A major contributor to job creation and economic growth in Southern Nevada, Martin-Harris Construction is a value-driven general contractor known for building strong relationships and award-winning projects
The fact that more than 80 per cent of Martin-Harris Construction’s customer base is made up of repeat clients is indicative of the Nevada contractor’s commitment to building strong relationships and delivering quality projects. Founded in 1976 by entrepreneurial carpenters Frank Martin and Frank Harris, Martin-Harris is, today, the largest general contractor headquartered in Las Vegas, where it is led by company President, and Frank Martin’s son, Guy Martin.
A multi-faceted organization, Martin-Harris offers services ranging from preconstruction, general construction to design-build. Named the 2020 General Contractor of the Year by ENR Southwest Magazine, as well as 2021 General Contracting Firm of the Year by NAIOP Southern Nevada, Martin-Harris boasts the resources and capabilities to self-perform and deliver, no matter the scope – from $10,000 emergency repairs to $100 million new builds.
How Martin-Harris Started: Opportunity Out of Adversity
It’s not uncommon for an entrepreneur to emerge when their career path becomes blocked. Others might be content to wait, but a livelier mind will look for another way. That’s what happened when 29-year-old Frank Martin, a carpenter by trade and with twelve years’ experience, was overlooked for a promotion that should have been his. That was in back in 1973. Martin, taking a break on a scaffold at the Las Vegas building site he was working on, shared his frustration with his younger colleague and fellow carpenter Frank Harris, who threw out the suggestion that they set up in business together.
The partners developed the idea and decided that general contracting was the field they should break into. Martin set about beefing up his qualifications, and together they purchased a rundown property. “We used our carpentry skills to fix the house up,” he recalls. “We paid ourselves nothing but made $15,000 on the deal. With $7,500 of that we bought a piece of ground, which my wife and I still own today, and with the other half we started the company.”
Even in the early 1970s that was not a huge amount of seed capital for a business but together with a good name in the Las Vegas construction business it was enough to enable them to incorporate Martin-Harris Construction in 1976. Over 40 years later it is a $200 million a year business and having grown with the growth of the city is one of the best trusted names in Nevada.
Las Vegas was much smaller then, with fewer than 400K inhabitants compared to over 2M today. With no business qualifications and no knowledge of accounting practices, the business had to fall back on indispensable assets such as integrity, common sense and a good knowledge of the local construction scene.
“A long time ago I learned the simple three-part business guideline; you have to get the work, do the work and keep score. I was a very good ‘get work’ guy, we were both very good ‘do work’ guy, and our very first employee was the ‘keep score’ person.”
The three vital functions of business development, operations management and accounting, then, were filled respectively by Frank Martin, Frank Harris and their bookkeeper, who stayed with the company till 1990. In December 1979 Martin bought out Harris, though he too continued to work in the company until the early 1990s, and since that date Frank has been the sole proprietor of the company – until very recently, that is.
Cooperative Mindset to Weather through Crisis
More than just another award-winning general contractor, Martin-Harris’ family roots have enabled the company to form a strong, value-centric culture that continues to set it apart from the competition. Before the firm begins construction on any of its projects, it first looks to build connections with its clients.
“We believe in ideas of respect, teamwork, accountability, honesty, and integrity at Martin-Harris, and so finding customers that align with those core values is really important to us,” Guy Martin declares. “It is very humbling when I sit and talk to a new client, and they say they knew we’d be a good match because they read our core values on our website, and they believe in the same things.”
“Martin-Harris is unique in this industry in that we are managed by tradesmen and tradeswomen, not a group of exclusively college graduates,” he adds. “Our leadership group knows construction, so we can sit in front of a client and confidently say that we’re a builder, not a contractor, and we believe in what we do. We are a heart-managed company; we care more about our people and our customers than we do about the top line of our business.”
Such is the reputation of Martin-Harris and its management team that, when Covid-19 hit the USA in early 2020, Guy Martin was invited by the Governor of Nevada to suggest ways in which the state could keep construction essential during the pandemic. Ultimately, with the help of state authorities, organized labor bodies and fellow contractors, the company and its industry peers remained operational throughout the Covid-19 crisis. For him, the lack of disruption was a triumph for the power of collaboration.
“The co-operation with our external industry peers in 2020 was a shining star moment,” Martin says. “When the lights were dim and things were tough, we all just leaned into one another and made it happen. Instead of getting more divided when challenged by the pandemic, our foundation got stronger.
“I’ve always said that Martin-Harris does not have competitors, we have peers in our industry. During Covid-19, I sat in rooms with five to seven of these big Las Vegas construction companies working on mega projects, and everybody shared what they were doing to keep their tradesmen and tradeswomen safe. The united front helped make 2020 one of the best years in our company’s history. We followed our core values, we continued to move forward, and I couldn’t be prouder of our team for their work.”
