An Interview with Bryan Royal, Harper General Contractors
Bryan Royal has twenty years of experience in the construction industry and created Harper’s Environmental Systems Division (ESD) eight years ago. I sat down with Bryan to get some insight from his many years of experience and learn about his vision for ESD.
How did you get interested in water/wastewater industry?
It started when I was a Co-Op. I was a civil engineering student at Clemson University and went through the co-op interview process as a Sophomore. I had a feeling construction was what I wanted to do, so I interviewed for a co-op position with several construction companies. I interviewed with a group out of Ohio that offered me a position as an Engineering Co-op working onsite building a greenfield wastewater treatment plant in Eastern North Carolina. It sounded interesting, but at that time, I didn’t know anything about the water/wastewater industry. After my first semester co-op rotation, I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed the heavy civil construction aspect of these projects and was fascinated by the mechanical processes used to treat wastewater. After completing four co-op rotations in treatment plant construction, I was hooked.
When you first started Harper’s Environmental System Division (ESD), what did you want to accomplish?
After graduating from Clemson, I went to work with the same group I had co-op’d with doing water/wastewater plant construction. For the next six years, I traveled around the south-east with that same company building and renovating treatment plants. I enjoyed the work, but wanted to look for an opportunity to move back to Greenville. In 2003 I was offered a Project Manager position with Harper in Greenville building healthcare facilities. I worked in the healthcare industry building hospitals and medical offices for the next five years, but always had the desire to return to water/wastewater construction. I really enjoyed being back in Greenville close to family and friends, and I really enjoyed the people at Harper, but I missed treatment plant construction. I decided to take a chance and present an opportunity to Harper’s Senior Management Team to start division and venture into water/wastewater treatment plant construction. I developed a business plan that detailed this market sector, identified potential clients and projected growth opportunities. I presented this plan to David Wise (Harper’s President), Doug Harper (Harper’s Chairman) and Rick Richardson (Harper’s Vice President). As a team, we analyzed the pros and cons of this venture, studied the financial investments and evaluated the time commitments to start a ground up operation. I leaned on the expertise of a 68-year old organization, as well as personal and construction industry expertise of Doug, David and Rick. We established some measurable goals and milestones for this venture so we could track progress and from there, Harper Environmental Systems Division (ESD) was born.
Since you started ESD 8 years ago, how has the treatment industry grown and changed?
ESD was started in 2010, which was during a significant economic downturn. Municipalities were feeling the effects of the down economy, so to manage budgets they were forced to put a hold on a lot of their projects. Now that the economy has improved, projects that had been on hold are being released for design and construction. As the economy improved, municipalities could invest money in both improving and rehabilitating their infrastructure systems. Another trend I’ve witnessed since ESD’s inception is the way water/wastewater projects are procured. Because the infrastructure sector is typically financed with public funding, many of the projects are procured with a traditional Design-Bid-Build model (otherwise known as Hard Bid). We are now seeing municipalities exploring alternate procurement methods, such as Construction Manager At-Risk (CMAR) and design-build in the water/wastewater industry. The construction industry across the board has seen significant advancements in technology, and in the water/wastewater industry you’re seeing a lot of value placed on the environmental advantages of new treatment process technologies. Our population is becoming more aware of and educated in environmental stewardship, which facilitates Environmental Regulatory Agencies establishing various metrics related to water/wastewater treatment plant quality and discharge requirements. These minimum discharge requirements facilitate plant upgrades and capital projects. I’ve also witnessed a trend of municipality groups that have desires to go above & beyond the minimum regulatory requirements and are willing to invest in progressive treatment process technologies to enhance their facilities.
Building on what you said about the growth of the water/wastewater industry, how has Harper been able to adjust to the growing market to meet the needs of owners?
Gaining experience and confidence of our owners has been both our biggest hurdle as well as our biggest triumph. The water/wastewater industry is a very small, tight-knit group. All the owners and engineers know each other, all the suppliers know each other, and all the contractors know each other, so people talk. Our best marketing is not necessarily flyers or banners, but word of mouth. Our best marketing is doing a good job, and our owners and engineers recommending us to their peers. Our success really comes down to the guys in the field doing a good job and delivering a quality product. We focus our attention and our efforts in supporting the field, to make sure we have the best superintendents and craftworkers, support them in their success and help those team members get better at what they do.
Where do you see ESD going 5-10 years down the road?
The water/wastewater industry is a niche market, which requires us to follow the work regionally. At times, this requires our staff to travel. We try to minimize that as much as possible because I think that’s part of the attraction for people to work at Harper. The water/wastewater industry has always been known for having project teams work out-of-town and asking superintendents to travel. To minimize this, I recommended and initiated establishing remote offices in both Charlotte and Asheville in 2017 to support these regional areas where we had established a presence. With remote offices, we can have employees positioned nearby that can service these areas instead of relocating Greenville crews to projects out-of-town. Charlotte and Asheville are great areas for team members to live with great opportunities, and I think we are growing those two areas in the right way: organically from within. In both cases, we started by having projects and superintendents in the area before opening an office. In 5-10 years, I see Charlotte and Asheville continuing to have a major presence and being big supporters of our division. We are also analyzing other regions in the South-East where we see opportunities to repeat this same expansion model. Towards the end of 2017, we opened a Coastal Office to support the crews in that area.
The long-term vision is to continue building relationships with owners and engineers, and as those relationships strengthen, we’ll be afforded opportunities for future projects and can evaluate pursuing future expansion. Another vision I have is continuing to build on our team’s resume. I knew we were going to have to start out small and slowly build ESD’s resume. When we first started, winning a half million-dollar project was huge. We’ve had to be patient, because although we had the financial backing and bonding capacity, we wanted to be smart about tackling larger projects. By the end of 2018, we will have completed five projects over $15-million value. I’m excited about the idea of working on larger projects, but also appreciate a blended resume of small, medium and large projects. My vision would be to maintain an even blend of project sizes, and continue working with clients to ensure we meet their needs, regardless of project size.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as division manager from an operations standpoint?
I truly value all our teammates and have developed personal connections with them. Knowing spouses, kids and families is something that is important to me and I don’t want to lose sight of that. We had a superintendent recently that we asked to move out-of-town, away from his family for two years to build our largest project at that time. That was a tough ask. He committed to us, did a great job, delivered a great project and added to our satisfied client base. However, the commitment we made to this superintendent was that his next project would be closer to home. His next assignment was 3 miles away from his house. I appreciate our teammates committing and sacrificing for us and it’s a big deal for me to be able to honor our commitments to them. It’s extremely challenging to please everyone, but I want to make sure I’m always thinking about our people and putting myself in their shoes with any decisions I make. As we grow and expand, that’s something I’m constantly challenged with and want to make sure I never lose sight of the fact that our people are our most valuable resource.
Zack Thompson joined Harper Environmental Systems Division (ESD) as a co-op in January of 2016. Zack successfully completed three co-op rotations with Harper ESD. During his time as a co-op, Zack assisted on several water and wastewater treatment projects. In May 2018, Zack will graduate from Clemson University with a B.S. in Environmental Engineering and as accepted a full-time position with Harper as a Project Engineer in the Charlotte office. Even though his graduation is quickly approaching, he will always have orange running through his veins, as his second favorite passion is watching the Tigers win.