Sunday, April 21, 2024

Contractor Aaron Thomas’ grand plan

Prepped by a family patriarch, Aaron Thomas has big ambitions for a construction business with small-town roots.

Aaron Thomas remembers getting quizzed as a 10-year-old by his grandfather, Curt Locklear, wanting to know his life’s plan. Not having one wasn’t acceptable, the youngster quickly learned.

“He was having none of that,” Thomas says. “He was a hard driver. He expected a lot of you, and he expected you to work. … He taught me everything I know about business, dealing with people, and I learned a lot about building.”

Curt Locklear started Robeson County’s Pembroke Hardware in the 1950s and built it into one of the larger True Value franchise stores in the U.S., a status it still maintains. Lindsey Locklear, one of Curt’s nine children and Thomas’ uncle, says the family quickly realized that the precocious youngster had a big future.

“During summers, Aaron would come and spend time in Pembroke, and he would stay at Daddy’s house,” Lindsey says. “He just fell into the classic mom-and-pop store in Pembroke, fell into the mix there, and started doing stuff. He had an unusual focus for a 10- and 11-year-old, and he wanted to know everything about everything.”

By his late teens, Thomas was joining Lindsey on trips to national hardware shows. “Aaron has the gift of gab, and he loves to sell,” says Locklear, 60. “He started following me pretty closely in his late teens, and I would take him to national hardware shows. He liked that, the bigger scene. He was a natural at that and loved that. Early on his confidence was high. All he needed was a good product, and he was ready to go.”

Aaron Thomas, CEO, Metcon

Thomas, 45, is now the sole owner and CEO of construction company Metcon, which employs nearly 100, including a significant number earning six-figure salaries. The company is projected to reach $150 million in revenue this year. No other minority-owned North Carolina contractor has reached a similar level, and its headquarters is the source of great pride in Pembroke, a Robeson County town of 3,000 that is the home of the 55,000-member Lumbee Tribe.

Since Thomas formed the business in 1999 at age 23, Metcon has completed more than 800 projects in the Carolinas, including 20 current assignments. In 2011 and in 2013, the U.S. Department of Commerce named Metcon the U.S. Minority Construction Firm of the Year.

“I love it because we are creating something that will be there for my lifetime and well beyond,” Thomas says.

Metcon’s name comes from combining the words metal and construction. It makes sense because Thomas started by mainly building metal-frame homes through the Lumbee Regional Development Association, which aimed to provide affordable housing to tribal members. Typically priced from $120,000 to $170,000, the prefabricated homes were mostly assembled away from the home site, then shipped on a boom truck to the final location. “It was so much faster in getting the house to market and far superior to traditional methods,” he says.

Thomas’ major break came in 2000 when N.C. voters approved a $3.1 billion bond package that was used to fuel construction for the UNC System. The money included $57 million for the UNC Pembroke campus, just a few blocks from Thomas’ childhood home. After moving to Greensboro and graduating from high school, he returned to Pembroke to earn an undergraduate degree in 1999. That continued his family’s long connection to the university and its Lumbee heritage. He went on to earn a master’s in construction management from East Carolina University in 2009.

[/media-credit] Thomas has expanded his influence through service on the boards of key state building and economic development groups.

About the same time of the big bond election, N.C. lawmakers approved legislation that set a “participation goal” for public agencies to provide at least 10% of state building contracts to minority-owned firms. (Agencies are still required to seek the lowest costs for projects.) The law applied to Black-, Hispanic-, Asian American-, American Indian- and female-owned firms that had at least 51% minority ownership and were deemed “historically underutilized businesses,” or HUBs.

Another key ingredient was missing, however: the licensing needed to secure large government contracts through the bidding process. A $100,000 loan from his grandfather in early 2000 checked that off the list. According to Thomas, the loan was repaid in less than a month.

As for bonding authority that gives clients confidence in a contractor’s financial strength, Thomas says he initially relied in part on the assets of his former partner James “Bonk” Maynor, who is part of a Robeson County family that owned grocery stores, auto dealerships and real estate. The long-term key to bonding, however, is making a profit and then retaining much of that money in the business, he says.

Bolstered by a steady stream of UNC Pembroke projects, Metcon’s annual revenue gradually increased during its first decade, reaching about $30 million by 2010. “UNCP is a huge part of our story,” Thomas says. It wasn’t a steady path, however, with the bleak recession days requiring lots of flexibility to avoid layoffs.

Thomas says Maynor’s business acumen helped keep Metcon afloat during the recession when he accurately foresaw a period when construction projects would dry up. Maynor, who is no longer affiliated with Metcon, suggested that the company should sell more than $1.5 million of construction equipment that would likely be idle during the economic downturn as a way to raise capital and ride out the recession.

Indeed, Metcon experienced “three years in a row when we didn’t make a cent” but didn’t lay off any staff. “We were doing a decent amount of infrastructure work for mostly government entities … and we were bidding work just to break even,” Thomas says.

In 2010, Metcon won a bid to construct Cypress Hall, a UNC Pembroke dorm with 119 four-person suites. It proved to be critical for the company’s ability to secure similar or larger projects going forward. Other UNCP developments followed, including a $38 million business school that is scheduled to open later this year. The school is named after Pembroke native and California developer Jim Thomas, a distant cousin who pledged $7 million to the school.

The local community embraces Metcon’s success, says Robeson County Manager Kellie Blue, who is a member of the UNC System Board of Governors. “This is yet another great example of a huge economic development engine our universities are for the communities and regions they serve,” she says.

