By. Eric Wright
For more than 30 years, MH Williams has been one of the premier commercial builders in Brevard County. There is hardly a main thoroughfare you can drive down that doesn’t have examples of their work, from the new Mike Erdman’s Toyota and Nissan dealership that recently opened at the intersection of I-95 and SR520, to the Harris Technology Center in Palm Bay or Satcom Direct’s world headquarters in Viera.
EW: What was the attraction to the industry that drew you in and kept you in. Was there a family connection?
MW: No. Actually, my Dad was a physician. But I always wanted to get into construction. So I went to UF and my father insisted I major in engineering. I think it was insurance; he assumed if there was a major recession, I could always get a government job as a civil engineer.
I graduated and got my PE license and for five years I was involved in building water treatment plants. Then I switched to a commercial construction company, building commercial offices and condos in south Florida. Eventually, I was given the opportunity to open a branch office in Brevard in 1983.
Though my wife was very reluctant about the move, she grew to really like it here. We built a few condominiums, office projects and the Oaks Shopping Center, then the company wanted me to move back south. So, I talked with my wife and we agreed to launch my own company in May of 1987.
EW: Did you ever think about moving away from the commercial side of the business?
MW: We dabbled in high-end homes, mainly because clients we were doing commercial projects for wanted us to build their houses. It wasn’t the right fit for us. To the homeowner, it isn’t a business proposition, it is very personal. It’s a huge investment, but they aren’t making money on it, like in a commercial project, and the decision making process is often very slow, so we kept our focus on the commercial side.
EW: How did you scale the company?
MW: When we started, even though I had all this experience, people wanted to know what our company had done, which was almost nothing. So, we had to learn to crawl, then walk and then run. Coy A. Clark gave us a great break and let us do some major projects for him and our reputation began to grow. We built the Reflections office building on U.S. 1.
We wanted to be the best, not the biggest, and were selective about the projects and the clients we went after to insure we were a good match. We could have grown bigger, but having the talent to grow is the crucial factor and that isn’t easy to come by.
EW: Describe the type of projects and clients you like.
MW: Our favorite client is the one who pays. You get a feel, when you are pricing the job or bidding the job, what the client is like and how the relationship will develop.
From time to time the niche for us changes. Recently, we have been doing quite a few automobile dealerships. We just finished Mike Erdman’s Toyota and Nissan on 520, we’re finishing a CarMax in Palm Bay and an Audi Dealership on 192 and I-95. This is meeting a big pent-up demand in the automobile market.
Our favorite client is the one who pays. You get a feel, when you are pricing the job or bidding the job, what the client is like and how the relationship will develop.
– Mike Williams, MH Williams Construction Group
EW: How did you penetrate that market?
MW: We started years ago with Jim Rathmann, which put us on the map. Also, we did a few projects with A.J. Heirs that enhanced our credibility with that sector. Then it was a matter of doing some selective marketing and getting on their bid list.
The furniture and fixture side of that construction project is what makes these properties so unique. The maintenance and repair areas have specialized equipment and construction, which requires some experience that goes beyond simply reading the architectural specifications.
EW: You eluded to the talent issue earlier. What is your strategy for finding talent, from supervisors to roofers?
MW: We are always on the lookout. Sometimes we have to scale back or position our jobs so that we have bridge projects to keep our people busy. The skilled labor sector controls much of what is going on out there. We just have to be very clear with our clients so they are aware of what the constraints are on job completion, because there are only so many people who can do the work. Most owners understand this and work with us.
EW: You have been in the market long enough to go through some cycles; what do you do to manage that?
MW: I tell my son,‘save your money.’ The Florida market is very cyclical and our peaks and valleys are often more severe than in other places in the country. When people are flipping homes with $1,000 down, you know that isn’t sustainable.
EW: You mentioned your son. He is one of your partners, correct?
MW: Yes, it is very rewarding having him with us. Since high school, Mike wanted to be in the industry. His brother Matt, on the other hand, is on the development side and is doing well. After graduating from UF, having interned with two other companies during the summer, he worked with a large firm for three years before become coming to work with us. He is a great asset and brought a lot of experience with him.
EW: What was your most challenging or rewarding project?
MW: As you know, they all have their challenges and the reward is to drive around the community and see these buildings you have constructed over the years. Of course, now some of them are being torn down for new construction.
I suppose the most challenging project was the hangar we modified for Harris Corp. When they purchased a larger corporate jet, they actually had to raise the nose to get the tail through the doors and into the hangar. We helped design and build a pretty extensive span to accommodate that need. All the engineering said it would work, but seeing it onsite gave me a few anxious moments.
EW: What is your perspective on the Brevard construction market?
MW: From what I can see, residential is ahead of the commercial curve as far as inventory. This isn’t my area of expertise, but from what I am told, the supply of available commercial property is dropping and a lot of people who have been holding on to older, even vacant properties are now trying to cash in. I don’t know if they will get the prices they are asking or not. That is decided by the market. I see things remaining pretty robust for at least the next two years; beyond that horizon it is difficult to predict. The area is growing so fast and is so economically diverse, it is an exciting place to be.