Preserving the Past and Building the Future
Take a look inside Chris-Tel Construction, a construction management firm rich in family history whose relationship-driven core values set it apart from other firms in the area.
Chris-Tel Construction, located near downtown Fort Myers, Florida, provides construction management services, general contracting services, design-build services, and pre-construction services. The company was founded by Howard L. Wheeler II. The Wheeler family’s deep roots in the construction business in Fort Myers date back to 1924 when Howard’s family started Wheeler Brothers Construction. Howard grew up working for the family business before establishing Chris-Tel Construction in 1989. Staff positions were added to Chris-Tel Construction in 1991 when Donnie Singleton, a life-long friend of Howard, joined the company as a partner.
For the first few years, Chris-Tel focused primarily on complex, high-end residential renovations. The company then expanded into commercial construction focusing on mid-sized projects ranging from $5 to $10 million, many of which were continuing service contracts with municipal agencies and educational institutions. Through the early years, Chris-Tel developed a reputation for quality and reliability by continuously finishing projects on time and on budget.
In 2013, Chris-Tel went through a major expansion with the addition of several large-scale vertical projects, prompted by an increased demand in the market for a larger construction management firm in the Fort Myers area. This resulted in the completion of over half a million square feet of restoration and new construction. This increase in Chris-Tel’s project portfolio called for an expansion of the Chris-Tel team as well.
Today, Chris-Tel employs 35 full-time associates who work either at the headquarters near downtown Fort Myers, or at field offices set up on job sites. Along with the growth of the staff, sales volume in the past two years has grown over four hundred percent. The growth also allowed for the creation of the special projects division, headed by Donnie Singleton, and is composed of a select group of individuals that focus on projects valued at under $2 million
Though the company has grown, Howard and Donnie have ensured that the core values of integrity, dedication, quality craftsmanship, and unwavering work ethic remain at the forefront of each project Chris-Tel procures. These values extend into the workplace culture at Chris-Tel, where every employee is treated as a family member. Though Chris-Tel’s reputation in the community is respectable, Howard believes that there is always room for improvement. He states, “Nothing is good enough; we are always trying to do better.” It is this work ethic that motivates the Chris-Tel team to excel in every project they are tasked with. No matter the size of the project, the team aims to fulfill the client’s needs and exceed their expectations.
These values are upheld by the entire Chris-Tel team, especially when it comes to local construction. The Fort Myers community is cherished by Chris-Tel, not only because the company is based there, but because it is “home” to the entire Chris-Tel team. Some of the associates are true locals, born and raised in the Fort Myers area. Each team member is passionate about the community, and many volunteer at local organizations. Howard explains, “We’re locally owned and operated; our money doesn’t go anywhere. We are all involved in the community and we have a passion for our community that comes through in our business and our work product.”
Howard’s devotion to both the community and his company has shaped the way that Chris-Tel does its business. According to Molly Scott, Manager of Marketing and Public Relations, “Howard is not multiple steps away from a project; he is right next to the project managers, talking about the schedule elbow-to-elbow with these guys. On every project, we’re involved from the top down. Not only do the clients benefit from this hands-on approach, the staff is reminded of what it takes to get the job done right.” Chris-Tel places an emphasis on the client’s satisfaction, the quality of the product, and the happiness of the coworker. This unique combination of ideals is what sets Chris-Tel apart from any other firm in the area.
The importance of good relationships in construction applies not only to clients and coworkers, but also to the labor force. Eighty to ninety percent of the labor force for Chris-Tel comes from subcontracted workers. These subcontractor relationships are important because the company is only as strong as those connections, and the management believes that these subcontractors deserve the same respect and integrity as the company’s internal staff. Howard explains, “We realize that without that labor force we can’t do what we do well.”
Chris-Tel’s hard work has been continuously recognized with several different awards from local, regional, and national entities. In 2014 Chris-Tel received the Face award for diversity in the workplace from Gulfshore Business and D’Latinos magazine. In 2017, it was awarded the Excellence in Construction Award by the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) Gulf Coast Chapter for Somero Enterprises Headquarters and Training Facility, a commercial office building. Somero Enterprises is a high-end industrial office training facility, complete with custom interior finishes not typically seen in an industrial office building. Along with this award, Chris-Tel won three merit awards from the ABC Gulf Coast Chapter for various other projects in 2017.
