He is Mississippi’s builder.”