BY CASEY MURPHY
As general contractor for school construction projects all across East Texas, W.R. “Bob” Leavine doesn’t get bad weather days.
Leavine, 69, president and owner of WRL General Contractors, said projects can’t be delayed no matter the circumstances because the start of school is never pushed back.
“It’s how many nights and weekends you’re going to work,” he said.
For the Tyler Independent School District, WRL is working on the Career and Technical Education Center and in March, will begin renovating the Moore and Boulter middle schools.
They also are building a new chapel and classrooms and renovating the youth facility at Grace Community Church and doing a total makeover at Bosworth & Associates Insurance, which has been in business in Tyler for 75 years, Leavine said.
WRL also is constructing the Bacon Auto Country Dealership in Jacksonville; recently completed the Fenton Honda Dealership in Longview and is working on new tennis courts at Spring Hill ISD, additions and renovations at Hawkins ISD, building a new Agriculture and Science Facility for Mansfield ISD and the Women’s & Children’s Center for Hiway 80 Rescue Mission in Longview.
WRL will construct “pretty much anything without a bed in it,” Leavine said. Although they have done some hospital facilities, they do not do homes or apartments and stick to commercial, industrial and institutional projects. They have gone as far as Alvarado, Franklin, Hearne, Texarkana and New Boston for a project but work mostly in Tyler and Longview.
The largest project WRL has ever done is the more than 400,000-square-foot Hallsville High School, the largest in East Texas, Leavine said. The $65 million project took 30 months and more than 1,100 people, including a crew of about 30 WRL employees at its highest point. They finished it two years ago.
Leavine said building it was an answered prayer.
Every time he drove by the Weatherford High School, Leavine knew he wanted to build something like that. About 10 years later, he was selected to construct the much larger, Hallsville High School.
LOVE OF BUILDING
After earning an industrial management and business finance degree from the University of South Florida, Leavine was recruited to work for DuPont. He worked as supervisor of a nylon manufacturing plant in South Carolina for two years before he moved back to his home state of Florida and worked as a construction supervisor and plant manager for Rinker Materials. Working for the construction material supplier tweaked his interest in buildings, he said.
Leavine fell in love with the construction business and knew he would one day start his own company. But first, he ran a plant in New Mexico for Rose Sand & Gravel for a couple of years.
In 1979, he started WRL General Contractors in New Mexico. There, he worked for a developer who moved to Tyler. He asked Leavine to do a project in Tennessee, so he flew to Tyler to meet him. After finishing projects for the man in Memphis, Colorado, North Carolina and San Antonio, Leavine decided he wasn’t going back to New Mexico.
Leavine said the downed economy in the 1980s was hard on developers and while other businesses were going under, he was trying to start one in a new town. “But we worked hard,” he said.
His first project in Tyler was renovating the Tyler Pounds Regional Airport.
At some point, WRL shifted to doing primarily school work.
Leavine said it was a decision that came out of not getting paid for a project by a private developer. He knew he always would get paid for school projects, so in 1990, he did his first project, adding on to an elementary school in Jacksonville, he said.
Leavine has since worked with 43 school districts in Texas.
After moving to Tyler, Leavine started fresh, he said, adding that he didn’t take any employees with him. It was just he, his wife and his daughter.
His wife of nearly 48 years, Sharon Leavine, was the chief financial officer for WRL for 25 years and is still involved in the family business.
“She is the backbone of our company,” he said. “She’s my inspiration.”
The couple met in college, where she was an accounting finance major.
He was there on an athletic scholarship.
Baseball was his life and was the only reason he went to college, he said. Soon after he met his wife his sophomore year, he hurt his arm while pitching.
He was a get-by student before but, after marrying her, became an honor roll student. She inspired him to make himself better and to get a life outside of baseball.
Their daughter, Melynda Hensley, 43, works for WRL. She started working in the office and running bids in high school, then after college was project manager for school projects in Longview and Lindale. Now, she handles the company’s preconstruction services.
“Family is important to us,” Leavine said, adding that most of his employees have worked for him for so long they become like family.
WRL now has 42 employees, including 10 superintendents.
David Detten, general manager, has worked for Leavine for 11 years. He said the average employee has been there eight years but the longest has worked 18 years.
Detten, 55, began working in construction when he was 14. He began cleaning up job sites for his dad, who was a real estate developer in Houston. He worked for several subcontractors to learn all aspects of the business before going back to work for his dad. In 1983, he built the Oak Forest Shopping Center in Longview and decided he was not going back to Houston. He worked for several local general contractors before he became superintendent for WRL in 2003. Since then, he has worked his way up and now oversees the day-to-day operations.
If Leavine and Detten aren’t in the office, they are out checking on jobs.
“Our people are our assets,” Detten said.
WRL recently was honored by the Bullard Chamber of Commerce with the Business of the Year Award. They played a big part in building the kids’ park there. Detten said WRL becomes involved in each community where they have projects.
Detten said the best part of completing a school project is watching the teachers and students get excited about a classroom.
He said the Career and Technical Education Center is a unique project. They started construction in September and plan to have the 130,000-square-foot facility completed in February 2015.
“It’s going to be a neat facility,” Detten said, while pointing out the areas where the cosmetology, computer science, broadcasting and culinary arts classrooms will be.
On Feb. 3, Detten said they were four weeks ahead of schedule, so the company had a hamburger cookout for its employees to celebrate. He said about 70 percent of the subcontractors, including for steel fabrication, concrete, dirt, electrical and plumbing for the center, are from Tyler.
WRL has built Bonner Elementary School and the new Grace Community High School. Since 1999, WRL has done more than $700 million worth of construction work, Detten said.
Technology and communication are the biggest changes Leavine has seen in the construction industry since he began his company 35 years ago.
Everything in the building industry is driven by technology, he said, adding that they use GPS to lay out and locate spots in a building. When he started, they didn’t have cellphones. Now, he can do business while driving down the road.
Detten said all of their superintendents are issued an iPad, which have drawings for their projects on them. It cost about $1,300 to print out one set of drawings for a project, while an iPad costs about $800. And it doesn’t take four people to hold down a set of drawings in 25 mph wind when they’re on an iPad, he added.
It not only allows the company to be green, but run more efficiently.
With their iPad, they can take a picture of a problem at the site and immediately get an answer from the architect. They use project management software to communicate with the architects, subcontractors and project owners.
They also have webcams capturing the work at some of the projects, including the Career and Technical Education Center and Bacon Auto Country Dealership, and will have them at the Tyler middle schools. He said they use the cameras to give clients more information and to get public interest in the project.
Detten said it gives the community a peak into their job that they wouldn’t otherwise see because they can’t come onto the construction site.
Leavine said even during the economic downturn, WRL managed to stay busy and typically has eight to 12 projects going at a time.
“It’s a service,” he said of the industry. Just about every general contractor can build a good building. It’s about how they take care of the client during and after the project that counts, he added.
Detten said about 85 percent of the business comes from repeat clients.
“We’re the quiet guys in Flint,” Leavine said.