Charles Nabholz pulls into a parking spot right in front of the building that bears his family name, hops out and gives the visitor a big wave. The chairman emeritus may not know the person exactly, but it’s the only vehicle parked in the row of visitors spaces, and as a guest, he warrants welcoming.
Besides, there aren’t too many families in central Arkansas he hasn’t met or crossed paths with during a lifetime spent in the area, most of it with Nabholz Construction, one of the most successful businesses Arkansas ever produced. So, if he doesn’t know you personally, Nabholz probably knows your daddy or raised your grandma’s church or maybe even built your high school. And in turn you know him, however peripherally, the standard bearer for the Nabholz name, one synonymous with quality, ethics and community.
And it all started in a place called Squirrel Hill just outside of Conway where Nabholz grew up, the baby of 12 kids born to Emil and Mary (Strack) Nabholz. There, the family grew cotton, livestock and the core principles that would launch a construction empire.
“When I have a chance to talk to our leadership and management teams about my life growing up, I tell them farm life taught me a lot,” he said. “Those lessons I learned growing up on the farm really applied to the characteristics and principles in our business.
“My daddy never signed a contract and didn’t need to. If he’d sell a cow, it was just a handshake deal. I’ve always heard when I was growing up, ‘His word is his bond.’ You always knew who possessed character in the community and, if there was somebody you couldn’t trust, that word got around the community, too. So, honestly and integrity became a big part of our way of doing business.”
The work was hard, but the bonds of community and family were strong. In the summertime, multiple families would band together to help with larger tasks such as baling hay and threshing oats, topped off by a communal dinner at which each farm wife would try to outdo the others’ dishes.
These moments, as well as the occasional recreation fit in between hand-milking cows and picking cotton, lent a richness to Nabholz’s growing up. In hindsight, the clan may have been considered poor by today’s standards, but it never really felt that way.
“Among the lessons I learned was how we had to cooperate with each other,” he said. “My dad would pinch a penny, and he didn’t spend money on anything unless he had it. Our cash crop was cotton, so we had to really hope and pray that we’d make a good cotton crop every year in order to buy clothes and shoes by the time school rolled around.
“I can remember many summers after school let out that I didn’t wear shoes except on Sunday until it was time to go back to school in the fall. That was just the way it was, not only for our family but a lot of other families in Conway. I didn’t feel like we were abused in any sort of fashion. It’s just what we had to do to make a living.”
By high school, each Nabholz kid brought their own future into focus. Three of Charles’ sisters joined religious orders, two brothers dropped out of high school to help run the farming operation, and a total of four of the Nabholz boys served in the military, three during World War II and one during Korea. In 1954, Charles graduated St. Joseph High School in Conway with little interest in further formal education.
“My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, and of the kids in my class, probably only three or four of them went on to college, some not until after they came back home from the service,” he said. “When I was in high school, I just assumed I was going to go to work for Nabholz Construction. College was not on my mind; I wanted to make some money.”
By then, his older brother Bob had launched the construction company, and while Nabholz was eager to join him, his father made him a proposal.
“My dad wanted me to stay for one more year to help him make a crop. He offered me three acres of cotton and a cow if I would stay through October. That was a good deal,” he said. “About the middle of July, the crop showed it wasn’t going to make it because we hadn’t had any rain at all that year. So, my dad said, ‘I’ll make you another deal. Give me that three acres of cotton and the cow back, and I’ll release you from your commitment to stay on the farm.’
“I’ll never forget that day; I said, ‘Does that mean I don’t have to milk them damn cows anymore?’ He said, ‘No, you won’t have to milk those cows anymore.’ So, I borrowed his car, came into town, walked into my brother’s office and said, ‘I’m ready to go to work.’”
Nabholz started on a bricklaying crew for the princely sum of 75¢ an hour. But the lessons he learned about craftsmanship and job site management far exceeded the value of his paycheck.
“This bricklayer’s name was Harvey Adams, Johnny Adams’ daddy,” Nabholz said, the notes of admiration still clear in his voice. “He said, ‘Everybody knows when they come by this house that I supervised the brick work. It’s going to be known as a Harvey Adams’ job. If you don’t do it right, you’re going to have to tear it down and do it over again.’
“I didn’t realize what I was learning when I was working with the bricklaying crew. I learned a lot about quality, teamwork, commitment, safety and fun Those are some of the core principles of our company today. The brick mason crew worked very hard to please Mr. Adams. He had a lot of pride in his reputation, and the brick masons showed a lot of pride in their workmanship.”
Nabholz Construction grew by word of mouth as each finished product served as a springboard to other work. From single-family homes, the company quickly graduated to apartment buildings and before long commercial buildings. Opportunity could come from anywhere.
“Bob was invited to go to a wedding one time, and he went down to the reception,” Nabholz said. “He met a man at the reception from North Little Rock who wanted to come over and look at the house Bob was building. He did, and after looking around a bit told Bob, ‘I like the quality of your work, and if you’re interested, I’ve got some apartments I want to build in North Little Rock.’
