published Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Stein Construction Co. run by 4th generation of family after 100 years of business

Stein Construction President Doug Stein stands on the job site at Memorial Hospital where his company is making room for more parking at the Emergency Department by building a new retaining wall.
Stein Construction President Doug Stein stands on the job site at Memorial Hospital where his company is making room for more parking at the Emergency Department by building a new retaining wall.
Photo by Tim Barber.

In 1912, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, the Boston Red Sox opened Fenway Park and Woodrow Wilson was elected president.

That’s also the year Stein Construction Co. started. After 100 years, officials for the Chattanooga company are eyeing a new century of building amid a rapidly shifting landscape.

“We’ve got a lot of opportunities,” said Doug Stein, the company’s longtime president. “There’s no reason we can’t keep on going.”

Tim Spires, who heads the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, said it’s extraordinary for a construction company to reach the centennial mark, given the competition.

“They’ve been involved in a lot of the manufacturing in the area,” he said.

The company, now in its fourth generation of management, traces its footings to John A. Stein, who moved from Indiana to Chattanooga to manage the Chickamauga Limestone and Construction Co.

John A. Stein came from a family of stone craftsmen and builders, said Doug Stein, and business was booming in Chattanooga.

A stickler and a perfectionist, he said, John A. Stein ran the business until turning it over to his 25-year-old son, Gilbert. During his 20 years, from 1930 to 1950, he expanded the company’s portfolio, Doug Stein said. The company tackled large projects such as the Cummings Highway Bridge and work at U.S. Pipe and the Wheland Gun Plant, which is now Komatsu, he said.

Later, Gilbert Stein’s two sons joined the venture, Gilbert T. and J. Douglass, according to the company. During the 1950s and 1960s, the company began doing more site, drainage and grading work and added an asphalt paving division, Doug Stein said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the company worked for such entities as TVA, EPB, Georgia Power and Combustion Engineering, he said. Stein also worked for educational institutions including Baylor School, McCallie School, Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

MODERN ERA

Doug Stein, 55, said he came aboard in 1980, having graduated with an English degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But before joining the business, he recalled, he spent a period of time in Colorado where he worked as a bartender, musician and writer.

“I wanted to make my own way,” Stein said.

He said the company kept expanding during the 1980s. Gilbert T. Stein suffered a stroke, and it was then that his son, J. Douglass, took the reins of the business. He died in 1989, and Doug Stein said he became head of the business at age 32 while brother Taylor became vice president.

Doug Stein said in a recent interview in his Amnicola Highway office that it was then that they bought out other family members who weren’t active to keep the company going.

“We could have sold the company with a nice employment contract,” Stein said. “We were covered up by people who wanted to buy the business.”

ADDING VALUE

Stein said the company represents not just generational ownership but generational employees as well. Officials wanted to maintain its employees’ jobs and their benefits, he said.

To do so, Stein said, the company has kept its status as a union builder over the years.

“Nobody in Southeast Tennessee is a union contractor like we are,” he said.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 846, is among the unions that have represented workers at Stein Construction.

For the business model to work of providing health care and pensions to its staff, Stein said, the company has had to sell value to its customers.

“We made a commitment to employees and to be a value proposition,” he said, adding that its workforce had to be “the best.”

Even amid the latest economic downturn, the company has stuck to that concept, Stein said. That hasn’t always been easy because officials bidding some projects look at dollars first rather than value, the company president said.

“I find myself working more for TVA and [the U.S. Department of Energy’s] Y-12,” he said.

Before the recession, the company had been doing about $25 million in revenues, Stein said. He said revenues have hit about $17 million the last two or three years.

The company’s staff ranges from about 50 to 110 people, Stein said.

Spires said one of Stein Construction’s strengths is that it delivers on what it says it will do.

“That has carried them through,” he said, noting he used Stein Construction on jobs when Spires headed NA Industries in Chattanooga.

As for the future, Stein said some of his five children may become involved in the business.

“I won’t require them,” he said. “I don’t want them to feel obligated to take this over. We’ll just see.”

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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