Ray Miller Jr., owner and president of Fleming Building Co., has guided the design-and-build firm for 34 years. He’s led it to the top of the list of the nation’s largest metal builders.
The 60-year-old company has avoided the boom-and-bust cycles much of the industry has experienced because Miller and the company remained flexible and unafraid to take on out-of-state projects.
Today Fleming has performed in 40 states, from Alabama to Wyoming. Fleming Building, or FBC, has constructed more than 55 million SF of buildings, automobile dealerships to warehouses.
“We had to move with the customer in order to survive,” Miller said.
Fleming has worked on projects from Redwood, Calif., to Maine, “and plenty of points in between.”
Fleming’s commercial and industrial projects include schools, churches, bowling alleys, indoor tennis courts and aircraft and manufacturing facilities.
“One reason is that we have a broad base of what we can do,” Miller said. “We are not confined to just industrial or commercial. We can build any building.”
Fleming has completed more than 45 million SF of Walmart distribution centers over the last two decades. In the Tulsa metro, Fleming has built more than 30 buildings at the Port of Catoosa as well as offices for Skycam, Mathis Brothers and about 15 automotive dealerships.
Fleming finished last year with revenues topping $50 million, which nearly equaled 2006 levels, Miller said. He expects similar results this year despite Walmart’s decision to cutback on expansion plans. The decision eliminated two or three projects per year.
“Walmart’s throttling back on construction hurt us,” Miller said. “But, we have been able to find work to take its place.”
FBC employs 65 full time. The company lost about 20 workers over the past few months, however. Oklahoma’s immigration law, SB 1804, stung Fleming.
“We lost good workers,” Miller said.
FBC does much of its own work, referred to in the industry as “self-performance.”
“That differentiates us from other companies,” he said.
About three-fourths of contractors do not perform the work they bid — they broker it instead. But Miller feels it is important to do your own work.
“If you are going to sell a pre-engineered package, then you should be able to put it up,” Miller said.
Fleming handled the foundations and steel work for the 165,000-SF SpiritBank Event Center near 103rd Street and Memorial Drive in Bixby.
“Ray Miler is the go-to guy,” said Tim Remy, construction manager for the Bixby-based real estate company. Remy praised Miller for maintaining direct lines of communications.
“Ray was right there. He was my main contact. For the size of the company, he really takes care of his clients,” Remy said.
Doug Terry agreed.
Terry, Valley National Bank president, said it was easy to communicate with Miller and Fleming, which has built two locations and is working on a third for the bank.
“The thing I like best is being able to talk to them,” Terry said.
After the drawings were complete for the Valley National Bank at 81st Street and Yale Avenue, Terry decided to make changes.
“After it was roughed in, they allowed me to have about 30 days to think it through while they worked other areas,” he said. “They were flexible. They wanted us to like the finished product.”
Miller went to work for Fleming in 1965. Nine years later Miller took over the company. The only “down” cycle for Fleming came in the ‘70s. The company was at the brink of bankruptcy in 1978. Spreading himself too thin and growing the company too fast caught Miller by surprise.
“You run around thinking you are bullet proof. Then you get knocked on your butt,” Miller admitted.
Miller refused to give up. He continued working, finishing projects and paid creditors. FBC has been debt free since 2002.
“You figure out a way to make it happen and protect the people who were involved. We worked out a plan and made everybody whole,” he said.
In the 1980s, Fleming was building structures up to 400,000 SF. Then Miller had an opportunity to build for Walmart.
“We started the big warehouses in 1986, similar to the distribution warehouse in Ramona,” he said.
Fleming was awarded the contract to build the first Sam’s Club warehouse in Tulsa, at 42nd Street and Sheridan Road. Next, Fleming won the contract for a warehouse in Kissimmee, Fla.
“We had spent time developing a relationship with Walmart,” Miller said. “We had to demonstrate that we could build out of state.”
Miller was delighted with winning the contracts to begin constructing the 1.6-million-SF warehouses.
The market has always been competitive, Miller said.
“I got the (Walmart) job because I was the low bidder by a penny,” Miller said.
The contract was for 98 cents per SF in the 1980s. Today, that price is closer to $3 per SF.
The Tulsa and northeast Oklahoma construction market has evolved into a “new animal,” Miller said.
“There is a broad base of manufacturing,” he said. There are many different manufacturers that have done business with Fleming — from heat exchangers, which dominate the Port of Catoosa landscape, to aviation.
Fleming has earned LEED certification, allowing it to better compete for environmental projects.
“It helps us with getting the buildings we do certified as everyone shifts toward being green.”
Builders are more scrutinized today on their safety than ever before, Miller said, who worked to improve FBC’s safety record and make it a plus in winning jobs.
“Or, you would not be getting jobs,” he said.
FBC’s rating is a third less than builders just getting started in the sector.
“In this day and age of safety, these major corporations are more concerned about your safety rating than they are about the building you are building.
Today Miller is seeing as much uncertainty in the market as he has seen in 40 years.
“People want to build now because they are trying to figure out if it is going to cost them more to wait,” he said.
Much of the reason is that prices for materials have gone off the charts.
“Steel prices have gone crazy,” he said. “It is the worst I have ever seen.”
Steel prices have more than quadrupled since 2002 when the prices were about 25 cents per pound. Today, prices are more than $1 per pound.
Builders have seen steel prices jump one-third this year. They climbed 20 percent in April alone.
“That was the largest one-time hike in my experience,” Miller said.
Price hikes are not related to just steel, air conditioning, transportation surcharges and anything related to oil, but also PVC pipe and insulation.
“Builders are hit with surcharges on bringing concrete to a job. Everything costs more,” Miller said.
Oklahomans are fortunate, because this part of the country will have far less of a downturn, if any, than that being experienced in the rest of the country, Miller said.
“I feel that we have always been lean and mean as a company,” Miller said. “We bob and weave real good.” ?