One thing no one can deny about Valley Interior Systems is that it really is at the forefront of the evolution of drywall subcontracting. With more than 30 years under its belt, the Cincinnati-based contractor endeavors to stay ahead of competition by remaining current in business trends, investments, employment programs and new products/technology.
The company was founded in 1981 by J. William (Bill) Strawser and two partners as a union interior subcontracting firm specializing in drywall, framing, acoustical ceilings and plastering serving the Tri-State area (Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky). In 1986, Strawser bought Valley Interior from his two partners setting the stage for tremendous growth and success.
Strawser is joined by his two sons, John and Mike Strawser, and Jeff Hudepohl. Responding to market demand, the company expanded into other regions in 1990. Valley Interior now operates offices with a full staff in Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo, Ohio and most recently Lexington, Ky.
The commercial contractor to date now specializes in metal framing, drywall, insulation, sheathing, finishing, plastering and spray insulation.
“With the revitalization of many inner cities, we have a few new ‘Old Time’ plasterers who are able to recreate some of the beautiful and historical work and bring it back to life,” says Valley Interior’s COO John Strawser.
The union contractor showcases its talents on educational facilities, sports stadiums, hospitals and casino work. Valley Interior employs approximately 600 workers.
For all its years of business, the company held a 12 percent annual growth until 2007, when along with the rest of the industry business hit a slump.
“In 2008 and 2009 is when we started to feel the recession,” says Valley Interiors COO John Strawser. “We had projects on the books so we didn’t feel it until much later due to a backlog. I think we lost 40 percent of sales in 2009.”
Down on the Farm
Recently, cementing its foot hold in the Kentucky market, Valley Interior is at work on The Summit at Fritz Farm Project. This location is a finely crafted mixed-use destination celebrating the heritage of Lexington. Blending street-level retail, Class A office space, a boutique hotel and a residential component, the project will be a first-class destination for the discerning and trend-setting customer.
Fritz Farm features:
A unique collection of national brands and local boutiques
Curated mix of local and regionally sourced restaurants, including Honeywood, a new concept from renowned Bluegrass chef and six-time James Beard nominee Ouita Michel
The region’s first food hall featuring local food purveyors
300,000 square feet of retail
120-plus room boutique hotel
48,000 square feet of Class A office space over retail
306 luxury apartments
Owner/Developer: Bayer Properties
Architect: Shook Kelley
General Contractor: Brasfield & Gorrie LLC
For Valley Interior, the scope of the project is metal framing, sheathing, insulation, and stucco/EIFS. National Gypsum was used for exterior sheathing and gypsum and ClarkDietrich for steel framing.
Strawser though estimates if you crunch the numbers and average it out, the company has averaged more than 9 percent growth annually over the course of its business.
“In the majority of our markets it is a subcontractors’ market,” Strawser says. “There is plenty of volume and with a shortage of trades’ people you really have to manage the backlog to maximize results.”
There are numerous aspects to being a successful contractor that Strawser finds rewarding. He singles out two in particular: “Finding and training new members of the team remains critical. Everyone is different and having the patience and time to train and/or expose individuals to different aspects of the disciplines we do in order to discover skills or passions they possess is critical.
“The other is the development and implementation of the culture of the company. With growth comes hiring and to maintain the values of the company with all new hires, to have them buy in and believe in the Valley way has been exciting. In 2016, we had over a 99 percent retention rate of non-field staff which we are very proud of.”
The flipside to what he enjoys about the job, there is one thing that does continue to concern—one in which he is not alone and is shared by many—labor.
“Finding trades people,” he laments. “The projects continue to come in. The schedules do not change. The expectations of the general contractors do not change. Getting the right crews who can meet or exceed these expectations in order to keep the cycle repeating remains critical to our success.”
To combat this concern, Valley Interior is proactive and has employment initiatives with minority firms to find skilled labor for its union workforce.
“We’ve had significant concerns from 2008 to now because a lot of people have left the trades,” Strawser says. “We believe we could grow more but not sure we can handle the demand.”
But the company still is very optimistic for the future.
“The recession was horrible but we grew from it,” he continues. “It forced us to get better, otherwise you die. Recessions are not 100 percent horrible.”
Based on where the industry falls in the construction cycle, he says, the company was fortunate to see the turn coming and adjusted early instead of late. It was also the most difficult time of their careers because the company had to lay off friends. In his words, he says very talented people left and it hurt. He hopes it never happens to that extent again. But if it does, he says, he hopes the company can be there as support and mentorship for not only one another but for the next generation of leadership who will be making the most difficult decisions of their careers for the first time.
Still, things certainly have improved and it could be assumed that Strawser couldn’t be more pleased with the general direction that company has taken. When W&C last spoke to the company in 2013, Valley Interior hadn’t yet opened its Kentucky office. Last spring, the company opened its Lexington office. Furthermore, Strawser says, “We entered into 2017 with our strongest backlog since before the recession. We remain very optimistic.”
Invest Back in the Company
Like any company worth its salt, Valley Interior knows the value of reshaping and strategizing during down times, which it did during and post-recession. Whether this is through new approaches to the market or investment in products, the company knows how to keep its eye on the pie.
The company keeps up-to-date with construction apps and software. Valley Interior has taken PDF-type forms and been able to use Adobe to create interactive solutions for the general contractors. In-house, the company utilizes The Edge software, as well as On Center software systems.
Strawser is adamant to point out his relationship with National Gypsum as well. In fact, he points out that more than 90 percent of the board that the company uses on all of its projects are the Charlotte-based manufacturer’s gypsum boards.
One of the company’s biggest assets within the last several years that Valley Interior has made a purchase of three panel fabrication machines. This product, called the PanelMax and made by Grabber Construction Products, is designed for milling many building materials from gypsum to cement board up to 54 inch by 120 inch sizes.
The product makes complicated drywall assemblies faster, less costly and more accurately. The product is a system that makes creating intricate shapes and assemblies from drywall much more affordable. Projects that require a lot of manual cutting or that have complex curves have always been cumbersome and time-consuming for builders. Highly challenging assemblies can be completed more efficiently with less finishing, less labor and fewer materials, as Valley Interior has found for several projects where the panel fabrication machine saved enormous time and labor.
Since purchasing this system, the machine has opened up several new possibilities for Valley Interior. The company is constantly discovering new ways to utilize the machine.
To showcase what the team has yet discovered from the machine, Valley Interior's headquarters has a showroom devoted to the different capabilities the tool has offered. The showroom gives several examples of what the machine can produce, and this visual to visitors is a great selling tool to the subcontractor.
“We can bring in architects and others and show them what it is. We can give them a solution,” says Strawser.
The company’s motto is “Value All/Value Added.”
“Based on a combination of our continual growth, our historical retention rate and the incredible relationships we have created at all levels of the construction process, all I can say is that I couldn’t be happier or more proud of what we have built and the number of families we are a part of,” Strawser says. “We recently had three newer employees say to us ‘we have found our forever job.’ I can’t ask for a higher compliment.”