“Don’t do this, you idiot.”
Those words were in the back of Gary Caldwell’s mind in May 2005 when he thought of going into business for himself.
To be fair, his hesitancy was not without reason. After all, Caldwell had worked for 30 years in the commercial construction industry in the Upstate, building up a strong and stable career for himself. At the time, he was a project manager at Greenville-based Trehel Corporation, doing work he enjoyed with people he admired and respected.
Having just hit 50, he should’ve been coasting toward retirement. Why make things difficult for himself? His wife, Leigh Caldwell, knew he’d been considering it, and told him, “You work so hard for others. You’ll kill yourself if you do it for yourself.”
But he still kept thinking of what it would be like to build something not just for himself, but for his family in the years to come.
“I had always wanted to go into business for myself,” he said, looking back on that moment, “but I’d always kicked the can down the road.”
That changed in the spring of 2005, when Caldwell got a call about a project to build a new office space for Interim HealthCare of Greenville. The project needed to be turned around quicker than normal, but otherwise it was fairly standard. Nothing about it should have elicited such a strong reaction in Caldwell. Nevertheless, on the drive home that night, something in his head — call it a premonition — told him this would be his final project working for Trehel.
“I got home and just sat there in the driveway in my car for a little bit, and when I walked through the front door of my house, my wife looked at me and said, ‘What’s going on? You have a different look about you,’” Caldwell said.
Finally he came out and said it.
“I told her, ‘I think this is going to be my swan song for Trehel,’” he said. “After this, I think we should set sail on a business for ourselves.’”
Caldwell figured they’d sit down and have a long discussion, mulling over the risks and opportunities in the decision.
“But instead, Leigh just said, ‘If you’re ready, I’m ready,’” Caldwell said. Even 15 years later, he can’t tell the story without laughing a little.
The next day he broke the news to Trehel’s chairman, Neal Workman, who was more supportive and understanding that Caldwell could’ve hoped.
Looking back, he does have one regret.
“I didn’t realize it was April Fool’s Day,” he said, laughing. “How stupid was I for that, huh?”
Tested from the start
Caldwell sees his business as all about relationships, building trust and respect with those you serve.
But “just getting to it and figuring it out” is how the work gets done, he said.
Never was that more the case than it was with Caldwell Constructors’ third-ever project, the BMW Assembly Line Conversion in the fall of 2005, just a few months after going into business. A massive undertaking, one “that screamed pressure, with a short duration and a whole lot of work.”
The job meant shutting down the entire BMW assembly line, which Caldwell knew cost BMW thousands of dollars per minute. Never before or since had he seen such a specific project timeline: starting on Nov. 19 at 3:40 p.m. and ending on Dec. 23 at 6 p.m.
Caldwell’s team worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week to finish the job, with two 25-man crews renovating two 1000-foot long conveyance trenches, two other 500-foot long trenches and 15 other equipment foundations.
“We ended up finishing five hours early,” Caldwell said.
In the years that followed, Caldwell has built a legacy for his team and his family. The company includes his son, David Caldwell, and his nephew, Brett Caldwell, along with his daughter, Amanda O’Sullivan. His wife, Leigh Caldwell, had also been instrumental in getting the company going, so all can now take pride in ownership over what they’ve achieved.
“How can I say it?” Caldwell said. “We’ve all been incredibly blessed.”