Chris-Tel was nationally recognized in 2008 with the Trustee’s Emeritus Award for Excellence in the Stewardship of Historic Sites for its restoration of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, a challenging ten year continuing service contract that included the restoration of the historic buildings at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. Much of the work on this project was completed by skilled workers and craftsmen. To further educate these skilled workers and craftsmen for this project, Chris-Tel partnered with a local community college to create a historic craftsman training program, the R.E.A.P. Alliance (Restoration, Education and Preservation).
The R.E.A.P. Alliance was an integral aspect of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates project. The program aimed “to educate and train people in the art and craftsmanship required to restore and maintain the nation’s historic buildings and structures. To expand their educational capacities to develop the knowledge and skills necessary for management positions.” Chris-Tel paid for the course for sixteen craftsmen who wished to take part in the night class. After two thousand hours of hands-on craftsmanship training under the apprentice program, thirteen of the skilled workers and craftsmen received a certificate for historic craftsmanship. After ten thousand hours, two received an upgraded certificate to document their five years of experience with hands-on historic preservation training. Though the R.E.A.P. Alliance greatly furthered the skilled workers’ and craftsmen’s knowledge of historic preservation, Howard still follows his “nothing is good enough” principle by asking, “How do we make it better? How do we make the process better? How do we leave these individuals and these craftsmen when the project is over, to be more marketable, more educated and more knowledgeable about their craft than they were when they started?”
Through its hard work and dedication to the art of historic preservation, Chris-Tel has developed a reputation for its ability to go above and beyond on these types of projects, so much so that when the City of Fort Myers had to relocate a century-old brick building, the Langford Kingston home, it contacted Chris-Tel for the tricky maneuver. The home itself weighed three million pounds. All historic artifacts in the building were secured and the structure was reinforced before the team elevated the building, put it on a set of wheels as one whole unit, and moved it to across the street to its new location.
In site and civil construction, Chris-Tel has completed significant projects as well. One current project, the Estero Boulevard Improvements, has been deemed the hardest horizontal/roadway construction project done by Lee County. It is a challenging project located on a barrier island with a narrow, fifty foot right of way. The summer residency on the island comprises about eight to ten thousand people and the winter residency blooms to about fifty thousand residents, which does not include any of the tourists. Estero Boulevard is the only corridor to the island and sustains heavy traffic during season, which complicates the project. There is also a large amount of pedestrian traffic on the island, complicating the project further. The project entails not only the visible roadwork, but also upgrades to all infrastructure related to supporting a barrier island, including the storm drainage and the sanitary sewer system. It is one of the most difficult site and civil projects that the Lee County government has ever been involved with. The Estero Boulevard project is expected to be completed in 2020.
Chris-Tel’s Special Projects division has completed many notable projects as well, including projects for the local school district and local government. The Competitive Negotiation Act in the state of Florida allows municipalities to maintain continuing contracts with projects up to two million dollars, which are awarded by the state based on credentials and criteria. Chris-Tel has continuing contracts with local municipalities and school districts including Lee County, Collier County, the City of Fort Myers, the Lee County School District, Florida Southwestern State College, the Lee County Port Authority (encompassing Southwest Florida International Airport and Page Field) and Hendry County. This past summer, the Special Projects group completed five major renovations for the Lee County School District, and many for the Lee and Collier County governments as well as the City of Fort Myers. The group also takes on private projects for clients like Arby’s. Recently the team renovated an Arby’s restaurant using the new U.S. prototype design. This was one of the first in the country, and the team completed the entire project from start to finish in less than a month.
Each of the different sectors within Chris-Tel is experienced and knowledgeable, which brings a lot of diversity to the firm. “When different types of projects show up across the various client bases, we can engage those and execute them,” Howard explains. “With the individuals that we have here, we have the ability to dissect and take apart a project to look at different ways to expedite a schedule.” This ensures that Chris-Tel has the right skill sets to bring expertise to a variety of projects. Each project has a multitude of challenges and the company’s goal is to meet those with a specialized knowledge that is uniquely offered by the diversity of the staff.
Chris-Tel’s tagline is, “Build, Restore, Preserve” and Howard explains what that means to the company, “We’re building relationships; we’re building buildings. We do so much historic restoration that we’re restoring the past and we’re preserving relationships and history. That really is what we believe in – we’re building more than buildings; we build a corporate dynamic that values the customer and quality of the work product.” Through building, restoring and preserving, Chris-Tel Construction is celebrating the past while looking to the future.