Case Studies

Sterling Contracting LLC: 15 Years of Untarnished Contracting

  • Written by: Sterling Contracting LLC: 15 Years of Untarnished Contracting
  • Produced by: Sterling Contracting LLC: 15 Years of Untarnished Contracting
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Not many contracting companies have a Komodo dragon habitat or an elephant bull barn in their portfolios, but Sterling Contracting LLC (Sterling) is not the average contracting and project management company. Sterling has been building high-end commercial, government, public attraction and medical facilities for 14 years throughout northern West Virginia, western and northern Maryland, eastern Ohio, western New York and its home state of Pennsylvania.

In addition to general contracting, Sterling is a specialty millwork and casework subcontractor, and can handle all construction project management needs. Nine office employees – each with 25-plus years in the construction industry – and 30 union carpenters (affiliated with the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters) for the casework and millwork help Sterling generate $20 million annually from strictly commercial builds – including tenant improvements, retail spaces, hotel renovations, restaurants, hospitals, commercial offices, with about 60 percent in the federal government sector.

Homeward Bound

James (Jim) Cooper started the minority-owned company in 1998 after working 18 years with major engineering construction company Heyl and Patterson. “I traveled all over the world with them,” says Cooper, who remains president of Sterling. “The last site was Chile, in the Andes Mountains, and I was there for five months, coming home for three days and going back … I decided I wanted something local so I could be with my family.”

His brother, who owns a construction material company, convinced Cooper to strike out on his own. “He said, ‘You know construction; you know how to bring buildings out of the ground,’ and he had a good point,” relates Cooper. Sterling has now been going strong for nearly 15 years. “The quality of our work and our approach really set us apart,” says Cooper. We work with client and keep a good taste with them, so they’ll return.”

Sterling self-performs concrete, carpentry and labor, and subs out the rest to a reliable network of regulars. “We know the good, the bad and the ugly in this business, but we’ve had all good so far,” says Cooper. The company is well regarded and in 2011 was named Supplier of the Year by the Western Pennsylvania Minority Supplier Development Council.

Specialty Sub

Most of the company’s high-end work is casework and millwork: doors, trim, baseboards, cabinets, etc. For the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh build in 2010, a $427 million project, $3.5 million went toward labor alone for the casework. “It’s what you see with your eye at the end of a project, that’s where we shine,” explains Cooper.

Cooper is also proud of Sterling’s work on the Market at Fifth, a loft project in downtown Pittsburgh in the city’s historic Market Square district, for which the company served as general contractor. “It was a Gold LEED project and a historical renovation, and it won an award in Boston,” shares Cooper. The award was the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association’s award for Best Market-Rate Residential 2009.

Some of Sterling’s best work is in high-traffic public attractions sector, such as the Pittsburgh Zoo. In addition to making Komodo dragons feel at home, the company engages in ocean habitats for nature lovers. The company pushes sand for a beach renourishment program for Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pa., which received accolades in 2011 as one of the nation’s five best-restored beaches. “We’ve been doing that for 10 years,” shares Cooper.

Another recent build Cooper is fond of is the Lord & Taylor building, purchased by PNC Bank in summer 2012. The 1924 structure, which will be used as office space, is being upgraded and revamped to LEED standards.

No Margin for Error

A worrying trend for the company’s president is that larger companies are coming down to Pittsburgh and bidding jobs with slim profit margins. “Companies putting one- to two-percent [margins] in order to get work … that drives the market crazy!” Cooper explains. “If they want to do that, fine. I can walk away.”

Cooper’s goal is to continue to have a solid, stable company with everyone who works for him having a good time, being part of a team and being able to take care of their family and be safe.

Currently investing in a new company headquarters from which to coordinate turnkey construction and renovation services, Cooper expects Sterling to stay heavily active in the game. A start-to-finish chemical warehouse job is in the works for 2013, but that’s all Cooper can say. “We have a lot of customers that are doing down-low kind of projects,” he explains. “We do a lot of negotiated work where people come in and want to work very quietly.”

The company plans to get loud about its upcoming 15-year anniversary, however. “I just want to celebrate still being in business!” chuckles Cooper. “Sterling silver is our logo and our standard. And so far we have that reputation in the region.”

Customer-driven, with a focus on communication and personalizing each client’s project, Sterling Contracting LLC will continue to provide the best service that balances quality, cost-efficiency and timely delivery.

Published on: April 25, 2013

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