A downturn in highway construction during the mid-1980s caused Irondale-based Morris-Shea Bridge Co. Inc. to shift focus from bridge to deep foundation work. That change, the addition of a patented advanced foundation technology, and an emphasis on design-build has led to significant growth for the family-owned and operated company.
Among Morris-Shea Bridge’s more high-profile projects have been the foundations for the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas and Bayside Power Plant in Tampa. The building contractor currently is working on two major liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal foundation projects in Hackberry, Louisiana, and Freeport, Texas. The LNG export terminals are among the first in the country. In addition to working throughout the United States, the company also takes on jobs in the Caribbean and South America.
Dick Shea and his partner, Walter Morris, formed Morris-Shea Bridge in 1969, focusing on heavy civil contracting for interstate and highway bridge projects. Their first major project was the curved highway bridge at U.S. Highways 31 and 280 in the Homewood area. When the demand for highway work sputtered in the ’80s and the company fell upon hard times, Shea bought out his partner.
Morris-Shea Bridge went forward but changed its emphasis to deep foundation work, building foundations for a number of paper mills. By 1992, the company generated annual revenues of $9 million. That year, Dick Shea’s oldest son, Richard, graduated from Auburn University with a business degree.
During a post-graduation trip to Europe, the father and son went to Antwerp, Belgium to investigate DeWaal deep-pile system machinery.
“The process had been under development for six years and had been perfected, but nobody in the United States really knew about it, ” says Richard Shea III, who now runs the company with his father and two younger brothers, Bill and Steve.
Dick Shea believed the DeWaal technology offered the potential of a significant competitive advantage for his company, so he made the commitment to buy one $1 million DeWaal machine and negotiated for the proprietary rights to operate DeWaal machinery throughout the United States. “He had the vision to take the risk, ” says Richard Shea III. “Because of that, today we are now doing around $140 million in volume.”
The DeWaal process installs reinforced concrete piles constructed by means of a screw-shaped tool — a process that allows shorter or fewer piles. Also, the pile production rate makes for a quicker turnaround time. And the process also leaves no surface spoils, making for a cleaner site.
Even though the DeWaal pile process is used in a significant amount of Morris-Shea foundation work, the company also does addition foundation and other heavy civil work — including driven piles, augercast piles, partial displacement piles, drilled shafts, caissons, sheeting, shoring, micropiles, tiebacks, pile top reverse circulation shafts, secant walls and marine work.
“We go after design-build opportunities. That way we are able to give our customers the most cost-effective foundation for their needs, ” says Richard Shea III. “Quality and safety are No. 1 with us.”
The company’s team of six foundation engineers specializes in determining the best type foundation for a particular project. “Foundation engineers tend to be conservative in their designs, especially in design-bid-build situations, because buildings settle, ” Shea points out. “Because we are designing and building foundations with our own team and taking responsibility for the results we are able to beat out our competitors on quality and price. Plus it’s more profitable for us.”
Currently the company employs about 460 workers, including 30 staff members at the Irondale headquarters and 70 at the large equipment yard in Harpersville. Other company equipment yards are located in Louisiana, Texas and Puerto Rico. The company has marketing and engineering offices in Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, Orlando and Savannah.
Richard Shea III originally hadn’t planned to work for his father’s company, but after Dick Shea offered him a good salary to work for the company, the son decided to join Shea Bridge at least temporarily. “Twenty-four years later, here I am, ” Shea says with a laugh.
His brother Bill, who studied engineering at Vanderbilt University, also planned to work elsewhere, but got caught up in the family business after taking a job with his father after college.
“I worked my way up, ” Bill Shea says. “When I was on the crew, I was treated the same as anyone. My brothers and I all went to college but then were assigned to basic jobs and learned from the ground up. That’s really the best way to gain the respect of your peers. Too many young people want to start with a desk job right out of college without going into the field, but it’s important to get that hands-on experience.”
Today Richard and Bill Shea divide up most of the company’s projects, each taking the lead on a share of the work. While the older brother tends to take the West Coast jobs and the younger East Coast jobs, the division shifts as need be. Their father, at 73 years old, still leads one or two jobs each year.
“We pride ourselves in being family-owned and operated. We’re not so big that our customers aren’t able to get a hold of one of my brothers or father if need be, ” Bill Shea says. “Plus we’ve got a team of good people, many of who have been with us for years, we can count on.”
Youngest brother Steve, who runs all the equipment yards for the company, started out at the company’s equipment yard in Puerto Rico, after graduating from Auburn with a business degree in 2000. “I was always fixing machines growing up and worked for my dad in high school. From a young age my dad began training me to join the company, ” Steve Shea says.
The company’s equipment yards house thousands of pieces of equipment. Morris-Shea drill rigs must be adapted at the equipment yards for specific jobs. “We have been busy getting ready for future business, having already bought eight machines this year and getting ready to buy an additional five, ” the youngest Shea brother says.
One of the company’s upcoming equipment investments is a $3.5 million DeWaal drill rig that can dig 200 feet deep. “We have invested heavily, because we are chasing about $8 to $10 billion of work out there, ” Richards Shea III says. “Of course we won’t get all that business, but we believe we will get a good share of it. 2015 was great for us, and we expect 2016 to be good as well.”
Kathy Hagood and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.
Text by Kathy Hagood • Photos by Cary Norton