Contractor of the Year Finalist
| November 09, 2010
Charlotte, North Carolina
Keeping things simple and letting the work speak for itself is this contractor’s calling card.
Year started: 1986
Annual volume: $14 million
Markets served: Public, commercial and industrial site preparation and roadway construction
Carl Showalter had everything planned out. A VMI grad with a degree in civil engineering, Carl knew he wanted to get a job with a utility company, work for them 30 or 40 years and then happily retire. With that plan in mind, he accepted a position based in the Bluefield, West Virginia, office of Appalachian Power and settled into 10-hour workdays. Less than a year in, though, Carl proposed to his girlfriend, Jane, and the plan changed. Jane lived in Charlotte, and Carl quickly realized he’d have to relocate there to be with her. He had a friend who ran the Charlotte branch of Crowder Construction, so he accepted a job with the company, not knowing he’d found a career that would last a lifetime.
Laying the groundwork
“They were great to me,” Carl says of Crowder Construction. “They were willing to pay for me to go to grad school. It was a great learning experience and a good growth period for me.” While he enjoyed working for the company, he gradually came to realize he wanted to work for himself. In a few years, Carl was ready to start his own firm.
He started small. He had no equipment – only a pickup – and rented everything he needed at first. “My first job was pouring a little set of steps,” he says. “It was 7 months before I even bought a Wacker tamp.” Working all the time, by the end of the first year he had three employees. He was primarily doing concrete work, but eventually he bought a backhoe and branched out into site prep.
A creative solution
In a city with a population of more than a half million, Showalter Construction had little need to branch out beyond the metropolitan area to find work. What Carl did have a problem finding, however, was workers. During the ‘90s, a boom time for Charlotte, Carl had no trouble finding his skilled people, but there were no laborers to be had.
Stymied, Carl pressed his friends in the business community for help. At a community event, a local businessman slipped Carl a phone number. It was for the local Catholic refugee office. There Carl found refugees from Bosnia who were looking for good, steady employment. Carl discovered they were hard workers and fiercely loyal. Today, a former military soldier now serves as a Showalter foreman. “I’ve been with Carl for 14 years,” says Dragan Balta. “He is a good man and I like him. I will work to my last day with him.”
The loyalty is reciprocated – Carl refers to his 81 employees as his “extended family.” He doesn’t lay off his employees, and rewards them with bonuses and 401k programs. He’s also established an Employee Assistance Program for them, and the employees know he cares about them. “He’s treated me like family and taken care of me,” says Curtis Hylton, a 24-year veteran of the company. “Carl’s not just out here to make a living for him and his family – it’s for everyone else, too.”
Carl also adopts a mentor role. “I try to pass on what’s been bestowed on me,” he says. When a friend of his, John Thomas, was struggling in the textile industry, Carl hit upon a unique idea. Too busy to handle the huge number of residential concrete jobs available, he suggested John take them on. Out of that suggestion was born The Concrete Advantage, a niche business John formed focusing exclusively on residential driveways.
“Carl is a unique individual, and everybody who works with him enjoys him,” says Scott Tadlock, HD Supply Waterworks. “He’s solid in the community. I don’t know any other way to say it – he’s just good people.”
Keep it simple
“When I’m dead and gone, I want people to say, ‘That guy did it right’,” Carl says. Learning the fundamentals and keeping it simple has been Showalter’s philosophy throughout, and Carl doesn’t get into markets with which he’s unfamiliar. Carl knows sitework inside and out, and so he self-performs all sitework. The company also handles everything from clearing and grading to sewer work to paving, and takes pride in the quality of the work. “They are our preferred contractor on just about any job,” says Eric Reichard, chief operating officer for general contractor Rodgers Builders. “A lot of the projects we work on have difficult logistics because they’re urban or in tight spaces. We’ve done projects where we had to go 36 to 48 hours straight and they’d be right there with you.”
Knowing their limitations and being cautious with business practices has served Carl and company executive vice president and partner Bill Cornett well during challenging times. Charlotte is known as a banking center, and in 2007, Wachovia nearly collapsed and was purchased by Wells Fargo. The bank had been one of the cornerstones of Charlotte’s financial well-being, and the local economy spiraled downward. Showalter Construction was in good financial shape, though, and weathered the storm. “We worked on efficiencies,” Carl says. “We used investment tax credits, and we didn’t have much debt.” The company even took advantage of a foreclosure sale to purchase a building to house their offices.
Keeping it simple also played into Carl’s decision not to have a shop. Weighing cost against convenience, Carl decided he’d be better off having his employees perform walk-arounds and fluid checks, but farming out all equipment repair. He also pays another contractor to transport his equipment from site to site, and says the system works well. The company is careful when purchasing equipment and Carl always takes advantage of zero-percent offers through Cat Financial. His attentiveness to the bottom line has not gone unnoticed by his peers, either – Showalter Construction has won a number of awards, including being named Subcontractor of the Year and Executive of the Year by the Charlotte Chapter of the Construction Financial Management Association. The two company executives also stay involved – Carl with schools and the arts, and Bill with the Boy Scouts of America. “You’ve got to give back with no strings attached,” Carl says.
As good as your word
For Showalter, steady growth has been the key, and Carl counts repeat business from satisfied clients as a crucial element of his business strategy. As part of the formula, he supports the decisions his people make. “We’re not perfect, but if we do goof up, we fix it – and you’re not going to have to tell us to fix it,” he says. “Our guys are so good, that sometimes the crews will just go ahead and fix things if they make a mistake. It may cost more, but I stand behind them.” EW