Chas Torrence is Executive Vice President of EMJ Construction, a family of construction services companies that was founded in Chattanooga in 1968 and has delivered more than 280 million square feet of projects across 47 states and the District of Columbia.
Tell us about your background and how that led you to a career in construction?
I grew up in Chattanooga and went to Roanoke College in Virginia where I played soccer and got a history degree. In the second half of my senior year, I was on the track to attend law school when I went to work with a site contractor in North Virginia. Based on my experience working on a couple projects with that contractor, I decided to go back to school and get a degree in Construction Management. I got my post-graduate degree from Clemson University and while I was at Clemson, I interned with a company out of Atlanta called Brasfield & Gorrie. I found that I loved the work, and that work eventually led to an eight year stint with B&G. Then I moved to Charlotte, NC for a couple years before moving back to Chattanooga in ’09, and I’ve been working for EMJ ever since.
What’s the experience like working for such a massive company like EMJ?
Certainly at times it can feel corporate but we try our best to be proactive and make everything feel as intimate and local as possible. With that goal feel in mind, it’s important to focus and pull in on smaller things, smaller bites of the apple, rather than looking at the company as a whole. Getting too focused on the global range of the company can be overwhelming. We are able to achieve that feel by having regional offices. We have three offices, one in Chattanooga, one in Dallas, and one in Boston and with each office we try to take a real regional approach so that folks in those offices don’t feel overwhelmed by the size of the company and that they feel more like they are part of an intimate group at the regional level.
What are the types of projects EMJ typically chose? What are some of your most notable projects?
We are mainly going to focus on projects in the $5 - $30 million range. Those projects will be a mix of anything from retail, to industrial, office, mix-use, multi-family, senior living, and health care. Out of our Chattanooga office we focus primarily on the southeast market which extends from Virginia all the way down to Miami, and over towards Texas. Once we get to Texas our Dallas office takes over.
Locally, the Ruby Falls project was very much a notable project. Over at Unum we did a $20 million renovation. We’ve also done a good bit of local school work with CCS and McCallie. Currently, we are about to kick off a multi-family project next to Unum. That particular project will be about a $30 million mix-use apartment retail project. That’s kind of the area we are focused in. I consider us to be very diverse across multiple different sectors.
How do you see the industry changing over the next 10 years?
I think the big disruptor is technology. Our industry has to figure out a way to utilize technology to make our processes and procedures more streamlined. Figuring out how to use technology to our advantage will benefit the project over all and make it a better experience for the client.
The labor shortage is a concern and we need to understand how technology can play a role in finding a solution for that issue. From a technology stand point, the questions we are asking are 1) can I help deliver a different type of project, and 2) how can I implement technology to enhance the project and the building experience.
We'll continue to see a move towards prefabrication and modular building. Modular building is where parts of the projects and buildings are being built in a controlled environment then brought to the project site and to be assembled, much like Legos.
I think that’s where the industry is headed ... finding new ways to make construction more deliverable, more efficient and more economical. It will always remain a people-oriented industry, but how those people share information and connect will be different than in the past.
Why did you decide to join AGC?
There’s a lot of benefit for a contractor to become a member of AGC, especially from a networking stand point, which is probably the biggest benefit for us. Secondly, we need to be part of the community in Chattanooga and joining AGC allows us to take advantage of opportunities that we’d miss out on if we were non-members. For us it makes a lot of sense. It’s a good thing for our younger people, and allows us to grow in the right way.