The market for large specialty contractors has been growing for nearly a decade and most see the current market continuing to be robust. However, there is a general feeling that a downturn may be in the offing and many large firms are watching for, and sometimes finding, cracks in the boom.
The strength of the current market can be seen in the results of this year’s ENR Top 600 Specialty Contractors list. As a group, the Top 600 generated revenue of $135.20 billion in 2018, up 9.0% over $124.04 billion in 2017 and a 20.1% hike from $112.72 billion the year before. Revenue for the Top 600 now has risen 103.9%—more than doubling—since the market recovery began in 2011.
The question now becomes whether the market will continue to grow into 2020 and beyond. “The market has been pretty remarkable,” says Charles A. Bacon III, CEO of Limbach Facility Services. He says that architects remain busy and there is a steady flow of work in the pipeline, indicating a continuing strong market. “But the economy may go one way or another next year with the elections coming up. We are all wondering when the party will end.”
Many contractors are beginning to worry that the market may have run its course and may start declining. “Today’s market is unnerving. While we have all seen widespread growth over the past few years, it’s tough to tell what markets will remain stable moving forward,” says Coleman Jones, director of business development at Pioneer Cladding & Glazing Systems. He says healthcare and education should remain strong, but he worries that the commercial office and multiunit residential may eventually scale back.
Many executives in the general building market are concerned that the private sector may begin to contract. “We are seeing a pull back on private development, including apartments. To offset that, we have found there are a lot more public projects, schools and water/wastewater projects,” says Seth Anderson, CEO of Weifield Group Contracting.
Preparing for a Slowdown
Many specialty contractors are beginning to prepare for the eventual slowdown in the market. For example, Limbach is putting more emphasis on its service and maintenance group. “On the contracting side, we are slowing that down a little because of the craft shortage,” says Bacon. On the other hand, he projects that the firm’s service group will grow at a double-digit rate. “We see incredible growth in the service sector.”
Limbach is not the only specialty contractor to see strong growth on the service side. “To help us weather the next construction downturn, we have been focusing on growing and strengthening our service and tenant fit-out group, because even in a down construction market, people will always need to service their equipment,” says Len Monfredo, Executive Vice President, E.M. Duggan Inc. He notes that in a soft economy, many owners scale back or move their operations, providing additional work for E.M. Duggan.
APi Group Inc. also has been preparing for a possible recession. “APi has been able to diversify our business through a mergers and acquisition strategy. Doing this has allowed for a more recession-proof model,” says Russ Baker, CEO. He says APi has also focused on growing its service business. “That work not only expands our business offerings, but also will be there regardless of the economic times.”
For some contractors, large-scale projects can serve as a buffer against a declining market. “We’re fortunate to be among a select group of contractors who can staff and build larger, multiyear capital projects across the U.S., which is a huge advantage as we head into an uncertain market,” says Tom Schott, CEO of Cupertino Electric. He says that having the mix of long- and short-term work helps to provide a solid backlog, no matter what direction the market is heading.
Most specialty contractors are working hard to maintain good relations with general-contractor clients. However, workforce shortages have begun to put a strain on projects. “Relations with general contractors have been stressful due to the workforce shortage in the industry,” says Anderson of Weifield Group. He says that these shortages have resulted in projects running behind, people getting burned out and fingers being pointed. “I have been meeting with our general contractors to really figure out ways we can build back the trust,” he says.
GCs also are paying close attention to subs’ ability to execute. “As a group, general contractors are doing a much more intensive risk assessment of subcontractors in the pre-contract award phases of a project,” says Tom Donnelly, President of BrightView Landscape Development. He says questions about safety records, bonding capacity, workforce availability and balance sheet strength are intense.
This caution is well founded. Many firms are beginning to see competitors take on more work than they can handle. This can cause cash-flow and worker shortage problems. It is said that more contractors fail in a boom market than in a recession because they don’t pay attention to their workload. “We do see some of our competitors getting overextended,” says Ted Lynch, CEO of Southland Industries. He says that many overstretched contractors end up looking for mergers and acquisitions as an exit strategy when they get into trouble from too much work.
Price-driven bids are a growing problem. “In the near term, we see our competition competing purely on pricing, rather than focusing on delivering value through structural cost reductions,” says Jerrit Coward, CEO of Expanse Electrical Co. He says Expanse is unwilling to get into bidding wars but instead works with clients to bring more cost-effective solutions without sacrificing reliability.
