Strength Through Diversity
For over 100 years, Curran Contracting Company’s core values define its success
When the accomplishments, beliefs, actions and guidance of the forefathers are adopted as core values by future generations in a meaningful and successful way, a family legacy is then passed on to future generations. It is impressive to discover a company heading into its fifth generation of family ownership. Its heritage confirms that the firm, throughout the decades, endured more than a century of U.S. economic fluctuations and significant adaptations in core business technologies.
Curran Contracting Company President Rick Noe and Vice President – Director of Business Development, Nick Schram, agree that it all comes down to the company’s motto: Strength through diversity.
Founded in 1918 as Metropolitan Coal & Ice in the Chicago metropolitan area, William Curran met the seasonal comfort of area residents by cutting and hauling blocks of ice 50 miles from Crystal Lake, Illinois, to city ice storage houses, and delivering coal for winter heating. By the early 1930s, mechanical ice machines gradually replaced ice harvesting and coal was no longer king. Market changes demanded migration from the coal and ice business to heating oil, and Suburban Oil Company was formed.
Since the demand for fuel oil was seasonal, the company diversified into asphalt sealcoating and road oiling services in 1938, opening its first asphalt plant under the name Suburban Oil Company/Road Division. This name was later changed to Curran Contracting Company when the third generation of Currans joined the firm. Curran Contracting also established its headquarters in Crystal Lake, Illinois, at this time, where it remains today. Despite compelling logistical reasons to relocate over the years, the family put down roots and wished to continue to support the community.
Further acquisitions helped Curran Contracting efficiently serve Chicagoland’s north, northwest and west suburban regions, and increase the diversity of its services. This includes the 1961 purchase of Stahl Construction Company, Skokie Valley Asphalt in 1998 and Royer Asphalt Paving in 2008. Over the next several decades, Curran Contracting developed a loyal customer following by treating business relationships as true partnerships and cementing its reputation for quality workmanship and timely completion of paving projects.
Curran Contracting is one of the largest heavy highway asphalt paving and excavating contractors in suburban Chicago, and in 2015, expanded operations to a new market in San Antonio, Texas. The company has flourished into a preferred provider of infrastructure solutions, including asphalt paving, excavation and demolition, underground utilities, project management, site remediation, concrete recycling, clean soil disposal, asphalt mixes and clean fill materials. The firm’s expertise spans commercial, industrial, public sector and residential markets.
“We’ve gone through a lot of diversification from our established strong suit of paving for 80-plus years; the owners always had the foresight to expand when needed or do things differently to adapt to the changes we encountered,” Nick says. “We have overcome challenges through the years by adapting to change because our strength really is in our diversity.”
The Great Recession of 2008 hit the building industry hard and marked a significant turning point when the family business had to diversify its core services...quickly.
“Prior to the recession, over 70% of our profits came from infrastructure work for residential, industrial and commercial markets,” Nick says. “Almost overnight much of that work disappeared and we had to change our mindset. None of us anticipated the recession to last as long as it did in the private sector. Fortunately, we were able to adapt and change.
“This required a paradigm shift in both philosophy and methodology,” Nick continues. “We moved from hard-earned, relationship-based, private projects into jobs that are publicly funded. This change required completely different strategies. Not many organizations can perform both private work as well as publicly funded work and be successful; Curran Contracting is one of those organizations that can do both sectors.”
Rick notes that 2008 also changed business relationships. “Historically in our industry, everybody knew who you were and our reputation and word-of-mouth kept us in business. Before the crash, a handshake was golden, and many relationships were destroyed by companies that failed to operate in a trustworthy manner,” he says. “The team at Curran Contracting had carefully cultivated a reputation where the customers relied on every project to be executed with superior quality, delivered on time, safely and under budget; and faced with a new market, we continued to work hard to establish new relationships built upon that same ethos.”
Leadership: Trust in Action
Rick explains how the unique company culture made its continued success possible, saying, “The Currans have a broad business perspective and never get hung up on the fact that we need to change the fundamentals of what has been the company heritage. They have a knack for listening to other professionals in the business—not just family members—and trusting and encouraging those individuals to lead those changes. Secondly, they have the financial wherewithal to allow the company to invest heavily in different assets, like excavation equipment in 2008, to support a slow, but strategic growth process.”
