O'Neal sees encouraging signs after discouraging year

O'Neal sees encouraging signs after discouraging year

By:  Angelia Davis, staff writer
The Greenville News
February 7, 2010

In their 35 years of experience, the board governing O'Neal Inc., a Greenville-based integrated design and construction firm, couldn't recall when their industry went from “feast to famine.” Then came 2009 and with it, some of the toughest challenges yet for many construction and engineering firms, including O'Neal.

Jeffrey Hall, O'Neal's vice president of business development, said the company specializes in delivering capital projects worldwide in a variety of industries, including automotive, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals/biotech, process chemical, energy, pulp and paper.

“Over the years, if an industry or two was down, other industries would either be up or maintaining, whereas this past year it came to a screeching halt across the board,” he said. “Just about every industry was impacted so it had an impact on us.” Kevin Bean, O'Neal's president and chief executive officer, said leading up to 2009, “everyone knew there was going to be a recession and we put contingency plans together.

“What was most difficult was the timing and how quick it actually affected our industry,” he said. “It just stopped.”

O'Neal is being pulled forward today with positive momentum and one of the strongest backlogs the company has ever had. “We've had a string of recent project wins and we are very encouraged by the number of prospects we're seeing,” Bean said.

The employee-owned company was recently awarded the contract to construct FitesaFiberweb's plant expansion in Simpsonville. FitesaFiberweb Simpsonville Inc. is a joint venture between Fiberweb PLC, a manufacturer of specialty nonwoven materials, and Petropar, a Brazilian industrial company. The joint venture's nonwoven fabric will be used mostly in disposable diapers.

The company was also chosen to construct a new biorefinery demonstration facility in Georgia — a partnership between Diamond Alternative Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of Valero Energy Corp., and American Process Inc.

Bean said most of the company's work this year has come from repeat business or existing clients.

During the down period last year, the company kept investing in sales and marketing and “took that opportunity to not necessarily be a victim but to try to promote that it was only going to last for so long,” he said. “We basically took that opportunity to get better and to get closer to our clients and the opportunities that were out there,” he said. One of the newer opportunities or “emerging markets” for O'Neal is alternative energy.

O'Neal was founded in Greenville by Paul O'Neal who has retired but serves on the company's board of directors.

Although O'Neal is employee-owned and private, it's unique in that it's run and has much of the same functions as a public company, Bean said. Company leaders said O'Neal is also special because of its staff, which has an average tenure in the Greenville building alone of about 20 years. The staff, they said, is a source of their optimism going forward.

“We definitely leveraged the strength of the team and our employees to get through a difficult year and be able to build enough backlogs to get through 2010,” said Judy Castleberry, O'Neal's chief financial officer. “We've got the right people to move this company forward,” she said.

Much like its mountain views from the third story corporate headquarters on Falcon Crest Drive off Pleasantburg Drive, the company's sites are way beyond the city limits of Greenville. It has offices in Atlanta and Raleigh and projects throughout the United States.

O'Neal has its signature locally on such works as the performance and delivery center at BMW; the BMW IT Research Center, the first building on the CU-ICAR campus; and a 75,000-square-foot expansion at GE Gas Turbines.

O'Neal has other projects here that many drive by every day. “They don't get the coverage of some of the other high-profile jobs, but they're just as important to our owners to drive the local economy or the regional economy,” he said.

Also important are the charitable efforts taken on by O'Neal employees. The company recently broke ground on a new donated elevator for the Miracle Hill Shepherd's Gate shelter. The company's donation of design and construction management services, along with other contributions from other donors for the subcontractors and material costs, total more than $200,000.

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