BY AMY DREW THOMPSON
The teenage Eddie Stewart, come summertime, anyway, was flush with cash from his construction job.
“It was better money than anything else for a high school summer job,” he says. And likely better inspiration than pumping gas or stocking shelves.
As the summers came and went, Stewart was charged with increasingly challenging tasks and found himself falling in love with the idea of a future in the industry, so when it came time to declare a major at Georgia Tech, he knew right away what it would be: architecture.
“I thought ‘building’ was what architects did!” he laughs in recollection. “It showed my ignorance. And after two years I said, ‘This is not what I want to do. I want to build stuff. I don’t want to design it.’”
It cost him an extra year’s worth of study, but Stewart never looked back. Now president and CEO of Montgomery, Alabama-based Caddell Construction, he’s been involved with interesting and intricate projects, both domestic and international.
From Houston airports to U.S. embassies in Panama, China and even the brand-new facility in Kabul, Afghanistan, his resume is long, exciting and enviable. Its beginnings, however, are humble.
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Stewart is no industry legacy. His father, a district manager for Ford Motor Company, traveled most weeks – though still found time to build a big family;
Stewart is one of nine children.
That high school summer job, though unglamorous at first – like most “newbies,” he started on clean-up, pushing a broom – afforded lots of growth opportunity for kids with
ambition. Once under the wing of a senior craftsman, his skill set began to grow.
“He taught me wood framing, which made the job more interesting and made me more valuable the following summer. Seeing things constructed, seeing the finished product on some of the projects I worked on, just gave me a sense of satisfaction that was hard to explain.”
The construction bug had bitten. So, too, had the love bug.
Stewart began dating Robin, his wife of 42 years, when they were high school juniors. They married four years later, while still in college.
“It was cheaper to marry her than keep dating,” he jokes. (Today they have five kids and nine grandchildren; a 10th was on the way at press time.)
BLOUNT & BEYOND
With a B.S. in building construction under his belt, Stewart embarked on a job with Blount International Limited, then a large general contractor that at the time was amid a $3.2 billion university project in Saudi Arabia, “when $3.2 billion was a lot of money!” he chuckles.
This prompted a move to Alabama, where Stewart fell into his role as an estimator, counting doors and windows, working up to concrete and beyond. The Saudi project took about two-and-a-half years to bid, negotiate and get awarded, and in that time he realized he was definitely in the right place.
“I loved the estimating part of the business in that you build the project on paper. You have to be able to conceptualize what all the steps in the project entail to be able to accurately estimate, and I found that to be particularly interesting and challenging,” he says. “I thought it was fantastic!”
He credits excellent mentors, John Caddell in particular, who took the time to explain what’s involved.
“Estimating is not just about quantifying materials and putting prices on them,” he says, his enthusiasm clear. “There’s a lot more judgment and experience required in order to be effective.”
Technology has made quantifying easier these days, he explains, “but it’s still a matter of judgment. It’s coming up with a scheme on how best to approach the project. It’s trying to come up with a way to build it that’s different from what your competition may have, because you’re all going to have the same quantities on the job, but your approach to it, the way you attack it, your schedule – all that is what really helps differentiate you from your competition…. It’s about the common sense you have to put into it to come up with a better mousetrap.”
Fieldwork as a project engineer eventually brought him from Montgomery, Alabama to Chattanooga, Tennessee. The experience hammered home the idea that it was estimating where he belonged. He missed the diversity this facet of the industry offered.
“The challenges in estimating are different from day to day,” he explains. “You’re jumping from one project to the other and when one is done you’re off and onto the next.”
Blount’s projects were unique and varied – working with the Corps of Engineers, the GSA, NASA and others – and that didn’t hurt.
“Courthouses, prisons, Army barracks, hangars and anything you would have on a military installation … that added to the excitement of the job. And you might work on 15 or 20 projects a year, getting exposed to all different types of construction. It was never a dull moment.”
Which was never truer the day that John Caddell, then Blount’s president and CEO, was handed a golden parachute in 1983 after more than 31 years at the helm.
Caddell, then in his early 50s, was hardly ready to retire.
“Two weeks later, he started his own company – working out of his house,” says Stewart. “He and his wife, Joyce, along with their son, Kirby – who I knew better than John at that time – started the company with a used Mercedes as a large part of the net worth.”
They called and asked Stewart if he’d like to come onboard.
“My wife was pregnant with our third child at the time. They had no insurance and really no company, but just knowing what John had done at Blount, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Stewart joined their makeshift crew, working out of Caddell’s house.
Fast-forward 11 years and Caddell had grown, and in 1994, the upstart company bought what was left of the former giant. Stewart stayed in estimating and moved through the ranks, first to chief estimator, then VP of the department. The estimating group, which started out with three or four, today boasts more than 20.
