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BUSI NESS

written by SHERIL BENNETT TURNER & photographed by JOHN FOWLER

Spotlight on Business

CUNNINGHAM-WATERS CONSTRUCTION COMPANY, INC.

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unningham-Waters Construction Company has a longstanding history in the community of Greer as a premier full-service contracting firm specializing in commercial, industrial, and institutional building. The company, which turns 60 this year, has grown over the years from a small local business to a major competitor in the southeast and is currently run by brothers Gabe and Ben Waters with close friend Henry James. I spoke with Gabe about the evolution of the company. “My grandfather, Benjamin Buford Waters, Jr. started the company in 1949 with a partner, H.L. (Harry) Cunningham,

a house builder who was looking to wind down,” Gabe explains. “Mr. Cunningham worked for five or six years and then retired altogether, but my grandfather kept the company name the same. At that time, CunninghamWaters did a lot of churches and schools, and because of all the textiles in the area, by the 1970s they almost exclusively worked on the old mills doing restorations and renovations. Then in 1981, my dad, Benjamin Buford Waters, III (known as Buddy) joined his father in the business after he got out of the Army.” After graduating from VMI with an engineering major, Henry James, the son of a close friend of Buddy’s, was trying to decide if he wanted to go into the construction or the engineering side of things. “Well, it was December of 1999 when Henry came to work here with my dad. I think they signed a six-month contract, and Henry has been with Cunningham-Waters for ten years,” Gabe laughs. Gabe himself never thought about doing anything else in life and entered the business after graduating the Citadel in 2001. “It was only GreerNow SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2009

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natural,” he says. “I grew up in the business, working out in the field during summers and Christmas breaks since I was old enough to work.” Older brother Ben—a 1997 Citadel grad—also joined the business in December of 2001 after a 4-year tour in the Army. “All of us do a little bit of everything,” Gabe says. “Henry and I are sales and project managers and we do a lot with budget control. Ben does all of our estimating, the construction document side of things.” In 2008, Buddy Waters retired, leaving the flourishing business in the hands of the younger generation. “Cunningham-Waters has grown in recent years,” say Gabe. “When my dad ran it alone, it was smaller and he didn’t do the same type of work that we do now. But, let me be clear on this, we haven’t done anything better than he did. My dad did a wonderful job with the company and laid a good foundation for us.” Gabe also cites a different working environment in his father’s day. “My dad worked in a time when you shook hands, and if you treated people fairly, you trusted that they would treat you fairly. There’s still is a lot of that, but it’s a lot more competitive now than it once was. There’s a lot more construction outfits. My dad talks a lot about when he came to work here, there were four or five general contractors in the yellow pages. Now there’s probably over a hundred, I don’t know I stopped looking. But technically, we as a company have not changed. Someone recently dropped off an old estimate that my grandfather prepared in 1951. He used the same

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language we use today when we prepare estimates on the work we propose to do. I think that’s one thing that’s made our business different than all the others, we may have changed who we do business with, but we haven’t really changed how we do business.” Instead of mill renovations, today Cunningham-Waters is seeing a boom in industrial construction, as well as the construction of medical buildings. “Building for a dentist or doctor requires a lot more attention than a cotton mill,” Gabe


explains. “It may be the only office he’s going to have in his life. He’s going to spend 10 hours a day, five days a week in his office, so we’ve got to get it right and we’ve got to make him happy. We have a different way of doing business than a lot of people. Maybe it’s because of our age, but we’re flexible. It’s important to us to be able to accommodate a customer’s needs and to be able to continue on a relationship. A successful job is when you still have a good relationship with your customer at the end of the day.”

“Maybe it’s because of our age, but we’re flexible. It’s important to us to be able to accommodate a customer’s needs and to be able to continue on a relationship. A successful job is when you still have a good relationship with your customer at the end of the day.” Cunningham-Waters takes pride in having a good relationship with their employees also. “We run our business like a family,” Gabe says. “If you work here, it’s like you’re a brother or a sister, or a child in some cases. I can handpick any of these guys and put them on the job and I don’t have to worry about them. I have two guys specifically, Mark Cox and Greg Pittman. My dad hired them right out of vocational school in the early 80s. They have been a big part of our families and our lives. I never have to question what their motives are. That’s something my dad always believed in—hiring young guys who are ambitious and letting them go as far as they want to. Another guy, Mike Redmon, is a project manager that came to work with us almost a year ago and has been a great addition to the company. Henry and I have never worked anywhere else so sometimes we start scratching our heads, ‘Are we sure we know what we’re doing here?’ It’s nice to have someone who’s done different things in the past.” But Cunningham-Waters has proven that they, indeed, know what they’re doing by their continued success. Gabe reflects on the future of the company. “I think as a company, in size, we are what we want to be. At the end of the day, our exit strategy is to be able to hand the company off to our kids. But,” he smiles, “we have a lot of years ahead of us before that time comes.”

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09-09/10 Cunningham Waters Construction