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EW Howell Construction Group, 125 years old, seeks new growth

EW Howell president Howard Rowland at the Stony

EW Howell president Howard Rowland at the Stony Brook University Hospital Medicine and Research Translation building under construction on Feb. 22, 2017. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

EW Howell Construction Group, now in its 125th year, has built mansions for brokerage founder E.F. Hutton and aviator Charles Lindbergh, manufacturing plants for Grumman Aerospace Corp., and medical and research facilities for Stony Brook University Hospital and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The Plainview-based company is the oldest general contractor on Long Island, according to a state trade group. As the Island’s economy has transformed, so has EW Howell.

Now the builder, which has annual sales of $300 million and a full-time staff of 150, is seeking to grow its revenue by 50 percent in the next five or 10 years.

To reach its ambitious goals, EW Howell must overcome hurdles including a shortage of skilled job candidates and rising competition. And the company’s growing health care business faces uncertainty about how Obamacare will be replaced by President Donald Trump’s administration.

EW Howell began restructuring last year to focus on key growth areas such as retail, health care, education, and arts and culture.

“A lot of niche-type contractors will concentrate in one or two very specific markets. We build across all these different markets,” said Howard L. Rowland, president and CEO of EW Howell and a native Long Islander who lives in Blue Point. He has owned 10 percent of the company since 2010; the remainder is owned by Obayashi Corp., a global construction firm based in Japan.

There are only two general contractors in the state older than EW Howell, according to the Association of General Contractors of New York State, an Albany-based industry advocacy group: Hueber-Breuer Construction of Syracuse, founded in 1880, and the Pike Company of Rochester, founded in 1873.

EW Howell is “a staple in the construction industry,” said Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, a trade group that mostly represents local infrastructure builders.

The company was founded in Babylon in April 1891 by Elmer Winfield Howell, a Yaphank-born farmer-apprentice turned carpenter, along with his father-in-law, George S. Brown. The firm, then known as Brown & Howell, got its start constructing small homes.

Howell later bought out Brown’s stake, changed the company’s name and brought on board his sons, Elmer B. Howell and Ralph DeWitt Howell, and his cousin Louis Emerson Lee.

Small homes to mansions

EW Howell expanded from small homes to building large, ornately designed homes and mansions along Long Island’s Gold Coast on the North Shore in the years leading up to the 1920s. Some of New York’s richest and best-known figures were clients: socialite heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post; Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Teddy Roosevelt; financier John T. Pratt; and city planner Robert Moses.

One building well known to Long Islanders is the Falaise mansion, which the company built in 1923 for copper fortune heir Harry F. Guggenheim and his second wife, Caroline Morton. It stands on what is now the Sands Point Preserve.

The Great Depression of the 1930s brought construction of Long Island’s mansions to a halt. The company turned to Manhattan and opened its city office in 1935. Still, the “vast majority of the work” by the company has been done on Long Island, said Rowland, who became president in 1997.

Relationships established from building estates helped the company become a commercial builder.

Guggenheim and his third wife, Alicia Patterson, founded Newsday in September 1940. The couple contracted EW Howell to build a plant for the newspaper in Garden City in the late 1940s.

“This may have been one of those first transitionary projects for us, because the Guggenheims were a residential client for us in the 1900s,” said Denise Orlando, marketing director for EW Howell. The plant currently serves as a recruitment base for the U.S. Marine Corps.

The region’s transformation into an aerospace manufacturing hub during and after World War II provided new sources of work for EW Howell, including several projects for Fairchild Republic Co. and Grumman Aerospace Corp. Three Grumman plants in Bethpage were built by the contractor, including plant 14, used to construct the E2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft.

“Everybody depended on Grumman when Grumman was here,” Rowland said.

In the 1980s, Grumman’s workforce exceeded 25,000.

EW Howell stayed in commercial construction after World War II, despite the rapid growth of suburban development here.

Elmer Winfield Howell died in 1954, leaving the family company’s second and third generations at the helm. In 1984 the last family member at the firm, Ralph D. Howell, retired, leaving ownership to five nonfamily partners.

In 1989 the company was acquired by Obayashi, which was founded the same year as EW Howell.

Change in industry

A major shift in the industry over the years has been that large developers have begun managing a lot of their own projects in-house, leaving fewer opportunities for general contractors like EW Howell, Rowland said.

“A lot of these developers have internal construction departments,” he said. It’s “not a trend we’re going to benefit from.”

Another obstacle is difficulty filling positions for skilled workers such as estimators, project supervisors, and engineers. Attracting millennial college graduates with appropriate degrees is particularly difficult, Rowland said.

“For whatever reason, it is not as appealing to the millennials as some of the other options,” he said. “It’s rewarding when you get into it, but maybe the rewards are not obvious to the people who might consider it as a career.”

The skilled-labor shortage affects many construction companies, said Joe Hogan, vice president of building services for the Association of General Contractors of New York State.

The hiring difficulties can be traced back to the last recession, when many construction firm employees left the sector in hopes of finding work elsewhere. “What we ended up with was people leaving the industry and staying out,” Hogan said. “That’s a crisis that looms today.”

“It’s not just at the craftsmen level but at the management level and the supervisor level,” Hogan added.

The restructuring EW Howell began last year seeks to focus the company by creating divisions that best represent the company’s greatest building strengths, Rowland said.

The company wants to “recognize what we do well” and focus on growing in those markets, he said. “Right now we’re about a $300-million-a-year firm. It would be nice if we could get that number up by 50 percent in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

Integral to that strategy is capitalizing on the Island’s growing health care industry, which makes up about a quarter of the contractor’s annual sales. Most of its health care work has come from the addition of new ambulatory facilities, spurred largely by its largest medical client, Northwell Health.

“We have seen an increase in health care work” over the past four or five years, said Bob Timperio, vice president of EW Howell’s health care division. “We see the growth continuing for several years to come.”

SBU Hospital project

One recent victory was winning the bid in 2014 to build Stony Brook University Hospital’s new $300 million, 240,000-square-foot Medicine and Research Translation building and an accompanying 225,000-square-foot, 10-story bed tower — one of the largest projects in EW Howell’s history. Construction on the project started in March 2014 and is expected to be completed at the end of this year.

What remains to be seen, Timperio said, is the impact Trump administration policy changes will have on health care spending.

“I don’t think anyone knows at the moment what’s going to happen with the new administration and what changes are coming on Obamacare,” he said. “We hope that things will continue to grow and that they focus on the health care sector.”

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