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.”

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Celebrating 50 Years: A New Name Heralds New Opportunities

Celebrating 50 years: Above and Beyond

Celebrating 50 years: How it all began


Celebrating 50 Years: A New Name Heralds New Opportunities

A message from Burt Odom, CEO & President, EMJ Corporation

EMJ was founded fifty years ago with the sole purpose of providing an exceptional construction experience for one client, CBL Properties. But before long, others in the industry noticed how our approach to programmatic work and a mutual understanding of one goal benefited both contractor and customer, and looked to us to serve them in a similar way.

Though we didn’t know it yet, this work provided the foundation for how EMJ serves our clients to this day. It engrained in us the importance of knowing our client and deeply understanding their goals so that we customize our construction approach to exceed expectations. We have built similar programmatic relationships with clients all over the country, from Shaw Industries to Lidl to Public Storage, and we believe that this work is paving the way to a better industry standard.

I hope you enjoy this third excerpt from EMJ Corporation: The First 50 Years, a book developed to share the company’s story and honor those who built EMJ. Printed copies are now available, and look for more excerpts on the blog throughout the year.


Bill McDonald recalled that the transition from Independent Construction Company to EMJ Corporation was seamless. CBL remained the exclusive client of EMJ, and Ed Jolley was more than happy to continue that single-client relationship within the retail construction space. The two companies worked in harmony and grew in tandem.

“They were just part of the team,” says Ben S. Landress, who joined Independent Enterprises in 1961 and currently serves as executive vice president of management for CBL & Associates Properties Inc. “There was no question about who was going to build. [Ed] had to get pricing from suppliers and subcontractors, but he was going to be the general contractor. It was almost like [EMJ] was part of our own organization. It was very much a team effort. There was no question about it.”

Edgar M. Jolley (seated) with Bill McDonald (left) and Jim Sattler (right)

Upon the name change to EMJ, Ed Jolley officially became the CEO of the company, while Jim Sattler assumed the role of president and Bill McDonald became vice president. The EMJ team grew as well, with Jolley’s sons—Edgar M. Jolley Jr. and Jay Jolley—joining the firm. Also on board were Burt Odom, an estimator, and Ron Jobe, a project manager, both of whom would have a significant impact on EMJ’s development over the next several years.

The company continued to flourish throughout the 1980s, with the team continuing its close relationship with CBL & Associates, which eventually would help take EMJ’s work to a national level.

Boston, Massachusetts was the prime location for EMJ’s Northeastern regional office.

In 1987, CBL began to expand even more when Charles Lebovitz’s son, Stephen,joined the firm. To take advantage of retailers that wanted to move into and grow in the Northeast, such as The Home Depot and Walmart, the younger Lebovitz oversaw the opening of an office in Boston. To serve its exclusive client, EMJ set up a Boston location as well.

“EMJ was our partner in our development projects, and we relied on them to help us with the due diligence as we were analyzing potential sites, to develop budgets, to help us figure out the opportunities and challenges of new projects as we got into them,” notes Stephen Lebovitz, who currently serves as president and chief executive officer of CBL & Associates Properties Inc.

The geographic area proved to be more challenging than the Southeast region thanks to different environmental conditions, the dense population, and very specific government requirements. “It’s complicated to build in the Northeast, and we wanted to have [EMJ] close by,” Lebovitz continues. “We wanted them to have a regional office here and have the people on the ground to be available to help us out.”

Jim Sattler assembled a team to work out of the Boston office, which shared space with CBL and was visited often by Jay Jolley, who helped direct its growth. Much of the work involved the building of open-air power centers with retailers like Service Merchandise and Circuit City. Larger projects followed, including a major 750,000-square-foot center in New York. And just like the work being done out of Chattanooga, EMJ made a complete commitment to CBL’s Northeast interests.

“It was about more than just making money,” Stephen Lebovitz says. “It was about having a long-term win-win relationship between the companies.”

EMJ commemorates 50 years with anniversary meeting

EMJ commemorated 50 years of service with a celebration and meeting for the entire family of companies last week. Employees of the EMJ family of companies gathered at the Gaylord Texan Resort, where the festivities began with an evening of dinner, games, photos and prizes.

On Thursday morning, the team gathered for a brief review of EMJ’s history with Jay Jolley, Chairman of the Board of Directors. He shared memories of his father and company founder, Edgar M. Jolley, and reflected on the ways in which the organization has grown and evolved, and the many ways it has stayed true to its roots.

Jay Jolley

Jay Jolley, Chairman of the Board of Directors, speaks to employees in front of a photo of his father, EMJ founder Edgar M. Jolley, and grandfather.


Jay also introduced EMJ Corporation: The First 50 Years, a book developed to commemorate the company’s history. (Read excerpts from the the book here and here.)

Next, CEO and President Burt Odom shared plans for EMJ’s next 50 years, with an overview of short and long-term goals for the organization.


He thanked employees for their hard work and service, saying, “The future looks bright for EMJ, and it is because of the people in this room. Each one of you are the reason I get to stand here today—celebrating 50 years of EMJ and 35 years as an employee. Because of the work you do day-in and day-out.”

Employees then divided into three groups for inspiring and informative breakout sessions about EMJ’s Client Experience, Safety Training and Engaging Employees.

Steve Coughran leads the team in a discussion about EMJ’s client experience.


CORE Safety‘s Scott Lydick shares common OSHA violations on job sites and how to prevent and resolve them.


After lunch, Odom invited leaders from each business unit to share the latest developments, new projects and goals for their offices. EMJ employees were also able to ask various questions about the state of the company, future plans and more during a Q&A session with company leaders.

Finally, the Best of the Best Superintendent, Years of Service Awards, and Edgar M. Jolley Awards for Excellence were presented. The “Jolleys,” named in memory of EMJ’s founder, are presented annually in three categories: Outstanding Performance, Outstanding Servant Leadership and Outstanding Project.

CORE Safety’s Jorge Torres presents EMJ Construction’s Ray Alamo with the “Best of the Best Superintendent” award.


Thursday evening, employees gathered at the Glass Cactus for dinner and entertainment. Jay Jolley toasted to employees, saying how proud his father would be to see how far EMJ has come from a Chattanooga-based firm serving one client to an international, billion-dollar family of companies.

On Friday morning, employees returned for the meeting’s conclusion: breakfast and an inspiring address by Clint Bruce, former NFL linebacker and Navy SEAL about the importance of never quitting, being part of a “tribe,” and what it means to be “elite.”

Burt Odom closed the meeting by challenging employees to live EMJ’s purpose—starting now. “Understand that people serving people means asking, but also sometimes to just listen. Be the people who care more about others than themselves.”

EMJ is proud of how far we have come since 1968.  Thank you to our clients, partners and colleagues who have been a part of the company’s rich history, and here’s to the next 50 years!

Related posts:

Celebrating 50 years: How it all began

Celebrating 50 years: Above and Beyond