Robinson Construction Company turned seventy in 2016. Although it began humbly as a one-man operation, the firm now has a nationwide presence. From its base in southeast Missouri and western Kentucky, Robinson offers engineering, procurement and construction (EPC), design-build, maintenance and general contracting services. Company specialties include building construction, equipment installation, material handling, piping, structural concrete and steel.
Robinson completes projects across the continental United States from its headquarters in Perryville, Missouri and satellite office in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
“We’d love to stay close to home, but life doesn’t work that way. We’re completely client-based … If you’ve got a client you’ve been working for in Missouri for the last twenty years and they ask you to go to California, you go to California,” says Robinson President Paul Findlay.
While the company has done work in the energy, commercial/institutional, government/public, food and beverage, healthcare, marine, mining, heavy civil/water and manufacturing sectors, its core business is in the industrial and process segment. In a typical assignment, a factory might hire Robinson to modify its facilities or install new infrastructure.
Robinson was founded by Edward G. Robinson. His son Frank became active in the business in the mid-1970s, driving it “from a heating and air contractor to the contractor we are today,” states Findlay. Frank Robinson remains with the company, as chief executive officer.
According to Findlay, Robinson’s revenues last year came to “a little over $100 million.” Projected revenues for 2016 are a bit lower. “This latest downturn in industrial activity has certainly had an impact on us, but next year looks to be good. We’re going into next year with a bigger backlog than we’ve ever had before,” he adds, saying the company will “surpass $100 million easily,” within the very near future.
At present, the firm has about 320 employees, divided between permanent and temporary workers.
Findlay estimates that sixty to seventy percent of Robinson’s work comes from repeat customers and credits this loyalty to the company’s business philosophy. “Our [industrial] clients aren’t contractors. They’re making widgets; they’re making whatever. So our job is to go in and take care of their construction problems as painlessly as possible, and we do a pretty good job of that in our opinion. Our clients keep calling us back.”
Robinson has an in-house engineering department that does civil and structural engineering tasks. Among other duties, the department uses 3D scanning technology to create three-dimensional models of industrial facilities that want to add new equipment or infrastructure.
Robinson offers project and construction management services to clients who want assistance handling a construction project. In such cases, the client might have their own contractor, but hire Robinson to “kind of help them pull things together and keep it organized,” says Findlay.
The firm is ready to respond if disaster strikes a client’s worksite. “We had a client in Kentucky. A tornado went through and took the roof off their building. We had them back in operation in forty-eight hours,” notes Findlay, proudly.
When given an assignment, Robinson employees can do the actual construction or installation work involved. “Unlike many contractors who subcontract everything out, we probably do seventy to eighty percent of the work on our projects. We feel that gives us a little better control over the quality, schedule and safety aspects of the project,” he explains.
The company does use sub-contractors for some jobs but has strict criteria about whom it hires. “Safety is the first thing we look at. If you go online and fill out our forms, there are a lot of questions about safety. We also look for attitude. We’ve got to pick sub-contractors that go in with the same intent we have, and that is to make sure at the end of the day, at the end of the job, we have a happy and satisfied client,” states Findlay.
The firm places a great deal of emphasis on safety, with an ultimate goal of no incidents. “We focus every day on trying to perform our jobs safely,” he says. “Everybody spends a full day in this office or at the job site going through an orientation. Every employee has the ability to shut down any activity they don’t think looks right. They don’t have to know it’s unsafe; if they don’t feel right about it, they can shut the job down. Our recordable and incident rate is less than twenty-five percent of the industry average.”
The Robinson website is packed with case studies of impressive projects the company has worked on. Findlay, however, says for him, “the really noteworthy projects are the ugly ones” that aren’t profiled online. Such projects might involve “installing some massive pieces of process equipment into an existing facility … when you’re done, the client won’t let you take pictures because it’s proprietary, and even if you took pictures, it’s not attractive. It’s a bunch of pipe and conduit,” he explains.
That said, the company has done plenty of aesthetically pleasing jobs, including a recent project involving a state park in Missouri. Robinson built lodges, cabins and put in water and sewer lines to campgrounds and finished ahead of schedule.
The company’s biggest challenge is “hiring qualified people. There is a shortage of qualified craft workers out there. We’re working hard to overcome that. We’ve partnered with a technical school [to train future workers],” says Findlay. Robinson wants its new hires to have a good attitude, experience and a willingness to relocate if need be.
“Technical skills you can test for. I can test whether or not you can weld. [We also look for] work ethic and attitude. The whole [southeast Missouri] area has a strong work ethic … We try to take a significant number of people with us from our core base of employees. So, if we’ve got a job in New York, half of those employees come out of our core group of people here. They take with them our safety and quality culture and client satisfaction mentality, and hopefully by having fifty percent of our people with that attitude, then whoever we hire local, we can pass those values along to those people,” he says.
While this is a good way to maintain quality and service levels, Findlay admits this approach can make it tough to find new, permanent workers. “Hiring good people is a problem and hiring good people willing to travel is even more difficult,” he states.
The training process for new employees is extensive and intense. “For our staff employees, we try to hire young people as they come out of school with either a degree in civil engineering or construction management. Basically, we’ve got about a five-year program that we run them through. They need to spend time in the field, so they’re accustomed to that. They need to spend time in estimating, so they understand that process. They need to spend some time in project management, so they understand that also,” says Findlay.
Doing high quality work is paramount at Robinson. Many of the company’s project management personnel have taken the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Construction Quality Management for Contractors course. Robinson has a full-time quality control manager, who is a trained civil engineer. The firm has standard quality control manuals for general construction work and regularly develops new manuals specific to the job at hand.
“At the beginning of each project, we sit down with the project management team and the quality control department … We create a quality control manual that’s specific to the project. When the project manager gets this manual, it’s very concise and walks him through what steps he needs to take on his job site to get things built properly,” states Findlay.
Robinson does little active promotion. The firm has a website and a LinkedIn and Facebook page, but doesn’t regularly advertise in print media, relying on word-of-mouth to promote itself and business development staff to bring in new clients.
The firm has won industry honors; Robinson was number 53 on ENR magazine’s list of top 2016 Mid-Atlantic contractors, which ranks companies by revenue. Findlay says he is particularly proud of safety awards the company has earned. The day before his interview, Robinson won a safety honor from a regional Association of Builders and Contractors (ABC) group.
Robinson plans to enhance its existing services and expand its reach. In five years, Findlay would like to see the company making $160 million to $170 million a year.
“I think the key message I want to deliver is that we really believe we’re a client-focused operation and that we’re not interested in growth just because of growth. We intend to continue to grow at a controlled rate. We’re always looking for good customers,” notes the Robinson president.