Building a Strong Family Firm

Welliver

Welliver

Welliver is a family-run construction firm originally founded in 1898 in Ridgebury, Pennsylvania. The company does construction for both private and public sector clients, primarily in New York state and northern Pennsylvania. In the past, it has also worked on projects in Ohio and North Carolina.
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Welliver moved its headquarters to Montour Falls, New York in 2003, and remains a family business, a point of pride for the current owners. “Steve and I are fifth generation family partners in the business,” says Anne Welliver-Hartsing, vice-president of finance at Welliver.

“And we plan on staying in it,” adds Steve Welliver, who is Anne’s brother and also a vice-president.

There are no plans to change the family ownership structure as the firm confidently moves forward in its third century of existence.

The company employs 200 to 250 people (the number varies, depending on the type of project and time of year), skilled at masonry and carpentry, among other trades. In addition to building, Welliver can handle the managerial side of construction including full service estimating, coordinating contractors and subcontractors, setting schedules and arranging logistics. The company does not have architects on staff and typically outsources the design part of the construction process. That said, staff work closely with design teams to ensure projects are completed properly.

Welliver’s building specialties are facilities for health care and higher education. Other clients include manufacturers, commercial enterprises and public schools.

Welliver values quality and always builds to high standards with an eye for detail. It brings value to its customers through good work, following customer specifications and bringing projects in on time, on budget and to the highest safety standards.

Very serious about safety, the company employs a full-time safety director who ensures that safety policy is being followed and keeps on top of safety-related legislation. In addition, regular safety meetings are conducted at job sites.

This focus on safety has not gone unnoticed. Welliver is a seven-time recipient of the Safety Excellence Award, given out by the Associated General Contractors of New York. The Albany, New York-based trade association serves building and heavy highway construction companies.

Steve Welliver says ninety percent of the company’s business comes from repeat customers, and the company generally relies on positive word-of-mouth from satisfied clients to promote its services.

Welliver has won several awards, including a 2015 “Be Inspired Award” presented by Bentley, an Exton, Pennsylvania-based company that makes software for architects and engineers and runs an award program honoring achievement in construction and design. The award was for “advancing collaborative BIM” in a building project.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a construction process involving digitally-based design programs. The project in question was Bill and Melinda Gates Hall, which Welliver helped build at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The Hall, funded in part by donations from the facility’s namesakes, was built to house Cornell’s computer science and information science departments.

The 100,000-square-foot, four-story building was completed in 2013. It cost $60 million in total to construct and offers space for faculty offices, a lecture hall, and teaching and research labs.

“As construction manager, Welliver was involved in the project’s development from the start. After calculating first estimates, it was evident that the project was over-budget and that a custom exterior curtain wall was a major contributing factor. To combat that challenge, the project team worked closely with the architect and the owner to create a [solution] and then selected a glass contractor prior to the completion of the first design, which ultimately resulted in sixty percent cost savings,” states the Welliver website.

Other recent Welliver projects include a major facilities upgrade for the Corning-Painted Post area school district in Corning, New York. Completed in 2014, this $100 million initiative involved the expansion and renovation of existing school buildings as part of a consolidation drive. The project saw the construction of a new school auditorium, new gym and new classrooms as well as the reconfiguring and renovation of the existing school cafeteria and kitchen spaces.

The company worked on an intensive care unit renovation at a hospital in Sayre, Pennsylvania run by non-profit healthcare organization Guthrie. Welliver served as general contractor on this venture, which saw the creation of a twenty-six-bed intensive care unit topped by a half-story mechanical room out of existing hospital space. In addition to providing cost estimating, scheduling and logistical support, Welliver’s team did “all demolition, masonry and finish millwork and handled coordination of all trades,” states the Welliver website. The project came to 54,000 square feet in total and was completed December, 2014.

It also expanded the global headquarters of medical diagnostic equipment manufacturer Welch Allyn. This project took place in Skaneateles, New York and involved the construction of a new, 125,000-square-foot building and renovation of other existing structures. Project highlights include a two-story atrium area with a reflecting pool and natural lighting, a fitness center and an outdoor walking trail. Work was completed in 2011.

Welliver-Hartsing describes Welliver’s corporate culture as collaborative. It is an apt description, given that Welliver is a family-run firm, and like a family, Welliver employees have learned to work together for mutual goals. Many of the firm’s workers come from families with several members working in the construction industry, she adds.

When it comes to hiring additional help, the company wants “partners that share our values: a focus on safety, a focus on quality, and a focus on schedule,” says JD Young, vice-president.

Partner companies should be able to “execute the plan … meaning, they’ve got the right number of people; they’ve got the resources to buy building material, and they have the resources to put a high-quality project in place,” continues Young.

The firm is also “looking to partner with minority and women [owned] business enterprises,” adds Steve Welliver.

Welliver did not see an immediate impact from the 2008 to 2009 recession. “Construction is on the tail end of the economy. We were still pretty busy in those years. Our downturn, if you call it that, came a couple years later,” recalls Welliver-Hartsing.

Even then, Welliver was not too badly affected.

“Some areas of the country had it worse than we did [when the recession hit]. Upstate New York, which is our primary market, never flew very high.”

Welliver has traditionally stayed out of the frantic New York City construction scene. “It’s crowded,” laughs Welliver-Hartsing, by way of explanation. In practical terms, this means Welliver is unaffected by boom/bust construction cycles in the Big Apple.

The company is part of the Con/Steel Alliance which promotes tilt-up construction methods. In tilt-up construction, concrete elements such as walls, columns and structural supports are laid out horizontally on slabs. Once the concrete is cured, these parts are tilted vertically into place by a crane, forming the exterior envelope of a building.

Welliver has embraced sustainability as a construction principle. The company is a member of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and has more than 25 LEED accredited professionals on staff. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a ‘green’ construction certification program that was developed by the USGBC.

The Welch Allyn headquarters expansion earned LEED Gold certification “due to its environmentally sustainable aspects such as natural ventilation in office areas, skylights [and] storm water collection systems,” says the company. The Bill and Melinda Gates Hall is still awaiting its LEED Gold certification.

Steve Welliver expects company revenues to increase six percent over last year but would rather not reveal the actual figures, citing confidentiality issues. He offers an optimistic, yet cautious, forecast of where the company will be in five years’ time.

“We’re looking to grow, but [we want it to be] controlled growth. We want to make sure we’re not growing too fast. We’re going to target certain customers we feel fit into the kind of work we want to do,” says Steve Welliver. These customers are “primarily private-sector… from higher education to healthcare and high-end manufacturing.”

Company managers are contemplating opening offices in Rochester and Ithaca, both in New York State, as well as Pennsylvania. “Looking forward, we always consider expanding our radius,” explains Welliver-Hartsing.

As the company grows, Welliver management is determined to stay on top of the construction learning curve.

“We are making advances in technology and in providing training for our people,” says Young. “Those are two key factors to staying on the cutting edge. We’re only as good as the people who work for us,” he adds.

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 17, 2019, 11:51 PM EDT