Building Dreams—and Relationships

Pattillo Construction Corporation
Written by Pauline Müller

In this line of work, one quickly learns that construction is not for the faint-hearted. I was again reminded of this when speaking to Bree Pattillo, Owner and Chief Executive Officer of Pattillo Construction Corporation headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.

Considering the company’s 25 percent annual growth in recent years, it would be easy to romanticize the image of her grandfather, H.G. Pattillo, delivering pay packets with ice-cold Coca-Cola in glass bottles served from the trunk of his Cadillac to job sites in summer, regular as clockwork until nearly the age of 80—but only until one realizes the titanic determination it took to start a business in this unforgiving industry with nothing but two hands, an iron will, and a jar with $2,000 in coins saved up over several years from cotton-picking earnings.

This remarkable legacy forms the framework for everything Pattillo Construction Corporation does to this day. Back then, the positive growth H.G. Pattillo teams’ work brought to local communities spurred him to keep at the arduous task of growing the company, becoming an industry-leading general contractor in the region. As a result—and after four generations in the construction industry—Pattillo Construction Corporation knows its business.

“We build your dreams but we also build relationships, not just buildings,” says Bree, who admits that she values relationships over volume. From its Atlanta base and another facility in Greenville, South Carolina, the company does most of its work in the Southeast, even though it has worked as far afield as Missouri, Virginia, and beyond for longstanding customers. In addition to general contracting, the company is qualified to advise and guide customers on incorporating and adhering to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

Evolving from building barracks, schools, churches, distribution centers, and fabrication facilities to film studios and multi-family developments, its capabilities are diverse in scope while its service is focused on quality. Versed in a plethora of construction types, the company is trusted by local and national developers for superb design-build and build-to-suit properties with significant added value. Customers also enjoy the company’s organizational effectiveness borne of unshakable leadership.

To this end, the company is welcoming a period of well-planned change when Leon Russell, current Vice President, takes over as Chief Operations Officer (COO) this month. “I’m proud of our transition that will be happening at the end of the year with our current COO, Frank Wartner, stepping down and retiring. He leaves a legacy of leaving the company better than when he came. He has been a guiding force,” Bree says of her mentor. “I look forward to what Leon Russell will bring to the table. He already brings a lot.”

Founded in 1952, the company hummed along as Bree Pattillo learned the business at her grandfather’s side, joining him on trips to job sites from a tender age. Before she could lead, however, she had to earn the right. Today, a decades-old condition remains for family members wanting to join the company: first, establish yourself in the world before considering coming to work here. The rule has been useful, allowing the company’s leaders to guide it through mercurial economic times for decades. Its mainstay is teamwork, as the staff of 50 collaborates closely with third-party contributors like engineers, architects, and clients’ teams on its projects.

After a brief fling with marine biology, Bree took up a career in road construction, which took her to Charleston, South Carolina. Once she had developed her skills sufficiently, she returned to the family business in 2008. “I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, visiting job sites. Coming to Pattillo, I fell in love. I fell in love with the team. I fell in love with the industry,” she says, highlighting how making a meaningful difference in the life of the region inspires her commitment to the industry as much as it did her grandfather.

With so many people’s safety to consider, Pattillo Construction Corporation is known for doing everything possible to protect everyone on its job sites, not just its own people. It employs Cority Safety Cloud, a software suite designed to do just that with sophisticated features to ensure optimum cover on every project. In addition, Autodesk keeps everyone on the same page, making documents and drawings easily accessible for all involved.

The imagery aspect of every project is supported with drone footage. “We use the technology to keep the information moving because that’s the most important piece. Everybody’s looking at the same thing. But really, no technology can take away from boots on the ground,” Bree says of her team’s hands-on approach and the necessity of speaking with people directly and ensuring that everyone stays in personal contact on every project.

Thanks to its capacity for pivoting, the company was able to adapt as fast as it always has when market changes hit during COVID. Pattillo Construction remains a company wisely committed to stretching itself to suit the times rather than pursuing growth for its own sake.

