Temperatures are scorching at a Lewallen Construction jobsite, where workers are welding an 800-foot-long bridge over the north fork of Peachtree Creek and operators are grading for a parking lot with a Bobcat® T650 compact track loader. The sun is so hot that the creek looks refreshing. Its bank is lined with trees and far enough removed from busy Buford Highway that you can almost ignore the sounds of traffic.
This bridge is a part of the new Peachtree Creek Greenway trail, and the parking lot is part of a new trailhead. The trail will connect the city of Brookhaven, Georgia, and its residents to hundreds of miles of trails in the Atlanta metro. It’ll be a place where Brookhavenites can escape the commotion of urban life and traffic to bike, jog, walk and relax.
Lewallen Construction has built approximately 350 miles of recreational trails like these in the Atlanta area. Almost every mile was graded by operators in Bobcat compact loaders.
“Bobcat loaders are ideal for grading trails,” says Bob Uhlenhoff, general manager of Lewallen Construction. “Especially the track loaders, because they don’t get stuck. The loaders are the bread and butter for our company.”
Larry and Peggy Lewallen, the owners and namesakes of Lewallen Construction, pivoted to building trails and other municipal work in the early 1990s – one of many pivots that has led them to the successful 125-employee business they run today. Lewallen Construction pours an average of 500,000 square feet of concrete walls and 40,000 cubic yards of concrete each year.
Maybe “pivots” is too calculated a word. Maybe it’s just that Larry and Peggy have an uncanny ability to stay ahead of economic disasters.
“We feel like we’re on a set of railroad tracks, the train is coming down the tracks, and we’re still on the run,” Larry says.
Moving from Waterpark Construction to Building Houses
Larry Lewallen previously lived in Branson, Missouri, and owned a small concrete construction business. He was hired to build a water park in Branson, and ended up joining the company full-time to build water parks in Oklahoma, Texas and eventually Georgia.
In 1984, after finishing construction of what today is called Six Flags White Water in Cobb County, near Atlanta, Larry and Peggy decided to form their own residential construction company. They could see the tremendous growth happening in the Atlanta suburbs, so they started Lewallen Construction and went into business laying foundations and walls for new houses.
“We had an El Camino and a van, and we bought a trailer,” Peggy says. “We also had concrete wall forms in storage back in Branson.”
They sold property Larry still owned in Missouri and used the proceeds from the sale to buy a Bobcat 843 skid-steer loader from Bobcat of Atlanta.
Larry says residential construction customers were easy to come by around Atlanta in the 1980s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the Atlanta metropolitan area grew nearly 32% from 1980 to 1990. The area was in a boom.
In addition to laying foundations, Larry and Peggy branched out into municipal work, like hardscaping for streetscapes and building retaining walls and sidewalks.
“An advantage of working with a municipality is you know you’re going to get paid,” Peggy says. “Some municipalities pay higher than others, but in the end, you are not going to have to fight for the money.”
Moving from Building Houses to Municipal Work
Diversifying their business to serve municipalities helped insulate Lewallen Construction from a recession in the early 1990s. When residential work dried up, Peggy and Larry shifted their company’s focus to a greater mix of municipal work.
“We had a meeting with our employees, and we told them, ‘Now look, you’re not going to do what you used to do. But if you’ll do what I ask you to do, when I ask you, we’ll all have a job at the end,’” Larry says. “And it was rough. But we saved all of our good people, and we came out okay at the end because our employees did whatever we asked them to do.”
Lewallen Construction developed a specialty in municipal work, and demand for their services grew. The company went from serving as a subcontractor on municipal jobs to being the general contractor. Then, in 1995, a nonprofit group hired Lewallen Construction to build a few miles of a paved, multi-use trail on an abandoned trolley line. Peggy and Larry bought a paving machine for the job – and more Bobcat skid-steer loaders.
“When you’re working on a mile-and-a-half linear project like a trail, there can be crews simultaneously working on numerous places,” Peggy says, “So to be efficient, every crew needs a Bobcat loader.”
That initial equipment investment was a smart one, because three years later the same nonprofit put out a bid opening for a 46-mile trail. Lewallen Construction put in the lowest bid and won the job.
“Everybody said, ‘How can they afford to do it for that?’” Larry says. “We had jumped in at full speed and gotten ahead of everybody and set up right off the bat with the right equipment. We were ready to go.”
Winning that first project gave Lewallen Construction a competitive advantage for future trail work: experience. More trail projects arrived, and with each win their company’s advantage grew.
“Our people have done enough trail construction that they know how to get it done quickly and create a good product,” Peggy says. “And they’ve learned ways to save money.”
Knowing how and where to cut costs is crucial in winning municipal work, which regularly goes to the lowest bid. Lewallen Construction’s team of four estimators know from experience how low they can bid while still making a profit for the company.
“If somebody does beat us on a bid, they usually don’t beat us again,” Peggy says. “Because they say, ‘We can’t make any money at this.’”
Continuously investing in their equipment is one way Lewallen Construction keeps their bids low.
“Larry is always looking through magazines, talking to people and thinking, ‘What can we do to make a job faster, quicker, better?’” Peggy says. “He’s always looking for equipment to decrease labor costs.”
That constant search led Larry to a breakthrough that saved Lewallen Construction during another economic downturn – the Great Recession.
Smart Business Decisions Help Company Weather the Recession
Concrete wall construction was always the Lewallens’ specialty, and this skill helped them win municipal jobs that required large retaining walls. Then, Cobb County and the Georgia Department of Transportation passed new design regulations mandating ashlar finishes for all retaining walls. An ashlar finish gives a plain concrete wall the look of individual, squared stone blocks.
This new regulation made building the walls much more time-consuming – and therefore expensive. Everyone in the area was using a plastic liner to create the finish, but Larry knew there had to be a way to pour the concrete wall with just a form.
“I woke up at about two o’clock in the morning thinking about it,” Larry says. “So the next morning I called a friend in Iowa who knew a lot about the industry, and he told me about someone in Kansas who had just developed forms for ashlar-finish walls. I called the manufacturer and told him we’d be there tomorrow.”
This was in the middle of the Great Recession, and the manufacturer had not sold a single form yet. But the Lewallens spent $250,000 on forms right away. It was not an easy decision, but one they knew they had to make.
“We got back to the hotel and I told Peggy, ‘We’re going broke and we’re spending money like water,’” Larry says. “But it was a good thing. The forms saved us.”
The forms enabled Lewallen Construction to build the newly mandated ashlar-finished walls with much less time and labor. Those lower expenses meant they could out-bid the competition. They also signed a contract with the form manufacturer to ensure they would be the only contractor in Georgia who could buy the forms.
This competitive advantage helped Peggy and Larry win enough municipal work to weather the recession. When the economy improved and cities resumed spending on construction projects, Lewallen Construction grew. 2018 was their biggest year, and trail construction doesn’t show signs of stopping. The Peachtree Creek Greenway trail is the most complex project they’ve ever done, with a lot of walls – giving Lewallen an advantage – and several bridges.
“What’s cool about building trails is you end up with something you can use; it’s a project you have pride in,” Peggy says. “You see people enjoying the trails, folks pushing elderly people in wheelchairs and little kids on bikes. That’s really rewarding.”
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