EDGE Hard work, customer focus builds Jeff Morgan's contractor business

EDGE Hard work, customer focus builds Jeff Morgan's contractor business

June 1st, 2018 by Dave Flessner in EDGE

Morgan Construction Co. President Jeff Morgan poses for a portrait in their offices on Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Morgan Construction Co. President Jeff Morgan poses for a portrait outside their offices on Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Morgan Construction Co. President Jeff Morgan poses for...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Jeff Morgan at a glance

* Age: 58

* Job: Founder, president and CEO of Morgan Construction

* Education: A graduate of Baylor School and the University of Tennessee

in Knoxville

* Personal: He and his wife Melissa reside on Signal Mountain and have three children — Bri, John and Mary Austin.

Morgan Construction Co. at a glance

* Started: 1993 by Jeff Morgan, who remains its sole owner

* Headquarters: 690 Manufacturers Road

* Staff: About 40 employees, including project estimators, managers, superintendents and payroll personnel.

* Territory: Company has done projects in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Arizona.

* Company focus: “We serve our customers first in everything we do.”

Jeff Morgan was 23 years old when he started a construction company with a handshake loan for $120,000 from Pioneer Bank in Chattanooga.

The young University of Tennessee graduate concedes he was not a star student in Knoxville, nor was he an experienced building contractor at the time. But Morgan did have a solid work ethic, which he says he acquired from his father. He started working full-time in the summer as an assistant maintenance man at Fontana Woods apartments at age 14.

Morgan's father, John Morgan, was a prominent attorney of some means and sent his boys to Baylor School, but he wanted his children to know that value and importance of work at a young age. Early lessons in entrepreneurship for Morgan included paying rent to his father to use his mowing equipment, running a firewood cutting partnership, selling junk at the 23rd Street Flea Market and establishing credit with his first bank loan when he was still a senior in high school.

"There's something good about hard work and my father knew that and instilled that in all of us," Morgan recalls. "He wanted us to understand that if you want the good stuff, you have to work for it."

That proved good enough to get the initial business loan for the younger Morgan, who had faithfully brought his weekly checks for his summertime jobs to the Pioneer Bank headquarters for years, had borrowed a repaid a small loan in high school, and knew many of the downtown bankers.

"There's a 'c' in credit and it stands for character and I think you've got that Jeff," then Pioneer Bank President Bill Hunt told Morgan in granting the loan for the young contractor to build his first home.

Over the past 35 years, Morgan says he has tried to stay true to the terms of that "character loan" that launched his business. Morgan usually works 12-hour days, focuses on his customers and does what he can to deliver on his promises. These virtues have helped to build repeat business with more than 97 percent of those he has previously built projects for coming back for other projects.

The company Jeff Morgan started and remains as sole owner, Morgan Construction Co., soon repaid the initial Pioneer Bank loan and has since completed more than $1 billion of projects across 14 states, including 110 Aldi grocery stores and a variety of other commercial and industrial projects across the Southeast. Morgan's success earned him a place this spring in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Business Hall of Fame, which includes dozens of Chattanooga's top business leaders.

For all his success, Morgan's start in business began almost by necessity after contractor Paul Walker said he didn't have a building job for Morgan when he first applied after graduating from UT when unemployment in the construction industry was at double-digit levels. Nonetheless, Morgan was determined to work in the construction business. He had even wanted to drop out of UT to pursue his dream, although his mother would have nothing of that.

"The words Morgan Construction Co, Inc. were first doodled in a spiral notebook in a UTK classroom, but I did manage to reach graduation," he recalls.

Walker, who had seen Morgan's work on summertime jobs, suggested Morgan strike out on his own by building homes for sale.

When the first house didn't sell as quickly as hoped — he ultimately had to sell his first house at a loss — Morgan took on small commercial jobs at Eastgate Mall. Speculative residential building quickly pivoted to small commercial projects where Morgan found stability building quick-turn leasehold improvements for retail, office and medical uses.

"I worked hard, worked fast and sometimes worked all night to get the jobs done, meet a schedule and pay my bills," Morgan recalls. "You build your reputation by doing what you say you will do and that's what we've always tried to do."

In the early years, Morgan says he followed a strategy of targeting a few specific markets while building a record for performance and on-time completion. The company rapidly expanded project types to include restaurants, hotels, distribution warehouses and shopping centers. By 1990, the company was working in seven states and had established itself as a competitive leader in retail construction, particularly neighborhood grocery anchored shopping centers. Morgan has built more than 200 grocery stores for Food Lion, Houchins Aldi, Kroger, Winn-Dixie, Bi-Lo and Publix.

By the year 2000, the company was active in large Power Center retail and Class A office building projects. In 2007 Morgan Construction successfully undertook its largest and most ambitious project: a $60 million, 800,000-square-foot regional lifestyle center in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, built for Chattanooga developer Bucky Wolford.

When the Great Recession hit the construction industry and retail development slowed, Morgan again shifted his business to a more diverse array of projects, building factories, senior housing facilities, medical offices and schools to sustain the company and keep it growing. In the past couple of years, Morgan has worked on expansions of Miller Industries in Ooltewah and Lodge Manufacturing in South Pittsburg, where Morgan installed an award-winning flat cement flooring in the biggest building ever erected in Marion County.

"By cutting our teeth in retail development where schedules tend to be unforgiving, we learned early about the importance of delivering the right building on time," Morgan says.

Morgan's staff has grown to about 40 employees in its headquarters facility on Manufacturers Road in Chattanooga, although the company has hundreds of other employees for subcontractors hired for its projects. Longevity is a common attribute among Morgan staff and corporate leadership. Walter "Lee" Ford, the company's vice president of operations, joined Morgan in 1985. Project manager Danny Phillips has been with the company 27 years and Phillip Higginbotham, vice president of estimating, is now in his 24th year with Morgan.

"If I am the locomotive of Morgan Construction, these people are the steam," Morgan says. "They are some of the best in the business and they are lifetime learners with a refuse-to-loose attitude, and I have never seen them back down from a challenge. We've been in deep water and our backs have been against the wall, but we have never failed to do what we said we would do when we said we would do it even when it hurt."

Morgan says he has had offers to sell or merge the business, but he has wanted to stay independent and has turned down some business when he didn't think he could deliver as promised.

"We've been measured in our growth to always be able to serve our customers," he says. "It's a whole lot more enjoyable to be working with a repeat customer than always scrambling for a new customer."