Of all the fascinating stories peppering the 100-plus-year history of Elford, Inc., two in particular helped to frame core company values by establishing a refusal to cut corners in both the quality of its building and the building of its relationships.
The first story goes all the way back to 1910 when founder Edward “Pop” Elford quit his job as a concrete foreman on a bridge project in Columbus, Ohio, because he refused to perform inferior work. He used his last $153.75 to open E. Elford & Son General Contractors.
“It was the height of the Great Depression, and our bid tied another contractor with the exact same number,” said Elford President Jim Smith. “The rule in the books with the Public Works (Commission) was if two companies tie and both agree, you can determine the winner with a flip of a coin. Believe it or not, that rule still exists today.”
The coin fell in Elford’s favor, and for the rest of 1935, the $272,203.35 job spanning the Scioto River was the company’s only active project. Elford decided to find a way to keep all employees on the payroll during the construction of the bridge, offering an early demonstration of just how much internal relationships mattered to the company founder. They still matter today.
“There are two great parts to the story,” said Smith. “One is that the job really saved our company. Without it, we might not be here today. You never know. The other part is that we managed to avoid laying anybody off in the midst of the depression…We had 50 employees at that time, and what Pop Elford did to keep everyone employed was have everyone work a half-week so that nobody was out of a job.”
While all of Elford's core values are important, Smith considers one to be the company's bellwether.
"Building relationships is what we do," said Smith. "Construction really is the ultimate team sport. There are so many stakeholders working together. Each project may be a one-off, but we are constantly building relationships not just with our customers, but our subcontractors, our designers, building officials, suppliers. You name it. Every job, there is a new team. When we talk relationships in business, a lot of the time it is a focus on the customer. But it's also the supporting cast of all of our employees and all of our partners. We have tremendous long-term relationships with all of these people, and we are making new relationships every day."
Just as it took a little good fortune during the great depression to breathe new life into Elford, the company's vision to move from strictly private work to a mix of private and public jobs in the wake of the 2008 recession ushered the company into its newest era.
"Prior to the recession, we weren't doing any public work," said Smith. "But at the time of the recession, most of our private customers really reduced what they were doing. So, our choice was either to grow or get small. To grow meant shifting to the public sector, so we did it in the areas where we had very high capabilities. We went into higher education with a focus on healthcare, so our work at Ohio State started to take a big shift. That shift led to a big change in the company. It really vaulted us. Our initial target was to work with four universities. That grew to 11 because of our reputation. And then that grew to K-12 work, which hadn't been part of our portfolio."
Smith takes great pride in Elford's history and where the company is headed, but his greatest satisfaction on the job is seeing a similar pride reflected in the faces of Elford employees when he visits the company's active construction sites.
"They don't look at what they are doing as just a job," said Smith. "It's not just bricks and mortar. They really care about what they are doing. This (summer), I was out where we are building a project for Lutheran Social Services. They provide services for victims of domestic violence. I could see how our team took that mission to heart and how it impacted their lives to understand the importance of that project in our society. It's moments like these that fuel the passion for the work we do every day."
"My relationship with McDonald Hopkins as a firm goes back a little more than a decade," said Smith. "But my experience with Pete Welin goes back 30 years. We first met when he was with another firm, and we've had a great relationship ever since. When he made the move to McDonald Hopkins, corporately, we decided wherever Pete was going, we were going. It's been a great move because we've had the chance to work and build relationships with some of the other partners."