It’s hard to throw a rock far in Fort Worth and not hit a structure built, updated or refurbished by Byrne Construction.
Founded by Thomas Sneed Byrne in 1923, the company started with a big project: Montgomery Ward’s regional headquarters at 2600 W. 7th St. Today the eight-story building has residential units on the top floors and retail on the ground floor.
Recently, the company announced that it would rebuild the Fort Worth Convention Center, a building it helped construct in 1968.
“I’m proud of what we’ve been involved with as a company,” said John Avila, 75, now chairman of the board.
Avila purchased the company in 1995. A veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Texas National Guard, Avila used his military benefits to get an education, and studied engineering at the University of Texas in Austin.
Avila was working for Manhattan Construction when he was offered the chance to purchase Byrne, which had a strong reputation, although its fortunes were down as outside companies began to seek work in Fort Worth. Avila said the company had revenues between $15 million to $20 million when he purchased it.
John Avila (Courtesy photo | Byrne Construction)
Avila said he and his wife, Jane, sold everything but the kids and “scraped together every penny we had.”
After buying the company, Avila called a meeting of all the employees.
Many thought that with new management, they would need to find other jobs.
Avila, who at 21 was commanding a unit in Vietnam, had learned from his military service to not come in and clean house.
“You’re going to need that experience,” he said.
So he told the staff that they were going to stay and that they would “build something new together and see what they can add.”
The strength of Byrne, Avila knew, was its superintendents.
“They’d run the company for 20, 25 years, and they were builders,” he said.
But he added some new management tools and ideas and the company began growing.
It helped that Avila was a natural salesman, said his son, Matthew, now CEO of the company.
“He could just walk in a room and sell people on it,” said Matthew Avila. “That’s one of his strengths.”
One of the company’s first big projects during the elder Avila’s tenure was for Tandy Corp., then led by CEO John Roach. They worked on the Tandy Outlet Mall, at 100 Throckmorton St., which is now the twin City Place towers.
“That and the Walsh Performing Arts Center at TCU, both of those really showed me that we were going to be successful,” Avila said.
The company had built plenty of buildings on the TCU campus in the past, but hadn’t for several years.
“The return to TCU was a big deal for us,” he said.
It helped that the company was now a minority-owned business, Avila said.
“That got us in the door sometimes, but we had to deliver, and we did,” he said.
As Bryne Construction began growing again, Avila began to add employees.
“We had to scramble,” he said.
They began hiring from Linbeck and Manhattan, two construction giants.
The giants and their employees noticed, too.
“One day I went to this Association of General Contractors’ party. A good friend of mine at Linbeck came over and stood around me the whole time. I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I just want to be seen with you. It’s good for a raise.’”
Although most of Byrne Construction’s work takes place in North Texas, the company also expanded with projects in the Austin and San Antonio markets. The company has an office in San Antonio.
Now the company’s revenues are in the $500 million range and are likely to stay there.
“I’d say we are the largest of the medium-sized companies or one of the smaller of the big guys; right in that sweet spot,” Avila said.
In 2014, the company began planning for the future as Avila transitioned to a less hands-on role and his two sons, Paul and Matthew, began taking on operational duties. Neither had planned to find themselves in the family business.
Like his mother, who runs the Art Station, a nonprofit organization that offers individual and group art therapy to children and adults, Matthew Avila initially focused on behavioral medicine, earning a degree from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Returning to Fort Worth, he earned a juris doctorate degree from the Texas A&M School University School of Law and began working with Byrne Construction.
His brother, Paul, went to Texas A&M and eventually began working at the company as well. In 2014, Matthew Avila became CEO and Paul Avila became COO.
“We did a lot of putting processes in place, policies in place, benchmarking and using analytics to monitor things and make strategic plans and have milestones,” said Matthew Avila. “From a personality standpoint, it’s a different approach to how you run things. That was a big part of it.”
Not that John Avila isn’t still keeping his hand in the company.
“I stay involved whenever I can, whenever I’m needed,” he said. “I’m still trying to stay involved, because us Baby Boomers, we refuse to go away.”
About 60% of the company’s work is in the public sector, involving projects such as building, expanding and refurbishing city halls, libraries and recreation centers. It also has private clients like American Airlines, Bell Helicopters and Lockheed Martin, which make up the remaining 40% of the work.
Recent projects include the Amon Carter Museum, Kimbell Art Museum, Will Rogers Coliseum, TCU’s football stadium and the Sinclair Hotel.
John Avila is pleased to see where the company sits these days.
“We’re on solid footing now,” he said. “The company was a household name (then). We’re a household name now.”
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.