Brasfield & Gorrie Continues to Evolve Without Losing Its Family Spirit

An entrepreneurial, 28-year-old Miller Gorrie bought the assets of an existing construction company in 1964 with $45,000 in savings and the simple goal of growing the business by associating with great people. In hindsight, it was the perfect formula for success—one that continues to guide Brasfield & Gorrie today.

The Birmingham, Ala., firm started out with a handful of employees doing commercial renovation and repair work to the tune of $800,000 in annual revenue. Slowly, purposefully, over the next five decades, Brasfield & Gorrie morphed into the industry giant it’s known as today: 2,600 employees, more than $2 billion in annual revenue and eight regional offices. Gorrie maintains oversight as chairman, with his son Jim Gorrie serving as president and CEO since 2011.

2014 marked Brasfield & Gorrie’s 50th anniversary, and the company made it count by refining its core values and purpose statement to show a sincere commitment to all the things that take a contractor from good to great: safety, quality, innovation, teamwork, diversity and community service. The firm also kicked off or completed some impressive projects, including the new Atlanta Braves ballpark, College Football Hall of Fame and MetLife’s corporate headquarters.

In honor of these achievements and contributions to the construction industry—plus a longstanding commitment to the merit shop philosophyBraves Ballpark—Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) named Brasfield & Gorrie its 2014 Contractor of the Year.

Organic Growth
Long before succeeding his father as president, Jim Gorrie learned the business from the ground up—working during the summer in high school, logging hours in the equipment and supply shop, and getting a feel for various jobsites as a laborer.

“I never knew anything else,” Gorrie says. “I worked for every opportunity I was given. To be successful in our business, it’s important that you can do all of the pieces and not just be one-dimensional.”

Today, Gorrie is responsible for strategic planning, client relations, business development and leadership development. Seventy-five percent of the firm’s work is negotiated, with a focus on the commercial, education, government, health care, heavy/civil and sports/entertainment markets. The company’s project management expertise is just as diverse, ranging from general contracting capabilities to lean construction, design-build, construction management and integrated project delivery.

“One hundred percent of our growth has been internal and through strategic mapping of potential markets and existing leadership. We’ve never had an acquisition, just organic growth, which I don’t think is very common in the marketplace,” Gorrie says.

According to Jack Darnall—who oversees eight divisions and more than $800 million in volume for two southern regions—the company has changed without losing its core values, which is one of the main reasons for its longevity. Darnall would know: He has been on board since 1984, following in the footsteps of his father, who helped grow Brasfield & Gorrie in the late 1960s. Darnall and Jim Gorrie have known each other since age 7 and were in each other’s weddings.

“Miller and Jim make it feel like a family, and that spirit drives everything we do,” Darnall says. “The Gorries are very giving people. We’re a privately held LLC, but they believe if you hire great people, you take care of them.”

Historically, this has meant providing additional opportunities to individuals who were progressing in their careers, which led to diversification into self-performing concrete work and taking on projects in the wastewater treatment, health care and federal sectors.

“If we open another office or enter another market, then we can satisfy the upward mobility goals of high-performing staff,” Darnall says. “This extends to how we work with subcontractors, architects and owners. Completing high-quality work on time and on budget is not necessarily good enough. It’s about how you treat people.”

For Gorrie, the key to expansion is delivering what the company has committed to doing. “I don’t understand people who try to grow their businesses too fast,” he says. “Be incremental and methodical. There’s nothing more important than developing a culture of performance. If your objective is to build for the long term, there aren’t a lot of shortcuts to take. You have to earn the business.”

A Renewed ‘SPIRIT’
Amid the enhanced structure and rules that accompany corporate growth, Brasfield & Gorrie has clung to its culture and values.

“We’re not just some huge corporation that’s all about the numbers. We’re about the people we work with, for and around,” Darnall says.

With that sentiment in mind, Gorrie led the executive team in redefining the company’s value statements last year and synthesizing them into Brasfield & Gorrie’s renewed company “SPIRIT,” which stands for safety, performance, integrity, respect, innovation and teamwork.

Everything begins with safety, and it shows in the numbers. Brasfield & Gorrie’s EMR is 0.46 and its recordable incident rate is 1.29. More importantly, it shows in upper-level management’s actions. For example, Gorrie starts every Monday with a 7 a.m. safety call with regional safety managers. 
College Football Hall of Fame
“We go through what’s going on that week and what happened last week. That helps me know where we stand and hear firsthand what’s going on. That’s how I stay plugged in and help reinforce what we do,” Gorrie says. “There’s no beginning or end to safety; it’s a perpetual area of focus.”

Much like the company’s diversification strategy, its approach to improving safety performance has been incremental. The executive team revamped the program about 15 years ago to place special emphasis on particular areas, and then four years ago it ramped that program into a higher gear.

“I’m proud of how our company has embraced the concept of providing a safe environment for ourselves and our subcontractors,” Darnall says. “I’m excited about what we achieved in 2014, but I’m even more excited about the momentum we’re gaining in safety for 2015. If we’re going to recruit new people, we must demonstrate our workers are returning home safely.”

Flowing down from safety, the company “SPIRIT” emphasizes setting a high bar of performance, promoting integrity and honesty, showing respect toward everyone, embracing innovation (and integrating it into the company), and focusing on teamwork and collaboration.

On top of these benchmarks, Brasfield & Gorrie changed its vision statement into a purpose statement last year in order to better convey why the company exists.

“Our vision used to be wanting to be the best general contractor in the United States,” Gorrie says. “Now, our purpose statement is about building exceptional people, trusting relationships, great projects and strong communities.”

