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Executive Spotlight Q&A: Kelly Sills, Coastal Bridge Company

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(Photo by Don Kadair)

ROBERT STEWART
MARCH 27, 2017 | BUSINESS

Name: Kelly C. Sills
Position(s): Owner/president
Age: 43
Hometown: Baton Rouge
Education: MBA, bachelor’s in ISDS, LSU

Kelly Sills first started working for Coastal Bridge Company as a laborer when he was 17. Now, he’s the boss. Sills purchased the more than 60-year-old company—a heavy contractor that specializes in asphalt and concrete paving, pile driving and bridge construction, among other areas—in 2013 from longtime owners Robert Overall Jr. and Ed Milner Jr.. “The previous owners wanted to sell and I had the ability to buy, so it made sense,” says Sills, who owns several other business ventures. “I did not want to see all my other employee friends go to work for a competitor or lose their jobs in downsizing or replication.” Downsizing is nowhere near Coastal’s radar at the moment. Coastal’s revenues grew by 33.6% from 2014 to 2015, and they’re up by roughly $44 million since 2011. Sills attributes the success to Coastal’s ability to quickly and accurately handle project plans for its clients, as well as hiring quality workers and identifying competitive markets. “I’m not sure that there is a real secret other than perseverance,” he says.

Where did your career start, and how did that previous experience prepares you for your current position?

I started working for Coastal Bridge Company as laborer at age 17 when my neighbor, Mr. Charles E. Milner Jr., hired me. I worked on and off throughout summers and my college career for the company then started full-time after completion of my undergraduate degree from LSU.

What drew you to buy Coastal Bridge Company back in 2013?

The previous owners wanted to sell and I had the ability to buy, so it made sense. I did not want to see all my other employee friends go to work for a competitor or lose their jobs in downsizing or replication.

What have been some of the unexpected challenges in your current position?

Managing workers’ compensation and other large fixed costs, such as health care, with budgets and revenues in turbulent market conditions.

What is one thing about your job people don’t expect or know about and hear about?

Coastal’ s competitive advantage hinges on our ability to accurately and timely quantify all of our actions by sorting, filtering and reacting to the information generated on a project quickly, and properly handling the information and processing the data into costs centers so that we accurately know what is going on. We then use this information to help our customers’ pricing and our bottom line. However, this is an area that can always use improvement, and it can be difficult to get a handle on.

Your firm offers a variety of construction services. Which service usually has the highest demand?

In Tampa, our asphalt demand remains strong. In Louisiana, marine and structures has been in high demand as well as Asphalt. Land development and our modular segment is strong now. Our materials handling trucks and heavy haul services have shown strength lately. Our industrial foundation and services seem to be picking up. It is really hard to say exactly which segment is in the highest demand as everything is constantly changing, so we try and react to the dynamic market conditions to remain profitable.

Your company’s revenues grew by 33.6% from 2014 to 2015, and they’re up by around $44 million since 2011. What’s the secret to the growth?

The ability to attract and retain quality, safe employees is key to our steady growth. We also identify segments in markets, which we can compete, and have the strength and abilities to take the risk to execute. I’m not sure that there is a real secret other than perseverance.

What are your goals for the future for Coastal Bridge Company?

To keep our employees and their families safe and happy, and the company growing. We have recently entered the Florida market and look to continue growth along the eastern seaboard, moving north towards the Carolinas.

If you had to choose one characteristic, what would you says is the most special thing about Coastal Bridge?

Our ability to safely react responsively to market needs and build with quality and very little rework.

What is your favorite part about what you do? What makes you excited about going to work?

Dealing with a broad range of people from all types of social, economic, public and private backgrounds, as well as overcoming challenges in order to keep everyone smiling, while still maintaining profitability. I also enjoy the flexibility to be able to make time for basketball, baseball and fishing with my sons.

Of all the construction projects you’ve worked on, is there one that stands out as the most challenging?

Every project challenges our organization, and we don’t do much widget work. All projects are different, so it keeps creativity alive. Paving Pecan Island and barging asphalt had many challenges. Every bridge is one pile at a time, and the plants are slabs that must be smooth every day. Safely constructing quality solutions for our customers is a constant challenge and takes a diligent work effort.

What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you’ve overcome, and how did you overcome it?

I don’t know about any one specific thing, as we face many difficult tasks each day, but facilitating the complete purchase of Coastal in a very short time frame was a tough task to accomplish. I pray regularly to overcome all obstacles, and then I just keep fighting the fight and pursuing perfection.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

Maintaining close relationships with our Coastal family of employees and the numerous National Quality in Construction awards won by our organization. I am also proud of our ability to grow and maintain profits while attracting capital.

What other leadership roles do you hold in the community and/or what volunteer efforts do you support?

The Coastal Companies are very supportive of the City Year organization. We also contribute to the Baton Rouge Symphony, CASA, Special Olympics, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, along with some sponsorships of Christian Life Athletics, University High School, Children International and various other organizations.

What is a great piece of advice you personally received? Did you have occasion to put it to use?

My life coach told me when I was 32 that an angry person loses 40 IQ points, so I try not to get angry. Anger could easily happen a lot in my industry if I allowed. Also, my grandfather told me, “You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar.”

What gets your workday off to a good start?

No rain!

What do you do to unwind?

Picking my boys up from school, waiting in carpool, playing basketball or throwing a baseball with my boys, and attending their soccer games. Dinner with my girlfriend, working out, reading and, when I am dreaming, I’m on a boat in the water somewhere.

What is an item on your “bucket list”?

Sailing around the world.

Where is your go-to spot in Baton Rouge during your free time?

Team Sportsplex, Gino’s, Skatepark, the Diversion Canal, Area 51. Bringing my youngest son to Raising Canes. Ruffino’s, Walk-ons, Tio Javi’s, Capital GMC and running the LSU lakes.

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