Many firms now are being more selective about the clients they pursue. “This includes clients that have a historical book of business that aligns with our core services, as well as new clients where we may be able to offer our services. For Bond, it’s not about how many projects we can do. It’s about how many clients we can support,” says Tony Bond, President, Bond Bros. Civil & Utility Division.
Concern about owners and general contractors is spreading. “We have all become extremely selective in the work we pursue,” says Bacon. When he sees sales by a general contractor beginning to spike, he says, “we take that as a warning sign that they may not be able to manage the volume of work.”
Bacon says that a GC’s site management team is the key to success on any project. “When you see teams you are used to working with, that is fine. But when you see a pick-up team on site, you have to begin to worry,” he says. “You need a great project superintendent to make a project work.”
However, Lynch says that Southland Industries is very selective about the GCs they work for. “We stick with a small group of GCs that we know are reliable and deliver quality.”
Owners also are presenting new pressures on GCs and specialty contractors. “Customers’ and contractors’ focus on safety and environmental aspects has affected the industry as a whole. Over the past couple of years, customers have really been focusing on and enforcing their safety and environmental policies,” says Emanuel A. Paris IV, senior project manager at Alex E. Paris Contracting Co.
Paris says that “safety first” used to be just a slogan. “However, over the past several years, I think that the customers have really owned up to this statement and are have begun to walk the talk. Contractors are forced to deal with, on a daily basis, the multitude of different safety and environmental regulations/standards.” He notes that the paperwork and supervision requirements increase operating costs for the contractors. But more importantly, “if a contractor does not meet certain safety benchmarks, then they may not be allowed to bid projects for certain customers.”
A Seat at the Table
The trend toward alternative project delivery is continuing to accelerate, and most subcontractors are happy to gain earlier input into the design process. “We have been a party to several real-deal integrated project delivery (IPD) contracts and like the process,” says Lynch. “IPD finally gives the trade contractor a seat at the table.
Lynch says Southland’s in-house engineering group is a valuable addition to such delivery systems as design-build and IPD. But he cautions that GCs and specialty contractors have to be careful to make sure all the partners have experience in a collaborative contracting approach. “Some firms that aren’t experienced in IPD contracts can bring the whole process down. It is up to the experienced partners to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
The increasing use of design-build is key for getting the team together. “We have seen projects try many different ways of execution—and when we use the design-build approach, it empowers us to make sure we deliver the right product for the right price,” says Anderson of Weifield Group. “I can see these as benefits if the intentions are right. IPD and public-private partnerships (P3s) will have the same problems as any other delivery methods if the trust isn’t there or the intention behind the delivery isn’t right,” he says.
While many subcontractors like the idea of early involvement in a project’s decision making process, some are wary of recent developments in alternative project delivery. For Limbach, public-private partnerships are not a good option. “It simply costs too much to prepare a bid on a P3 project to make it worthwhile,” says Bacon.
IPD is more attractive in theory, but not necessarily in execution. One general contractor working on a large, and so far successful, IPD project conceded that a major problem with one participant could dry up the entire profit pool for all the parties on the project. As for subcontractors, “I have not seen IPD delivery to be financially successful,” says Michael Cannon, CEO of KHS&S-East Coast.
Bacon of Limbach is wary of IPDs. “They have become a squeeze play by owners to push risk down the food chain,” he says. “We continue to do IPDs, but never with a green team, only with those firms we trust and that have experience with IPDs.”
Many subcontractors are seeing the increased use of design-assist and even getting brought in early in the planning stage to assist owners develop their project. “Our in-house design group is seeing many owners asking us to come in early to help them understand the project’s scope and pricing structure and help them determine who the reliable GCs are for their type of job,” says Bacon.
Shortages in the trades and in project supervision are a fact of life for specialty contractors. As part of the Top 600 Contractors survey, ENR asked whether each firm had experienced staff shortages. Of the 554 companies that responded to the question, 74.9% said they had seen shortages. This is only a slight decrease from the 78.9% that were experiencing shortages in last year’s survey.
A major complaint from many specialty contractors is that no one informs young people of the opportunities available in the trades. “Most of our hires over the last year have been people off the street who know about our company,” says Paris of Alex E. Paris Contracting. He blames the school systems. “Our schools focus a lot on getting students to go and get secondary education and do not explain to students that they can have a really good job with good pay, without having a college education.”
