SD Clifton is a general contractor from Southeast Georgia with a history that spans thirty-two years. It has about twenty-five loyal employees, and it is a rare occurrence for one to leave. Devotion to safety and safe working sites along with its faith-based system have helped SD Clifton garner a solid reputation in the industry and many repeat clients. Finding the right subcontractors is a challenge, but this affects everyone in the industry. We spoke with Rob Clifton, the man in charge of business development.
Steve Clifton started the company back in 1986. He was working for a man in Hilton Head South Carolina doing commercial construction. He worked his way up eventually becoming the head of the commercial department, started a family, and decided that Hilton Head was not where he wanted to raise a family.
After a lot of thought and prayer, Steve moved to Augusta, Georgia to start Clifton Construction. The first work attained included building convenience stores, and he acquired many referrals, making convenience stores the niche for this construction company at the time. As time passed, other work was given to Clifton Construction, and the company began to spread its wings.
“Typically, we worked on convenience stores to start. A client would request a build, and we would continue doing projects for them. Over the last ten years, most of these clients have sold their stores to larger companies like the Circle Ks of the world, so that work slowed down dramatically,” says Rob.
SD Clifton has worked on all types of projects including retail, restaurants, medical office buildings, corporate office buildings, and fire stations. In the last five to ten years, it developed a new forte with the building of churches.
“We are a faith-based company, so our foray into churches was a seamless transition. It is unfortunate that the general contractor name itself has some negative connotations associated with it. This has been a constant battle for someone to associate us with the connotations of our industry when we do everything in our power to hold our company to a level of integrity we know is right,” says Rob.
The company is now in the process of partnering with a nationwide architect that concentrates on churches and Christian schools all over the U.S. This partnership would give Clifton Construction the rights to the territories from Georgia through to South Carolina.
SD Clifton shines as a design-build contractor, and it takes into consideration the customer’s perspective on all projects. “We work with owners through projects from design to actually breaking ground. A lot of things unfold as you move forward, but our goal is to provide an all-inclusive number. We still price ‘hard bid’ projects when we need to fill the pipeline but design-build just fits our culture of being open and honest with the owner. When we start a project, we consider everybody equal parts of the team including the architect and the engineers. The goal for the team as a whole is to get the project within budget. If we cannot get a project in budget, nine times out of ten the project doesn’t get built. We do not make any money on bidding projects which allows the owners #1 priority, overall cost, to align our #1 priority,” says Rob.
On the early phase of design-build projects, very little information is given. SD Clifton will look beyond what is on a plan and notice potential omissions. It recognizes what would become a change order and tries to rectify it before it becomes an issue as change orders are just as much a headache for the owner as they are to the contractor.
Most of the projects taken on by SD Clifton consist of clients calling and saying that they have a piece of land for a retail center, a church or a MOB. Not much else in the way of information is taken as Rob is very proficient at finding out what is needed and where the site is. From there, the company does in-house and preliminary site plans that are provided to the owner for approval and to gauge the client’s thinking on the look of the site, parking options, and what codes will need to be dealt with.
“Columbia, Richmond, and Augusta have strict codes for the size of a building, as it has to include so many parking spots based on its use. We ascertain how big the project is, investigate potential setbacks, and try to maximize the site based on how many parking spots,” says Rob.
There are also times when a client asks for the company to look at a site, and it may not be feasible to build. A site next to it may have to be purchased for the project to go forward. SD Clifton provides all this information to the owner, and once approved, it will work on the preliminary floor plan and evaluations, which are all done in-house by project managers.
SD Clifton gives the owner the floor plans and its thoughts on the project. The client is also asked for their opinion on what the structure will look like and the skin of the building. All of this is then worked into a budget and given the owner at no cost. “We have basically taken an idea and turned it into a site plan, a preliminary floor plan, and an elevation to go with a budget that we are comfortable with,” says Rob.
The way SD Clifton budgets do not include square foot numbers. Instead, it has costs based per scope of work. Most of the work is sent out to subcontractors to price. The company has a good group of subcontractors who understand the process and can work closely with SD Clifton to look at a set of plans with little information. The price and budget are then set.
While this may not be an exact science, the subcontractors are very close and have been doing this for so long that they understand what is needed. Usually, from there, SD Clifton will begin to hire architects, but the subcontractors do their own electrical, mechanical, and plumbing planning, with some doing their own engineering.
“Being in control of the engineer avoids certain pitfalls such as when one engineer may have an eye on gold plated toilet fixtures with special piping. Our subs go to the engineer and let them know what is needed. That way when we get plans back, we put it out for pricing just to make sure everything is still correct,” says Rob. The subcontractor price in the budget is strictly adhered to throughout the work, minus any material price increases, and SD Clifton will rein in the subcontractors, if necessary.
Throughout the job, an owner can be as little or as much involved in the project as they want to be. “We have some owners that don’t want to talk with anyone but the project manager. Some others will want to hire the architects and get thorough the design. Either/or, it doesn’t matter to us. We will take it all on and run with it or let others get involved with design or people they’ve worked with. It really comes down to a team atmosphere when we start a project and sign a design agreement,” says Rob.
Finding employees is not a real problem. Recently an employee left the company after twenty-two years, and this was the first employee to leave in the last ten years. One superintendent has been with SD Clifton for thirty years, a project manager for twenty years, and multiple others for over ten years.
“Our longevity with employees is phenomenal, and that goes back to Steve who is a fair person to deal with. He cares about people and understands commitment to family,” says Rob.
If there is a family emergency, that takes priority, and someone else will be found to take over the job. Family is family, and that aspect is a part of what keeps employee retention strong.
A critical part of SD Clifton is this culture and how it treats people. Most of its subcontractors love working with SD Clifton as they are treated fairly. “It’s really just a mindset and a culture in how we treat customers and subcontractors. We value honesty and integrity in everything we do across the board, no matter who we are talking to,” says Rob.