How he built one of the Charlotte area’s fastest-growing Black-owned businesses

PUBLICATION: CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL | AUTHOUR: ASHLEY FAHEY

Gene Harris remembers sitting in a Ballantyne-area Panera Bread with Tino McFarland a decade ago. There, McFarland shared a detailed vision of a commercial construction company he wanted to build.

It was a business plan McFarland had written while working in Indianapolis, where he started his career in construction. He revisited those original plans amid the global financial crisis after a job took him to Charlotte in the late 2000s. 

McFarland refined some of the details, tailoring it to Charlotte. But the original vision he pitched to Harris — who was then working in Wachovia’s corporate real estate department — stayed the same.

“The way we’ve grown is not an accident,” said Harris, now vice president of client services at McFarland Construction. “Tino McFarland laid out this plan back then.”

In the nearly 11 years since McFarland Construction became a business on April 2, 2010, the company has become one of the largest Black-owned businesses in Charlotte, with $23.8 million in revenue in 2019. Company headquarters have relocated out of a spare bedroom in McFarland’s former townhouse into multiple offices, in Charlotte and elsewhere. The company employs nearly 50 today.

Last year, despite disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, McFarland Construction’s revenue grew an estimated 70%, said McFarland, president and CEO. Between 2017 and 2019, the firm’s revenue grew 80%, ranking No. 13 on the Charlotte Business Journal’s Fast 50 list last year. The company was also named one of the CBJ’s Best Places to Work in 2020.

McFarland said, as a business owner, his mission has always been focused on safety, transparency and community. The strategy laid out in his business plan many years ago was, in part, to build trust and relationships with some of the biggest names in business in town, including major utilities, health-care systems and banks.

McFarland always saw himself as an entrepreneur, even in his childhood. His first venture was a lawn-moving business he started at age 9 with help from his dad.

He graduated from college with a degree in civil and structural design. Mentors like Bill Blank, now executive vice president at Vannoy Construction, and friends at other construction companies like Ben Wilhelm, who became chief operating officer at McFarland  Construction in 2019, acted as a sounding board for McFarland or provided opportunities across the industry. Blank, for example, challenged McFarland to work in roles ranging from preconstruction to cost engineering to business development and encouraged him to get an MBA, which he did.

In McFarland Construction’s first 18 months, building on relationships established in past roles became McFarland’s top priority. The company had two employees then — Tino and his wife, Tamara. “We were doing everything … we were out marketing, branding, estimating and pricing work,” McFarland said. “As we won (business), we’d manage it between us.”

There were nights when one spouse would sleep on the floor while the other would be up late working at a desk in the home office they created.

In 2012, two more team members were added: Harris and Josh Wallace, senior project manager. Then Tod Hawley, operations manager, was hired. All remain leaders at the firm today.

Some of McFarland’s first contracts were with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including a drill sergeant barracks project at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. In contracts, the U.S. government has specific participation goals for minority- and women-owned businesses, which proved an important way for the company to make inroads, McFarland said.

Doing work with the federal government while just starting out was also a way for the company to quickly prove its capabilities. With some of the most stringent requirements in construction, including around safety and site security, successfully completing contracts for the U.S. military would cement the firm’s credibility.

“The work can be complex, there are a lot of requirements that goes around it — from a contracting and an administration standpoint, from a safety and compliance standpoint.” McFarland said. “Working for the Department of Defense is probably the hardest place to play.”

Also instrumental in the early days was business with another public entity, the Charlotte Housing Authority, now Inlivian. One of its earliest contracts was a sprinkler modernization project at Edwin Towers in uptown. Successful completion led to a pipeline of projects with the housing authority.

McFarland got in front of real estate decision-makers, such as Harris, at some of the biggest companies in town. He would schedule lunch presentations in the boardrooms of Charlotte’s biggest towers, telling the story of McFarland Construction and the services it had to offer.

Rodney Gaddy, now executive director of One Charlotte Health Alliance, worked with McFarland in his former role as senior vice president of real estate at Duke Energy Corp.

When he started at Duke, Gaddy said he had heard good things about McFarland Construction and wanted to meet the leaders. In addition to pushing for more diversity in the businesses Duke Energy contracted with, Gaddy said commitment to safety and integrity, especially around project costs and timeline, were top qualities he prioritized.

“Those were two characteristics (McFarland) has, and has instilled in his organization,” Gaddy said.

What started out as $200,000 contracts a decade ago have grown to multimillion-dollar deals with the same clients today. The goal set out nearly 11 years ago was to have 10 to 15 core clients, with 5% to 10% of overall capital spend with those businesses, Harris said.

McFarland Construction’s portfolio today is robust and wide-ranging: corporate interiors for Wells Fargo & Co., the UNC Charlotte Marriott Hotel & Conference Center opening this month, the Novant Health Heart and Vascular Institute, and concourse renovations and the elevated roadway at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

“We are developing our reputation and earning our opportunities,” Wilhelm said. “We haven’t been around for 50 years, so every project we do is going to matter.”

Because McFarland is still building its capacity and remains smaller than other construction players in town, it frequently works on large deals in a joint venture with firms like Vannoy, JE Dunn Construction and DPR Construction, to name a few.

But McFarland said he would like for the company to be able to take on bigger projects on its own.

McFarland, Harris and Wilhelm all see potential for growth, and they are getting the company licensed in multiple states. During the Covid-19 pandemic, as federal projects have been put on hold, the company found new business with private-sector clients. Wilhelm said he wouldn’t be surprised if the company doubled in size by 2025.

But workforce development for existing, longtime employees and creating an eventual succession plan for a decade or more into the future are important in addition to growth, McFarland said.

Although he credits a number of factors for success over the past 10 years, McFarland said everything goes back to people: his wife, his three kids, the entire McFarland workforce, those who believed in his vision during the depths of a recession, mentors at other firms and longtime clients.

“Underneath all of those things are people, relationships and how you align with them or not, how you lift each other up or not, how you give each other opportunities or not,” McFarland said. “I’d like to think we’re successful, we’ve got a plan and good people, we work our plan and do our very best to do our part to make it successful.

“But at the end of the day, it’s all about people,” he said. “That’s what got us here, that’s what’s hopefully going to take us further.”

LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE: CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL | AUTHOR: ASHLEY FAHEY

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