Becoming a certified Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) woman-owned business in 2019 further strengthened the firm in its commitment to moving with the times. The move has proven beneficial as it was rated fourth on Atlanta’s list of largest companies under female ownership based on its 2022 revenue of over $167 million.

It was not always an easy journey, but it was worth it. Being accepted into a male-dominated industry for Bree was underpinned by mutual respect. “Some people find it hard to believe that I’m the CEO of a construction company but, as my mom taught me, you stand in your Wonder Woman pose and remind people that you worked your way here,” she says with a smile, pointing out the importance of developing good communication skills. The validity of the approach is evident in the volume of return customers the company serves, and proudly so, as they include respected names in distribution, film, and manufacturing.

Developers come back for more than good communication and quality building, however. The team also prides itself on its project “post-mortems,” where the team explores all the lessons learned on every job. Aspects that were handled well are discussed in as much detail as facets that can be improved upon, to enhance the depth of everyone’s understanding and approach to future projects. This also establishes greater sophistication in company processes, ensuring that these become progressively more streamlined, effective, and productive over time.

Every win is acknowledged and celebrated, while every challenge becomes a goal for improving upon next time. “I take every project as an opportunity to learn. Staying ahead of that is my learning curve. Our goal is to be proactive versus reactive,” Bree says.

Indeed, part of the reason for the company’s success is its tradition of celebrating small and big victories together. Following COVID-19, there was a lot of lost time to make up for as the close-knit team took time out to catch up and re-establish its professional bonds. Nothing makes Bree happier than the atmosphere of having everyone collaborating at the office, the fun of the annual superintendents’ clay shoot and barbecue day, and the odd happy hour after work. She takes pleasure in the company’s people working and playing together as this helps the team to keep pace with one another and the changing tides.

As businesses adapt to current economic climates, Bree notes an upsurge in contracts to expand and renovate existing, often older, buildings boasting solid frameworks—in contrast to the demolish-and-start-over approach typical of the pre-COVID-19 market.

“When it comes to repurposing older buildings, there are some good bones about, and there is some good thinking out of the box that I hear about. We are willing to jump on and learn about it too,” she says, hoping that the trend of reimagining the quality construction of a few decades ago continues to grow. “Instead of razing old buildings to the ground and starting over, raise the roof and expand it.”

To ensure its professionals stay abreast of safety and quality trends, the company happily supports staff in their training and continued education. In addition, work-life balance is given priority. While big days in the field take precedence, quiet times allow for taking care of family when needed.

“[Bree] understands that life happens… Showing up for your kids and your family is important, and your job shouldn’t prevent you from doing that. Bree facilitates the ability to keep up,” says Alicia Clem, Marketing Manager.

Paying it forward is also part of the Pattillo family’s core, as is supporting the future of the industry. One of the philanthropic ways it does this is through its private foundation, Guanacaste Ventures. Bree recently donated $600,000 via the foundation to Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, to support engineering, construction, and design-related education through scholarships. As aerospace and automotive manufacturing grows in the Southeast, this investment promises to pay dividends, providing infrastructure can keep up with demand.

“My belief is in power. With power, you can do anything… So, if we don’t have power that is sustainable and consistent, we can’t grow,” she says, highlighting the need for more open discussion on the urgent issue of supporting infrastructure like water in relation to power supply. Endings are often beginnings, however, and every beginning has its challenges. Pattillo Construction Corporation is equipped to weather the changes.

While H.G. Pattillo bid this world farewell at the remarkable age of 96, not quite a year ago, his larger-than-life legacy will live on through his work ethic, integrity, and commitment to investing in good people. The many stories of this generous man live on in the futures of the people he entrusted with his life’s work when he left—people who will remember him for his unshakeable good faith in human nature and hard work.

He leaves that and the original John Deere wagon, complete with a hard hat and toolbox for cotton harvesting—a workhorse that has come full circle with him through a life well lived—just like the company he established continues to grow alongside its customers: trustworthy and sturdy to the core.

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