Cone Still Guides Company With Father's Principles

by John Henry  on Monday, Sep. 12, 2005 12:00 am  

Four years ago in November, James H. Cone Jr. lost his father — and his partner.

But the president of James H. Cone Inc. of Little Rock still guides the commercial and institutional building construction company by the principles learned from his father.

One of the dad's sayings is deeply ingrained in the son: "If it's not built right, it's not worth building."

So is another: "I can make a living off what other folks waste."

Those two principles form the backbone of Cone Construction today, said Jimmy Cone.

"We want to make sure we do everything well. We strive for both high quality and low cost" based on those principles.

It's working.

"We've been very busy. About as busy as we've ever been," Cone said.

He likes to keep 12-15 projects going at all times.

"We try to keep a certain number of projects," he said, "There's only a certain number we should do. Sometimes, we may take on a small project that may cause revenue to fluctuate."

Revenue totaled about $25 million last year, Cone said — a steady figure for several years.

Heading into its 50th year, the company has racked up 100 bank buildings throughout its corporate history. That business has been boosted by the recent spurt of branch banks built for Arvest Bank of Fayetteville, First Security Bank of Searcy, and Little Rock's Bank of the Ozarks and Metropolitan National Bank.

The company also does a lot of building on college campuses across the state. Over the years it has had more than 20 projects at Jimmy Cone's alma mater, Harding University at Searcy. Cone has an "in" there: He succeeded his father on the board of trustees. During this past year, it had six Harding projects under way at one point. One of the major jobs is the American Heritage Center on campus.

It has also been the general contractor for numerous buildings on the University of Central Arkansas campus at Conway and at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Cone said.

Church construction has been lively in recent years, and Cone Construction has landed its fair share. One of its current projects is a $6 million, 50,000-SF addition to Central United Methodist Church at Rogers.

One of the most rewarding — and challenging — projects was the Pat & Willard Walker Arkansas Cancer Research Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Cone said.

The $10.4 million expansion project added seven stories above the four existing floors.

"The intricacies of keeping those first four floors open while building seven stories on top were challenging. Plus it was in a tight spot with limited access," Cone said.

Over the years, Cone Construction has done more than $70 million in projects on the UAMS campus.

About 75 percent of the company's business is repeat customers, Cone said.

That comes, he said, as the result of the detail and attention he gives to customers.

Employment at the company generally runs in the 80s, although it will fluctuate between 75 and 100 depending on the projects.

Hands-on Guy

Cone is very much a hands-on manager. Part of it comes from his upbringing; part of it comes from things he's learned over time.

He's been in the business for 35 years, starting as a laborer for his father in 1970. He worked construction during the summers while he attended Harding. But his degree was in accounting and economics, and he started to work for Arthur Andersen.

He quickly realized, however, that his first and real love was construction.

Although he later went to graduate school at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass., he never considered any other line of work. In 1981 he came back to his dad's business for good, working by his father's side for the next 20 years.

In taking over the company his father built, Cone said he was reminded of the Old Testament passage of Deuteronomy 6:11, in which Moses reminded the Israelites that in the Promised Land they would be enjoying material wealth that they had not worked to build. In his case, Cone said, he must be careful not to become complacent and to appreciate what had been handed to him.

"I cannot forget those principles passed on from my father," he said.

Cone would much rather talk about his father than himself.

"He was a get-it-done-today type of guy; I'm prone to procrastinate."

But the younger Cone still absorbed a lot, such as this tidbit from his father: "Whatever you say you're going to do, do it."

As the sole owner of the company and a nonpracticing CPA, Cone retains responsibility often placed on a chief financial officer: going over the details of the contracts. All of the choices he makes affect quality and costs.

"While I strive for the highest quality, I'm still looking at costs," Cone said.

The Future

"We're a small company," Cone said, "but we have big-contract capability."

But how to get that word out when the owners of big projects automatically assume that only one of the big construction companies could handle their job?

"Do I change my approach to that of more of a salesman rather than a project manager?" Cone asked.

Although he's a believer in what the company is today, Cone said he wants to see some smart growth.

"I want to be in position to where we can attract customers who want what we do," he said. "I want to be able to be more selective — to make sure it's a good fit. We want to feel like we're in partnership with the customer."

Whether it's banks or churches, he said, the company wants to give attention to details and quality beyond the standard.

"We sit down and talk with our customers about costs," Cone said. "We're open and honest about the choices they can make, then we let them make the decision."

The company has come a long way since 1956 when Cone's father took on his first construction project: building a single bay at a service station in Searcy. Starting with only $500, he formed James H. Cone Inc.

After working on some bank projects, Ed Penick, the former president, chairman and CEO of Worthen Bank, recommended Cone to John Ed Chambers, president and CEO of Chambers Bancshares Inc. of Dan-ville, saying, "Here's a guy you can trust."

The young Cone said the company's daily operations are still built around the skeleton of what his father built. "We've just added some modern systems to that skeleton."

Cone has inherited more than the business responsibilities from his father. He has followed him as board chairman of Central Arkansas Christian Schools, the private school organized by the Churches of Christ in the Little Rock area, and he's an elder at Pleasant Valley Church of Christ.

He recently was named to the board of the YMCA in Little Rock and, like his father is a member of the Rotary Club and a member of the Associated General Contractors.

Although he has two sons, neither has expressed an interest in ever taking over the company, Cone said.



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