Fifty years ago, Brechbill & Helman Construction Company Inc. was founded by John Helman and Darrell Brechbill in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The company started its foray into the commercial, industrial and institutional construction markets with its first project: a dog kennel & run. From a dog run to remodeling, to additions, to building homes, Brechbill & Helman has dug their way to the top. The company began commercial construction in 1969. It undertook its first design-build project in 1980 and has completed two hundred projects since then by using this method.
Brechbill & Helman is currently working on a new hospice project in Hagerstown, Maryland. This is a nearly 17,000-square-foot inpatient hospice for twelve residents. It is slated for completion in March of 2017 for a total cost of $4.9 million. Business in Focus spoke with Barb Runyon, Brechbill & Helman’s Secretary/Treasurer, and Kristi Meier, Marketing & Administrative Assistant.
“The construction is of all wood and will be fit out with many amenities. Some of the programming for the facility includes a family room with vaulted ceilings, a small commercial kitchen, a meditation room, offices, chapel and counseling rooms. The attributes stretch beyond the walls of the building; the site will consist of a therapeutic garden, walking trails and extensive landscaping.”
In Chambersburg, the company is working on a sliver of land to build a Buffalo Wild Wings, Aspen Dental, Mattress Firm and Jimmy John’s. The retail complex is just off exit 17, on Interstate 81. This is a new exit which has exploded in the past five years, and Brechbill & Helman’s projects have grown along with it. This is Brechbill & Helman’s eighth project here in an area which used to hold a farm, and the company has done more work here than anyone else.
Recently completed, is a Home2 Suites hotel in York, Pennsylvania and the company has just been granted a contract to build $10 million medical office building in Spring Mills, West Virginia. Also of note is the Best Western located in Gettysburg, PA that Brechbill & Helman held a groundbreaking ceremony for on August 22, 2016.
“We do a lot of work with churches and completed a Hindu temple. It is the Sri Bhaktha Anjaneya Temple in Ijamsville, Maryland,” says Barb. As a testament to the quality of work that Brechbill & Helman does, it received a first place award (Category F-1) from the Cumberland Valley Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., for excellence in construction. The award will be given this September. This also makes the company eligible to enter the temple project in the national awards.
Other awards include various of LEED gold and silver designations for work on variable speed drive manufacturer Danfoss’s North American headquarters in Chambersburg and the Shippensburg emergency services building. There are also ABC Cumberland Valley Excellence in Construction Awards for work done in Greencastle for kitchen products maker and distributor World Kitchen Renovation.
In the construction industry, the skills gap is a key issue for companies like Brechbill & Helman. It is a challenge to find qualified talent to attain the appropriate skills mix for a construction company. The company works with local vocational-technical schools to work with junior year students to encourage them to enter careers in construction trades. Other efforts include a local associated builders and contractors trade association to which it sends its carpenters for further training.
“John retired two years ago, and Darrell will be retiring this year. As a company, we have been really trying to bring in and gear the new technologies for everyone in and out of the office. We have implemented some new programs and new software for construction management. Brechbill & Helman is looking for the next generation to come and work with us so that they can gain experience from those who have been with the company for 20+ years and to get a feel for how the industry works. We want to find the right people for the company so that we can continue to grow. This is an in-depth process and will not happen overnight,” says Kristi.
The average length of time for an employee working at Brechbill & Helman is twenty-eight years. Many people will be retiring soon, and this has stimulated the company to ramp up its efforts to look for the next generation to help fill the gap, though Barb emphasizes that experienced veterans are crucial to its operational existence. The newer workers need to be trained appropriately on site, and that makes a balance of experience within the staff essential.
Bringing in the new generation of workers also means taking risks with a company’s safety record as a lack of experience can lead to a greater chance of accidents occurring. “We have a safety director on staff who visits the sites on a regular basis to keep an eye on our workers. I want our people to go home in the same condition that they came to work,” Barb says adamantly.
There are yearly safety training sessions. Aside from first aid and safety, staff are taught how to use the equipment effectively. Every Monday morning, the company holds talks on job sites to remind everybody of safe practices. “It’s a big concern and a big process that we go through to ensure that our people are safe. With the heat, for example, we have our safety director going around with Gatorade and making sure that the guys take breaks,” explains Barb.
Brechbill & Helman is in an enviable position as it is not at the stage at which it would need to upgrade equipment. New software, however, was recently purchased for construction management. This has been a tremendous help in keeping people on time and organized. It is also preparing to replace its accounting software to be compatible with the construction management software.
iPads, laptops and, of course, smartphones are used in the field. “Technology is not a huge issue. We are simply trying to update the processes in order to fine tune everything to promote more efficiency and effectiveness. I am so pleased with our guys. They have taken this software and been able to run with it.”
The new software has helped the company and its staff to be more mobile. The schematics can be pulled up on iPads. If a worker is walking through the building and someone has a question, the drawings can be shown instantly. Technology allows workers to keep abreast of what information is needed and what needs to be done, creating greater efficiency.
“We anticipate receiving a lot more work, so the challenge will be to have enough people on sites. My son is in the robotics field, although he is still in high school. This has shown me that the future of construction will be in some way linked with robotics,” says Barb. She has witnessed how robots can lay blocks and pour concrete.
Kristi says this will not mean that workers will be replaced, but rather that the new technologies such as robotics will fill some of the present gaps in the industry. Construction companies will always need people. With the shortage of workers, there will simply be a need for supplementing the human workforce with robotic technology.
Good relationships are maintained in many ways, but one of the most important – to the suppliers – is that Brechbill & Helman pays more quickly than any other contractor. “Obviously we need them as much as they need us.” Brechbill & Helman has upwards of three thousand contractors in its vendor list, and at any given time, three hundred are used on various projects.
And this is a company that has kept relationships over its long history. Brechbill & Helman held a fiftieth-anniversary celebration in April, the month that it all began back in 1966. A local banquet hall served as the venue for the celebrations that included over two hundred people.
Brechbill & Helman Construction has dealt with the same adversity as other construction companies in the past decade. But, as Barb relayed, it was the last to enter the recession and the last to get out of it. However, through a good reputation and the ability to hire dedicated workers, this company is growing and building at a pace that is sure to result in its continued success in the future.
Barb believes that a mix of word of mouth and the company’s reputation is of great help in bringing in more experienced workers. “We are an honest company; we are a family company. We have a good reputation and treat our employees very well. You can’t do that any other way and be in business for fifty years. Integrity is part of our slogan.”