Efforts to Expand Its Footprints
Martin-Harris’ reaction to the pandemic meant the company could continue with its highly diverse range of projects, including work at the City of Las Vegas New Municipal Courthouse, Meow Wolf Las Vegas, Shake Shack at McCarran International Airport, and a student housing community at the University of Las Vegas.
“We have created a very sustainable construction environment,” Guy Martin says. “We are not as captive to the general ebb and flow of the highly cyclical nature of construction in the United States. We have the ability to stay very, very diverse because the talent of our associates is unparalleled across the western United States. The only properties we don’t build are single-family homes, and that is by choice.”
The firm’s market-sector expertise includes health care, industrial, office, education, multifamily, special use, hospitality, public works and retail projects. And despite calling Las Vegas home, the contractor doesn’t depend on the city’s hospitality corridor or the Strip for its revenue.
“We love working off the Strip in the light commercial and industrial sector and always have two or three schools we’re building. That diversity is what allows us to work so nimbly through the changing environment,” Martin says.
The firm divides its work into three books of business. The contractor’s core business group ranges from multifamily to industrial warehouses, parks, schools and churches—projects that typically range from $3 million to $80 million in size. Meanwhile, Martin-Harris Construction’s major projects group tackles unique work outside key market centers. Whilst these projects are not always large, they are often focused on complexity.
“This group is a collection of assets we deploy very strategically,” Martin explains. The major projects group is currently building the Las Vegas Convention Center Phase II Expansion, working in a joint venture with Turner Construction as part of a $2.1-billion program. It also is building the 140,000-sq-ft Las Vegas municipal courthouse through a $56.3-million public-private partnership.
Another special projects group tackles jobs with a high-intensity, short-duration focus, including renovations and tenant improvements in all market sectors. “Folks on these projects thrive in that environment,” Martin says. With more than 100 projects a year in the special projects category, the group accounts for $40 million to $60 million in annual revenue.
“We build a lot of apartments and hotels and bring lean principles and innovation to those projects,” Martin-Harris COO Paul Toplak says. “And we partner with our subcontractors to raise the bar. It’s very fulfilling. We feel this is an area where our firm has more time and patience and has impacted the industry in a positive way.”
People-First Strategy to Grow the Company
As a nod to its ongoing push for workforce diversity, more than 40% of Martin-Harris Construction’s workforce is part of the millennial generation. The firm also has partnered in the creation of a STEM 101 curriculum for industry training and education and expanded the program’s educational reach to include the Las Vegas Dept. of Youth Development and Social Innovation.
“We find our success in the bottom line of our company, not the top line,” says Guy Martin, president, who assumed leadership of the firm from his father four years ago. “Our motto is: ‘Have fun, make money,’ in that order.”
Martin gets a company update every Monday morning, and as part of that, he insists on knowing if anyone has been injured. If so, he calls the employee’s family to ensure the injured worker is being taken care of. “We build people through our projects,” Martin says. “We make sure our people are very successful during this season in their life, and we want them to view this time [at Martin-Harris] as a blessing in their career.”
Martin-Harris has maintained its people-focused mentality for over four decades and will keep doing that throughout years ahead. In 2020, the company’s associates gathered 1,172 pounds of food, 461 packages of paper goods, and $900 to donate to NAIOP’s Helping Hands of Vegas Valley fundraiser. These efforts have continued in 2021 and the firm has already raised $1,200 for Make-A-Wish through a Pie-in-the-Face challenge. The importance of people, and the spirit they bring to the organization, is certainly not lost on Guy Martin.
“We hire the very best people in the industry, and we give them every tool and opportunity they need to be successful,” Martin remarks. “We hold them very accountable, but then we also allow them to grow. In cultivating and building people, there’s an opportunity for us to broaden geographically or even market sector-wise.”
In the next five years leading up to Martin-Harris’ half-century, he hopes to see the company navigate a generational leadership change as many decision-makers at the firm’s long-term clients retire and are replaced by new leaders. “With such a high volume of repeat clients, most of our work has been with the same people over the last 45 years, but as generations of customers move on, I would love to see our associates successfully manage that succession or transition,” he reveals. “That would be the big win for me.”
As Martin believes, there will, of course, be challenges for the business going forward, but the President is also confident that the next five years could be Martin-Harris’ best yet. Consequently, the mood at the business is one of optimism and enthusiasm.
“I think the most exciting period of Martin-Harris’ existence thus far will be the next five years,” Martin affirms. “We’re going to hit some growth milestones, we’re going to hit some developmental milestones, and I believe we will produce some of the greatest industry leaders that construction has ever seen. I’m just really interested to see what our associates are going to become. Though the two are clearly inextricably linked, I’m actually more excited to see how our people grow than what the company grows into.”