When Birdwell & Associates changed its company motto to "World's Finest Floors" two years ago, the message was more about its quality goal than arrogance.
"I've heard people say, 'World's finest floors, that's saying a lot about yourself,'" says Bryan Birdwell, one of the owners of Lakeland, Fla., construction company. "Yes it is, but we are striving to be that; it's not cocky or arrogant. We have made our share of mistakes. But rather than continuing to repeat them, we have learned from those mistakes and feel what we have implemented into our processes are what sets our finished product apart."
The company keeps racking up evidence that it can deliver on its motto. It recently won its 17th Golden Trowel Award in five years for an ALDI grocery store project where Birdwell & Associates achieved an overall FF 65.2 and an FL 41.8 on a 10,125-square-foot floor. The company also recently completed a hand-placed, 3,000-square-foot structural formed and shored slab-on-deck for the University of Alabama's Science and Engineering department. Crews on that job achieved an overall FF 122.93 and FL 50.21, far exceeding the specified FF 50 and FL 30 requirements (see sidebar).
A concrete focus
Bryan's father, Mitch Birdwell, started Birdwell Builders in 1983 as a general contracting firm focusing on residential and light commercial construction. Mitch had a background in concrete, a trade that helped him earn his living for several years before starting his own company. This background allowed Mitch to lead his general contracting crews to self-perform its concrete work.
Mitch also instilled a passion for concrete in his son. Bryan grew up in his father's business and spent his early years around concrete. He poured sidewalks and slabs with his dad for a variety of volunteer community and church projects, and he read concrete industry magazines while other kids his age read comic books and sports magazines. When Bryan finished school in the early-1990s, it felt like a natural transition for him to apply his acquired concrete knowledge and education and enter the family business full time.
Bryan's transition into his father's company coincided closely with Mitch's decision in the mid-1990s to shift his company's focus from general contracting to specialty concrete. By 2000, the company had well-established success in this realm, taking on a growing number of industrial projects like those at nuclear power plants, coal burning power plants, tilt-up work and superflat floors.
The company grew to about 75 field employees and 15 office employees with multiple estimators and project managers. It experienced growth and prosperity throughout most of the 2000s, but by the end of that decade came to face the same economic realities most contractors across the country experienced.
Bryan says the biggest challenge the company has faced in recent years is an estimated 80 percent of its past clientele isn't building right now. "So much of our work is dead or being done for prices that aren't sustainable — big box stores, distribution centers, industrial paving. What had worked for us in the last 10 years has evaporated," he explains.
Adjusting to today's economy
Today Birdwell & Associates is a much smaller firm at about 20 employees, but Birdwell says that is not a bad thing. "When we were bigger our quality was there but it was a harder struggle to make sure each employee shared our vision and values as owners," he says. "Now we are back to our roots — a small family business where we can manage projects directly and still remain profitable."
Re-sizing the business so it could remain strong in today's economy also prompted the company to adopt a more efficient approach to bidding jobs. "We went from a company with an engineering and estimating staff and bidding everything that moved to being more selective and focusing on the projects that fit our company," Birdwell explains.