Next gen: Transition team takes Thos. S. Byrne forward

Betty Dillard

For only the third time in its 90-plus year history, commercial construction company Thos. S. Byrne Ltd. has made a change at the top. The company quietly rolled out its next generation of leadership in January. The family-owned business – the largest Fort Worth-based construction firm and the largest Hispanic-owned general contractor, according to Byrne leaders – started its succession planning almost two years ago under the guidance of John Avila Jr. Avila, Byrne’s owner for the past 20 years, hasn’t retired or even slowed down at age 65 but has transitioned to chairman from president and chief executive officer. “John’s intention was always to train up the next generation and then turn it over,” said his son, Matthew Avila. “The team, our new dream team, came together very quickly and very well. We decided as a team what we wanted to accomplish and what needed to be changed. People, I think, have been very positive about the transition.”

As the new CEO, 40-year-old Matthew Avila is responsible for all day-to-day management decisions and for coordinating the efforts of the management team in implementing the company’s goals and objectives. Avila, a licensed construction attorney, oversees Byrne’s risk management and contract administration, roles he took over in 2005 when he joined his father’s company. He also has responsibilities over human resources, information technology, marketing and business development, and general administration. In May 2013, Avila was elected to the Fort Worth Independent School District Board of Education representing District 8. Byrne is actually Matthew Avila’s second career. He earned a doctorate in behavioral medicine and was on the faculty at the University of Maryland. He returned to his roots to help set up Byrne’s charitable foundation as well as The Art Station, a Fort Worth nonprofit mental health agency specializing in art therapy. His mother, Jane Avila, runs the agency, which is located in a fire station renovated by Byrne. “I had no intention of joining the business. I was looking for a career change but not as a construction executive. I didn’t know much of anything about building buildings when I started here,” Avila said. “I originally moved back to help with the Byrne Foundation and The Art Station. Both focus on mental health and that made sense to me. Once I realized those were basically startups and I enjoyed what I was doing, I asked to join Byrne.” Paul Avila, Matthew’s brother, joined their father’s firm in 2002 after spending 12 years honing his skills in estimating at a Houston construction company. Now 37, he serves as vice president of preconstruction, responsible for coordinating Byrne’s marketing, business development, estimating and preconstruction efforts as well as building information modeling services. “One of the things that differentiates us from a lot of our competition is that we’ve managed to stay on the cutting edge of technology. That’s allowed us to not only compete but to dominate. It’s really helped set us apart,” Paul said. “Our future looks very bright.” The new senior leadership team divided the position of president into two divisions. Martin Lehman, an 18-year veteran of Byrne, is president of the North Texas market, while Tony Battle, a 15-year Byrne employee, is responsible for the company’s South Texas markets.

Rounding out the transition team is Jason Potter, a licensed CPA with 28 years of financial experience. As executive vice president and chief financial officer, he has departmental responsibilities over both corporate and project accounting. “John’s done what he said he would do and that’s turning the company over to the younger employees to run day to day. We’re the new gray hairs,” Lehman said, with a laugh. “We’ve made it a real stronghold of a senior management team to take the company forward. But our vision has never changed. We’re still a small company in a big market, family owned with a family feel,” he said.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

Building on a firm foundation Byrne has been a mainstay of construction in Fort Worth since the company’s founding by Thomas Sneed Byrne in 1923. From the Texas Christian University campus to the Montgomery Ward’s building on West Seventh Street, to the Fort Worth Water Gardens and Pier 1 Imports headquarters downtown, to the Cultural District’s Amon G. Carter Museum of American Art and the Will Rogers Coliseum, many Fort Worth landmarks were shaped by Byrne. Thomas Byrne died in 1962 without heirs to carry on the family name. The business passed to Thomas Seymour and James Patterson, officers of the company, who sold Byrne in 1994 to John Avila. A native of San Antonio, Avila went into general contracting after serving as a captain in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1970 and spending time in South Korea, Panama and Vietnam. In the 1980s while working for Manhattan Construction Co., Avila managed the Texas Rangers ballpark project, now called Globe Life Park in Arlington. “Jim and I had a great mutual philosophy of taking care of employees and that a construction company should be family oriented and there should be quality and integrity in our business,” John Avila told the Business Press in 2010. A $20 million company at the time John Avila bought it, Byrne surpassed $170 million in revenue last year under his leadership. Matthew Avila projects revenue to remain between $170 and $180 million for 2014 and 2015.

One of the company’s largest continuing projects is the almost $1 billion Terminal Renewal Improvement Plan at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Byrne is one of the members of the MBJ3 Joint Venture team – along with Manhattan Construction Co., James R. Thompson Inc. and 3i Construction – selected by airport officials to provide construction management at-risk services on terminals B and E. Construction started in 2011 and is expected to wrap up in 2018. Byrne also continues work on the new Northeast Tarrant County Courthouse, which should reach completion this December. Byrne started construction last summer on the new $97.5 million Public Safety Training Center for the city of Fort Worth. Located at 505 W. Felix St., the project is on a 76-acre parcel that once housed operations for the federal government’s General Services Administration. The city purchased the site in 2011, and when the facility is complete in 2015, it will be the home for the new headquarters and training center for both the Fort Worth fire and police departments.

“It’s a great foundation to build on. John and Elias [Najjar, vice chairman] did a lot of things right,” Matthew Avila said. “Our motto is ‘people build buildings.’ The success of our company is 100 percent dependent on our people. That was something John and Elias and the previous team understood and played to and facilitated and nurtured and that’s something this group feels really strongly about, too. We’re fostering that culture that John and Elias started of treating each other like family and taking care of one another,” he said. Planning a business succession, especially for a family enterprise, is never easy but John Avila knows he made the right decision. “They’re more than prepared. They’re innovative; they’ve got new thinking, a new approach. I’m really impressed and happy,” Avila said. “I’m proud of them. You wonder if it’s going to be a successful transition when you’re relinquishing control but it’s been smooth. “The company needs to remain on the leading edge of the industry. We’ve done that,” he added. “This is going to put us on the cutting edge.”

Byrne at a glance

- Advertisement -

91 years in business 85 employees 4 offices in Texas $170 million in annual revenue Largest Fort Worth-based construction firm Largest Hispanic-owned general contractor 25 percent of project management and estimating are LEED accredited 40 percent of employees have professional accreditations