published Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Road warrior: Construction company chief reflects on career doing major work in Chattanooga and beyond

Stephen Wright, left, and Mark Jenkins, concrete foreman with Wright Bros. Construction, assess the progress of one of the retaining walls at the construction site for the U.S. Highway 27 project in Chattanooga.
Stephen Wright, left, and Mark Jenkins, concrete foreman with Wright Bros. Construction, assess the progress of one of the retaining walls at the construction site for the U.S. Highway 27 project in Chattanooga.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

They’re one of the most visible companies you’ve never seen.

As the sun begins to warm the morning air each day, 386 workers fire up bulldozers from Virginia to New Orleans, helping to haul in more than $100 million per year.

In the Chattanooga area, Stephen Wright, CEO of Charleston, Tenn.-based Wright Brothers Construction Co., has moved dirt or dynamited rock at almost every major commercial or industrial project in the last two years. Today, the Wright family — no relation to the aviators of North Carolina fame — is responsible for earth-moving at the Volkswagen, Amazon, Wacker, Cleveland Airport and U.S. 27 work sites.

“We’ve had as much work around here in the last 50 years as we’ve had in the last 18 months,” Wright said.

Though the company has built golf courses, malls and dams across the Southeast, Wright’s specialty is road building, a trade he picked up from his dad.

“Until now, no one here knew much about our company because we did a lot of work out of state,” he said.

One notable local project that he helped build in 1978 is a little road called I-75. At the time, the company erected a temporary headquarters near Cleveland, Tenn., near the unfinished road. Today, the family is still there.

Low bidder

As Wright looks back on a dusty but profitable career, he dismisses the notion that there’s anything special about the company, which has survived roughly eight recessions and 11 presidents.

“I was just the low bidder on every contract,” he said, smiling.

Many of the old family photos from the old days depict weathered men posing next to bulldozers in the dirt, squinting at the Tennessee sun.

As a young man, Wright stood proudly next to his father, Robert Wright, sporting a pair of cowboy boots and a white T-shirt spattered with mud.

Along with brother James Wright, Robert Wright founded the business in 1961 with a single bulldozer and a desire to get paid for playing in the dirt. With their new machine, the two men helped local farmers dig ponds and helped local contractors with a few small road projects.

The duo grew the company quickly, scoring their first contract with the Tennessee Department of Transportation in 1967 as a primary contractor.

Over the years, Stephen Wright rose through the ranks into the company leadership role he holds today, working in an office next door to his dad.

Wright, the company’s second-generation leader, is already readying the third generation to take the reins.

“You have to be unselfish and realize you’re not going to live forever,” Wright said. “You have to really want it to make it through the next generation, and you can’t take a whole lot out of the company.”

He also doesn’t get to take a lot of days off.

“Sometimes you look back at your kids and you haven’t seen them as often as you like,” he said.

Faith

His Christian faith has made the long days a bit more bearable, however.

“I’ve always been taught to separate business and faith, but once I thought about it, I said, why?” he said.

He’s started a chaplain program for workers who find themselves on a project far from home, joined a group of Christian CEOs, and said he’s been conscientious about telling the honest truth, even when it stings a little.

“The key is to be honest and forthright, communicate honestly and through the heart,” Wright said. “Some people feel refreshed when they hear the truth.”

Some of the tough truths he’s telling today revolve around Congress’ inability to pass a halfway decent transportation bill, he said.

As new chairman of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, Wright is concerned about what he sees as deteriorating infrastructure around the country and a slowdown on new projects.

There’s a day of reckoning coming,” Wright said. “There’s this belief that anything the government does is bad, but we’ve gone from a transportation system that’s gone from expanding in capacity to one that’s maintenance only.”

Passing a highway bill isn’t just about fighting congestion, it’s about the American way of life, he claims with conviction.

Simple pleasures like salad bars and year-round fruit didn’t exist 50 years ago, he said, because there wasn’t enough transportation infrastructure to deliver the goods.

“When I was a kid in the ’60s, there weren’t strawberries available unless you picked them,” he said. “Everything was frozen and nasty. Now, we’ve grown to have these expectations, but there’s not enough money to keep up the lifestyle.”

Man-made

That goes for him as well. Thanks to reduced government spending, a global recession and more competitors looking to earn dollars in his market, “break-even is the new normal” for most road builders, he said.

Though the money is nice, Wright likes the idea that he gets to leave something permanent behind after he finishes work on a road or a building — something that he can stand back, look at and be proud of.

In fact, the company headquarters is surrounded on three sides by projects the family helped build — Wacker to the north, Amazon to the south and I-75 to the west.

Naturally, there have been some bad days.

Though he always knew he was going to work construction, he almost didn’t make it at his father’s company.

“One day, I quit around 10, came back and got fired around 2,” he said. “I don’t remember why now, but that’s one of the problems of working for your dad.”

Since he was the founder’s son, he had to show up for work the next day anyway.

“At least he hasn’t fired me lately,” Wright said.

Wright Brothers in 2011 had to pay one of the largest fines in the history of the federal clean water act for allegedly dumping excess soil and rock into seven trout streams in Northeast Georgia. The company, along with the Georgia Department of Transportation, had to pay more than $2.8 million in a settlement, though they continued to dispute that federal law had been violated.

“We settled because it looked like we were going to run out of credit before the U.S. government,” Wright said at the time, according to The Associated Press.

Other times, he’s lost millions on contracts when state governments refused to pay what they owed due to unforeseen cost overruns.

“It seems like we have a tendency to make one terrible mistake every year,” he joked.

That point is illustrated in a comic strip that Wright has affixed to the wall in the men’s restroom. In the picture, a hobo sits on a bench, unshaven and wearing rags.

“I was the low bidder on every contract,” the hobo says.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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