Rick has more than three decades with the company and over time has had many Curran family members who worked with him. It is a point of pride that the Currans learned many aspects of the business by actually doing the labor, even working on asphalt crews. “One thing you can say about the Currans is that they’re hard-working; they will work 24/7, 365 days if that’s what it takes. They held positions that were vital and demanding requiring day-to-day attention. They weren’t absentee owners with impressive titles,” he says.
“They are very astute about strategic issues, and as their company grew and they acquired other companies, they knew they couldn’t handle the day-to-day details in each one of these businesses,” Rick continues. “So they establish firm guiding principles while trusting their management team to take the lead.”
Paving the Way
Nick explains how his introduction to the company helped expand his expertise and personal growth. “My education in leadership began by watching how Rick and the Currans worked through trying times in our industry,” Nick shares. “I had a strong, analytical engineering background before joining Curran Contracting 13 years ago, but I learned even more important people skills here. I’ve learned how to listen to people, how to act in a way that leads by example, and I’ve come to appreciate how much our team means to our organization.”
Although word-of-mouth and strong reputation had propelled the company forward for years, in 2017, Nick was moved into the newly created Director of Business Development position to unearth new opportunities and change the way Curran Contracting is known in the construction industry. According to Rick, it was a great strategy: “It’s like someone turned on a light switch, and it’s really been such a success for us,” he says.
One example of the new wave of core business involves a plethora of Amazon distribution centers blanketing Chicagoland and other Midwest locations. Curran Contracting is busy with a substantial amount of logistical site work and retrofitting of existing facilities to meet Amazon standards.
Their biggest coup, however, resulted from the Curran Contracting team’s dedication to maintaining what Rick calls “phenomenal relationships.” A general contractor, impressed with their performance, invited the company to bid on a massive 250-acre development in DeKalb, Illinois. Both Nick and Rick were bursting with pride at having just secured the contract to prepare the site for Facebook’s new 900,000-square-foot, cloud data center. Curran Contracting has already mobilized 37 pieces of earthmoving equipment to begin excavation and asphalt paving. With a planned expansion over the next five years to 500 acres, this $800 million project involves more than 2 miles of Class II roadway improvements, 3 miles of water main, and approximately 1.5 miles of deep gravity trunk sewer lines.
Family Values: People First
The extended Curran team includes about 2,400 employees, and Nick affirms that each and every person is treated as part of the Curran family. This attitude is reinforced by two Curran brothers, Mike and Tim, who serve as Co-Presidents of the holding company, Curran Group. With its headquarters adjoining Curran Contracting, employees and visitors comment on the easy accessibility to the Curran family members. People are often waved into one of the Curran offices for a chat and it’s a wide open-door policy. One brother sets aside time each week to pen handwritten notes marking key anniversaries, birthdays or other momentous occasions; an invaluable personal touch that makes employees feel sincerely appreciated and noticed.
“I’ve worked at family-run businesses before and they tend to be very micromanaged with family meddling in the day-to-day operations,” Nick says. “Family is #1 here and it’s ingrained and actively promoted in our culture. We all have the same benefit plan, including a generous 401(k) investment program, matching contributions and profit-sharing on top of that.”
Several formal employee recognition programs align with company core values of integrity, respect and family. These include the quarterly “Make it Rain” award for the estimator who brings in the most work, and an employee recognition program for field employees who are nominated by their peers for random acts of kindness promoting the values embodied by the Curran Contracting culture.
Beyond the accolades from previous customers, Curran Contracting’s steadfast 100-year legacy has been recognized by the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce. In 2013, the company was selected for the chamber’s top Robert O. Covey Business of the Year Award for its community service and its careful efforts to prepare for the future. More recent awards include Contractor of the Year for the Illinois Tollway Authority in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018; Kane County Division of Transportation’s APWA Public Works Project of the Year; and the National Asphalt Paving Association Diamond Achievement for Hot-Mix Asphalt Plant/Site Operation at the DeKalb facility in 2018.
Operating with core values of family, respect, partnership, integrity and improvement, Curran Contracting has nurtured an impressive legacy of guiding principles, and this torch is burning brightly to guide future generations.