Engineering, construction company narrows focus while embracing change
O’Neal, a Greenville-based engineering and construction company, is celebrating 40 years in an ever-changing industry. Steady growth took the company from two employees in 1975 to 260 today, and the next step, according to CEO and President Kevin Bean, is to double in revenue in the next five years.
“We believe there are enough opportunities for us to do that,” he said. “Our competitors are moving into government-related or power-related opportunities, and when they move out, we’ll be able to offer our approach and pick up some work. We just have to get the right people on board to deliver it.”
That people-focused approach has always been a key to the company’s success. O’Neal began offering stock ownership to employees in 1987, and when Bean succeeded founder Paul O’Neal in 2004, the two worked together to formalize an employee stock ownership program.
“The ownership has been key,” Bean said. “It helps us get the right type of people who feel that personal responsibility to do a good job.”
O’Neal started as a structural engineering firm in 1975. Paul O’Neal was a practicing engineer who over the years teamed with architects and general contractors to work on the Peace Center, banks and other commercial operations. Now, the company has expanded its role to the business of project delivery. Complicated processes, intricate designs and challenging industrial capital construction projects are the company’s specialty.
When Bean succeeded O’Neal – still an active board member – in 2004, construction was a new offering.
“Over the past 20 years, we’ve really come into our role as an EPC, or engineering, procurement and construction provider,” Bean said. The leadership narrowed the focus to providing integrated design and construction services for complex capital projects in the industrial sector, including automotive, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and process chemical.
The ability to change with the times while focusing on the company’s strengths has paid off, Bean said. He points to the recession as an example.
“We wondered if we should get into government-related work,” Bean said. “We spent a lot of time investing in it, but we decided not to. We stayed true to our core industrial complex-type manufacturing work, and that paid a lot of dividends when we came out of the recession.”
O’Neal works with many Fortune 500 companies, and Michelin was among the first. The two companies have teamed up regularly for 28 years, beginning about two years after the tiremaker came to Greenville. Though O’Neal has much larger competitors in town, Bean has found that Fortune 500 companies want “firms that give them access to leadership, so they know their work is prioritized,” he said. “We capitalize on that with all of our clients. That’s part of our success.”
Milliken, BASF, Huntsman Corp., Coca-Cola and Mitsubishi are some of the large industrial clients that take advantage of O’Neal’s project delivery, including guaranteed cost and schedule. “We provide all the services they need for an expansion, and the work we give you, we will stand behind,” Bean said.
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For the fourth consecutive year, O’Neal was recently named one of the Best Places to Work in South Carolina, an honor bestowed by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. An employee survey is part of the process, and the results help the leadership learn what employees appreciate and where they would like to see improvement.
“We consistently hear from employees that they like challenging work. Our folks enjoy the types of projects they work on,” said Brian Gallagher, director of marketing. “They also like the family atmosphere and family culture.”
Finding employees who have the technical knowledge and personal drive to push the company forward has been challenging at times, but the appeal of the Upstate has been beneficial. The company’s in-house recruiter has even found some employees who first select Greenville as the place they want to live and then try to find a job, instead of the other way around.
“The economic health of Greenville, S.C. and the Southeast is a rising tide that benefits us and everyone else,” Gallagher said.
Among O’Neal staffers, Drive games, tailgates and other activities are common, as are volunteer projects for organizations such as Meals on Wheels and Hands on Greenville.
“Our philosophy is, the employees pick what they want to do, and we match what they do,” Bean said. “We let them decide.”
Another area where the company is becoming increasingly involved is STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in education. “Given our employees technical backgrounds, they naturally gravitate to this,” Bean said. In addition to financial support for events such as Imagine Upstate, employees have visited schools, given presentations and offered shadowing opportunities.
Revenues were in the $70-80 million range when Bean took the reins a decade ago, and the company reached $250 million last year. In 2015, O’Neal was recognized as the No. 3 Hot Firm by ZweigWhite, which recognizes the 100 fastest-growing architecture, engineering, planning and environmental consulting firms in the U.S. and Canada based on dollar and percentage revenue growth rate over a three-year period.
Growth continues at O’Neal, which in April announced a $5 million expansion in Greenville that will include 60 new employees plus training and technology upgrades. In May, the company announced an alliance with Beck Group in Mexico, which will provide services for clients opening facilities there.
To achieve the goal of doubling the business in five years, acquisitions are a key part of the plan. O’Neal is in the process of finding strategic targets in the Southeast and Midwest that offer similar services.
“With heavy use of technical software and 3D modeling, we have to find someone with those synergies so we can collaborate,” Bean said.