The statement speaks to Brasfield & Gorrie’s commitment to sustainability, diversity, technology and community service.
  • The company has a LEED-certified corporate headquarters and is listed as the number two green contractor in the Southeast by ENR.
  • The company partners with minority and disadvantaged businesses through joint ventures and federal mentor-protégé programs.
  • The company utilizes virtual design and construction (including BIM), laser scanning, and other tools for quality assurance, project information and rapid project communications mobilization.
  • The company has led its division in the United Way campaign since 1992, increasing per capita contributions each year and earning status as a “Pacesetter Company.”
“In our industry, a lot of CEOs are caught up in the numbers,” Darnall says. “Don’t get me wrong, Jim likes to win and get
work. But he allows the people who work for him to focus on that so he can champion things such as diversity, sustainability and being a servant to the community. Our CEO emphasizing those areas is a good indicator that we’re in this for the long haul and want to make the industry better.”

The new purpose statement also speaks to Brasfield & Gorrie’s investment in staff, which begins on a new employee’s first day at the company and carries over during their entire career.

“We believe that training by itself emphasizes teaching a skill to accomplish a task, and potentially puts too much emphasis on the task,” says Tom Garrett, Brasfield & Gorrie’s chief safety and human resources officer. “For this reason, we do not have a training department. Instead, we have a career development department that works closely with our human resources department to help employees build their careers. Our emphasis is on the individual.”

The career development and human resources teams collaborate in four integrated areas.
  • In the onboarding program, new employees get a sense of the company culture, its values and career development opportunities.
  • Multi-week “on-ramp” programs assist employees in their new roles by providing technical training for core competencies and a support system for coaching and questions.
  • Leadership programs are available to employees with different functions within the company to develop higher levels of strategic thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. This training also fosters deeper relationships across the company in an effort to enhance collaboration.  
  • Finally, employees receive meaningful and timely feedback about their progress within the company, including the discussion of a prospective path for accomplishing their personal and professional goals.
Generational Transitions
With an eye toward the future, Gorrie is spearheading a “2020” initiative in anticipation of transitioning Jim & Miler Gorrie to the organization’s third generation of leadership. He has identified seven areas of focus and has asked team leaders throughout the company to take an active role in setting the strategy for those markets.

Additionally, Brasfield & Gorrie gives out annual Founders Awards to a handful of employees who display the same characteristics, attitude and leadership as the firm’s five founders. Award winners are nominated by their peers and selected by the executive team.

“Our company has been built on succession planning,” Gorrie says. “We worked hard over our history to transition from the founding generation to the current generation, and we’re working to do the same with the next generation.”

Other internal talent development programs include foreman and supervisor training, as well as safety and leadership development classes. Externally, the company mentors high school students, provides internships, and supports local career technical centers, the ACE Mentor Program and construction association workforce development initiatives.

“The labor shortage is unquestionably the biggest challenge for the industry,” Gorrie says. “We’ve been a self-performing general contractor for 50 years, so it helps that we have a lot of existing resources heading into this challenge, but we’re not exempt from it. We are very committed to a variety of types of training.”

If market forecasts hold true, it’s definitely going to be an all-hands-on-deck situation for Brasfield & Gorrie. Many of the firm’s clients that weathered the recession are starting to ramp up some significant projects, and Gorrie is beginning to see a welcome return to more negotiated work and less bid work. 

“Every market sector we’re involved in has pockets of opportunity,” he says. “From Dallas to North Carolina and Nashville to Florida, we’re seeing some really unique prospects for growth.”

Adds Darnall: “I’m 54 years old and wish I was 34 years old so I could keep working here. That’s how excited I am about our company’s future.”  
 

Merit Shop: ‘The Right Way to Go’
In September 1970, the contracts for nine major trade unions expired and an estimated 20,000 Birmingham, Ala., construction workers went on strike, costing about $500,000 a day in lost wages. For Brasfield & Gorrie alone, which was a union firm at that time, it cost about $10,000 a week.

When the strike finally ended after 90 days, Miller Gorrie—who was responsible for negotiating new contracts with various unions as part of Associated General Contractors’ Labor Relations Committee—vowed to end his reliance on union labor. He started a new nonunion business in order for Brasfield & Gorrie to operate as a double-breasted corporation. It eventually converted into an exclusively open shop construction company, and remains so today.

“It’s important that we all understandJim Gorrie the merit shop is the right way to go,” says Brasfield & Gorrie President and CEO Jim Gorrie (Miller’s son). “ABC does a great job of helping develop relationships and businesses that embrace the merit shop philosophy. It also does a very good job of helping identify political issues that need to be addressed and effectively lobbying on behalf of our industry.”

For Jack Darnall, one of Brasfield & Gorrie’s regional presidents, ABC is an avenue for giving back to the industry that has given him so much.

“My dad and grandpa were involved in construction, so this industry sent me to college and has allowed me to make a living, raise my family and send them to college,” he says. “What better way to repay the industry than to be a servant?”

For Darnall, that meant getting involved in ABC committees and events, and eventually serving as national chairman in 2006.

“Whatever time I’ve invested in ABC, I’ve received tenfold through the relationships I built. The joint ventures Brasfield & Gorrie formed because of some of those relationships have given us a lot of work,” Darnall says.

“Companies have to support industry initiatives. We’re all competitors, but associations like ABC are a way to band together and promote common causes. It’s really humbling to watch people give back to the industry the way they do.”


Joanna Masterson is editor of Construction Executive. For more  information, email masterson@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or  follow @ConstructionMag.