Keith Wayne has experienced all sides of the construction market cycle in the 33 years since he and his brother, Eric, formed their namesake concrete and civil contracting business in Davidson, N.C. So, for him to call the Southeast region’s current sustained surge “the best” he’s seen is saying something.
“We’re still seeing a full range of industry that likes the idea of working in the Southeast,” Wayne says of the contractor’s cornerstone manufacturing sector. “All areas are doing well, and demand for our trade work is strong.”
That last comment illustrates just how much Wayne Brothers Inc. has benefited from the current strong market as well as the factors that contributed to its selection as ENR Southeast’s Specialty Contractor of the Year. For this year’s ranking, the 450-person firm’s 2017 Southeast-area revenue totaled roughly $96.7 million, up about 16% from the $83.38 million it reported in last year’s survey. Recent major projects included completing $17 million worth of foundation work for a new Mercedes Benz van manufacturing facility near Charleston, S.C.
The rapid expansion of WBI’s site and infrastructure development services boosted both the firm’s bottom line as well as its personnel count, with approximately 100 employees dedicated to those projects. And earlier this year, WBI completed the acquisition of InteSpec Inc., which provides equipment installation services, such as rigging and setting, associated process piping installation and system design and layout.
That has set the stage for what could be an even better performance in 2018. First-quarter billings were $38 million, according to the firm.
As with most every other specialty contractor, Wayne Brothers is capitalizing on the success of its clients, which Keith Wayne says is limited to a select group of national and regional general contractors. While most of the firm’s work is based in the Carolinas, WBI has over the years gradually expanded its footprint to neighboring states as clients have followed industrial growth into those areas.
But there’s more to it than simply a matter of knowing the right people at the right time. Wayne Brothers’ embrace of BIM and other technology has given the firm an edge in handling heavy industrial foundations and intricate formwork that requires special reinforcement.
By having all of its BIM technology resources in house, says Bobby Phillips, vice president of preconstruction, Wayne Brothers can have a job fully modeled without the need for onsite decision-making or revisions.
“General contractors build off of our model,” says Phillips, who joined the company in 1986. “You don’t get the disconnect that often occurs when the concrete sub leaves because (its) part of the job is done.”
Technology also helps Wayne Brothers conform with clients’ accelerated schedules, which have become commonplace. Wayne cites Gray Construction’s recent renovation of a former Caterpillar plant in Newberry County, S.C., into Samsung’s $380-million appliance manufacturing plant as an example.
“A lot of deep foundation work had to happen quickly, requiring a nearly 24/7 approach,” he says. “We had to totally rebuild approximately a half-million square feet in just three to four months.”
“They’re excellent planners,” says Brett Goode, vice president for Gray’s South Atlantic region. “When they get on site, they help push the schedule by their leadership and planning. And their civil unit gives them extra flexibility when digging deep foundations.”
Along with helping solve clients’ problems, technology helps Wayne Brothers compete for the coveted pool of new, younger workers.
Wayne feels that the firm’s commitment to establishing a skilled, capable workforce is critical, even though it limits the company’s growth. Says Wayne: “You need to offer something besides the basic tools, as even craftworkers now prefer to build formwork from a model rather than shop drawings.”
Being able to deliver these and other benefits typically carries a premium that Phillips says most clients are willing to accept. Approximately three-quarters of the firm’s work involves a negotiated price.
“As long as they’re willing to negotiate, we can deliver anything,” he says, adding that a higher price brings higher expectations, “and we have to continually work hard to meet them.”
That includes finding ways to meet demanding requirements. John Ashworth, the firm’s vice president for workforce improvement, recalls a project involving a large piece of printing machinery that required a 4-ft thick foundation as well as high surface tolerance.
“It was unlikely we could accomplish both with a single pour,” he says. “We went back to the project engineer and proposed a horizontal break—pouring the foundation to a certain level, then adding a cap that met the tolerance requirement.”
Not only did Wayne Brothers’ suggestion work, it paid off with a follow-up assignment a year later when a facility expansion included adding a new line of equipment with the same foundation requirements.
“They hired us for the job, and we did that foundation the same way,” Ashworth says.
As professional as Wayne Brothers’ project activity has been, the company is most proud of its safety culture, which has been a point of emphasis over the past 11 years. The company stresses safety compliance from the outset of the hiring process and mandates completion of 10- or 30-hour OSHA training for all employees. Wayne Brothers enjoys an EMR of 0.67 and an OSHA recordable rate well below the industry average, according to Jason Sisk, the firm’s safety director.
In May 2017, WBI received its first Gold Safety Award from the North Carolina Dept. of Labor in recognition of the company maintaining an incidence rate at least 50% below the industry average.
Yet even the most safety-conscious company must maintain constant vigilance. Sisk recalls how an uptick in equipment-related incidents five years ago led to the formation of a committee that examined both causes and corrective measures. When the incident rate went down, the committee stopped meeting. And as often happens when attention is directed elsewhere, incidents began to reoccur.
“Now we meet regularly to review what we’re doing and stay alert for new ideas or potential problems,” Sisk says.
That includes augmenting supervisors’ daily pre-task planning session with employees to include an additional session after lunch, and as needed, such as when a crane arrives on site or a thunderstorm arises. Where possible, safety is being factored into each project’s BIM model.These and other measures also contributed to a nearly year-long streak of 950,000 work hours without a lost-time accident.
“We were disappointed that we couldn’t make it to 1 million hours,” Sisk says. “But the important thing is that the employee is recovering, and we’re aiming to go on another streak.”
Reaching an ambitious safety milestone may well prove easier than overcoming some of the other challenges facing WBI and other Southeast contractors. Proposed tariffs could well cast a shadow over the firm’s mainstay manufacturing sector, affecting it “more than some people realize,” Wayne says.
Phillips adds that limited labor availability has nearly stretched WBI to the limit, “increasing the risk of us underdelivering what we promise.”
In addition to engaging more subcontractors, WBI has stepped up its internal training efforts, including an apprenticeship program that exposes newcomers to as much field experience as possible.
“They’re good kids, and they want to learn,” Phillips says. “But there’s only so much they can do without really slowing down our craftsmen. We really need experienced trade people.”
Ashworth adds that “a challenge within the challenge” of workforce training is that, unlike previous generations, many new workers didn’t receive the childhood exposure to working outdoors or performing relatively routine construction-related tasks.
“We have to continually adapt our training to what they need to learn, and the way they need to learn it,” he says.
Industry-focused education and training are also fundamental to another generational transition at WBI. Eric Wayne retired from the business in 2004, and while Keith Wayne has no immediately retirement plans, his sons, Isaiah and Daniel, are now among the firm’s partners.
“We’re grooming the next generation to take on greater roles as they transition into leadership roles over the next decade or so,” Keith Wayne says, adding that he expects WBI to stay close to its current concrete-based specialty.
Rather than adding other disciplines, “I see us diversifying smartly into areas related to what we already do,” he says. “Acquiring InteSpec is an example, as it complements the other work we do.”
And as long as GCs need WBI’s expertise, Wayne says, “we’ll go to wherever they need us.”