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Firm's Turnkey Op Helps Bring People to S.C.'s Low Country

Thu May 09, 2024 - Southeast Edition #10

Bobby Lee stands in front of his company’s Hardeeville, S.C., office.
CEG photo
Bobby Lee stands in front of his company’s Hardeeville, S.C., office.
Bobby Lee stands in front of his company’s Hardeeville, S.C., office.
   (CEG photo) Today much of Lee Contracting’s primary focus is on residential projects.   (CEG photo) The first phase of work that Lee Contracting did for Minto at Latitude Margaritaville had more than 200 lots, while the second and third phases each had more than 400 homesites.
   (CEG photo) Lee Contracting has long been pleased with the Volvo CE excavators and more, citing their durability and extended life spans.   (CEG photo) The company’s biggest break came at the end of 2017 when Lee Contracting began working with Minto Communities, a Coconut Springs, Fla., homebuilder that develops its Latitude Margaritaville retirement communities.
   (CEG photo)

The counties and towns in South Carolina's far-southern tip are well established as wonderful places to build new homes.

The trend began decades ago with the development of many of the state's coastal communities just north of Savannah, Ga., headlined by Hilton Head Island in Beaufort County, renowned around the world as a top vacation and residential destination.

Much of the area, though, between the Broad River on the north side of Beaufort County and the Savannah River to the south, is laced with river inlets and marshland, which gives the region its "Low Country" designation.

In the parts of Jasper and Beaufort counties that do rest on solid ground, an increasing number of people have contracted with builders to construct homes so that they may live in the warm climate. Often, they are retirees looking to escape the harsh winters in the northern states.

As a result, many of the United States' top homebuilding companies have set up shop in the region, bringing with them plans to greatly increase the inventory of homesites for eager buyers.

CEG photo

Also benefiting from this trend are companies like Terry R. Lee Contracting Co. in Hardeeville, S.C., a site and utility contractor in the state's Low Country and Coastal Empire.

Founded in 1996 by Terry Lee Sr., who was employed by another contractor doing civil construction on remote Daufuskie Island — only accessible by boat or barge — Lee Contracting eventually branched out to the Bluffton area to take on utility work. Later, it transitioned to become a turnkey civil site construction business in 2010, often serving as a subcontractor for large homebuilders.

"I was not working here then as I was at Thomas & Hutton Engineering Co. in Savannah at the time," said Terry's son, Bobby Lee, one of the firm's two current vice presidents along with Nick Lancaster. "But Nick, along with another gentleman, came over to Lee Contracting at the end of 2010 and I joined them in April 2011, after which we became the turnkey civil site contractor we are today."

Their duties have been divided so that the younger Lee runs the utility side of the business and Lancaster oversees the earthwork operations.

In keeping with it being a family company, Bobby Lee's sister, Tina Thompson, also serves as the firm's controller and corporate secretary.

Lee Contracting's sphere of influence, according to the younger Lee, has been the greater Hardeeville area — through which runs Interstate 95 — approximately 22 mi. northeast of Hilton Head; and, north to south, the land between the Broad and Savannah rivers.

"Historically, we have worked as far south as Brunswick, Ga., but have done a large amount of work around Savannah and Pooler, Ga., and as far north as Beaufort, S.C.," he added. "We have been very fortunate that development has moved toward the west in Hardeeville and Jasper County over the last six to seven years as other areas got more built up."

Lee noted that over the years, while the company was focused solely on underground utility work, it took on a few major expansion projects for the city of Savannah, including a major transmission water mainline for what was to be the site of a planned Daimler-Chrysler Sprinter van plant at the intersection of I-95 and I-16. In the end, that factory did not pan out, he said, and now it is the site of Mitsubishi Power Americas Inc.

Other commercial and industrial projects in Lee Contracting's portfolio, he said, include two Garden City industrial and warehouse efforts. On the commercial side, Lee said that his company built an Ace Hardware and a Southern Barrel Brewing location in Bluffton, S.C.

Large Residential Developments Keep Lee Busy

Today, though, much of Lee Contracting's primary focus is on residential projects.

"When the company was doing just underground utilities, we did a lot of subcontracting projects for larger construction companies, including a few phases of the Hunt Club subdivision in Pooler, Ga., several phases of Belfair, a golf community in Bluffton as well as the Berkley Hall golf community in Okatie, S.C.," Lee said. "When Lee Contracting moved more into the turnkey side, where we handled everything from clearing through paving, we built quite a few phases of Hampton Lake in Bluffton, which, for several years was one of our bigger projects, and did quite a few phases of Sun City Hilton Head."

CEG photo

But the company's biggest break came at the end of 2017 when Lee Contracting began working with Minto Communities, a Coconut Springs, Fla., homebuilder that develops its Latitude Margaritaville retirement communities, inspired by the music of the late Jimmy Buffett.