“We didn’t have the interstate then, and [North Little Rock] was still a long way from Conway. But Bob said, ‘Well, yeah, I guess so.’ He got some information on the apartment building and figured it up, and the price was around $6,000, a lot of money back in the early ’50s. The man said, ‘OK, but I was thinking about building eight of these buildings. So, Bob multiplied the price by eight, and they shook hands on the deal, much like my dad did when he sold a cow. The project turned out well and got him kickstarted from a financial standpoint.
“Then another man came along and said, ‘Will you build me a service station?’ This was in Little Rock on Broadway and Roosevelt Road. Then, along about ’53, came our first school project, built for the Northside School District in Morrilton. That cost about $10,000, less than $10 per square foot. So, from residential construction to apartment buildings to building service stations to building schools and then building churches and all other types of commercial work, each job kind of leapfrogged to another.”
Every new job and each new category provided an opportunity to refine the processes needed to run a profitable business.
“I can remember Bob saying, ‘Don’t have all your eggs in one basket,’ which was a good term,” Nabholz said. “I even heard that on the farm where you literally couldn’t depend on one facet of farm life to support you. Same way in construction; we diversified, and we provided different types of services. We had our own equipment. We had our own millwork shop. We merged with some companies along the way to give us different geographic locations, so if the economy was down in Conway or central Arkansas, it might be up in Northwest Arkansas.
“When we’d look back on what we did the year before, it wasn’t about revenue, it was about profits because you can’t stay in business unless you make a profit. We had to make sure we had enough money to make payroll and pay for materials and have a good credit rating — and all those things that determine if your company is a success or not. There were times when we didn’t make much money, but historically, there was never a year when we didn’t make a profit, although some years small.”
In time, four of the Nabholz brothers would be involved with the company, which would include building supply and land development subsidiaries. It also birthed a sister company, Con-Ark Builders, which launched to help deal with labor issues and ultimately merged back with Nabholz Construction in the 1980s.
“We had some union problems in the ’50s, particularly as we were growing,” he said. “We were continually having labor disputes, and we couldn’t complete our projects without going through a lot of hassle with the various labor unions we had contracts with. This wasn’t the way construction was supposed to be delivered to our clients.
“I started Con-Ark Builders from scratch in 1962. It was what’s called a merit shop company, which means any subcontractor who’s qualified ought to be able to work on a project, whether it be a union contractor or a non-union contractor. And Arkansas, being a right-to-work state, supported this method of construction delivery.”
In more recent times, labor hasn’t been as much of an issue thanks in no small way to how the company treats its employees with robust benefits and a stellar safety record being just two perks. Even as the company grew through mergers and acquisitions and projects got larger, the small-company mentality of taking care of your people has never wavered, fat times or lean.
“When things were slow, we just tightened our belt,” Nabholz said. “We tried not to lay off any people. We tried to keep core people, and everyone was incentivized to get work. A lot of our projects were acquired through contacts our individual employees made with prospective clients. The marketing lesson we learned is that every person in the company has an opportunity to be an entrepreneur in their own right.”
There are many things today that remind the observer, Nabholz included, of everything that’s changed over the years: The fact that succeeding generations who have worked here have already retired, the fact that grandnephews are in leadership roles and, most poignantly, that he is the last of his siblings. But there are just as many, and arguably more important reminders that the things that truly matter and have defined both his company and his life, are here in abundance as well, from the love of his wife and confidante, Charlotte, to the respect and loyalty of employee and client alike.
“All the technology that we have now is so different than what it was, but the principles are still the same,” he said. “Serve your client, serve our communities, and try to make the communities we live in a better place to live.
“That’s been our philosophy; we are located in 14 cities in seven different states, and we try to bring the Nabholz culture wherever we can. Often, we’re pleasantly surprised to know a lot of those cultures already exist, and we just participate in it and try to make it better. I enjoy talking about the history of our company and how our culture developed over the years; it’s great to have the opportunity to stick around and share that culture with the younger generation. It’s good for me personally, and I hope it’s still good for the company.”
CHARLES NABHOLZ ON RECOGNIZING TALENT:
The most important qualities we look for in the people that we hire are integrity and honesty, people you can trust. That’s basically been our hiring practice going back to the early days. They might not know how to do carpentry work or brick work or electrical work, but if they have a good moral character and want to learn a trade, that’s all we need to know. Sorta like it was growing up on the farm.
CHARLES NABHOLZ ON CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT:
Don’t think you know it all, because you don’t. You never do. To be a good entrepreneur you have to be good at what you like to do, and the only way you can get better is to learn more. I still, in my own life, try to learn something new every day. My kids used to get tired of me saying, ‘If you learn something new every day, at the end of the year you’re 365 times smarter than when you started.’
CHARLES NABHOLZ ON ETHICS:
Never make a deal if it’s contrary to what you believe. Honesty, integrity and the old-fashioned handshake deals are still good; however, we live in a different time now and you have to be careful and protect your agreements. Make sure the client is someone you can trust and that you understand what their expectations are.