Port City Legend Builds Countrywide
White-Spunner Construction’s portfolio includes some of the landmarks of its hometown, Mobile, but also a rapidly growing list of big retail contracts across 27 states.
John White-Spunner founded Mobile-based White-Spunner Construction Co. in 1981, at age 24, but even in his teens, he was accumulating experience. “I have always worked construction jobs,” recalls the builder-leader, now age 61. “It is part of my work ethic and upbringing. When not in school, such as on summer breaks or Christmas holidays, you worked.”
The company, now in its 35th year, has more than $2.4 billion in total construction value. Its building average annual volume is $73.5 million in projects during the last five years. At any given time on a White-Spunner day-planner, 15 to 20 projects are under way.
Throughout its history, one observation remains constant, says White-Spunner. “I learn every day, nothing is the same. Factors change quickly.”
In recent years the company’s biggest growth has come from following big box retailers across the country. Clients include The Home Depot, which accounts for more than 350 construction and renovation projects; Academy Sports and Outdoors; The Fresh Market; Dave and Busters, and Rooms to Go.
“I met John in 1984,” says Mark McCall, president of Ryan’s Restaurant Group in Greer, South Carolina. “White-Spunner Construction was building a restaurant (Ryan’s Steak House) for a franchisee in Mobile. I came down to check the progress and was impressed with the work.” McCall wanted to know would the builders be free to build beyond Mobile.
“I asked, John, are you free to travel?” says McCall. The answer was yes.
Since then, White-Spunner Construction has built more than 50 of McCall’s restaurants and been involved in more than 100 remodeling projects. “His people always do quality work, on time and fast,” adds the steakhouse executive. “They pay attention to detail.”
This type of response is typical from early clients, as well as the Fortune 500 companies White-Spunner builds for today: White-Spunner Construction maintains a clean, safe site. Supervisors are engaged, and everything is running on time. The company works to ensure harmony between client and project teams. Managers are taught to identify challenges and offer solutions.
Every project has a unique life and personality, according to the founder. Each project receives the same care and scrutiny, regardless of size or scope, simplicity or complexity. It is never static.
“Construction relationships never end,” notes White-Spunner. “Clients always want modifications, renovations and need someone to adapt to their changing needs. Much of our work is repeat business,” the president says.
“Look at things from the clients’ perspective to always be a part of the solution. Be proactive and prepared, and give the customer great value for their investment.”
Three decades of change is most apparent in the tools of the trade. White-Spunner claims to be one of the first Mobile construction companies to transfer to computers, back in the ’70s. “It was from Radio Shack,” White-Spunner clarifies. “But still, we were among the first.”
Today the business is a paperless society. Prints, schematics and data shoot electronically from managers to supervisors to crew chiefs and back. “The construction industry is racing ahead in technology,” says White-Spunner. “Our drone can map, overlay electronic drawings and superimpose images over maps and plans.”
Less obvious, says White-Spunner, are the advances in human skills. “We always need good people in all facets, management to labor. We are seeing young people coming in smarter, which is good, because with the new technologies, they have to be.”
In decades past, White-Spunner says, engineers used to go into the construction business after earning an engineering degree. They just migrated over to construction. Today more students are earning degrees specifically designed for the construction field.
What may need enhancement, says White-Spunner, are some of the lessons that come from a longer timeline, such as the big recession that came not just eight years ago but also in the early ’80s, when the company got its start. “Through the years we learned what worked and what didn’t,” White-Spunner says. “What didn’t work was taking on debt and overextending. You have to run your business to be ready to take on a downturn, which demands restraint and a lot of energy communicating to younger people who haven’t been through it.”
The company, however, invests more than wisdom in its human capital. “We are employee-owned,” notes White-Spunner. “Everyone has buy-in, everyone has ownership. My job, in addition to being president, is to enable our people to be the best they can be and develop their careers to the fullest.”
White-Spunner Construction was named 2014 General Contractor of the Year by the Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama, in large part in recognition of its rapid growth, with projects completed in 27 states.
But projects in the company’s home region are still a source of special pride — including contracts through the history of the University of South Alabama, the Alabama Cruise Terminal, the Mobile Museum of Art, Citronelle High School and Hank Aaron Stadium.
“This is a great business to be in, and a great time to be in it,” says White-Spunner. “I love it. To see a magnificent building like Mobile’s historic Battle House Renaissance Hotel and know we had a part in its restoration is so rewarding.”
Emmett Burnett and Dan Anderson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Anderson in Mobile.