Contractor of the Year Finalist: Charlie Lay

Right now, Charlie Lay is grappling with what seems to be a nice problem: how to take his $3 million in annual revenues general contracting firm to the next level. “We’re at the threshold now where we’re going to have to start making some real changes, including adding people, getting additional office space and looking into better estimating and project management software,” Lay says.

A far cry
All of this is a far cry from his start in business in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Scheduled to interview for a job with a Cleveland bank, Lay had carefully prepared for his move back to his hometown the previous day, putting all his belongings in his car. The next morning, all suited up for the interview, he found out his car – and belongings – had been stolen. He never made it to the interview, but banking’s loss has been construction’s gain.

The pre-law graduate had a fallback position, one Lay began to take seriously. Working with his father, he built a house in Cleveland. Soon, the two had built four houses, each built on spec, each quickly sold. In 1994, Lay began Lay Construction with little more than desire.

The then 23-year-old Lay went to Steve Robinson, president of Cleveland Plywood in Cleveland and laid out his plan to eventually move from home construction to commercial work. But he knew he had to establish himself first, so he asked Robinson where he could get books that would teach him how to get a residential license. “As I gave him the information, I thought he was going to be mighty disappointed when his dreams met with reality,” Robinson recalls.

Construction heritage
But Lay’s construction heritage started with his grandfather, Howard Page, who had owned Mountain Builders in Waynesville, North Carolina. While visiting his grandfather as a child he met the person who would play a significant role in his business: Terry Painter.

“Terry worked for my grandfather and had experience in commercial and industrial work,” Lay explains. After Lay’s grandfather’s death, Terry served as a project manager for another contractor. “We would talk a lot and I’d seek advice from him” says Lay. “I finally asked him what he would think about us working together.”

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Painter agreed to come on board in 2000, and Lay credits that agreement with a significant portion of the growth his firm has since seen. “Our partnership opened up a whole new opportunity for this company,” Lay says. “Terry will put all the estimating together and run most of the commercial jobs.” In turn, Lay concentrates on the firm’s marketing, accounting, payroll and insurance, in addition to running the firm’s residential jobs.

Site development to concrete pours
Lay Construction does a variety of work – site development, concrete pours, framing, steel erection and landscaping – for commercial, governmental and custom home projects. Negotiated work accounts for around 60 percent of the firm’s jobs. And the Lay family tradition continues with brother Andy managing the office, wife Lisa lending accounting and computer support and father Ed serving as “our backbone,” as Lay describes it. “He lends a lot of credibility to our operation.”

Two particularly challenging jobs in the past two years were the Bradley County Courthouse Plaza renovation and the renovation of Henson Hall at the University of Tennessee, Lay’s alma mater. For the courthouse plaza, the company had to move 13,000-pound marble monument, carefully working around existing trees, and complete that part of the job in one day.

Henson Hall, built in 1918, needed to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so required an elevator built on the outside of the building. “It involved a lot of precast work, which we had had just limited experience with before,” Lay says.

Service parties
Lay acquired part of his fleet – consisting of a skid steer, backhoe, telehandler and dump truck – with rent-to-own deals. In addition, as the need arises he’ll rent dozers, excavators, concrete vibrators and tamps. He credits Wes Reece, his salesman with Stowers Cat for “just taking care of us,” as he puts it. “He’s right there and we appreciate that. If I need bigger equipment, he can get it, and it takes away our having to have a sub do that work.”

Rainy days become “service parties,” with crew members heading to the shop area to do filter and oil changes. “It’s an opportunity for them to work instead of staying at home without pay,” Lay says. The company keeps its equipment fleet spry: Lay believes four years or younger generally keeps away downtime.

“Be patient”
When Painter joined the firm, Lay Construction’s office was in the playroom of Lay’s house. They’ve moved two times since then and will likely have to move in the coming year.

So it’s not surprising that Lay’s advice to other contractors centers on growth. “Be patient,” he says. “Construction is a volatile business that can turn good or bad. It takes about 10 years to really get established. A paced growth – something in the area of a 10 to 15 percent growth rate every year – is better than doubling your volume in a year. It takes time to build the relationships you have to build. You’re dependent on your subs and your vendors and it takes time to build that trust.”

He’s earned the trust of Cleveland Plywood’s Robinson, the vendor to whom Lay went to for advice as a young contractor. “Today, Charlie is one of our top accounts,” Robinson says. “He’s been knocked down but he always figures out what went wrong and goes forward. He’s constantly bidding more challenging jobs and still reaching to improve his knowledge. He expects hard work and fair prices from his vendors, but he passes both along to their customers. I believe this has been a big part of the success and growth he enjoys today.”

But if he had to do it all over again, would Lay go back to his pre-law ambitions?

He shakes his head. “I like the satisfaction you get at the end of the day with construction,” he answers. “If you’re a lawyer, it’s hard to see that kind of accomplishment. I like to get out and do things. I’m not an office person. I even like construction smells – the diesel and the concrete. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

Other voices
Here are some comments we heard from others about Charlie Lay and his team:
“He’s a first class guy and very civic minded. And he did it on his own, driving nails. Lay Construction approaches each project with a clear plan of action and the resources to carry it out. They handle every situation with a professional and cooperative attitude.” – Tom Crye, partner, Associated Architectural Services, Cleveland, Tennessee

“He built an office for me and will build the next one, too. He’s there for the long term because I need someone who advises me as well as builds.” – Dr. Chad Eslinger, owner, dental practice

“I’ve seen first hand what a great relationship he has with his employees.” – Web Coe, homeowner