The U.S. business community overall has suffered a great deal during the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurants and retail establishments have shut down due to customers staying home during lockdowns or because of tight government restrictions on how they are able to operate. Contractors and others in the industry have also taken a hit, even though many services were deemed essential, because some owners and developers are taking a pause on their projects amid economic uncertainty.
But there are some construction industry companies that have thrived during the pandemic, opening up new locations, taking the opportunity to become lean and moving to hire skilled employees laid off from competitors. Here are some of their stories:
Kings Capital Construction: Securing new talent
JD Summa, CEO and president of general construction firm Kings Capital described two ways that the company achieved success in 2020. First, he said, many of the Tarrytown, New York-based company’s projects were considered essential because they had affordable housing components to them. Kings also had a major healthcare project underway as well, another project considered essential.
“We never stopped working,” he said.
The company also took the opportunity to reduce areas of overlap, becoming more economical, Summa said, and also was able to secure talent — senior project executives, a project manager and a superintendent — that had been laid off from other contractors.
One strategy that Summa employed during the pandemic — and one that he plans to use in 2021 and beyond — is to engage employees in ways that keeps them focused in the tasks at hand while still acknowledging and being flexible about the difficulties that many are facing in several aspects of their lives like finding childcare, adjusting to remote work or caring for sick family members.
“If you’re going to be successful,” he said, “you have to find positives, and you have to be self-motivated," he said.
Partner Engineering and Science: Riding the tailwinds
Torrance, California-based Partner Engineering and Science has 40 offices nationwide, said Frank S. Romeo Jr., the company’s president, and provides such services as construction risk management and monitoring, civil and building engineering and environmental assessments and remediation, as well as land surveying and mapping.
Going into last year he saw lenders of all kinds financing construction deals, and thus services like Partner provides. This created a tailwind of sorts to carry the company throughout 2020, a year in which it added 70 employees, he said, with more than a quarter in its construction-related businesses.
In fact, Partner runs a construction lender risk management roundtable where lenders come together and express ideas and concerns about the industry.
It also helped to have carved out a reputation as a trusted advisor before the pandemic hit, Romeo said.
One challenge that has come from working remotely, he said, aside from the fact that much of Partner’s business involves on-site visits, is that it is much more difficult to keep employees focused when they are not physically in the office.
“You can’t really be physically there to lead,” Romeo said.
Romeo will be watching the hotel and office sectors closely in 2021 since COVID-19 seems to have created uncertainty for those types of projects in particular.
“We’re optimistic for this year,” he said, “but we’re still coming out of this thing.”
GI Stone: Creating more efficiencies
For Sandya Dandamudi, GI Stone's success during the pandemic was not about gaining more customers. After all, the Chicago stone fabrication and installation company she leads already had more than a year’s worth of jobs on the books when 2020 began.
Instead, Dandamudi said, the company focused on creating more efficiencies within the business and managed to increase project profit by 6% to 7%. GI had already employed waste-ridding strategies like meeting via Zoom and going paperless before the pandemic hit, so 2020 saw those practices continue.
“We did not have that 'deer in headlights' look. We were ready to be agile,” she said. “We took a very aggressive and assertive approach.”
In fact, this was also the strategy for securing its construction materials. Dandamudi was in China in January 2020 when rumors about the novel coronavirus started to circulate, so she immediately fast-tracked the orders she could to minimize supply chain disruption.
“We also ended being awarded some jobs where other competitors didn’t have the material,” she said.
The image of how this year will shake out, she said, is “still a little blurry,” but the company is booked through the second and third quarters. There have, however, been a few projects that have had a status change as far as financing.
“This is where I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said.
Briq: Garnering new clients and funding
Briq is a financial and management platform that lets users crunch data and evaluate multiple aspects of construction projects — i.e. scheduling, financing and selecting subcontractors — in order to help them achieve the best outcome. And in 2020, said co-founder and CEO Bassem Hamdy, Briq grew 330% in both revenue and new clients and closed a major funding round.
“In an industry where margins are so thin, we have given contractors the ability to truly understand where they stand on cash, profit and labor,” Hamdy said. “Briq gave contractors a way to better manage their finances when others were scrambling.”
The biggest obstacle the Santa Barbara, California-based company had to overcome last year, he said, was that of remote working and not being able to build client relationships in a more traditional, in-person way. Despite that, Briq employees were able to garner trust by speaking directly to their customers’ challenges and through existing client testimonials.
This year, Hamdy said, is shaping up to be the biggest on record for Briq as many of its clients are in the booming segments of technology, infrastructure, healthcare and housing.
“Given many of the national economic trends and policies set to kick in 2021 and beyond, we expect continued growth in construction,” he said.
City Electric Supply: Expanding into new markets
Dallas-based City Electric Supply has more than 1,000 locations in seven countries and added 19 just in the U.S. in 2020, bringing the domestic store count to 517.
Co-COO John Gray told Construction Dive that expansion into booming construction markets was part of the company’s pre-pandemic plans and after some careful consideration during the first few months of widespread lockdowns, company leaders decided to move forward with its plans.
Growing sales quickly turned any lingering uncertainty into optimism about 2021 and beyond. Gray credits much of the company’s success in 2020 to the fact that City is a family-owned company that can take a wait-and-see approach and let long-term strategies play out rather than reacting to shareholder or other feedback in the short-term.
“We made a decision, and that was not to panic,” he said.
City plans to open 30 additional locations this year, with new stores all across the country in markets like Indiana, Tennessee, California and Florida.
“You can’t ignore what the world gives you, but I think we are in a position where we can watch and see, and currently it looks good,” Gray said.
Trade Hounds: Launching a new platform
Boston-based construction software developer Trade Hounds, which connects contractors with skilled tradespeople, saw its user community double last year to 200,000 after rolling out its jobs platform in September.
“While construction was deemed essential in certain markets, our growth was fueled mostly by a heightened need for a professional community amongst skilled tradespeople during a time when many of them were forced to the sideline and dealing with a lot of uncertainty,” said Peter Maglathlin, co-founder and CFO.
The Trade Hounds community, he said, gives laid-off workers an outlet to vent their concerns, and the company provides users with important information like how to file for unemployment or access other benefits.
“In March, we saw contractors retrench and unfortunately lay off or furlough a lot of workers in order to survive,” he said. “As the market has begun to normalize and activity has begun to pick up substantially in many key markets, we’ve been able to help both small and large contractors solve their hiring needs.”
Looking ahead, Maglathlin said he expects 2021 to be a “breakout year” for the company as the construction industry gets back to business.
AirWorks: Growing its customer base
AirWorks, which converts aerial data into CAD models using AI-powered software, grew its customer base tenfold in 2020, said David Morczinek, co-founder and CEO.
As for many other construction-related businesses, the fact that construction fell under the category of essential services helped to drive growth as did the necessity for remote inspections and gathering data without visiting a project, he said, made easier once companies had installed the proper IT infrastructure for remote work.
In 2021, Morczinek said, a stream of previously halted and delayed projects should restart, paving the way for companies like AirWorks to provide critical support services. The Boston-based company also plans on launching new collaboration tools during the next 12 months.
“AirWorks is excited for a very positive 2021 for the AEC industry,” he said.
Has your company thrived during the coronavirus crisis? Tell us about it.