From its Robeson County roots, Thomas has gradually expanded the business into larger, faster-growing markets, sparking what he calls “steady incremental growth” over the past decade. He added a Raleigh office in 2011 after landing a Duke Energy contract, then expanded into the Piedmont area when Metcon won bids for projects with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and UNC Charlotte. At the latter campus, Metcon built the 406-unit Laurel Residence Hall in a joint venture with giant British contractor Balfour Beatty.

Metcon’s biggest contract to date involves a $221 million project to build five energy-efficient schools in South Carolina’s Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach. That deal followed the company’s $16 million construction of Sandy Grove Elementary School in Hoke County, which was rated the nation’s best education project in 2013 by Engineering News-Record, a leading national construction industry publication.

The Horry County projects were partly a collaboration with Firstfloor Energy Positive, a company led by Raleigh archiect Robbie Ferris, who is a promoter of energy-efficient design of school buildings. While some industry officials say the promised energy savings are exaggerated, Thomas is a believer. Metcon has collaborated on several projects with Ferris’ Sfl+a design firm.

“Sandy Grove was the first privatized energy-positive school in America that not only generated more energy than it consumed but also leveraged other unique financing structures and tax credits that greatly lowered the total cost of ownership for the school district,” Thomas says.

Ten more energy-positive schools have followed, but none in Robeson County, a spur in Thomas’ heel. Like many rural N.C. counties, Robeson has schools that are as much as 80 years old, many of them outdated. Given their limited tax bases, it’s difficult for those counties to raise money for new schools, he says. “Hell, it’s not difficult, it’s virtually impossible without having the political will to consolidate.” He champions public-private partnerships to speed the pace of new schools in rural areas, a stance that remains controversial among many N.C. education officials.

To be sure, Metcon has won a slew of business in its home county. It built projects for the Robeson Department of Social Services and Lumbee River Electric Membership Corp. and led the renovation of the former Southern National Bank headquarters in downtown Lumberton that is now the home of county government.

[/media-credit] A $38 million business school will be a major economic driver for Robeson County. The school makes up about a fourth of UNC Pembroke’s enrollment.

“I consider myself blessed to be surrounded by a dedicated and talented leadership team that have been with me a very long time,” Thomas says. “They have built this company brick by brick, year by year.”

Several of Thomas’ top colleagues have been with the company for more than 15 years, including Chief Operating Officer Sam Isham, Senior Project Manager Samantha Locklear, Assistant Vice President Mark Floyd and Greg Hunt, vice president of infrastructure. “I think they were all happy to build something special, and all being from Robeson County and being part of growing a company that could pretty much compete with anybody across the state,” Thomas says. “As the company has grown, they have all grown, as professionals and individuals — and monetarily. They get paid well.”

Blue says Thomas has surrounded himself with talented staffers. “He is a listener and someone who is receptive to good advice even if it is hard and direct.”

Thomas says that the only thing preventing Metcon from recording more business is difficulty finding qualified staff. He has lobbied for Robeson County to add more high school-level courses that would provide skills training for students not bound for college. Getting that done has proven to be difficult.

“We definitely compete with other large contractors for new talent, especially in the larger markets of Raleigh and Charlotte,” he says. “We have been able to attract top talent and in some instances while going head to head with the big boys. People want to be a part of cutting-edge projects and cutting-edge techniques such as energy-positive building and other things we are doing.”

About 90% of Metcon’s work today is design, build or construction management of at-risk projects, although the company “dabbles in real estate” and provides some infrastructure work for local municipalities. It builds apartments but no single-family homes.

As Metcon has grown, so has Thomas’ profile in North Carolina. Like many contractors, he makes substantial campaign donations to N.C. politicians and employs a Raleigh lobbyist. In 2018, he was appointed to the board of the Economic Development Partnership of N.C., the state’s key industry hunting organization. He is also a former chairman of the N.C. State Building Commission. “I was able to bring some fresh ideas and perspectives from a contractor who had really grown up doing their work, from doing it on a small scale to a large scale. I think I could bring a unique perspective that they never had, from that of minority companies and small companies.”

Thomas says Metcon goes an extra step to aid minority subcontractors, who make up more than 40% of his company’s spending. “We are pretty widely known to expend a high amount of work with the minority subcontractors. We also have the highest level of minority workforce.”

He credits his grandfather for emphasizing the importance of working to build a better community. He and his wife, Azalea, are raising four children in Pembroke: Ayanna, 21, Alena, 16, Ashtyn, 15, and Austin Curt, 6.

Any conversation with Thomas about Metcon is peppered with references to his Lumbee heritage as well as his native county. “One thing I am proud of is how we have been able to create a company in little ol’ Robeson County, take what we have learned across the Carolinas, and create a lot of jobs,” he says. “It does give me a certain sense of pride coming from the poorest county in the state and showing we can compete with the best of the best.”

UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings says Thomas’ business success is noteworthy, but “the person he is aside from that is what makes him such an asset to our university, Pembroke and southeastern North Carolina. He built his company through hard work and determination, but more importantly, he’s determined to do his part to see his community and university grow and prosper, to make a difference.”

Metcon’s highest-profile current project is probably the Catawba Two Kings Casino Resort in Kings Mountain, the $273 million gaming site planned by the Catawba Nation tribe. The resort, which is a joint venture with Philadelphia, Miss.-based Yates Construction, continues a lengthy relationship between Thomas and the South Carolina tribe. “I have been working with the Catawba for a decade doing other projects, including their bingo hall.” Unlike a lot of casino visitors, Thomas appears likely to come away a winner. ■

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