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Building What Makes Brevard Great

It is as large as the Smithsonian’s National  Air and Space Museum, and it shouldn’t be surprising that W&J Construction was chosen to build the $38 million, 100,000-sq.ft. Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center. The company’s roots run deep within the soil of KSC, being birthed 50 years ago by “W” Ed Wike and “J” Goodie Jensen. They both came to the area to be a part of the mushrooming space program and moved from being workers to general contractors, and as the company grew, from landing contracts for pouring concrete sidewalks, to contracts to build one of the world’s most complex engineering marvels: a missile launch complex.  

It is a legacy that Nick Witek, president of W&J, remembers well, as Wike is not only the company’s founder and the one who recruited Witek to work for them, but he is also his father-in-law. Witek describes him as “a remarkable and no-nonsense man who based this company on a few simple concepts of hard work and value for the customer.”  

Witek recalled how they were asked to value engineer the Children’s Treatment Center for the Devereux Foundation back in 1987. The facility was severely over-budget and one of the major cost savings items ($50,000) was to change the desired barrel tiled roof to shingles. While the aesthetics of the campus were compromised, the savings brought the project within budget and allowed it to go forward. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Wike was asked to say a few words and announced that W&J would include the barrel tiled roof at no additional cost to the owner. They could once again have the campus as they had envisioned it.

Moving to the Next Level

Witek came to the area on a regular basis for NASA, which he went to work for after graduating with a master’s degree in electrical engineering (a job he landed when he saw a NASA sign on his way to play golf and stopped in, was interviewed and hired in his golf shorts!). He met his future wife Donna here, and Wike, her father, would take him around to see projects the company was working on in the area. “I think he thought maybe there were some prime pickings for later since he didn’t have any sons to take over the business,” Witek said, smiling.

One of the first large projects W&J went after, when Witek joined in 1980, was building a portion of Launch Complex 39B. It was an $8 million contract and by far the most costly and challenging project they had taken on, and Witek was the project manager. Witek’s attraction to W&J was a combination of private industry opportunity, which was a welcome break from the bureaucratic morass he experienced with a government agency, and the creative satisfaction and sense of accomplishment in building things that last for generations. “I can drive around this county and see some 200 projects that we have built,” Witek said, “that is a very immediate return.” 

“When I came on board we were poised for growth. We had an excellent team. I can’t take credit for where W&J was, but if you plot our work on a graph, beginning in 1980, things really took off,” Witek recalled. “I think Ed sensed this and was looking for someone who could provide long-term leadership and an exit strategy for him.”

However, the leadership transition wasn’t as smooth as Witek thought it could be. In fact, he went to work for another firm for two years, but was asked to return and took the reins in 1999 as president and owner, buying out Wike. He laughs, “Now that I am older I catch myself acting a lot like Ed. He takes a very proactive approach to everything; he addresses problems head-on and finds a fix. That is not just on a project, but relationally with staff, clients and customers.”

Managing the Changes

Few industries follow the economy’s oscillation more than construction. “During downturns, the market gets cautious and construction slows; then prices begin to drop, which in turn causes demand to increase and things take off again,” Witek explained. “Because we have a good net worth, we are able to weather the storm. There was a period where no one was building anything new; we had to get by doing repairs and renovations.”

One of the primary things that has sustained W&J’s long run of success and ability to weather the ups and downs of the market has been its relational orientation, both to customers and to its employees. Erik Costin, vice president and operations manager, who joined the company in 2004, observed, “I was one of the last hires before the recession hit. For me, the most amazing thing about this company was that during the economic downturn, things were tough, but Nick didn’t lay off any of our staff. We cut back where we could, but Nick absorbed a lot of that expense, which really produced cohesion and loyalty from our team. His attitude was, ‘If we close, we’ll shut the lights off together.’”  

Witek commented on the relational trend the industry is also taking, “In the early days, most of the work you won was low bid. It has changed toward a more negotiated process and though companies still seek multiple bids, 75 percent of our business is relational. We have won contracts in the past by delivering on expectations and then on the next project, they tend to lean in our direction. We still win projects, like at Melbourne International Airport which was based on low bid, but often contracts are awarded based on qualifications and past history, not just lowest price.

“That is why it is so important to maintain customer satisfaction. To get in the door is not easy.  We tried for quite a while to get into the healthcare arena without success. Then we hired a guy who had a track record with a local health provider through another contractor, and he had 20 years of experience with them. With his help, we began doing small jobs and then when they were looking for contractors to work on more substantial projects, we were one of those being considered. This was a relationship that we nurtured over a five-year period.”

Costin indicated the key to those relationships is, “You always have to do what you say you’re going to do. The market is so competitive and that principle is our competitive edge. If you lie to a client, it’s over; you’re at the back of the line. That is what Nick has taught me. It was the culture that I came into: ‘Tell them the truth, don’t mislead and don’t hedge.’ And whatever you have to do to deliver on your promise, you do it, even if it costs you.”

Planning for the Future

Witek is earnest about, when the time comes, making the transition from himself to the next generation of W&J’s leadership smoother and more predictable than he experienced. For Costin, part of that future may be diversifying the company from being strictly a building contractor to also being a developer.  

Though he graduated with a pre-law degree, the market was hot at the time that he moved into real estate. “I got into the development business up in Boston and wanted to do that when I came here. I think it brings a whole new dimension to W&J’s portfolio. Until recently, we never developed our own properties, and now it is something we are moving into with our first office project. Strategically, when we provide needed space for a small company as a developer, when that company begins to scale, we can grow with them,” Costin said.

It is the kind of entrepreneurial pursuit that Witek was always attracted to. In fact, when asked if he could tell his younger self to do something differently, he said, “I wish I had moved in a more entrepreneurial track earlier in my career.”  

As he looked back on W&J’s 50 years in the market, Witek said, “The most rewarding projects are the ones that impact the community, like the Space Coast Early Intervention Center, which we were able to do at cost, and now the Field of Dreams Sports Park, which we donated our time for.” The new, $4 million, five-acre sporting complex was designed for those with special needs, to be built in several phases. It will be a destination spot for families with special needs members who live throughout Brevard County and beyond.  

Costin concluded, “When you go from a concept on a napkin, to being there for the grand opening of a new facility and people are excited, that is a pretty special feeling, and it’s what attracted me to the construction side of the industry.”

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This article appears in the April 2015 issue of SpaceCoast Business.
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