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Expanding to Southeast Increases Success of Pa. Contractor

Thu May 18, 2023 - National Edition #11

Work is under way on a two-lane bridge project in Bartow, Ga.
(CEG photo)
Work is under way on a two-lane bridge project in Bartow, Ga. (CEG photo)
Work is under way on a two-lane bridge project in Bartow, Ga.
(CEG photo) Clearwater Construction builds a cofferdam for a bridge pier.
(CEG photo) Kevin Jones (L) and Brian McKain, both of Clearwater Construction, are ready to discuss their latest project.
(CEG photo) Teddy Webb, project superintendent of Clearwater Construction, stands with the column form to make the next 3-ft. by 3-ft. square.
(CEG photo) The company is using two Manitowoc cranes on the project.
(CEG photo)

Despite outside forces, such as a much-forecasted economic slowdown, the Southeastern U.S. infrastructure building market has continued to grow at a steady pace during the post-COVID period.

Multiple structure and road/bridge projects are announced daily in states like the two Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, to name a few.

And that growth has not gone unnoticed by contractors in other areas of the country in search of lucrative markets to expand their operations — often hundreds of miles from their home bases.

One such company is Clearwater Construction, a heavy civil building firm founded 20 years ago in Mercer, Pa., approximately 65 mi. north of Pittsburgh. In that time, Clearwater has grown from a one-man operation to a well-respected middle market design-build contractor offering bridge and heavy construction as well as rehabilitation, paving, drilling, shoring and geotechnical services.

Its founder, Gary Gorski, has guided Clearwater every step of the way by utilizing what he learned over four decades of experience — first as the driver of a concrete mixer, then a project superintendent and industry executive, to now the CEO of a hugely successful firm.

Under his leadership, Clearwater has experienced steady growth, profitability and repeat business due to giving its clients the best in construction services. Over his lengthy career in the building trade, Gorski has helped to complete more than 650 bridges and bring in revenue exceeding $1.2 billion.

Southeast Offers Much-Less Crowded Marketplace

Throughout its maturation into a reliable builder of sturdy, well-engineered bridges and roads, almost all Clearwater projects were centered in Pennsylvania and its surrounding states.

Kevin Jones (L) and Brian McKain, both of Clearwater Construction

But several years ago, the marketplace for construction companies within Clearwater's size range had become crowded and ultra-competitive, according to Kevin Jones, a senior project manager of the firm, leading Gorski and other Clearwater executives to cast their eyes to the Southeast.

"The heavy civil market in Georgia and the two Carolinas looked to be less competitive, and there was a lot of work available — especially in Georgia," he said. "They saw a fruitful opportunity down here."

Jones' colleague, Brian McKain, a general superintendent of Clearwater, added that when the pandemic swept into the eastern United States, many companies in the Northeast pulled back on most of their bidding.

"We had to reach out and look at other markets, like northern Virginia," he said. "[That area] turned out to be very profitable, so Clearwater decided to explore the South Carolina and Georgia markets because it seemed like there was even more opportunity down here, and many fewer companies. In fact, the competition is one-third of what it is in the Pennsylvania market."

Once Down South, Clearwater Hits the Road Running

By late 2021, Clearwater had set up its Southeast office in Augusta, Ga., led by Darryl Jaquith, who currently serves as its regional manager. From that location, both Jones and McKain have been working on projects in both states, the first two of which were in the Georgia cities of Augusta and Sylvania.

Additionally, Clearwater is building an overpass across Interstate 75 in Dooley County, and an 11-span, two-lane bridge carrying U.S. Highway 221 over Williamson Swamp Creek in the Jefferson County town of Bartow.

McKain described the latter structure as being "one of Clearwater's more typical projects," with a contract value of $8 million to $9 million. He added that the bridge, started in the second half of 2022, will likely be finished in October or November.

Across the Savannah River in the Palmetto State, Jones oversaw a package of two bridges in Pickens County, in the state's northwest corner, in conjunction with the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT). Both single-span structures are on county roads over small creeks.

"One is a 70-foot-long cord slab bridge, while the other is a 120-foot bolted girder bridge," he said.

When asked to describe a cord slab, Jones explained, "In some places, like North Carolina, they are called box beams, and are 2-foot by 3-foot beams with holes in them for crews to pull pre-stressed tension strands through. When they are set at the job site, they lock into place so when they are all set, everything is grouted, and crews can just pave asphalt over them. In South Carolina, they are very popular among designers and builders constructing low-volume, low-weight-restricted bridges."

He said that although the pair of structures were only recently finished, Clearwater still managed to get them completed well before the contract's deadline of June 30.

"We were hoping to have everything completed around the first of 2023, but we had, for this area, a very wet winter lasting from November through February," Jones said. "That set us back, along with some personnel issues, but we worked through all of it to get it done in early May."

For their attention to detail, Clearwater was recognized by the SCDOT's Quality Management Team (QMT), the state agency's project inspection office, for achieving near-perfect marks for its construction of the bridge package.

"We had our QMT inspection in November where we scored a 2.97, which was one of the highest marks ever received on a QMT in the state, with 3.0 being a perfect score," Jones said.

He cited the project's superintendent, Marty Robertson, with making the effort such a success, noting his detailed erosion control management at each of the bridge sites.

Gorski Hires Capable People to Help Build Business

In Gorski's earliest days working in construction, he learned how to become successful in the construction industry by seizing upon the opportunities that presented themselves.

The best example of that, according to McKain, came during Gorski's time when he drove a mixer truck.

Teddy Webb, project superintendent of Clearwater Construction

"Gary paid attention to the fact that he would have excess concrete that was not needed after his pours," McKain said. "So, in the evenings, he began to form up sidewalks, walls and steps for homeowners on the side with the extra concrete. He made sure to have his forms ready for the time when he would have a load of concrete. If there were two or three yards of mix leftover, he would take the excess and start making his own pours.

"That was how he got into the concrete business," he added. "He later went from working on residential projects to doing sidewalks for county jobs and worked on getting his code qualifications for PennDOT [Pennsylvania Department of Transportation]."

McKain, himself a 28-year veteran of the heavy civil construction industry, explained that Gorski also knew how to hire the right people for his burgeoning company, including several outstanding structural superintendents that were well known in the industry.

"In Pennsylvania, the way in which you get your work codes is off your qualified personnel," he added. "He gathered around him some really capable hands."

Southeast Gives Clearwater Larger Opportunities

Throughout its two decades in business, Clearwater has partnered with many municipal, state and federal agencies — in addition to the private sector — to provide a range of construction services.

With those services now offered in the Southeast, as well as in the Mid-Atlantic region, Clearwater's number of contracts, and its coffers, have expanded.

"Right now, we have between $70 million to $80 million in backlog between South Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland," McKain said, "and we plan to keep our backlog in the $50 million to $60 million range each year in Georgia and South Carolina alone."

Prior to establishing its presence in the Southeast, Clearwater had become specialists in performing projects ranging from the half-million-dollar box culvert to $3 million to $5 million bridges in Pennsylvania and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic.

"The Southeast market, though, is giving us the opportunity to work on much larger structures because of the lay of the land here and the region's many creeks and swamp land," according to McKain.

For more information, visit CEG

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