Of course, Stewart is now the company’s CEO, but there are many capable hands at the helm to allow him the freedom to focus on his AGC presidency for this exceptional centennial year.
THE NEXT HUNDRED YEARS
“We obviously want to celebrate 100 years,” he notes, “that’s a great accomplishment! There are so many special people who have gotten us where we are, and the industry’s changed quite a bit – and that’s noteworthy.”
Even so, his theme – Focused on the Future – states a clear intent.
“We can’t just sit on our hundred-year laurels,” he says.
“It’s great that we’ve accomplished the centennial, but you can say the same thing about AGC that you would any stock prospectus: past performance is no guarantee of future results. And so Focused on the Future is about staying in touch with what will keep AGC relevant for the next hundred years.”
Many changes, he says — the bulk of them in the last 10 or 15 years — have allowed the association and the industry to see more advancement – great leaps forward – than in the many decades prior.
“So, [the theme] is really about looking at what the next 20 or 30 years are going to look like and based on that – what will AGC look like…? There are so many innovations, techniques and ideas out there being introduced in construction, and as an industry we can do better in adopting them faster.”
He’s discussed these advances with colleagues and found some to be skeptical.
“’Yeah,’ they’ll say, ‘that’s great but it probably won’t happen for another hundred years.’ I disagree.”
Stewart cites robotics, 3D printing and rapid advancement in prefabrication as just a handful of modernizations to which AGC should pay close attention.
“In some cases, it’s still rudimentary technology; but it’s happening now! The Corps of Engineers just recently 3D printed the largest concrete building to date up in Illinois (it’s true, the project came out of the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign; the structure totaled 512 square feet). All this innovation is going to change our industry, and when it does, AGC needs to be able to adapt.”
Outgoing President Art Daniel, for one, believes Stewart will help guide the association toward that goal and into this brave, new world of technology.
“He brings a unique energy and passion for the industry, so I think he’s going to pick up the torch and carry it just fine,” says Daniel of his colleague. “We’ve worked closely together leading into the centennial year and have had lots of talks about this great monument, but we don’t want to get bogged down in history. Eddie firmly believes that we need to be looking forward, which I think bodes very well for the industry and the association.”
Daniel describes Stewart as measured and thoughtful.
“He tends to quietly gather all the facts, and he listens to people’s thoughts,” says the 2017 president. “He deliberates over what he sees the issue to be and how it would impact the membership. He makes decisions based on all that analysis and puts some real energy behind it.”
Stewart’s dynamism comes up more than once in Daniel’s conversation with Constructor, in particular with respect to AGC’s newer members.
“Eddie is very in touch with the energy that our younger professionals bring and really wants to tap that energy – rightfully so!”
Greater involvement at the national level for all AGC members, in particular the freshest among them, does rank high on Stewart’s list of presidential priorities. It’s personal, in fact, because his involvement with the association sort of happened in reverse.
Where most people start amid the throngs of its 92 chapters, Stewart’s far less circuitous route was prompted by his boss, who touted the importance of AGC membership back in 1992.
“He didn’t specify state or national,” says Stewart, “but our company does so much federal work – for just about every agency in the federal government you can think of – that I started going to AGC national meetings, particularly in the Federal and Heavy division, which focused on contractors who work with agencies like NAVFAC, the GSA, the Corps of Engineers, the State Department’s Overseas Building Operations, and so forth.”
It afforded Caddell a chance to get face time with the top decision makers in Washington, he explains, and the advantage of knowing what decisions and trends might be coming down the pipe.
“When they were getting ready to change their project delivery methods, it was through AGC national that this would be made known…. AGC national was where [Caddell] needed to be.”
The topic is a hot one for Stewart, who says it’s far easier to get involved at the national level than members might think.
“In fact, that’s the best-kept, or maybe worst-kept, secret! All you have to do if you have an interest is look beyond your chapter at what’s available at the national level and show up. Volunteer and then we’ll find you something to do – a way to get involved. We’re always looking for members willing to come in and get on a committee or task force.”
Local chapter membership, of course, is a prerequisite – but Stewart laughs recounting that back in his early AGC days, it took a while to get to know the local members in Alabama, even though he was in and out of D.C. for national meetings all the time.
“My wife and I would show up for conventions and we’d see all these people from Alabama and they’re going, ‘how did you get involved in all this?!’” he laughs. “I did it backwards – not everybody goes this route to get to AGC national, but however you do get there – you really need to take advantage of it because it’s sort of like having an iPhone and only using it for calling people. There’s so much more that AGC national has to offer!”