By Handling Adversity, Shirley Construction Wins Award

Thu October 31, 2002 - Southeast Edition
Angela B. Hurni

The Hampton Roads Small Business of the Year Award for 2002 has been awarded to Shirley Construction Corporation of Portsmouth, VA. In a ceremony on May 15, the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Development Center of Hampton Roads presented the award to Merilynn Spears, president, of the company.

Nominees for the award are rated according to performance, innovations, quality, leadership, financial stability and working through adversity. Initially, the Chamber of Commerce gives awards to companies from each of the five cities within Hampton Roads, VA: Portsmouth, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk. Soon afterward, Shirley Construction, awarded for the City of Portsmouth Small Business of the Year, was chosen from the five cities to win the award for the region.

In order to qualify as a small business, a company cannot exceed $27.5 million in volume of sales in a year, and the company must have fewer than 100 employees.

“For us personally [receiving the award] is an honor,” Spears said. “Our people average 17 years of service. It’s an honor for those that have been here such a long time and worked through the good times and the hard times — this is acknowledgement for that effort.”

Spears became president of Shirley Construction, after working within the company for more than 10 years, when her husband Roy Spears Jr. died of a heart attack in 1999. The death of her husband left a void on a couple of projects that were under way, and Spears was fortunate enough to have David Baird, executive vice president, take over the management of those projects. Spears also credits her son, Roy E. Spears III, who works as a consultant and maintains the computers and software for the company, with helping the company stay on its feet.

According to Merilynn Spears, the greatest adversity that the company had to overcome was the lack of confidence from Shirley Construction’s bonding company and bank after she and Baird took over. The challenge was to prove that they had the ability to continue the business and make it into a success.

That response to adversity, Spears said she believes, is what impressed the Chamber of Commerce the most.

“When we were put into a position where we could have decided to shut the door, we didn’t,” Spears said. “Most companies can do well and flourish during the good times. The sign of a sound one is that you can hang in there and work through the bad times and still come out to be a success. That’s where we stand a little above everyone else.”

Shirley Construction is now considered a woman-owned business, which is unique in the construction industry.

“There are advantages to being a woman-owned business and disadvantages,” said Baird. “After Roy died, a lot in the marketplace wondered if we could pull it off on our own. After that year, it has been business as usual.”

Shirley Construction, one of Portsmouth’s oldest general contractors, started out in residential construction in 1955. The founder, E.L. Boyce, named the company after his wife.

Shirley Construction has gone through some shifts in its client base since its conception. From residential to small commercial to larger commercial to military and federal to municipal and educational, the shift in the types of projects is one major indicator of the company’s innovativeness. During its 47-year history in Hampton Roads, the company has survived decades due, in part, to its ability to change.

Presently, Shirley Construction is a general contractor performing only commercial work and providing project management and design/build services. Even though there is no architect on staff, the company has individuals with whom it works in that capacity.

“Probably 80 percent of our work is in the open bid market, and most of it is municipal work and state [work],” explained Baird. “We work on a lot of schools; that is our specialty at this time.”

In addition to building schools, the company has constructed office buildings, churches, day care centers and libraries.

Shirley Construction self performs about 10 to 20 percent of the work on a contract. The remainder is subcontracted to other companies, which results in fewer scheduling conflicts, better business relationships with a broader range of suppliers and subcontractors, and sometimes even cost savings.

Additionally, with the bulk of the work subcontracted, Shirley Construction doesn’t have a great need for a large fleet of equipment. The company owns a skid loader, a backhoe and a dump truck. Any other equipment needed on a job is leased.

“This helps us so we don’t have to invest the money in equipment and keep training personnel idle,” Spears maintained.

Shirley Construction is presently working on several projects throughout Hampton Roads and in North Carolina. The City of Virginia Beach Public Works department has awarded a $2.4-million contract to Shirley Construction to build the new Princess Anne Library on Nimmo Parkway. Since breaking ground in April, the company has finished the foundation. At this time, crews are prepping for the slab and preparing for structural steel and site work.

Work also has begun on the E. Washington Street Police Precinct in the city of Suffolk. After only six weeks on the job, the company has had to deal with site design problems and poor soil conditions.

In the city of Portsmouth, Shirley Construction is working on one contract that involves renovations and additions to two schools: Douglass Park Elementary and Westhaven Elementary.

Spears pointed out, “There have been challenges there because they are both older schools and both occupied during all of the work, so give credit to the teachers and the students. They’ve worked right along with us.”

The contractor also is building a Texaco Express Lube in Elizabeth City, NC. This project has presented challenges because an existing car wash is being partially torn down to make room for the new structure to be attached. All the while, the company has had to contend with a high water table in the area.

Spears noted that Shirley Construction is unlike many of the larger general contractors in the area because of its readiness to handle various jobs that differ in size and cost.

“One thing that I think we can offer is the ability to manage and construct a smaller project such as the Texaco Express Lube, which is well under a million dollars, as well as complete a $12-million project at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, which is the largest job we’ve done,” said Spears.