Celebrating 50 Years: Daring to Diversify
A message from Burt Odom, CEO & President, EMJ Corporation
Thirty-five years ago this month, I began my career at EMJ as a preconstruction manager. A month after me, a new project manager named Jay Jolley joined the team. Little did we know that we would both serve as CEO of the company. But that wasn’t the only thing we didn’t know. There were many things about construction, business, clients, leadership, and, quite frankly, life that we had yet to learn, and we continue to learn more each day.
During those first few years at EMJ, I learned the value of deeply understanding your client, their motivations, and their concerns. This not only prepared me for future partnerships, but also laid the foundation for EMJ’s future.
By the early 1990s, EMJ’s reputation for collaboration and client service brought new opportunities, and again the opportunity to learn and grow.
In our fifth excerpt from EMJ Corporation: The First 50 Years, we share how EMJ began to diversify its portfolio and established its presence in Texas.
While EMJ and CBL enjoyed shopping malls’ heyday, change was afoot for the general contractor by the 1990s. The impetus for that change actually began when Jim Sattler [then CEO] and John Foy, chief financial officer of CBL Properties, began collaborating on some smaller neighborhood strip shopping centers in the mid-1980s.
An Opportunity Presents Itself
The decision to consider the neighborhood center opportunities was part of Jim Sattler’s overall vision for EMJ, which involved a desire to diversify. Projects he pursued with John Foy were just the beginning and allowed him, along with Bill McDonald, to develop a direct relationship with Food Lion—one that would take EMJ into an entirely new realm.
For the first time ever, EMJ completed work for a client outside of the CBL relationship; the company built several stores in South Carolina directly for Food Lion, and that firsthand experience opened the door to new opportunities throughout the Southeast. “We were able to establish a relationship because of our professionalism and commitment and ability to complete things on time,” Sattler says. “Food Lion took notice, and they came to us just after those three stores opened and asked us if we’d be interested in doing a warehouse for them in South Carolina. And that led to another 10 million square feet of warehouse space over a period of time.”
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, project manager Ron Jobe, who was promoted to vice president overseeing Food Lion warehouse construction and later became executive vice president of the Chattanooga office, and superintendent Jim Self, who later became vice president of construction, led the completion of at least one major Food Lion distribution center project per year, with each site comprising approximately eight hundred thousand square feet of space. It was a massive undertaking, and EMJ achieved great success with the program. Food Lion was so impressed that it offered the company a chance to tackle an even more complex project based out of Dallas, Texas: the construction of 42 Food Lion stores and a 1-million-square-foot distribution center to serve Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.
Jim Sattler pegged Jay Jolley and Burt Odom to relocate to Dallas to spearhead the program. “When we moved to Dallas, we started with nothing,” Odom reveals. “We did not know the market. We did not have any employees except for Jay and me. We were both twenty-nine, so inexperienced, and going to do a project of that magnitude with no office and no people. It was a giant challenge.”
However, with the Dallas market in a financial free fall at that time, Jolley and Odom were able to find willing employees and subcontractors quickly and got the program under way. They also brought trusted EMJ employees, including assistant superintendent Glenard Ratcliff, who retired in 2016 as director of construction, to Dallas to help manage the program. They set up a system that allowed EMJ to streamline the construction process and build multiple stores simultaneously. As Food Lion continued to grow in the regional market, the chain increased the number of requested stores. “In about a two-and-a-half-year period, we built 102 stores and a million-square-foot distribution center,” Odom continues.
“EMJ had built up an organization that could move in a big way with big projects,” says Spencer Storie, vice president of planning and development for Food Lion at the time. “They had good people throughout the whole organization—really great superintendents, project managers, and subcontractors who could fast-track a project. And they accomplished something that no one in the US had been able to do at that magnitude. We couldn’t have done it without EMJ.”