K Brothers Construction Improves a Family Tradition
Construction runs in the blood of the Kirby brothers. Gary and Calvin Kirby grew up in the business, the third generation of builders in their family following their grandfather, a carpenter mason, and their father, a concrete mason. But while they inherited the experience and the legacy of construction, one thing they didn’t inherit was a family business. That they had to go out and build for themselves.
Today, they are proud owners of a successful commercial general contracting company serving Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and the state of Virginia.
Both of them came to the industry through their own route. Gary held a series of construction jobs on both coasts. Back in his native Maryland, he earned his associate’s degree in construction management and took on lead carpenter and superintendent roles in several different firms.
Calvin left construction behind to begin working in the forest industry when he was young, eventually becoming a certified lumber grader and working long hours in Oregon.
A conversation between Gary and a good friend was the spark that led to K Brothers Construction, LLC in 2006.
“An old friend of mine had his own general contracting business,” Gary says. “I used to do a lot of work for him on the side. He and I were talking one day and he asked me, ‘Do you want to work for someone else your whole life?’ I thought about it and realized I didn’t; I wanted to work for myself. So I called my brother in Oregon, we talked about it and decided to open our own business. The rest is history.”
Overcoming the Economy
The newly formed K Brothers Construction very nearly was history. Gary and Calvin opened their general contractor business in 2006, just before the economic recession hit and construction dried up almost overnight.
“We definitely had some tough times right when we got started,” Gary says. “We’re a general contracting company, and for a while during the recession, the only thing out there was government work. To make it through, we weren’t contracting work out, we did the work ourselves —drywall, framing, acoustic ceilings and things like that. We almost didn’t make it,” he notes. “We had a decision to make whether to keep going or fold up. Neither of us likes giving up, so we decided to pool our credit and make it through. We came out the other side with our integrity and a lot of respect in the industry for sticking with it when times were bad.”
Perseverance paid off for the brothers. They spent their early days in business together self-performing much of their work, using a network of contacts Gary had from his years in the industry to find any available contracts they could.
“We started our business with $5,000 each and a $200,000 contract from a carpenter friend of mine,” Gary says. “For the first year, I was running the business and still a superintendent for the company I was working for at my regular job. By the end of that first year, I was wasted. I just couldn’t keep doing it, so I left the other job to go all-in on our company. We were fortunate to get our foot in the tenant fit-out door fairly early.”
As the economy began to loosen up again and more work became available, K Brothers Construction grew along with it. From its beginnings in a basement office, the company grew to a one-room office, then a three-room space, until arriving at its current home in a complete build-out office in Halethorpe, Maryland, just outside Baltimore.
Learning the Ropes
The company’s first job came through a referral from a business associate Gary knew from his years in the industry—one person in a network of contacts Gary says has been vital to K Brothers Construction’s growth and success over the years.
“We have a good supply of architects and contractors we work with on a regular basis,” Gary says. “Much of our work comes from references. A lot of times it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Transitioning from employee to business owner came with a few bumps, but Gary says his years of experience in the industry and his education helped soften the blow. Thirty years in construction had taught him how to do the work and had given him an invaluable network of contacts to mine for opportunities, but not necessarily all the intricacies of running a business. “My biggest transition was the level of stress,” Gary says. “At first, I didn’t know how to get our name out there. I had to pick up a lot of details as I went along. Fortunately, I learned a lot by being in the business so long and was able to make a lot of connections based on knowing people.”
Growth on the Menu
As K Brothers Construction grew, the organization moved away from its early days of self-performed fit-out work. Today, the company’s portfolio includes projects in retail, medical and educational facilities, religious buildings and restaurants. Though they don’t have a particular specialization, Gary says restaurant construction and fit-out have become a major part of their business.
“We’ve grown a lot,” Gary says. “The first restaurant project was an eye opener—the schedule was so fast-paced and aggressive. But we finished it a week early. Once we got the first one out of the way, the rest were much easier. We got such great references from the corporation for that job, restaurants have become a great avenue for us.”
Restaurant projects have their challenges. Gary recalls a private restaurant project in Washington, D.C., for owners not familiar with construction. “They had two adjacent townhomes in the middle of the city they wanted to turn into a restaurant. These were very old buildings; there were no existing plans or drawings. The elevations were all off between the two, and we had to do a lot of construction underpinning just to hold the buildings together,” he says. “We got it done—on time—and they had a red-carpet event to celebrate the opening, so we got to meet lots of celebrity chefs and politicians. It was the most rewarding thing after it was done, as hard as it was to do.”
K Brothers Construction is working on three major projects at the moment, including building a restaurant and bar in the top two floors of a three-story building with a beer and wine store on the ground floor, doing a buildout for an Edward Jones office and constructing a Jewish community center in Baltimore.
The Right Size
Through their success, Gary and Calvin have been careful about monitoring the growth of their 12-year-old company. They believe their size differentiates them from the competition.
“I think our size makes us more hands-on with our clients,” Gary says. “We’re not too small, but not big. We find that clients are more receptive to a company like ours. We’ve done some work bigger companies bid on, but the clients can get our phone numbers—they can call us, the owners, anytime. For the owners to work owner-to-owner gives us something to offer that bigger companies can’t. We want to build a relationship—you’re not just a job or a number to us.”
The formula seems to be working. K Brothers Construction reached its first million dollars in revenue in its second year. While it fell down during the worst parts of the recession, it rebounded afterward. In 2017, the company did between $3 million and $3.5 million in business, with similar numbers projected for 2018. Most company projects are in the $1 million to $1.2 million range, with fit-out jobs ranging from $175,000 up to $1 million, depending on the breadth of the work.
“We have a list of about 50 contractors we use,” Gary says. “The core work goes all the way up to the Washington D.C., area. I pull from The Blue Book Network a lot to find qualified contractors. Beyond our core, we have about another 50 contractors I’ve used over the course of time. We’re used to working with our 50 when I put in the bids. We try to spread the wealth a bit and make sure all of them get work regularly.”
K Brothers Construction has expanded from just Gary and Calvin to include Gary’s wife, Tracy, who does the books, as well as an estimator and two additional superintendents.
Looking back on the conversation with his friend and the resulting decision to open his own business, Gary has no regrets.
“I feel more grateful than anything to be working in this industry,” Gary says. “I feel we put a great product out there. We make sure all our clients are happy. We’ve never had a problem or complaint from a client. Ever. Clients always leave with a great feeling about us, and we’ve gotten a lot of repeat business through them.
“I’m proud we were able to start this business so late in the game,” he continues. “I was 36 when we started, and here I am at 48, still making money. That’s a big accomplishment, but it wouldn’t have been possible without all the great people I’ve worked with along the way. I love this industry. I’ve been in it all my life. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was cutting lumber for my dad and learning. My dad taught me everything to get started. And now I get to work with my family every day. My brother and I complement each other. I’m good with people; he likes being out in the field. He’s peanut butter and I’m jelly. We jive really well together.”