Offering a Blueprint for Succession Planning

Langston Construction

Langston Construction Company of Piedmont, South Carolina, is celebrating fifty years as a general contractor serving industrial, environmental, and commercial clients. In the past year, the firm – licensed in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida – has undergone a seamless transition to new ownership through careful planning.
~
A fiftieth anniversary is not always a cause for celebration. For companies where succession plans have not been put in place, it is really more a time of crisis when founders retire, leaving a new generation of owners to figure it out for themselves. This was not the case with Langston Construction Company, according to Langston Construction Company Co-owner Evan Sowell.

The company was founded by Julian Langston in 1969, and focused primarily on wastewater treatment facilities at the time. “Approximately twenty years after founding the company,” Sowell says, “Julian brought in James Braswell as a partner. He’d come from more of an industrial and utilities background, so that changed the focus, and then when Julian retired in 1998, James acquired the business, having been a partner for nine years.”

According to Sowell, a successful business transition needs an eight-to-ten-year succession plan, which is what Braswell began in 2005, when current Co-owner Jim Roberts, armed with a master’s degree in construction science management from Clemson University, arrived to work as a superintendent.

Sowell joined in 2006 as assistant project manager and had worked there through an internship while attending Presbyterian College, where he’d earned a degree in business administration. “Jim and I worked on projects together as I moved into project management, and I think James facilitated that on purpose because he saw potential in both of us, and he paired us to see how we’d work together and what our strengths and weaknesses were,” he recalls.

The two men did indeed work well together. Roberts moved into the office and got more experience on the project management and accounting side, “so there was a succession plan early on for us to take over because James had started thinking about retirement early. He knew the transition would take time, because we work with a surety company, insurance agents, contracts, reviews, lawyers, bankers, clients, and each of these relationships take time to develop. Over time, after becoming minority stockholders in 2009, we received more responsibilities as executive officers. James recognized when we were ready and in a position where it made sense for us financially, so we were able to complete the transition this past June,” says Sowell.

“It was really well-planned and thought out, and I don’t think there’s been a hiccup. Neither has there been a culture shock to any of our employees, as they knew this was coming for quite some time. Eight years ago, we began making hiring decisions, so there is loyalty, and employees understand the structure of the organization.”

This does not mean, however, that Braswell is sitting at his desk in a rocking chair. Far from it. Now, as a strategic advisor, he maintains an office at Langston. “He’s been in the business for forty years, and having him here has been a valuable asset to Jim and me,” says Sowell. “He’s a mentor and someone to bounce ideas off. He’s seen a lot and been through a lot. He still comes in a couple of days a week; he’s involved in strategy meetings and long-term planning, and he can share experiences that we haven’t had a chance to have, because we’re only in our mid-thirties, and we have a long road ahead,” he shares.

“We’ve been complimented by our accountants for our tax reviews and tax planning, by our bonding and insurance agents, our corporate attorneys – by all of the support entities that a company has to deal with. They’ve been really complimentary with how we’ve had our succession plan structured and how well it has gone forward. I think James could offer a blueprint to folks for how to do this successfully.”

Although their retirements are a long way off, Sowell and Roberts recognize the importance of starting their own succession plan and are bringing in young people and maintaining a good mix of ages. “We have older folks who’ve been with us for a long time, so they know how we like to do things, and we have youth who will breathe in excitement and energy. We like to keep things energetic, upbeat, and positive, and younger people bring that,” says Sowell.

“Ultimately, we employ a lot of exceptional people who are goal-oriented. We have folks from the military, people who were athletes in college or worked their way through, folks with engineering degrees or education in construction management or people with MBAs – things that demonstrate commitment and show something about character, and that means performance is going to be way beyond average. We have those folks not only in managerial staff but in our field staff and throughout our entire organization,” says Sowell.

“There are a lot of companies who want to emulate what we’ve done,” with regards to succession planning, he notes. “What I would tell them is it takes time. Eight to ten years to do it, as there is so much information that has to be transferred and development that has to take place, and they need to be ready and prepared. The new owners need to have not only the mindset of a project manager or other position they’ve held but also the mindset of a business owner.”

