Dave McMichael’s construction firm has laid foundations for some of Six Flags’ most popular roller coasters, cleared land on mountaintops for cell-phone towers and built assisted-living facilities, big-box stores and churches.
While the Newton County company is having as much success as it ever has, employing 19 and grossing around $14 million in annual revenue, and is celebrating its 30th anniversary in September, McMichael remembers days when the work was draining, hours long and money short.
Laying a foundation
When McMichael restarted his father’s old construction company after several years of dormancy, he thought he had it all figured out. Construction he knew, but running and marketing a business turned out to be a crash course.
McMichael graduated from Auburn University in 1976 with a degree in building construction and spent the next several years learning on the job with two different Atlanta-based firms, as a cost estimator, superintendent and project manager.
He oversaw the construction and was thrown into the middle of another project as a fairly new employee, having to straighten out an 84,000-square-foot retail building project that was having issues.
McMichael’s father, J.D. "Peedie" McMichael, had been in the home-building business for years, originally forming McMichael’s Construction in 1950 in Lithonia. He retired in 1970, and the company was dormant until McMichael decided to venture out on his own and assume his father’s company in 1983.
"I thought, ‘I’ve estimated, superintended, done some design-build projects, done project management; I should be ready to go work for myself.’ I gave no credence or importance to selling – that was a big mistake," McMichael said.
Some of his first jobs were installing the 8-foot tall steel pipes that protect the corners of buildings and building a small tire barn for Penske Truck Leasing to hide the tires it received from public view. Over time the projects got bigger, but life wasn’t easy.
"When I started out, I didn’t draw a salary for several months. I lived off of my savings," McMichael said. "My wife was an unpaid employee."
His wife and mother proved to be an important support team.
"Estimating the (cost of the) work, going out and running the work, seeing that people got paid, putting in bills, writing subcontracts … there was a lot of effort on my family’s part to help me," he said.
Building a legacy
McMichael’s Construction has been located in Lithonia, where McMichael was raised, and Conyers and now calls Newton County’s Almon Road home. The company’s office is tucked away just off the exit 88, I-20 interchange, the first road heading north past the Chevron gas station.
"My daddy was from here; I’ve got family buried here," McMichael said, explaining why he moved his office to Newton County in 2004. "I live just down the Yellow River."
Over the years, the construction company has led the building and renovation efforts for hundreds of facilities, including industrial warehouses and distribution centers, grocery stores, retail stores, truck- washing facilities, Boys and Girls Clubs, schools, churches and, more recently, assisted-living facilities. McMichael said the company tries to keep six to eight projects going at all times and completes 15 to 25 a year.
"We had some hard issues early on, and our survival is due to the things I mentioned. The longevity I’ve had with clients is due to the consistency of our work," McMichael said.
The company is licensed to work in eight states: Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
Projects in Newton County have been limited to an office for Rockdale Medical Center, the Affordable Dentures office, and the Save-a-Lot remodeling in the Covington Corners shopping center at the intersection of Alcovy Road and U.S. 278.
As a general contractor, the company has seven construction superintendents, four project managers, as well as several other skilled staffers, to whom McMichael gives credit for his success.
"There has been some work done by my employees where they put maximum effort in these hard times. I’m just really, really proud of them. They all have their own expertise; the fact is we have people strong in wood framing, some are strong in concrete work, some strong in structural steel, some strong in pre-engineering, and we have not been pigeonholed in one little slice," McMichael said.
"We have been able to be diverse in what we do, and our diversity has been a large part of our being able to overcome these hard times."
Although McMichael and his family were the entire company in the early days, he’s had to learn to depend more on his staff.
"When you get 30 years in and you grow your company, it becomes not so much about you; it becomes about them. When you see what they have done and what they all accomplish, it makes you proud," he said. "When they have their successes, it’s a really good feeling to see them succeed. And when the clients say nice things about your people, that’s a wonderful thing."
The roller coasters
One of the company’s most prominent achievements was laying the foundations and building the stations and ride platforms for 17 different roller coasters and rides at Six Flags Over Georgia, including the Ninja, Batman, Georgia Scorcher, Superman, Goliath and Dare Devil Dive roller coasters.
While the metal columns and tracks are installed by other companies, the concrete foundations, which are much more complex than traditional projects, are installed by McMichael’s Construction.
Each concrete pier – the visible part – has a different internal composition, and each must be built in a very specific location at the right height and at the right angle, so the actual roller coaster can be built on top. The jobs originally came during a tough time in the 1990s, when McMichael’s Construction reached out to Six Flags.
"We were the successful bidder. We did the job, did a good job and did it for the price we said we’d do it and, quite honestly, beat the heck out of the competition," McMichael said. "It’s been an excellent place to work."