Case Studies

Niehaus Construction Services Inc.

St. Louis' specialty subcontractor for 112 years

Located just blocks from the iconic Gateway Arch, Niehaus Construction Services Inc. (NCS) has been a longstanding name in St. Louis for well over a century. The fourth-generation, family-owned subcontractor has grown into one of the largest union shops in the region since 1902, offering drywall, plastering, fireproofing, spray insulation, interior general contracting and more.

From father to son

“We’ve been around since 1902 in the city of St. Louis; we’re pretty old,” jokes Jake Whittle, fourth-generation executive vice president of NCS. “NCS was formed by the Niehaus family and Harry Niehaus took over ownership from his mother. My grandfather, Robert Whittle, was just returning from World War II and working for a competitor before he was introduced to NCS.”

“He was too smart for his own good, so the company he was working for called Mr. Niehaus to see if he was hiring,” recounts Jake. “Mr. Niehaus didn’t have a son to succeed him and he saw potential in my grandfather as the person to take over the company.”

The rest is history and a generations-long family succession story. “NCS was passed on from my grandfather to my father, John “Jack” Whittle and now we are partners,” shares Jake. “Things will probably transition again and I’ll most likely get closer to CEO by the end of 2014.”

Jake has moved up the NCS ladder quickly since joining in 2002. “I grew up working in the field and returned to the company just two weeks after graduating with a bachelor’s of science in construction from Arizona State University,” he shares. “I’ve now been here for 13 years.”

Trusted union specialty service

NCS originated as a plaster and drywall company and plaster, particularly ornamental plaster remains one of the company’s true specialties. Over the years, the company has completed a wide variety of plastering work from stucco to Portland plaster, veneer plaster, acoustical, cornice application and synthetic stones. NCS has also completed historical plastering at numerous landmarks such as the Fox Theater, Washington University, Powell Hall, the old post office and Anheuser Busch.

“We employ some of the best plaster mechanics in the St. Louis area,” says Jake. As a union shop, NCS has full-time office staff of about 11 employees, but anywhere from between 100 and 350 union construction workers at any given time.

“Right now, we’re running at about 100 union construction workers,” adds Jake. “NCS hires men from four union halls; the Carpenters District Council of Greater St. Louis District, The Painters District Council No. 2, The Plasterer’s Local No. 3 and Laborers Local 110 to work on local contracted projects.”

Making a mark on St. Louis

“We’ve done some of the biggest jobs in the city, from the Ameristar Casino Hotel to the complete Chase Park Plaza Renovation; we’ve made our mark on St. Louis over the years,” reveals Jake.

After more than 112 years in operation, one project truly shines in NCS’s portfolio: the renovation and decorative plaster at the St. Louis Public Library. The historic building was designed by pioneering American architect Cass Gilbert and has long served as a cultural landmark in the city.

The bulk of the restoration covered the library’s Great Hall and four adjacent public wings. Interior restoration included cleaning, painting and the replacement of ornamental cast plaster ceiling sections removed in the 1950s. Lighting systems with contemporary and replica fixtures also brought new life to the once dim interior.

From crown mouldings to rails, lintels and wall and ceiling details, with expertise, NCS delivers intricate forms and pieces of plaster. “Ornamental plaster is truly a specialty service,” remarks Jake. “Few have the capability to do it and we’re one of the few.”

Jake says the company has relied on a reputation for trusted specialty service through leaner years and a down economy. “At points, it got a little nerve-wracking,” he admits. “We used to be backlogged out by two years and that started to disappear.”

When work started to slow, NCS started reanalyzing operations. “We started by looking at fixed costs and the bottom line; we had to weed out a few people and rely on our reputation,” says Jake. “Hopefully your reputation gets you the call when it doesn’t get the other guy the call and for us that was the case. Now there’s more out there to bid on, but we’re hoping for more growth as the market continues to recover.”

While NCS is deeply rooted in St. Louis’s past, Jake says success is about being well prepared for the future. “I’m proud of our longevity and we’ll always have that, but to move forward we need to keep pace with technology,” he asserts. “If you don’t get on board, you’re going to lose because today, it’s all about speed and efficiency and being able to track it to have some quality control.”

As Jake prepares to assume a succession plan within the next year, Niehaus Construction Services Inc. builds on a 112-year strong reputation and specialty union subcontracting that sets the bar in St. Louis.

Published on: November 10, 2014

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