I’ve been broke and I’ve been moderately successful – each thing several times.
Failure is only a really bad thing if it takes you down and keeps you there. Falling on hard times can be a character builder like nothing else. Once you’ve found success and experience failure, it makes a good person try even harder to find those good times and to not repeat the same mistakes.
I started out in the construction business back in 1972, a few months before I turned 20 years old. I had nothing but a new wife and a good work ethic. I subcontracted installing new water mains, pretty much on every side of Burnet.
I didn’t know enough to realize I was doing that work for a ridiculously low price. But a fellow had to start someplace. Since I didn’t get very much money per foot of waterline we laid, I just had to make sure we put a lot of pipe in the ground each day.
I had been working in Burnet laying wastewater lines for much of the prior year. I knew my way around. I was familiar with my surroundings.
I put a group of people together as my crew and rented a backhoe. The company that held the contact was furnishing all the materials and supplies for the project so I didn’t have to concern myself with those details.
All I needed to do each day was start digging a ditch and I was operating the backhoe. Then I just had to offer up encouragement for my crew to put pipe in all the ditch I had opened up for them.
For the three months that we were on that project, when we settled up each month and after all bills were paid my paycheck increased by tenfold over what I was making working hourly. That offered us a very comfortable lifestyle, one like we weren’t accustomed to.
Now don’t get me wrong. That all came at a price and it was really hard work and long hours.
I continued to work as a subcontractor and we moved to Austin where there was always a lot of work. Things continued to cause us to prosper.
Showing that I had what it took to get a job done, the contractor I had worked for and then subcontracted work from suggested we should become partners and we formed Lewis Contractors, Inc. in August of 1973.
We worked around different parts of Texas for the next four years. In late 1977 the opportunity came along for me to buy the stock of the other person and then it was left to me to make all the decisions. By this time we were a company with approximately 30 employees.
My brother and several other top hands had joined us by early 1978. During the next four years we grew to over 150 employees. We grew too fast. I didn’t have the business skills handle an operation of that size.
We were so busy doing work and growing that I didn’t realize we weren’t making money. In this business there is such a turnover of money and the stakes so high, things can spiral out of control before you know it. Phone calls from the credit manager of your vendors are usually a good indicator that things aren’t going so. You never hear from them if all is going well. The salesman of those companies call to get you to buy more. That’s who I usually spoke with.
In previous stories I’ve written about my very trusted accountant Woody and my high school friend turned CPA, Winfield each working for me. By 1982, they both were off to other endeavors and it was mostly me and my drunken accountant, GK.
I went to the office very early one morning, probably around 3:00 AM. I made two lists. The first one was all the current and past due bills that I owed. The other one was all the money that was owed to the company for work we had performed. This is the manner of bookkeeping I understood. Forget all that other accounting mumbo-jumbo.
There was about a $1.1 million disparity. How would I ever be able to overcome such debt?
I knew my brother wanted to start his own construction business. He and I talked about it and decided he could take a select group of people that he best worked with, within the company. I would keep a core group of people that had been with me for a decade.
I wrote to each vendor that was owed money. I explained where we were and how I would pay them. I gave them my word that they would get paid, including interest. I just needed breathing room. There was no way I could even tell them how long it would take, but that I would run out on them.
I made sure each one had my pager and mobile phone number so they could contact me, as I was headed to a project in South Austin. I gave them the address of the project.
If I remember correctly there were more than 20 different companies involved. I don’t remember ever hearing for anyone.
I made a deal with a contractor friend from Lubbock to take care of making my payrolls and paying all the bills, of course for a fee, which was a percentage of the contract amount.
We got busy doing what we did best, digging ditches, putting pipe in them and covering it up. This arraignment worked well for everyone. My friend from Lubbock trusted me to bid any project I wanted to.
After a year all of the vendors that I had been in arrears with had been paid in full. For the next few years we did some very impressive projects and got the company back on its feet. My friend in Lubbock was ready to retire. He could see we were off and rolling again.
In the fall of 1984 I was approached by a large general contractor wanting to buy 50% of my company. It would allow me to cash out a nice sum of money. But more than that, the business end of things would be under the umbrella of the larger contractor. I could once again do what I do best; dig ditches, lay pipe and cover it up. Plus we could bid any size project that our heart desired.
The deal was consummated and we were off for the big times. We almost solely chose the big projects. The ones where we had few companies to compete against. We prospered beyond anything I felt possible only a few years before.
As a company we probably became too big for our britches. We took other companies under our wings to do more and more. We sustained major losses on a couple of projects. The real estate slump of the 80s was costing us dearly. The volume of work slowed. The future for business was bleak. We had deep enough pockets to endure it and to see the other side of just about any slump. But egos and our personalities got involved. We decided that our partnership was no longer valuable enough to either of us to hold on to it.
We sold off all of our assets and dissolved our prior business agreement. We remained friends but decided to stand back and see what the future would hold. A couple of years later we had the opportunity to once again work together. But as contractor and subcontractor. The project lasted for more than a year. His company made a lot of money on a percentage of the contact. My company made 4 times more. Ours was a results of hard work, long hours and making the most of the situation. The only sad part of that project was we completed it.
From the mid 1990s until 2003 my brother and I had a working relationship where we pooled resources. It was a very fruitful time for us both. But like many things in life, nothing is forever or so it seems.
We went our separate ways, remaining on friendly terms. We had an extremely good decade and a half, doing projects all over Texas and Oklahoma. Then like several times before, the good times were over. We sustained major losses, thinking the end was near. But making the decision to once again to get leaner and meaner, those bad times came and went.
My brother and I find ourselves working together once again for the past couple of years. As we each have aged, knowing we won’t have forever left to work together we are enjoying the opportunity of helping each other out. The current arrangement is probably better for me than him. But he takes pride in helping to hand this 48 year old corporation over to the next generation of Lewis sons. I think it will be in very capable hands.
When I look back on almost fifty years in the construction business, it has been a real roller coaster. There seems to have been more ups than downs.
I always lived by one main motto. Try as best I could to keep my business and my personal life separated, I made that work for much of my career. I made sure my family income remained steady. A man can withstand almost anything at work, but if he struggles day and night, it would be more than he could take.
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One thought on “The Life Of A Utility Contractor”
Thank you for the history. I don’t have half the ability to take risks as you. That first brush with insolvency would have sent me running for the hills.
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