In the short term, success in the construction industry rests on a firm’s ability to execute the requirements of a contract to the satisfaction of the contract holder. No simple task; achieving that goal on a single project is an achievement in itself.
Wilson, N.C.-based SPC Mechanical has apparently used that project-by-project approach not only to build a reputation for being technically adept, but also for its focus on solving problems and being dependable at crunch time. Those traits have paid off in a big way during the last several years, as the family-owned contractor has expanded into new markets and significantly grown its revenue.
As the mechanical and plumbing contractor’s corporate statement on its “core values” says: “We can do anything, anywhere, anytime.” Apparently, that’s one goal that’s been met.
“They’re an A-team contractor in my book,” says Steve Mann, a project director with Brasfield & Gorrie and a construction veteran of 40 years. “They listen to the issues,” he adds, citing that skill as critical to project success. “If people don’t listen, you don’t get to great solutions.”
Further describing SPC teams as typically being “very collaborative,” Mann sums up his opinion of the specialty contractor by describing its basic approach to challenges on a recent health care project.
“We had no problems; we had issues,” says Mann. “When an issue came up, we all sat down and whoever had the best idea is where we went. And we were incredibly successful with that concept.”
Humble Origins, Lofty Goals
When Buren Williford struck out on his own and founded Southern Piping Co. in 1965—in its current hometown of Wilson, N.C.—the company focused on plumbing work for smaller projects. Since then, the specialty contractor has evolved and now also performs HVAC and other mechanical work on major projects across a range of types, including health care, commercial, institutional and pharmaceutical, among others.
Buren’s sons Chris and Mark are now leading the company as president and executive vice president, respectively. The Williford brothers have been working at SPC full time since the early 1980s, they say.
Recent projects contributing to SPC’s revenue growth include the Wake Forest Baptist Health Birth Center and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit project in Winston Salem as well as ongoing contracts on the Charlotte Convention Center’s addition and renovation and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s main terminal lobby expansion.
Based on its response to ENR Southeast’s Top Specialty Contractors survey, SPC Mechanical ranks 18th among the region’s specialty contractors, with $113 million in regional revenue during 2019—a 31% jump over 2018. Additionally, SPC ranked No. 1 in the Southeast in both the mechanical and plumbing contractor segments, reporting $75 million and $38 million, respectively, for those sectors.
At the time of its survey submission in May, SPC was anticipating revenue growth to continue through 2020, projecting $149 million in Southeast revenue for the current year.
If achieved, that growth would make for an approximately 32% gain over its 2019 revenue total—a notable achievement amidst the pandemic-related challenges of 2020.
In early August, Chris Williford, president, was still confident, but cautious, about 2020, when he spoke to ENR Southeast, and would only say, “2020 is going to be better than 2019.” When looking ahead to 2021 and whether the contractor can continue its growth, he hedges.
“For 2021, my crystal ball is still kind of cloudy,” Williford says. “We’ve recognized that we need to sign some work to match what we’ve done in ’19 and ’20. However, there are still some decent projects out there to pursue that are on our radar right now. We just need to be fortunate on two or three of those and we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
The climb to such lofty aspirations began approximately a decade ago, the Willifords estimate, when the company first started bidding on larger projects.
Says Mark Williford: “We went from doing jobs [valued at] $5-6 million fairly quickly to doing some that were [around] $18-25 million.”
Recruiting quality workers during the relative boom market of the last several years has challenged almost all Southeast contractors. Of SPC’s effort on this front, Chris says, “We don’t have any secret sauce. It’s just been a constant recruiting effort.”
Mark adds: “I think we also have a reputation throughout the labor community that we take care of our people. We don’t take that lightly.”
On that front, during the pandemic Chris Williford estimates that the company has spent roughly $200,000 in extra personal protective equipment “trying to protect our guys.” And when employees have had to self-isolate after coming in contact with someone working on a project that tested positive for COVID, “we’ve continued to carry them on payroll,” he says. “I think that says a lot about how we’re trying to take care of people.”
Aiding SPC’s recent growth are two key factors that work together: expansion of its long-utilized prefabrication capabilities and an entrance into the previously bustling Charlotte market.
The mechanical and plumbing contractor has been utilizing prefabrication for nearly 30 years, says Chris, but has seen increased use of the practice in recent years. “There’s a lot of opportunities in prefab that we need to take advantage of,” he says.
Previously, the company only prefabricated pipe for its west region, which includes Winston-Salem. With its move into Charlotte, initially in 2016, the contractor needed more prefabrication capacity. To that end, the company recently built a new 32,000-sq-ft prefabrication shop in Winston-Salem that supports all of SPC’s projects.
Cobe LeMunyan, executive vice president for the western region, is also overseeing SPC’s push into Charlotte, which he says has been aided by the company’s existing relationships with many of the general contractors leading projects in the Queen City, such as Brasfield & Gorrie and Balfour Beatty.
The contracts at Charlotte’s convention center and airport are examples of SPC success to date in the market, where the company states it “quickly” built up a backlog of $65 million.
“There’s a lot of different opportunities in Charlotte,” LeMunyan says. “We just haven’t tapped into all of them at this point.”
Safety Is Key
Keeping its employees safe is another aspect of “taking care” of its workers, and a key part of management’s mantra.
Notably lauding SPC for its safety commitment is Rod Wilce, a senior safety consultant with the North Carolina Dept. of Labor. A veteran safety inspector of more than 20 years, Wilce testifies that SPC’s record on safety reflects a committed company-wide mindset.
“It’s pretty damn remarkable,” Wilce exclaims during an interview with ENR Southeast, as he sifts through a batch of 19 comprehensive safety and health program audits that he’s performed on site at SPC Mechanical projects. The end result: During 11 years, only two of Wilce’s report have indicated a hazard was found.
“That is not because I’m a pushover,” Wilce says. “That’s truly remarkable.” The veteran safety inspector also cites SPC’s annual company-wide safety meeting, which includes all employees.
Noting that other companies conduct such annual meetings, Wilce says that SPC’s summit “is probably the one that’s done best,” noting that all company employees are required to attend. (Wilce has been a speaker at the event for approximately the past nine years, he says.)
Overseeing SPC’s safety program for the past 15 years is Bill Walker, vice president of risk management. From the start, Walker says Chris and Mark “really got behind it,” adding, “As we’ve made these changes, I’ve never once been asked, ‘How much is that going to cost?’”
Calling safety a “continuous journey” rather than a “destination,” Walker says the company’s own program and best practices are constantly changing.
One example of change occurred some years ago when Walker caught workers putting their feet up on the mid-rail of scissor lifts. The company now requires workers to attach themselves to the equipment via retractable lanyards.
Staying safe requires continuous improvement, says Walker. “You’ve got to continue to try to improve. You’re going to go in the other direction if it’s not very important to you.”
He emphasizes it’s important to remember that a successful safety program “means a lot of people went home without getting hurt. And somewhere along the way, some daddy showed up at home to see his kids that [otherwise] might not have.
“Really, that’s the most important thing in construction,” Walker says.
For this and other reasons, ENR Southeast recognizes SPC Mechanical as its 2020 Specialty Contractor of the Year.