Giving Family Success New Meaning for Four Generations
McKnight Construction Company
For over fifty years, McKnight Construction has been performing commercial construction throughout the southeastern states. The company offers construction management, bid build, and design build services, and the team’s consistent dedication to quality has built a reputation that proceeds them. I spoke with Will McKnight and his daughter Jane Marie Kinsey, to learn more about McKnight Construction Company Inc. and how it navigates the market.
It is pretty rare to hear a story about three generations of the same family constructing and remodeling the same building; even rarer to hear of their children working with the children of the workers on the original project. This is exactly what happened when Will McKnight of McKnight Construction Inc. remodeled the Henderson Library at Georgia Southern in 1990. His father built the original library in the 1970s, when he was still in high school. When Will remodeled the building in 1990, the superintendent was the son of the superintendent who worked with his father on the 1970s project.
Since its inception in 1929, McKnight Construction Company, Inc. has evolved from building houses into a construction company that conquers everything from large commercial structures to boutique projects. While it has the financial capabilities and experience to complete hundred-million-dollar projects, it still behaves much like a small business in many ways. Every owner receives hands-on attention from the leaders of the company and has open access to the home office at all times. “We work hard to ensure that each client knows how important they are to us throughout the duration of the project,” says Will. Everyone from the chief executive officer, the financial team, the project managers, and the field team are all on call.
McKnight Construction does much work for local and federal governments. In its time, it has built barracks, training ranges and even tank ranges in the early 2000s at Fort Benning, Fort Stewart and Fort Bragg. Today, it is involved in constructing municipal buildings like libraries, jails, and courthouses, and has built schools all over Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
What sets the company apart is not how its projects have changed over the years, but rather the fact that its attention to detail, the caliber of its craftsmen and its quality have not.
A large percentage of the firm’s workload is currently devoted to building schools, and the team is remarkably sensitive in guiding school boards through the process. “When we go to a small community, building a large high school is often the largest job they’ve seen for a long time. We try to help that community through the process,” says Will. Asking the right questions, listening to clients, and ensuring that there is a clear understanding of priority and expectation is what ensures the final product fully supports the needs of a community. This is exactly the process that McKnight Construction took when working with Dorchester School District Two on their mission to build a new Elementary School and Middle School on one campus. By working together as a team with the architect and school district, a final product was designed and delivered that will successfully serve that community for years to come.
This dedication is what results in the company’s excellent track record, bringing clients back again and again. It is why people are sharing McKnight’s phone number with others in need of planning, management or construction services. McKnight Construction Company Inc. also goes out of its way to employ local workforce on each project. It recognizes the economic impact that a large project can have in a small community and believes in giving back to the communities in which it works. For example, McKnight Construction recently completed a New Town Hall for the community of Mount Pleasant and utilized over 75 percent of local subcontractors in the project. While it is well-known for this, it is only one of the ways in which the firm has built a reputation of trustworthiness and steadfastness.
Its story is one of tenacity and superb timing. Mason McKnight Sr. came to the North Augusta area in 1929. It was the time of the Great Depression, and life was tough for everyone. He started building homes in Augusta, Aiken and around the South Carolina area, until his son, Mason McKnight Jr., a graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology and a United States Army lieutenant, came home in the mid-fifties.
The firm was incorporated in 1961, and by the time Mason Jr. had built two or three houses, he decided there had to be a better way to make a living and went into the commercial construction business. This was a life-changing decision that not only changed the course of the business forever, but it also would afford him the pride of seeing the company’s annual revenue grow from $312,000 in 1962 to more than $30,000,000 at the time of his death in July 1994.
Mason Jr. achieved this great success by developing a niche construction focus and building grocery-anchored shopping centers all along the eastern seaboard. Current president and third-generation of the family to work in the company, Will McKnight and his brothers, Mason and Locke, joined the family business in the late seventies, after completing their studies. Interest rates were about 26 percent at the time, and building shopping centers had to make way for a new focus.
Under President Carter, there was a great deal of investment in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing projects. McKnight Construction Company, Inc. started building these HUD houses. After Carter, President Ronald Regan took HUD funding and put it into military spending, instead. Augusta is centrally located to the many military bases in the southeast. The firm went on to do military work, and again adjusted to the demands and opportunities of the times.
When the fourth generation joined the company, the brothers decided to separate. McKnight Construction Company continued in the government sector doing mainly local and state work throughout the southeast as well as some federal work. Will McKnight continues to work as the CEO and President of McKnight Company Inc., and is thrilled to have two of his daughters and one son-in-law working with the company. Blakely Downs, Will’s second daughter, has said that learning from her father has been more fun and educational than she could have ever imagined.
