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East County Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 2 weeks ago

Strong foundation key to success for Lakewood Ranch's Halfacre Construction

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Lakewood Ranch's Halfacre Construction celebrates 50 years in business.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It was 1991 and a 21-year-old Jack Cox was starting his first day as an office worker at Halfacre Construction, as opposed to the manual labor he had been doing with his father John Cox's company.

Instead of starting his son as an executive, John Cox wanted to give him a taste of the business and experience that could be valuable when his son assumed a supervisory role. At the time, Halfacre Construction had approximately 100 laborers on site and, at times, it made for a rough environment.

Jack Cox, who started as a 15-year-old in 1985, worked right alongside those laborers, laying block, working with the carpenters and rubbing elbows with the masons.

But in 1991, Jack Cox injured his shoulder and his dad thought it was time to move him inside. His job on his first Monday morning was to check the office answering machine. He found out why that was important.

"There were (workers) in jail," he said with a laugh while talking about the past at Halfacre's Lakewood Ranch headquarters. "I had to bail them out."

The business has evolved since then.

"When I started there was a crowd of 100 guys everywhere with trucks and tools," Jack Cox said. "There was a guy who ran the tool shop in the office. Today we have 35 employees and we (all) are managers who represent our customers. We build their buildings and we manage risk."

Jack Cox, who became the sole owner of Halfacre Construction in 2007, taking over from his dad, was talking about his company's history in celebration of its 50-year anniversary of 2020.

When asked about the longevity of his company, Jack Cox said, "We've treated people the right way."

Bill Halfacre, who moved to Sarasota in 1968 to work for homebuilder Arthur Rutenberg, founded the Halfacre Construction Company as a full-service general contractor in 1970.

"Bill Halfacre was an engineer and did all the architectural layouts," Jack Cox said. "We were close. He had moved from Dayton, Ohio and started building homes. He eventually started his own company on Siesta Key."

John Cox bought Halfacre Construction in 1984 and signed a three-year management contract with Bill Halfacre. The elder Cox and Halfacre got along so well, Halfacre never left the company, adding his expertise up until his death in 2014.

"He didn't need a title," Jack Cox said. "He was Bill Halfacre."

The company began to change its focus under John Cox, something that continued under Jack Cox when John Cox began to ease out starting in 2002.

Tom Rees, Reed Giasson and Greg Witt all moved up through the ranks at Halfacre Construction and have been with the firm 16 years or more. By Jay Heater

"When dad bought it, they were not doing large projects," Jack Cox said of Halfacre Construction. "Bill was doing maybe $1 million a year. Dad started building Walmarts and Publix stores and strip centers."

The projects continued to grow in size and complexity. In 1996, Halfacre built its first project at Port Manatee, which included work on the port's administration building as well as cold storage space for Del Monte Foods. Halfacre since has done more than 1 million square feet of building at Port Manatee.

Also in 1996, Halfacre built the 430,000-square-foot PGT Industries building in Nokomis. Then in 1997, Halfacre built the first commercial building in Lakewood Ranch when the 85,000 square-foot Teleflex Inc. was erected.

Halfacre's customers became school districts, large manufacturing companies and governments.

Some of Halfacre's projects became landmarks, such as the 139-foot airport tower at the Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport and the newest tower at the Punta Gorda Airport. Halfacre Construction has helped with several historical renovations, including the Edson Keith Estate at Phillippi Estate Park, First Baptist Church of Palmetto, First Presbyterian Church of Bradenton, Manatee County Courthouse and the Sarasota County Terrace Administration Building. 

The company's success can be illustrated as well through the success of its employees. Just as Jack Cox paid his dues as a laborer in the early days, the company's chief executives have done so in a similar manner.

Reed Giasson, the vice president of operations who became a partner in the firm in 2018, worked his way up from the bottom level, where he started 20 years ago.

"We don't have a big corporate structure," Giasson said. "And Jack (Cox) treated us like brothers."

Jack Cox stands behind his son, Johnny, and dad, John Cox, in 2005. Courtesy file.

When Giasson started, Halfacre Construction still had laborers on site and much of the work was in the private sector. He didn't believe John Cox liked him much because he had a goatee and the elder Cox was not in favor of facial hair among his executives.

"John was pretty intimidating to a 25-year-old," said Giasson, who earned John Cox's respect and moved up the ladder. "There never is a boring day here, that's for sure."

Giasson remembers those times when he started, going into Bill Halfacre's office and watching him scratch out a floorplan and elevation of a project in a matter of hours. Giasson cherishes those times picking Halfacre's brain.

"This was a guy who built airplanes from scratch," he said.

Giasson said his favorite project was a war memorial at MacDill Air Force Base.

"Sitting at that ribbon cutting ceremony, being acknowledged by the staff, that was the coolest," he said.   

Greg Witt, a project manager who was been with Halfacre for 16 years when he started for $10 an hour, said he didn't know a thing about the business when he started.

"I just did whatever Jack told me to do," Witt said. "He threw me in with the wolves."

But throwing him in with the wolves also showed that Jack Cox trusted his employees.

"He treated us all like family," Witt said. "Mainly he showed how much he appreciated us. And during the hard times, he always took care of us. Because of that, we all take ownership of what we do."

Witt's favorite project was renovating the First Baptist Church in Palmetto.

"I attended that church since I was 5," he said. "I still go there every Sunday."

Tom Rees started at Halfacre 16 years ago fresh out of Niagara University in New York. He had met Jack Cox through a family friend and was presented with the opportunity to work in the field "doing a little bit of everything."

In 2018, Rees became a partner in the firm.

"As a company, we have grown tremendously," Rees said of the time that has passed since he joined the firm. "Our approach now is on handling projects, and we have welcomed technology.

"But we also have each other's backs. There definitely is a team aspect here. We all pitch in. Jack has open ears when we have an idea."

Jack Cox and John Cox, from 2005, shared an office for more than a decade. Courtesy photo

Rees said his favorite memory has been the way the company gives back to the community, such as various projects at The Haven in Sarasota.

"We always have had a stake in the community," he said. "Jack is great when it comes to donating services."

Jack Cox said many of his happiest days of his life came during the 10 years he shared an office with his dad.

"We were best friends," Jack Cox said. "He was a great teacher, and he was way smarter than I am. Over the years, I have had great teachers, and great customers. I guess the most important thing I learned from my dad was that the hardest decision is the right decision. You know what you need to do."

What Halfacre Construction needs to do now is expand. The firm currently serves clients from Tampa to Naples, but Jack Cox sees the biggest challenge facing him as a lack of available land.

"Where is the next industrial park going?" he asked. "Fort Myers in on our radar screen."

Wherever they go, Jack Cox said he hopes they can be blessed as they have been the last 50 years.

"The majority of our clients represent repeat customers, and we cannot thank them, our employees and this community enough for their continued support.," he said.

Bill Halfacre, the company founder shown in 1989, was a pilot as well. Courtesy photo

 

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