This leaves to industry organizations and individual firms the duty of spreading the word that construction is a viable and satisfying career choice. One simple and innovative program to get young people interested in the industry is Encore Electric’s “Encore Electric Mobile Escape Room.” It is a small trailer, towed from school to school, with a very basic, color-coded circuit board. Students at those schools go through a series of electrical puzzles to “escape” the room. It is a fun game for students but with a serious long-term purpose for the industry: to get young people interested in the trades.
“We are looking to inspire high school and middle school students to consider all of their options when thinking about careers. We help them understand what it’s like to be an electrician,” says Willis Wiedel, Encore’s president. “It’s a long-term play, although in the past we have hired some students right out of school into our apprenticeship program. We’re looking for the best and brightest of these students.”
The staff shortages are not limited to the trades. Many specialty contractors also are experiencing shortages at the supervisory level. Contractors increasingly are developing career path programs to bring in foremen and others in the trades into supervisory positions. “As a company, we have developed internal programs to help get people up to speed faster than the normal path,” says Anderson of Weifield Group. So the firm developed its WULF group (Weifield Upcoming Leaders Forum), “where we target people to become leaders, including in our prefabrication division. Once we have a group doing things the Weifield Way, we will be able to increase our growth by having more people who can train, teach, and mentor.”
Cupertino Electric is another firm working to bring people in the trades into supervisory positions. “The most significant thing we’re doing to get our next-level leaders up to speed quickly is continuing to invest in our Foreman Development program that builds leadership skills from within company ranks,” says Schott. He says the firm provides defined training and development opportunities for both field and office employees that allow them to grow their skills and lead others “so that we have an available bench of talent.”
The industry is beginning to work harder to attract women in the crafts, but has only had middling success. Bacon of Limbach notes that women make up only 1.6% of the construction craft workers at present. “We can do dramatically better just by showing women that this is a great industry to work for.”
At a recent meeting of the Incident & Injury Free CEO Forum, a group of 17 general and specialty contractor CEOs that meet on safety issues, each CEO brought a “rising female star” to speak on women’s issues in construction, says Bacon, a founding member of the Forum. One of the problems some of the women identified related to an issue as simple as personal protection equipment. “Women are built differently from men and they can’t comfortably work in PPE designed for a man’s body,” Bacon says. “This has to change.”
Technology increasingly is aiding specialty contractors in adding efficiencies to their processes to make up for shortages of craft workers in the field. But the process is often difficult. “We are struggling in the construction industry to really take the new technologies and save efficiencies in the field,” says Anderson of Weifield Group. “We are using layout software, Building Information Modeling (BIM), onscreen takeoff, etc.—but many of these have been around for years. We are working on how do we figure out predictability of projects based on the history we have.”
Lynch of Southland says that BIM is hardly cutting-edge technology anymore. “But we are now seeing how valuable it can be when it is used in a collaborative project.”
Getting staff up to speed can often be a long, difficult process. For example, Rosendin was an early adopter of BIM technology back in 2008. “This created a steep learning curve, as we looked to train over 7,000 Rosendin employees on all levels, including management, to use the tools effectively,” says Mike Greenawalt, senior vice president. “The decade-long evolution has been about repetitions, practice, training, and use of these tools as a way of business.” But he says the company is proud of its success.
The big goal for specialty contractors, especially those in the service and maintenance sector, is predictive analytics. The ability to understand when a piece of equipment is reaching a critical point in its life is important for both the owner and the contractor.
Bacon of Limbach cites the manufacturing industry to contrast it with construction. “The manufacturer of a jet engine knows when its engines need to be serviced to extend their use. But when a chiller or compressor in a building goes down, it is always a surprise,” he says. Bacon says there needs to be more energy audits and energy scorecards to be able to predict when a particular piece of equipment needs to be serviced or replaced.
Specialty contractors and subcontractors have seen nothing but a growing market the past eight to nine years. The industry has flourished, and it has dealt primarily with the problems of a growing market, such as recruiting and retaining young employees and developing and employing technology to make up for staffing shortfalls.
Many of these issues have benefited younger employees, who have provided much-needed technological expertise and filled the roles of retiring baby boomers. As a result, millennials have enjoyed increasing salaries and responsibilities. But many of these young employees have never seen a downturn and have no experience with a declining market.
“Clearly, working with millennials during a market decline will be a challenge,” says Lynch of Southland Industries. “It will be up to those of us older managers to use our experience to guide our younger staff through whatever comes.”