Colfax, North Carolina-based UMA Geotechnical Construction has set a high bar for growth. The company plans to build a new, 24,000-square-foot headquarters and President Brian DeSpain says revenue has doubled two years in a row. That’s not a surprise. When a company can manage projects of the scale UMA does, it attracts attention.
“We’re working on the I-26 widening project in Asheville,” DeSpain says. “It’s 120,000 square feet of soil nail walls. It’s the largest soil nail wall project the North Carolina Department of Transportation has ever done. This past year we finished a wall from the North Carolina Department of Transportation that was 46,000 square feet. … I would think, just from the size of some of the projects that we have going on currently, I think that people would be excited about that.”
DeSpain took a leadership role in mid-2020 in the company founded by his father, Jim DeSpain. The elder DeSpain’s service in the U.S. Navy earned the company designation as both a Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) and North Carolina Historically Underutilized Business (HUB). UMA serves the mid-Atlantic, often performing Defense Department contracts or subcontracting work on large-scale transportation projects.
“I would say soil nails is probably the primary focus of our business,” Brian DeSpain says. “Secondary to that would be micropiles and specialty ground Improvement, grouting projects.”
He says they run mostly Casagrande, Camacchio and Hütte equipment.
We had DeSpain on our Drilling In-Site video and podcast series to discuss company leadership and growth. This is an edited summary of our talk. Click here to see the full video, or here to listen to the podcast.
Q. Give our audience a little sense of UMA. What types of work do you do and for whom?
A. We primarily work for the Department of Defense. Secondary to that would be departments of transportation, such as the North Carolina Department of Transportation, TDOT, VDOT and entities like that. Most all of our work is through government entities in some way. We’re primarily a subcontractor to prime contractors, although we are a general contractor and we can work in that sense if needed. If an owner of a property needed us to prime a project, we absolutely can do that, but I would say that in a traditional sense, we work more as a subcontractor than anything else.
Q. UMA is poised to expand with a new headquarters and you’ve characterized the company as “growing rapidly.” What does that look like?
A. Over the last five years, we’ve really developed the growth of our business model to trend upward over the next 10 to 15 years. We’re not the same company we were five years ago. We won’t be the same company we are today in five more years. We continue to buy new equipment to make us more productive. We continue to buy bigger equipment to make us more productive. We’ve outgrown the facility that we’re in now and we need a new facility to be able to just store our equipment, to be able. to move our equipment from job to job, and efficiently work on it.
Q. I read recently that the new headquarters includes enough extra land space for lease. Is that the plan and, if so, talk a bit about why that might be important to a company like UMA.
A. As we’re growing, and we’re getting into a different business segments — potentially, manufacturing might be a business arm that we want to go into in the future — I believe that diversification in a business is important to the stability of the overall corporation. As the company grows larger and larger, you can’t pigeonhole yourself into one business type and expect to be successful at that.
Diversification is everything about our business growth model. The more diversified we can become the more stable we can be as a company. If one market segment takes a dip — you know, let’s say that they stopped building hospitals, right? — that’s not a huge focus of our business. We would not see a huge impact on our bottom line because of that. … Like [the] North Carolina Department of Transportation this year ran out of money. They actually had to shut jobs down. Since we’re not completely focused just on that one business segment, it didn’t really impact us that much. However, there’s a lot of companies that are totally dependent upon the North Carolina Department of Transportation for funds. You know, there’s a lot of these really small bridge contractors and, you know, it decimated business because they had four, five, six bridges going with the state, and the state came to just stop their projects. If you’re stuck in this one business segment, if something like that happens, if you have no diversification your portfolio it could bankrupt you.
Q. What does UMA look like in five years?
A. Well, hopefully we’re not the same company we are today in five years. I hope that we’re better, we’re more diverse, we have better equipment. We’re really lucky that we have retained a lot of people through the years, and we have retained a lot of corporate knowledge as we’ve grown. That corporate knowledge is really what helped set us apart from some of our competitors, the ability to handle difficult projects and difficult drilling conditions.
Q. There’s talk again of an infrastructure bill. Is that going to impact your business? Are you guys going to have to scale more? Do you have plans for it?
A. We’re completely prepared to grow more. We doubled in revenue in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. I could easily see us, with the infrastructure bill coming out, just because of the position we’re in the market, doubling in size again. That’s exactly what we want to do. We’re on that growth trend to continue to do that. So, bring on the infrastructure bill, bring on bigger work. We’re ready for it.
The Full Interview
We interviewed Brian DeSpain for episode 29 of our Drilling In-Site series. In addition to these questions, our talk covered company leadership amid a pandemic, hiring new crews and other topics. See the full conversation at www.thedriller.com/insite, or listen to the podcast version at www.thedriller.com/insite-podcast. Episodes also in Apple’s Podcast store. Search Drilling In-Site and tap Subscribe.
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