A short drive from Sevierville, Tennessee, is the famous Great Smoky Mountain National Park, home of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which attract millions of visitors every year. With many travelers making the trek, the area is a vibrant tourist attraction with a strong hospitality market making a comeback from the recession. D&S Builders (D&S) has been supporting the industry for more than 17 years.
While the commercial general contractor is adept in a range of sectors, D&S calls the hospitality market home. “Sevier County attracts some 8 million tourists a year,” measures Alex Davis, co-founder and chief manager of D&S. “We’ve done several schools, banks, condo projects and assisted-living facilities, but hotels are our niche by far.”
A mentor and a lasting memory
The hotel market is where D&S secured a foothold from the start when Davis joined his late partner, Howard Sexton. “I was building houses in the residential market and started my first commercial job, but I was pretty green to commercial work – I didn’t know a lot about it,” recalls Davis. “Howard had been in the small commercial industry for 30 years so he offered to help me.”
Eager to learn, Howard helped guide the development of his first 15,000-square-foot strip mall. “Howard’s partner retired and he wanted to pass on the trade to someone younger, because he had lung cancer,” explains Davis. “He took me under his wing, teaching me the tools of the trade in the commercial sector and how to complete a project in a timely manner, while building lasting relationships with owners and developers – essentially the foundation of D&S.”
In 2000, the pair started their first hotel project, pulling in $3 million in revenue. “Howard was 65 years old and didn’t have too much of an interest in growing the company, but he knew I did and he didn’t hold me back,” says Davis.
Davis continued to land hotel projects by working closely with developers and building on relationships. “D&S has steadily grown from a few million annually to $58 million in revenue,” reveals Davis. “I had big ambitions to grow the company and that’s what we’ve done.”
Davis says the role between him and his partner shifted in the final years of Howard’s life. “It went from him showing and helping me, to me taking care of him,” shares Davis. “Before Howard passed away he told me after all of his years in construction, he was more proud of what we’d accomplished together in the last few years than the past 30.”
D&S has certainly accomplished a great deal since the company’s first hotel, but Davis says the foundation for the company wouldn’t have been solid without Howard. “We’ve probably completed something in the range of 45 hotels over the last 10 years,” he measures. “This success wouldn’t have been possible without the direction I received early on.”
Headed for a slowdown
Up until about 2010, growth was the norm for D&S. “When most companies were falling into the pit of the downturn in 2008, we were going strong,” shares Davis. “Actually, 2008 was one of our best years ever, because we had so many projects in the pipeline. We did almost $60 million in revenue.”
Then, new construction in the hospitality sector came to a crashing halt. “It wasn’t that developers weren’t out there trying to build, it was that financing dried up in 2010 and 2011,” explains Davis.
Historically, D&S has always been a negotiated, relationship and referral driven contractor, but that even changed in 2010. “We went to the hard bid scene just trying to find work,” Davis tells. “We didn’t make a lot of money, but somehow we made it through and there’s been a considerable turnaround since 2012 and over the last two years.”
In 2008 D&S employed 130 workers, but that number dropped, too, in 2010 and on. “We were once as low as 25 to 30 employees, but over the last year we’ve been hiring back,” notes Davis.
Springing back in the Southeast
After some seriously lean years, Davis says D&S is nearly back to full stride, operating mainly within 300 miles of Sevierville and into Kentucky and North Carolina. “We feel like there’s enough work right now in our home market, but we go as far south as north Georgia and as far north as Kentucky,” he says.
Where a project takes D&S, it also takes the company’s strong network of subcontractors. “As a negotiated contractor we have a good, quality core group of subs, which we bring in early and start working with them on the front end of projects,” tells Davis. “D&S can perform some mechanical work, as well as concrete and framing in-house, but it depends on the job. There are times when we sub it all out.”
More than dollars and cents
Davis says working with, and for, D&S is like working with a family. “Our team is family-like and our subs know each other so well it’s like working for one company,” he compares.
Relationships also run deep with area developers and owners, something Davis says has been paramount to the company’s continued success in the hospitality sector. “From customers to developers, I’ve made many friends in this business,” he says. “There’s a guy we did a hotel for in Cleveland and another guy in Knoxville that we’ve done six hotels for and we talk almost every day.”
“This business goes beyond dollars, cents and numbers,” considers Davis. “It’s not the number of rooms you build; it’s the relationships. That’s how we see things around here. Our philosophy is when it quits being fun, we’ll quit doing it.”
One of the largest projects D&S has ever tackled is the Dollywood DreamMore Resort (Dollywood) in Pigeon Forge. “This is right in our hometown,” says Davis. “It’s one of the largest projects we’ve ever done – 300 rooms and 240,000 square feet – so it’s giving us a huge sense of pride to be a part of this job.”
Inspired and modeled after the acclaimed country star Dolly Parton, Dollywood offers a spectacular retreat in the Smoky Mountains. The resort features indoor and outdoor pools, an expansive three-story lobby and the crown jewel – Dolly’s Suite Dreams Celebrity Suite, situated on the top floor.
“We’ve been working with the owner for about two years,” shares Davis. “This is Dollywood’s first hotel, so there’s been a lot of due diligence to create a perfect guest experience and a great deal of effort in meeting guests’ expectations.”
Dollywood is set for completion by late summer 2015. “We broke ground in October 2013 and so far we are on schedule,” adds Davis.
D&S works with other large hospitality brands from Embassy Suites to Marriott Courtyard and the Hilton Garden Inn. “In 2013 we built the Embassy Suites in Knoxville, Tennessee; a 140-room, 135,000-square-foot hotel,” shares Davis. “Just a couple of months ago we started the 130-unit Marriot Courtyard Inn in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Also, there’s a Hilton Garden we’ll be starting in the spring.”
Davis says there are many projects down the pipeline for D&S. “We’re also excited to start a Holiday Inn and Suites in Asheville, North Carolina,” he adds. “We’re very blessed, but we still try to be pretty selective in how we operate and what projects we do. We’re not trying to be the largest in town and we’re just trying to do a good job at what we do and enjoy it.”
At the end of the day, the dollar amount isn’t the only factor, according to Davis. “We don’t put our goals to a dollar amount,” he says. “We set them on meeting customers’ needs and looking at each project individually and how it fits our business mold.”
A mold that Davis says would make his late partner proud as D&S Builders continues to build more than rooms, but deep-rooted relationships.
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