A Family Business Flourishes in Construction and Community Involvement
GAC Contractors is a leader in the Northwest Florida construction trade with a reputation for community involvement. GAC is qualified to serve all federal, state and local government agencies and has built roads, bridges, buildings and other structures. Based in Panama City, Florida, GAC has a building division and a road and site work division, which includes segments doing asphalt and underground utilities projects.
GAC has taken on projects for the education, finance, government, healthcare, leisure, residential, office, religious, retail and restaurant sectors, plus road and site work. “We’re a one-stop shop,” notes vice-president, Derwin White proudly.
GAC was founded in 1958 by Charles Hilton and his father Loyd Hilton, under the name Gulf Asphalt Corporation (‘GAC’). Charles Hilton earned a law degree from the University of Florida but was more interested in working in the construction business than as a lawyer.
“Mr. Hilton and his father started this. They worked hard at it on a day-to-day basis … Mr. Hilton and his wife, his momma and his dad—they just put their nose to the grindstone and made it happen,” recalls White. The firm is still run as a family business. Eighty-five years old this August, Charles Hilton remains with the company as chairman of the board.
GAC stands out from other Florida contractors in a number of ways, says White. “We have an experienced team. Our objective is to provide customer service that’s above and beyond the industry standard … our primary focus is going to be safety. After safety, it’s naturally going to be quality, integrity and efficiency. We will not sacrifice quality for profits, you can bet on that,” he states.
Over the decades, GAC has completed more than $1.5 billion worth of construction projects. It has done work in other southern states but the primary focus is northwest Florida.
The company currently owns construction equipment with a value of over $10 million and has 146 employees. Personnel numbers have recently been increasing at a rate of about twenty workers per year.
A decade ago, in the 2005 to 2006 pre-recession era, GAC had nearly 400 employees. Then, the economic downturn hit, massively affecting the construction industry.
“A recession teaches you a lot. It teaches you efficiency. There’s an old saying, ‘If you don’t remember history, history will repeat itself.’ We remember it,” says White. The company, he states, became more efficient as it became leaner. Today, for example, GAC uses more sub-contractors than it did during its pre-recessionary peak.
GAC wants sub-contractors who share the firm’s principles and objectives. “If they don’t, if they cut corners, we may try them one time, but after that, we sever ties with them and wish them well,” states White.
Last year, revenues were “about $50 to 60 million,” says White, and revenues are forecast to be “about $60 million” for 2016, he adds.
When asked if GAC has done any projects of which the company is particularly proud, White says, “We’re proud of all of them because each of our clients pays us to provide them with good quality project and professional services.”
He does concede, however, that “we have had a couple [jobs] that were more challenging” than others. As an example, he points to a multi-million construction project at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Florida. The project centered around an Advanced Technology Center (ATC) and involved “a lot of different state-of-the-art type construction,” says White.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held to mark the launch of construction on June 24, 2010. The facility, designed from the ground up, was built to house the Sustainable Building Construction department, an Entrepreneur’s Institute/Development Business Lab, an Emerging Technologies Laboratory and an Information Technology/Computer Sciences Center. The total budget for the project was roughly $35 million.
Another academic-oriented project was the North Bay Haven Charter Academy, also in Panama City, Florida. The project involved building a multi-story complex containing sixty-four classrooms with integrated science and computer labs, a media center, a culinary arts classroom and a gym. The contract for this job, which was completed November 2014, was $15.5 million.
Safety is a primary concern for GAC. The company runs a drug-free workplace, provides comprehensive safety training programs for personnel and thoroughly documents safety incidents and benchmarks. GAC holds safety meetings every morning and gives out a safety bonus to workers.
These measures have earned the company respect and recognition. GAC has been honored with a Sustained Superior Safety Performance Award by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a STEP Award for Safety Training and Evaluation from the Associated Builders and Contractors (a national trade organization).
White proudly notes that GAC boasts a low (0.70) ‘mod rate’ with the Florida workers’ compensation board. The ‘mod rate’ or ‘experience modification rate’ is an insurance term that gauges the relative safety merits of a given company. While determining the rate is a complicated process, anything under 1.0 indicates a firm has a good safety record while anything over 1.0 indicates the opposite.
White makes clear that GAC’s safety culture is primarily about protecting workers, not earning awards and good ratings from workers’ compensation. “The last thing I want to do is have to call someone’s mother or wife and tell them that person has been hurt,” he states.
When it comes to marketing, GAC offers a detailed website but for the most part, “we promote ourselves through our actions … our promotion is by word of mouth,” says White.
The latter are displayed on the GAC website via testimonials from officials at the Panama City-Bay County International Airport in Panama City Beach, Florida, the Trinity Lutheran Church in Panama City, Florida, the Harrison Avenue Medical Complex in Panama City, Florida and more. Representatives of companies that build residential subdivisions also have kind things to say about GAC.
As for the company’s actions, GAC has a solid reputation in the construction industry for teamwork and fair play. When doing a project, GAC works collectively and tackles challenges together.
“We work with engineers, architects, et cetera, and our primary objective is to make sure if there’s issues that come up, we solve them as a team, and we don’t point fingers,” says White.
Outside the boardroom and worksite, GAC staff are heavily invested in their community. Several members of GAC management sit on local trade and industry association boards. White, for example, is president of Bay County Contractors & Associates, LLC, an organization representing over one hundred contractors and vendors. The association was incorporated October 2013. In January 2016, White was named member of the year by the Bay County, Florida Chamber of Commerce.
“We also give back to the community,” says White. GAC has made donations to the Panama City Rescue Mission, which runs a program to help underprivileged children with school clothing and supplies and to Bay County Law Enforcement Memorial. GAC also takes part in a Bay County Sheriff Rodeo.
John Pollman, responsible for risk management at GAC, has volunteered for mentoring duties with the Take Stock in Children Program run by the Bay Education Foundation. The program is designed to assist low-income students trying to get into college.
According to White, there’s a simple motivation behind GAC’s extensive community involvement: “We give back to the community that’s provided us the opportunity to be successful.”
GAC also wants to create jobs so young people from the community can complete their schooling then take positions with the firm, he adds.
GAC’s community involvement extends into government. Allan G. Bense, who served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1998 through to 2006, is currently a company partner. During the last two years of his tenure as a state representative, Bense served as Speaker of the House.
The company won a Governor’s Business Leadership Award in 1995, an honor bestowed on innovative Florida companies that demonstrate civic involvement. GAC is the only construction company to win this prize since the award was launched in 1984.
Having been through ups and downs in the industry and experienced economic turmoil first-hand, GAC officials have an optimistic but realistic vision for future expansion.
GAC is looking at “a continuation of growth … we don’t want a spurt of growth. We hope to have three to five percent growth per year over the next five years … if we have five percent growth economically, over a five year period that would be in the neighborhood of $15 to 20 million” in additional revenues, says White.
According to White, there is something far more important than that: “The basis of our company is people … without the 146 people who are working day in and day out, we wouldn’t be at where we are today.”