The early days of Robins & Morton began with a gesture that would set a tone for decades.
Todd Robins had started his construction company, Robins Engineering, after World War II in 1946, and itwas growing at a fast clip, constructing buildings in Mountain Brook Village and Homewood near Birmingham.
One of Robins’ subcontractors was Sunshine Morton, a concrete finisher. Morton did a lot of work for Robins, and at the same time, he was battling heart problems and mounting health care bills.
“He eventually went to work for Todd,” says Bill Morton, Sunshine’s grandson. “Mr. Robins decided to hire him really to help with the cost of the hospitalizations. After that, they had a lifelong bond.”
That bond led Barry Morton- Sunshine’s son and Bill’s dad — to go to work for what would become the Robins Corp. And in 1991, when Barry Morton bought Todd out, he kept his name on the company that became Robins & Morton.
Now, Bill Morton is chairman and CEO of Robins & Morton, having succeeded his father in 2015. As it celebrates its 75th year, the company is among the state’s largest general contractors — ranked second in 2019 with offices in eight cities and more than $1 billion in contracts — and it has plans to expand more this year, having just opened an office in San Antonio, with another coming soon in Tampa.
“Things are really changing right now, and we’re doing everything we can to keep adapting and to stay on the leading edge,” Bill Morton says. “We don’t want to be behind. We want to be leading.”
WORKING THEIR WAY UP
Bill Morton’s first job at his father’s company was on one of the company’s first hospitals, in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the summer of 1982. “My goal was to be a carpenter, and the assignment the superintendent gave me was putting me in charge of cleanup. I’m sure my dad had something to do with that,” Morton says with a laugh.
Morton graduated from Auburn University with a degree in building science in 1987 and immediately went to work for the company fulltime, working in the field, then becoming an assistant superintendent and eventually working his way up from there.
Around the same time, another Auburn building science grad, Robin Savage, was doing the same thing. He went to work for the company when he graduated in 1982, and he, too, worked his way up in the ranks, becoming president and chief operating officer when Morton became chairman and CEO in 2015.
Both have seen fundamental changes in the construction business over the years while shepherding their own firm to a niche as one of the premiere builders of health care facilities in the region.
GROWING HEALTH CARE SECTOR
Though they count Auburn Arena, Regions Field, Mountain Brook’s Grand Bohemian Hotel and others among their projects, Robins & Morton has long been a leader in the health care construction sector, starting with working with Hospital Corporation of America 40 years ago.
“We opened an office in 1981 in Nashville,” Bill Morton recalls. “We had been primarily a Birmingham-based company, and almost overnight we became a traveling regional contractor.”
It also fundamentally changed the way Robins & Morton did business. Some of their early health care clients believed in partnerships, meaning everyone involved in the project worked together rather than just one company taking charge through a hard-bid process. Because it was a more sophisticated, time- and cost-sensitive construction project, it required a team approach as opposed to a more traditional and slower bid process.
“In the early ’80s, it was really an innovative approach, in a sense, although it’s the predominant method of delivering projects today,” Morton says. “This process integrates the efforts of the client, designer and construction team so the project has a more successful outcome for all parties. We wanted everybody to be in a leadership role and take ownership of a project.”
Today, the health care sector can make up 80-90% of Robins & Morton’s yearly projects.
“It’s a highly complex, pretty technical type of construction,” Savage says. “There’s a saying that if you can build a hospital, you can build just about anything.”
Robins & Morton’s health care projects include brand new facilities like Marshall Medical Center North, Athens-Limestone Hospital and Huntsville Hospital’s new Orthopedic & Spine Tower, as well as renovations and additions on hospitals like Brookwood Baptist Medical Center, Shelby Baptist Medical Center and Princeton Baptist Medical Center.
The importance of those facilities is not lost on the folks who build them.
“I think when you step back and you look at a health care project, as you’re going through putting that building together, you really realize that you’re building something that’s going to make a difference,” Savage says. “There will be life and death and drama and all sorts of emotional things that will happen in that building. There will be lots of curing and saving of lives that will be helping in that building. You really do think you may have done something that makes a difference.”
And sometimes it hits close to home. After Robins & Morton built the Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando (with the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, it’s the Arnold Palmer Medical Center), the senior project manager had his first child in that hospital.
“We’ve had a number of people who had family members and children and all sorts of health issues solved in the hospitals we built,” Savage says.
CHANGES IN THE INDUSTRY
Both Morton and Savage point to technology and safety as two of the areas that have seen the biggest changes during their time in the business and, especially, since Todd Robins opened his firm 75 years ago.
Many things that used to be done by hand are now handled by computers, and Morton points to the increased use of pre-fab pieces and bringing more of the subcontract work — concrete pouring, dry wall, masonry — in-house as other big innovations over the years.
As for safety, it’s top of mind.
“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, safety was important, but it wasn’t emphasized as much,” Savage says. “There was more of an acceptance that there are going to be some accidents from time to time, but that thinking is long gone. We’ve conveyed that incidents on projects is not the norm. We don’t have to have a single one, and we shouldn’t accept environments that would cause that. … So, what you’ve seen is that accident and incident rates have plummeted over the last 10 or 20 years.”
That’s important for a company that prides itself on its family atmosphere, both inside the company and in the communities where they are building.
“We work in 30 states, in small towns and big towns all over the country, and one of the missions is to get involved while we’re there,” Savage says. “We want them to remember us not just as the people who came into town and built a hospital. We want them to know we became part of them.”