Langston Construction Company has been recognized with a first-place construction safety excellence award from the Association of General Contractors of America which judged its safety culture as the best in the nation for companies of its size. It has also received the Carolina Association of General Contractors’ presidential award for safety excellence.

Roberts and Sowell are determined to keep the culture safe. Emblazoned on the back of the yellow vests worn by onsite Langston workers is the slogan, “Zero Unsafe Behaviors,” as a constant reminder of the safety program.

“We have a safety committee, and we look at training we need to implement, and every project has a site-specific safety plan and checklist associated with it that allows us to verify if certain processes and procedures need to be implemented. And this applies to our subcontractors. We have a good list of prequalified subcontractors, and we provide training to make sure they perform to the safety standards we expect,” Sowell says.

“Our previous record was more than 2,800 days, over seven years, without a lost-time accident,” Sowell says, “but then, three years ago, we had an incident and had to reset the clock.” It has not had a lost-time accident since. At the time of writing (January 30), that number is back up to 1,400 days. “We have a corporate safety manager, and we’ve got six onsite safety professionals, and we employ a fulltime onsite guy anytime we have a project over a certain manpower count.”

This past year, the company implemented ‘Good Catch,’ a positive program in which employees are recognized for bringing attention to an unsafe condition or hazard, “and that has really taken off. We’ve had great participation, and we recognize those folks who were able to mitigate an unsafe situation before starting to work, in our monthly newsletter and at our annual safety meetings.”

Another program applied this year is a computer-based learning management system, which employees can take as long as they have access to a computer and the internet. “On weather delay days, they can do training to fill in some of the time, and we can track how much of the training they complete.” There is a range of topics from excavation to hazard communication.

“We also do random drug tests on a quarterly basis because we have a zero-tolerance approach. I think if cannabis was legalized in our area, it would be a huge problem in our industry because everything we do is dangerous. Very rarely do we work with our feet on the ground. We’re below grade in a hole, or we’re up in the air, and a guy can’t be under the influence and work safely. Where it’s legal, it’s going to pose problems for employers. Where we’re working, it’s not legal, and I hope it stays that way.”

Langston Construction Company uses design-bid-build, design-build, integrated project delivery, and construction management at risk methods in an approach that sees the owner, designer, and contractor working as a team to ensure the success of the project, and this collaboration has encouraged repeat business. No project is too big or too small; it may be a one-day job to handle an emergency for an owner, or it may be a $30 million project.

Sowell told us about one recent monumental project the company completed during a workplace shutdown at an operational industrial facility. The project involved the replacement of a saltwater air dryer. “We removed it and installed a new one, for a client we’d worked with for over twenty-five years. We had to remove and reinstall the existing roofing system and the structural steel in order to get the unit out, and we had a 400-ton crane on site to take out the accessories like the heat exchanger, steam valves, tanks, motors, and associated ductwork. Then we had to set it all back in place, replace the existing floor grating, the structural steel, and roofing, and get it all back up and running during the three-week Christmas shutdown.” Because it was essential that the manufacturing plant be operational again, Sowell says that Langston employees worked in twenty-four-hour shifts, with twenty-five to thirty workers and much heavy equipment in use at a time.

“We’ve just completed a wastewater treatment facility – a six-to-eight-month project. The company was doing a plant expansion because the existing facility couldn’t take the demand they had and needed this to keep up with their manufacturing, and they couldn’t start a new project line until the treatment facility was up and running,” says Sowell.

“In terms of commercial projects, we’re doing a little bit all the time. In 2018, we renovated and finished a 68,000-square-foot renovation – a total remodel of an operations facility. We took the building down to its existing shell and built it back up with an all new mechanical and electrical systems. Our commercial work is not too glamorous; we don’t do retail. Our commercial work is for our industrial clients who need office refits or remodeled warehouse spaces, so it’s considered commercial construction for the industrial client,” says Sowell.

“I think the future is bright, and I look forward to what’s coming down the road. We live in a great part of the country where the economy is doing well, and the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been that I can remember. I’ve heard talk lately that a recession is right around the corner, and everyone’s worried. But if everyone just sat steady in their boat, I think it will all work out. People need to think positively.”

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 16, 2019, 1:52 PM EDT