by Mark Carter
Staying “lean” helped Charles Nabholz guide the family business to the top of the construction industry in Arkansas.
Now chairman emeritus at Nabholz Corp., he oversaw growth that expanded the firm’s reach across the country. The company now employs more than 1,100 workers in seven states, and its work is showcased in some of the state’s most prominent projects including the Southwest Power Pool corporate headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas Children’s Northwest in Springdale and the Scott Family Amazeum children’s museum in Bentonville.
A career of more than 60 years in the building business helped make Nabholz one of the state’s more notable business leaders, and it earned him a spot in the 2020 class of the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame from the University of Arkansas Walton Business College.
Already a member of the Arkansas Construction Hall of Fame, Nabholz’s run in the business includes founding Con-Ark Builders and Nabholz Properties.
Channeling the lean business model, Nabholz cites “lean construction” as crucial to the firm’s success. He calls it “an overall philosophy of eliminating waste, improving processes and systems while at the same time creating a more valuable construction product. Under the umbrella of ‘lean construction,’ there are numerous proven practices that can be applied to squeeze out waste, improve efficiency and productivity, gain speed of construction and add value to the project,” he says. “We like lean because various practices can be applied to all aspects of our business — marketing, business development, risk management, accounting, safety, preconstruction, field production and more.
“Lean practices can scale up or down to best fit our specialty groups from small service operations to large construction projects. Being a strong lean company also allows us to retain our talented employees and gives us the ability to produce more with the same or fewer number of people.”
Looking ahead, lean does not apply to the company’s financial projections.
“We have a good backlog of work on our books in Arkansas for 2020,” Nabholz says. “We have had a sizable increase in our growth revenue during this past year, and the outlook to improve on that looks good for 2020.”
Business always seemed to be in his blood, and Nabholz recognized a good business opportunity after brother Bob founded the company in Conway in 1949 — quite by accident, as he tells it.
“Bob hired a couple of farm boys and a few carpenters to help him build a house for him and his future bride,” Nabholz says. “Before the house was finished, a local Army veteran came by and offered to buy the house, which would net Bob a $500 profit. He couldn’t turn it down, so he sold it and right away contracted with another veteran to build a home before finally building the home for him and his wife himself. After completing his own house, an opportunity to build some apartments in North Little Rock came along and by the end of 1949, Bob decided there was a future in the construction business.”
When Charles Nabholz went to work for Bob in the summer of 1954 after graduating from St. Joseph High School in Conway, five brothers were working for the family firm. In addition to Bob, Nabholz brothers Alfred, Bernard, Edmund and Tom were on board. In 1957, Alfred and Bernard left to start their own business, and Bob offered the remaining brothers partnership interest in the business.
“We and our families continue to operate as partners in the real estate business to this day,” Nabholz says.
Learning from his older brother, he cites one company milestone as the most significant in its history.
“The decision to offer company stock to our management team and other future leaders was critical to the long-term success of our company,” he says. “This decision created a broader base of ownership by numerous key employees and strengthened our ability to grow our service lines as well as expand our construction services geographically.”
Growth and expansion have been a big part of the Nabholz story. In addition to offices in Little Rock, Rogers, Fort Smith and Jonesboro, the firm has locations in Kansas City, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Springfield, Mo., and Oxford, Conn.
Over the course of six decades, Nabholz saw firsthand the slow evolution of technology and how it impacted the industry.
“Our onsite project team can be mobile around the jobsite and access all information necessary to direct the building process from their iPad,” he notes.
Another industry milestone, he says, was the transition from the traditional “hard bid” concept to negotiated, alternative delivery systems. A hard bid is where a project owner hires a designer or architect to draw up plans. Once approved, work is bid out to general contractors and low bid wins, regardless of qualifications. Alternative systems entail just that, alternative ways to organize and finance projects through working directly with multiple parties.
“It has made a major difference in our company being able to deliver a higher quality of work at a better value,” he says. “Selecting contractors based on qualifications allows and motivates the owner, architect and contractor to work together on the same team throughout the design and construction process.”