For close to seven years, Lee Contracting has been working with Minto to build the homesites at Hilton Head's Latitude Margaritaville community, the second of three such developments. The other two were built in Florida.

"We have been working in Latitude Margaritaville Hilton Head since Day One," Lee said.

He added that in the past, a typical homesite project in the area ranged from 50 to 100 residential lots, but most of Minto's project phases encompass 400 or more lots.

The first phase of work that Lee Contracting did for Minto at Latitude Margaritaville had more than 200 lots, while the second and third phases each had more than 400 homesites. Numerous other sections totaled between 400-500 lots, Lee said.

To help complete all that site work, his company bought more equipment and hired additional operators.

"Fortunately, the Latitude Margaritaville Hilton Head project is an onsite dirt moving operation," he said. "We have been moving roughly 1 million cubic yards of dirt a year at that project, depending on the phase. We have had some phases that needed as much as 1.2 million cubic yards of fill while the phase we just finished needed only 800,000 cubic yards. As a result, we have ramped up our fleet inventory with Volvo machines."

Lee Relies On ASCENDUM for Volvo Equipment

Lee attributes some of his firm's success to the relationship it has with ASCENDUM Machinery, now in its new location south of Savannah in Richmond Hill, Ga.

In addition, the engineering and reliability of ASCENDUM's line of Volvo Construction Equipment (CE) has helped to propel Lee Contracting's growth by allowing it to accept more and larger projects.

Coming through the 2008 recession, one of the things that helped Lee Contracting to stay afloat was that it owned its own equipment, allowing it to retain profitability. But moving through the next few years, according to Lee, those same machines began to rack up a lot of hours.

Luckily for the contractor, at the same time, ASCENDUM Machinery was offering excellent lease programs.

"We had begun to build relationships with ASCENDUM's salespeople, and, to this day, we are still very good friends with them," Lee said. "We let Volvo and other manufacturers bring us an excavator and a loader to make straight up comparisons. In fact, we were already leaning toward Volvo CE because our pipe crews had been running Volvo C-model excavators — mainly 330s and 360s — for many years. Each company was given a fair shake and at the time, with the construction market the way it was, you didn't want to get locked into a long-term deal because it was just such a volatile market."

While considering from which maker to choose its new machines, the Lees always kept in mind that the recession had not yet ended, and it was always an unknown if and when the company's next project would be coming.

CEG photo

"Volvo started offering one-year lease programs and that allowed us the ability to grow with the sense of security that we weren't stuck for years leasing a piece of equipment if the work tailed off," said Lee. "As we needed things, especially the articulated trucks, we also didn't want to be stuck with one for three years when we were unsure if we had three years' worth of work ahead for it."

But due to Volvo CE's leases, he said Lee Contracting was able to overhaul its entire fleet. It started modestly by acquiring new excavators and loaders before the company brought in trucks to help work on the smaller, 100-lot phases at its Sun City project.

Lee added that it was not until his firm started working at Latitude Margaritaville in January 2018 that the company brought in eight new Volvo A30 articulated trucks to do the job. Lee Contracting prefers to run Volvo's A25s and A30s, the latter of which, he said, "can work anywhere."

"That has kind of revolutionized and pushed our business to the next level," said Lee. "We attribute Latitude to helping us build up that earthmoving side of the company into a mass earthwork operation."

To help facilitate Volvo CE's product support, Lee said that Cub Mills, Lee Contracting's shop manager, stays in daily contact with ASCENDUM's service department.

He described ASCENDUM as being "excellent partners for us as far as getting our machines back up to speed when things go wrong. Problems are inevitable no matter how well engineered they are. Jim Trowbridge has also been a big help since he came aboard as ASCENDUM's Georgia general manager."

Lee Contracting has long been pleased with the Volvo CE articulated trucks, excavators and wheel loaders that it has used, Lee said, citing their durability and extended life spans.

Currently, the company has 12 Volvo artic trucks, approximately 20 excavators, and eight loaders on hand, according to Lee.

In total, Lee Contracting today employs roughly 75 people, along with maintaining 60 to 70 machines in its yard.

Additionally, Lee runs four production pipe crews, each with its own excavator and loader.

New Hires to Manage Growth

Although Lee and Lancaster are heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the company and make most every decision involving field operations, they decided last year to hire Chad Frederick as the Lee Contracting's general manager to help them continue to grow the business.

"He is very detail-oriented and is great at tracking and dealing with subcontractors," Lee said. "I was also able to promote Chris Banks up through our ranks to become a utility superintendent.

"These moves have allowed Nick and I to step back and get a more bird's-eye view of our operation and be able to take a breath every now and then." CEG

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