In 1981, three carpenters with a combined 80 years of experience decided to go into the construction business on their own, and by the next year they were taking on projects as Willson Builders, Inc.
The family business started off in humble enough fashion, recalled Bud Willson, Jr., chairman and chief executive officer, whose partners were his father, Paul "Bud" Willson, Sr., and uncle, Robert Willson. "We each put up $1,000," he said.
That turned out to be a good investment. Even though the firm opened during a recession, it grew steadily, and last year had its best revenue ever, $29 million, according to Mr. Willson, who now is the sole owner of the company that typically employs 50 to 100. His father died in 1991, and the younger Mr. Willson bought out his uncle.
Over the years, the company has built many office buildings, nursing homes, medical complexes, churches, and fire stations and other public buildings. In recent years, the firm has acted as construction manager for about 20 Kohl's Corp. department stores in the Midwest.
True to its roots, the firm showcases its carpentry. "We hang our hat on difficult carpentry jobs," said Mr. Willson, 54, who recently took the title of chairman. He turned the presidency over to his brother John, 38, who started working for the firm right out of high school.
Some projects have posed unusual problems. For example, a carpentry job at the Toledo Zoo's African Savanna required purchasing eucalyptus trees from Africa, said Bud Willson. "We got [the lumber] debugged and chemically treated," he said, adding that the firm likely wouldn't do such a project again. Two of the firm's intricate carpentry projects literally floated out of Toledo on the Maumee River. The Moorings, a barge that had been converted into a restaurant and bar, became a Mississippi River gambling boat. And the 15 Commodore Island condominiums were moved, by barge, to Lakeside, Ohio, to make way for Owens Corning's campus-style headquarters on the riverfront.
"The quality of their work was outstanding," said Rick Brunner, president of Toledo's Signature Bank, whose headquarters was refurbished by Willson and the Spieker Co.
Among the firm's current projects is an addition to Sujkowski Funeral Home Northpointe on Alexis Road. "When the bids went out, they seemed to be the most conscientious," said Hilary Sujkowski, owner of the mortuary. "They asked the most questions about what we wanted."
Willson expanded its own office and warehouse to 12,000 square feet of space on Heritage Court. The company president said business slowed down late last year, but he is optimistic about this year.
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