McKnight Construction Company Inc. is family-oriented in a way that few other companies ever really reach. “When I was young, dad thought that the best way to teach me anything about life was to teach me to pour concrete and work on the job site. So we all worked on the job site growing up with the workforce. Some of those people still work for us, as well as their sons. It really was the best way to learn,” says Will.
Like her father, Jane Marie also started in the field. She was on the job site early in the morning with everyone else when she got her first field job in quality control. “The only way to understand construction is to be on the job site, see things being built and deal with the day-to-day challenges that arise. Everything looks great on paper, but it’s different in practice,” she says.
The firm believes in working correctly, the first time, because, in their experience, you could be the one doing the remodeling later.
McKnight Construction Company Inc. is also specific about the kind of supervisor it employs. In addition to young college graduates, it focuses on employees who have come up through the ranks in other trades and who understand construction fundamentals. Will ascribes the firm’s longevity to the fact that the entire company is skilled and can step in when times get tough. “When times get bad, all of us just go to work doing the trades, which allows us to be a lot more competitive than our competitors. We often work together and have great relationships,” says Will. He believes in adapting to the market, and the firm has great partners in the industry that make this possible.
Its relationship with its staff is every bit as important, and many of the people who worked for the firm when Jane Marie was learning the ropes as a teenager, still work here. While it has 30 staff members, it also has a large crew of highly-skilled subcontractors. Many of these craftsmen used to work for the company, but are now self-employed and the model is working exceptionally well.
The company invests in its staff, and their training is ongoing, especially technologically. “You’re only as good as the people on the job site doing the job,” says Jane Marie. For this reason, employees in the field are part of the company family, involved in the projects from beginning to end. They are the ones in charge of making decisions every day, ensuring that our projects run smoothly and effectively. “We make sure that they’ve got all they need to do well,” she says. Will supports this initiative and relies on the next generation to educate him on the new ways of the business. He humbly recognizes that sometimes the best ideas come from the newest members of the team.
To complement current construction education, which focuses a lot on theory and technology, youngsters are partnered with experienced people who have done the job for many years. In this way, skills are transferred from one generation to the next. The firm also partners people with different strengths, and this strategy yields well-rounded superintendents who can run job sites from a wider perspective than usual.
The family atmosphere of the company reiterates this investment in their people. McKnight Construction hosts safety lunches, dinners together, and other community activities. “The whole company is a family,” says Will, “and we go through it all together.” This commitment is why you’ll find multiple generations of other families working for the company for many years. They strive to extend the family atmosphere outward to client and design partners also. Every job is made possible by a team, and that team, through successful collaboration, can become a family.
McKnight Construction Company Inc. has won many industry awards, especially for the schools it has constructed. It always ensures that some funds from its foundation go toward every school it completes to support further development. It has a genuine love of its local communities and supports them. Will and Jane Marie are both on state and local boards, investing and teaming with communities in a commitment to improvement.
Will describes his management style as ‘very much hands-on, top to bottom.’ He believes in clear communication throughout and visits his job sites at least every two weeks. “We empower our superintendents and field-site managers who control our projects. They’re the bosses on our site, so we’re here to support them and help them do their jobs,” he says. By insisting on a transparent line of communication from the owner, architect, office, and field team, he ensures that expectations are managed and met through the duration of a project. “Communication is the key to success,” says Jane Marie in agreement. “We’ve been very fortunate that clients like what we do. We’re constantly trying to communicate with our clients and help them with building design and improvements,” says Will. For the McKnight family, communication is the name of the game.
Regarding the general skills problem that the industry is facing, the firm does much work with education partners to enlighten the public of the benefits of working in the construction industry and how good a living it can provide. The trades need quality, driven individuals to do all projects, but in some areas the availability is slim. There is a growing need for masons, mechanics, electricians, and plumbers in the field that can read plans and transpose that knowledge into a final product. With his daughters working alongside him in the field, Will believes that construction is not only a career for men. “We’ve got a lady electrician who is a great worker and knows her job site. We need more of them too,” he says.
It would appear that while the construction industry is changing, it is definitely not dying. With firms like McKnight Construction Company Inc. leading the industry, careers in the trade are looking up in a big way. This, of course, bodes well for clients searching for quality and is another reason to entrust their next project to McKnight Construction Company Inc.’s fantastic team of professionals.