Contractor of the Year Finalist: Jim Williams

Not many construction companies survive to the third generation of family ownership. But for C.E. Williams Sons, its third leader is on a roll and the fourth generation is in training.

Now run by Jim Williams, the founder’s grandson, the company has succeeded and grown through a solid work ethic, customer care, loyal employees and smart business sense. Today the company has 42 employees doing commercial and residential site development, sediment controls, land clearing and mulching, stone base, basements, grading and excavation, paving, demolition, and sewer and water installation.

In 1946 with post-war America just starting its boom years, Jim’s grandfather, Clyde Williams Sr., bought a dump truck to capture the opportunities presented by the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The trucking business grew and Clyde Sr. and his son Clyde Jr. branched out into hauling coal, fuel oil and topsoil. In 1956 Clyde Sr. bought a track loader to assist in loading the topsoil he was hauling, and when somebody asked him to dig a basement, the construction division was born.

As the years rolled by, the construction side continued to do well, but the trucking market changed sufficiently to persuade the Williams to scale it back while growing the construction side.

Early starter
Jim Williams, the current president, started working for his dad as a laborer during summers when he was 12. After a summer of running a jackhammer, Jim decided college might be a better choice, but after two years he returned to the family business full time in 1973. Jim continued to grow his construction skills, driving a truck and running the track loader, excavator and backhoe. In 1980 Jim’s dad bought out an uncle’s stake in the business and that opened up an opportunity for Jim to move into the management side.

For the next seven years Jim busied himself with estimating, scheduling and project supervision. When his dad suffered a heart attack in 1987 Jim took over running the company and found he was doing almost everything by himself.

Although his dad came back to work part time after six months, Jim had come to realize two things. One, he couldn’t do it all himself; and two, if he was going to run the company he was going to have to run it his way.

Field and office
“Dad was more field oriented, focused on the jobs themselves, and less of a numbers guy,” Jim says. And while Clyde Jr. ran a successful business with 20 to 30 employees, Jim wanted to change the management style of the business. Hiring an estimator, an extra secretary and a job superintendent freed up his time to manage the business rather than running around trying to supervise the jobs.

Jim’s son Jason is following a similar path into the business. He started summers as a laborer, moved up to operator and after two years of college is now a supervisor. “He’s pretty young, but he’s done a good job, probably better than I was at the same age, and I’m proud of him,” Jim says.

The key to his third-generation success, Jim says, as well as the success he’s had bringing his son into the business rests on a bottom-up philosophy.

“When my dad brought me into the business, he didn’t bring me into the office to start out,” Jim says. “He made me work in the field and learn the business from the bottom up. I may not have appreciated it at the time, but it teaches you the business. You understand when you’re telling a guy to go out and run a jackhammer or to go out and grade something you know what it means because you’ve done it. You’ve seen what it takes to get the job done, and you appreciate what you’ve gone through to get where you’re at.”

Mechanical aptitude
With approximately 25 major pieces of equipment and a fleet of 14 trucks and tractors, C.E. Williams keeps three full-time mechanics busy. The company does all its own inspections, maintenance and preventive maintenance and as a general rule maintains its equipment beyond the first lifecycle, moving older machines into secondary or backup roles as they age.

Good maintenance means the machines last a lot longer between major rebuilds and that the equipment is always ready to roll and in good running order. “Elimination of downtime is important to our firm,” Jim says.

The company’s mechanical competence also recently encouraged Jim to buy a reconditioned Blaw-Knox paver. The 8 1/2-foot paver gives them the capacity to do everything from driveways to 20-foot-wide highway work with extensions. By buying a reconditioned model the company saved about $100,000. “So far it’s worked out well for us,” Jim says. “If it proves worthwhile as time goes on, I would consider doing it again.”

Today’s challenges
With homebuilders reeling from the mortgage and credit crisis, Jim has seen the residential development side of his business dry up. He’s adjusted by moving almost all of his focus onto the commercial side, but he says bids in the commercial sector have become extremely competitive because of the number of people looking for work. Winter was slow, but things started to pick up this spring.

Diesel prices are another concern. Jim raised hourly rates on some machines to offset increased costs, but as of yet hasn’t made any major changes. Asphalt prices are also causing uncertainty. “It used to be the asphalt plants would quote a price that was good for the whole year,” he says. “Now it changes every month. We’re dealing with trying to get our customers acclimated to escalator clauses, which is a struggle for us.”

Jim says he’s looking into bio-diesel as a possible source of fuel. The price is about the same, but it’s the only solution he sees to cutting consumption of pure diesel and he’s hoping the government may offer tax breaks to encourage its use.

Customer satisfaction
Taking care of customers has always been a priority at C.E. Williams and one of the reasons the company continues to thrive.

“Any job I can give Jim, I give him,” says John Beil of Burkentine and Sons, General Contractors in Hanover, Pennsylvania. “When he’s on site, I have very little to worry about. He deals with me directly; that alone says something. I enjoy that. They have a bit of that old-school flavor about them.”

David Sites, president, Realty Leasing and Management, has used C.E. Williams for years on projects like shopping centers, highway work and large sewer systems. “We had several emergency issues where he’s helped us out,” Sites says. “We were renovating one project and discovered a 10,000-gallon underground storage tank that no one knew about. He removed it in two days, where another contractor would have taken months.”

“Jim will come out himself to check the progress of a project, which is kind of rare anymore with that size company,” says Bill Baldwin, a project manager for Gettysburg College. “He has very good field superintendents: Ed Martin and Jim’s son Jason, which takes a lot of pressure off Jim and reflects well on him.”

Employees are key
Jim identifies the finding and retaining of employees as the biggest challenge in his job. But he feels fortunate that eight of his 42 employees have been with the company for more than 20 years.

Offering employees benefits and participation in a 401K program is one of the best ways to retain people, Williams says. The company offers a 50 percent match to what employees put into their 401Ks and more than 90 percent of the employees participate.

“Plus 401K participation is a good indicator of how well an employee will work out,” he says.

Friendly competition
Jim also says he’s begun to see the value of talking to other contractors, even those with whom he competes. “I’ve really developed some good relationships with other contractors in the area. It’s great to have lunch with somebody and talk about your mutual problems.”

In the old days, competitors were considered the enemy, Jim says, but it doesn’t have to be that way. “We can learn from each other and I certainly have. We have a lot of things in common,” he says.