More than a decade ago, two buddies kicked back at the pool with a few beers and started tossing around ideas for their new construction company. Like so many other entrepreneurs, they grabbed a napkin and started jotting down their business plan.
The four main points decided by founders Bob Fleckenstein and Maylon Boatwright? One, never do jobs more than 100 miles away from the company's Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters. Two, hire no more than six employees. Three, never exceed $5 million a year in volume. And four, serve as project managers on all the company's construction projects.
So much for the business plan. Founded in 1989, Summit Contractors Inc. rapidly grew into a regional general contracting firm. "We stuck to the business plan maybe about six months," says Fleckenstein, president, as Boatwright, now executive vice president, nods with a chuckle.
Perhaps that's all they needed. From its humble beginnings in a 640-square-foot office with only six employees, Summit has grown into a $263 million company, starting more than 8,000 units in 2003 in states across the country. (Thanks to that starts performance, Summit landed the No. 1 spot on Multifamily Executive's Top 50 builder list this spring.) Guided by principles of customer service and construction quality, Summit has built its reputation and revenue on quality construction practices, through on-site management at job sites, and with close relationships with both clients and employees.
One of Summit's greatest strengths is its easy going executives, says Jose Perez, president and CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based PQH Architects Inc., who has worked with Summit from the beginning.
"They [the two principals] are real friendly guys, down-to-earth guys," he says. "You would never think that they have a company that does so much volume." But they certainly know how to handle all the business, he adds. "They're knowledgeable, they are service-oriented–you call and they are there."
Trek to the Top Both of Summit's principals have always had a strong foothold in the construction industry. Fleckenstein spent 21 years at Blosam Contractors, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based construction firm, where he started as an estimator in the 1960s and worked his way up to president and co-owner in 1984. That's where he met Boatwright, who was Blosam's vice president of estimating when Fleckenstein asked him to join Summit as a partner.
"That's when we sat down to do the business plan that we so graciously stuck to," recalls Boatwright with a laugh.
The company got off the ground thanks to several Blosam clients who brought their business to the new company. As Summit's customers began to increase their portfolio, so did their work for Summit. "A lot of our clients did one project a year, and now they are doing four or five projects a year," says Fleckenstein. "We've been able to grow with them." Grow indeed: To create more space at its corporate headquarters, Summit built an office annex and a warehouse–and quickly had to convert the warehouse into more office space.
Before long, the company found itself where few general contractors have gone before: with a coast-to-coast reach. "A lot of the developers that we have become associated with are national developers, like Tarragon," says Fleckenstein. "They develop in five or six states, so they asked us to come with them, and we certainly aren't going to say no because they are a great client."
Summit's versatility extends beyond its geographic scope. The company builds virtually every type of multifamily rental and for-sale housing, including market-rate, HUD, tax credit, senior, military, and student housing. On the commercial side, Summit constructs hotels and resorts, retail centers, institutional facilities, warehouses, and office buildings.
That flexibility is key to the company's success, especially in unstable economic times, says Matt Robinson, Summit's senior vice president, executive committee. "When things are good, everybody flourishes. When things are bad, Summit has an advantage that we can travel effectively," Robinson says. "The developers never stop looking for deals, and when they do find them under that rock, we have the advantage that we are able to be there."
Of course, such diversity has its challenges. "One of the things that is most complex is going into areas that we haven't worked in before and estimating the projects correctly," says Boatwright. For instance, the company has learned to set aside more time for completing projects in places such as North Dakota and South Dakota due to weather challenges.