LAKEWOOD RANCH -- In June 1985, Jack Cox was 15. He had a learner's permit and a new summer job. He was going to drive a dump truck.
A year earlier, Cox's father, John, had purchased Halfacre Construction Co. from its founder, Bill Halfacre. A residential construction company at the time, Halfacre was remaking itself as a commercial contractor by the time school let out for Cox's first summer working for his dad.
For Cox, that summer job represented more than spending money for the coming school year. His father told him that he'd likely be working for the company for years, possibly the rest of his life. It was an order.
"That was it. I didn't have a choice," said Cox, who at 45 has been Halfacre's president since 1999.
Having just finished a $36-million year, Lakewood Ranch-based Halfacre occupies its tiny niche in the commercial construction industry. It is smaller than national firms with annual revenues in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars and larger than most of its local competitors. In this in-between zone, the company, which has offices in its building at 7015 Professional Parkway East, has po
sitioned itself to grab contracts of almost any size.
An ongoing recovery in the commercial construction market has helped build Halfacre's business. After doing its largest volume of business at the height of real estate run-up prior to 2008, the company had to change its approach to the market. At that time, about 70 percent of its work was for private business, with 30 percent of revenues coming from government work. Today, those percentages have flipped, with public sector work providing the bulk of Halfacre's work.
Its projects include warehouses and other buildings at Port Manatee, the recent renovation of the historic courtroom at the Manatee County courthouse, and the stone-fronted warehouse of Lakewood Ranch beer distributor Gold Coast Eagle. Halfacre built the first commercial building in Lakewood Ranch and has done work at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Last August, the 30-employee company won a bid for one of its largest projects to date, the construction of an air traffic control tower for the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. The company beat out five national companies with a $16-million bid.
Fredrick "Rick" Piccolo, the airport's CEO, said it was a pleasant surprise to receive a winning bid from a qualified local company. Competition for the project attracted companies from Texas, Virginia, Detroit and Colorado, and international builder PCL.
"I will say having Halfacre be the successful low bidder was very satisfying because it is a local company," Piccolo said.
Company has tight focus
Cox credits much of Halfacre's success to experienced mentors, who helped him learn the business. He and his father shared an office for years until the elder Cox passed away in 2008. Bill Halfacre worked as an employee of the company he founded until his death in 2014.
From these men, Cox learned to place an emphasis on maintaining friendships with clients and close ties with the community. It's the best way he knows to build a good reputation, something that is important whether he builds one project or many for a client.
"A lot of these guys will only build one building in their lifetimes," he said.
Although the company's public work is dependent on whether it wins a bid, repeat customers have a level of comfort with Halfacre. George Isiminger, Port Manatee's planning director, said he's always glad to have the company back. Halfacre built the port's access control center, its cruise terminal, three berth-side warehouses and a building that houses port administration and port tenant Fresh Del Monte.
"We appreciate working with Halfacre Construction because there is no uncertainty factor," Isiminger said. "When Halfacre wins the bid for a project at Port Manatee, we know the project will be performed professionally and we will receive a high-quality product."
Other repeat Halfacre customers include Manatee and Sarasota counties and the Hillsborough County School District.
Being a bid winner is something the company is good at. Last year, it won about 50 percent of the contract contests it entered.
During the past few years, Cox has partly refocused his company on being a construction manager more than a general contractor. The distinction means Halfacre gets involved with projects before the first construction drawings are completed. That gives the company a say in the design process, something Cox said makes for smoother project delivery.
"You're bringing your experience and your staff's experience to deliver a better product," he said.
The company has also narrowed its focus. For 25 years, it did its own concrete work and steel erection and had more than 100 employees. Now Halfacre uses subcontractors for those jobs and maintains a workforce one-third its former size.
Family, community ties
One area where Cox is particularly careful to emulate his father is in community involvement. Like John Cox, he is heavily involved in children's charity work, and is part of numerous boards and organizations. He is president of Suncoast Charities for Children and has been on its board of directors for 26 years. He also serves as a board member for the Argus Foundation, Gulf Coast Builder's Exchange, is chairman of First Step of Sarasota and serves on the board of insurer FCCI.
Cox spends most of his weekday afternoons out of the office involved in this work. It keeps him grounded in the Manatee-Sarasota area.
"I feel I'm ingrained as part of the community," he said.
What the distant future holds for Halfacre is unknown yet. He received a purchase offer from a larger construction company in 2009, but turned it down, in part, because he wouldn't know what to do with his time if he wasn't working.
Cox and his wife, Andrea, have a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. While he will welcome them into the business if they choose, he said what they want to do with their lives when they grow up is their decision.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.