High-wire act

It was a momentous May evening in the new millennium, an event that drew more than 500 of Akron’s elite to Portage Country Club.

Many hoped to reunite with friends they’d not seen since the January 1999 fire that devastated their historic clubhouse. But most came to see how Don Taylor had restored their charred dreams.

Amid the conviviality, Taylor scanned their expressions. He knew they were scrutinizing every detail. Evaluating his expertise. And comparing notes.

When the key club members determined that Welty Building Co. Ltd. had not only completed the project on budget, but also exceeded expectations in reconstructing the grand heritage of Akron’s oldest and most picturesque country club, Taylor was relieved. As Welty’s president and CEO, he has his own retrospective.

“We referred to it as the high-wire act with no net,” Taylor laughs.

That’s because the consensus of this coterie would either enrich or ravage the reputation of the construction company that dared to drive a nail into the walls — for this was the pivotal meeting place where the deals and decisions that built Akron were made, where reputations were shaped or shattered.

“Not to slight Fairlawn or any other club, but Portage Country Club is, for some, the club in the area, with a heritage and 600 of Akron’s most prominent individuals as members that are the who’s who of the business community,” Taylor says, explaining that he had two reputations to protect: his own and that of the men who built the company.

A weighty decision

Established by Henry Welty in 1945, Welty Building Co. started as a small homebuilder.

Henry’s son, Jerry Welty, took the firm to the level of a top commercial contractor that shaped Northeast Ohio’s landscape and skyline. Taylor came on board in 1992 as vice president, was promoted to executive vice president in 1996, became president in July 1998, and was part of a well-planned succession strategy that Jerry Welty initiated in 1993.

In December 1999, Taylor became president and CEO. Welty remains involved in the company as chairman of the board.

“When the club burned down, we discussed whether we should throw our hat in the ring to be construction manager. After talking about it, Jerry and I had a difference of opinion, one of the stronger difference we’d ever had,” Taylor says, explaining that Welty was (and still is) one of his closest advisers.

From Welty’s perspective, the company already had an impressive resume, including projects such as First National Bank Tower, FirstMerit Bank Tower, Akron Zoological Park and others.

“My advice to Don was, ‘That’s going to be a very difficult and challenging project. Right now the company is in good stead, we have an excellent reputation; all you need is to stub your toe on that and that can really hurt you.’ But he said, ‘No, I want to do it. I want the challenge,'” Welty says.

Taylor says he saw the project as a rare marketing opportunity.

“We’re not in a sexy industry and a construction company is not a glamorous business to try to market. By being involved in the high profile projects, you draw people’s interest, and that helps position us more favorably in the decision-maker’s eye who might consider us for a future project,” Taylor says.

The fire itself had generated tremendous publicity, proclaimed as one of the worst in years. Akron fire investigators determined that a grease build-up in the grill hood ignited the three-alarm fire in the clubhouse, burning and collapsing the roof of the Tudor-style mansion, causing extensive second floor fire damage and devastating the first and lower levels with smoke and water damage.

Rebuilding would be an arduous endeavor. But having served as project manager for Welty’s involvement in the construction of Inventure Place, Akron General Health and Wellness Center, the new BFGoodrich headquarters and other landmarks, Taylor didn’t want to back away from difficult projects.

“My thought was, ‘If we’re going to be the contractor of choice in this area, we’ve got to do the tough jobs, too,'” he says.

In addition, Taylor wanted to step out of the shadow of his predecessor.

“You’ve got to respect Jerry’s 30-plus years in this industry, and the fact that he built this company and he’s highly respected in this community — that’s why we continue to call the company Welty Building, even though I’m the owner now,” Taylor says. “But I needed to prove to the community that I had the same strengths Jerry Welty brought to the table. I didn’t want to come across like this is Don Taylor’s construction company and there’s a new sheriff in town.

“I just wanted to show that I can deliver first-class projects, just as he was able to do.”

Three-ring circus

Welty acquiesced, just as he’d allowed Taylor to make his own decisions during the succession transition and buyout process — even if it meant watching him walk into walls.

“That was difficult for me, but after you’ve already raised two children, you learn to let them tread into some uncharted waters and find out on their own,” Welty says. “I think it was good for Don, too. Any time he made a mistake, he learned and profited by it.”

In terms of profits, Taylor says numbers had nothing to do with his decision.

“Actually, I knew the margins might be a little smaller because of the effort and expense to make sure everything was absolutely right, knowing every detail is scrutinized,” says Taylor.

In March 1999, the club’s building committee hired Welty Building as construction manager. The bid and budget amount for construction was about $5 million. Taylor assembled his crew and prepared to work. But red tape prevented him from starting the job.

The club was having ongoing negotiations with the insurance company to determine a fair cost for reconstruction and improvements. The design hadn’t been completed. Building permits hadn’t been issued. It was August before Taylor finally received approval to start reconstructing the roof.

“One of the maddening things was that we expected to have the roof on in a couple of months. But because of issues in finding slate to match the existing slate and the right tradespeople to install it properly, we didn’t finish the roof until April,” Taylor says.

And the building permit for interior reconstruction wasn’t issued until Christmas Eve.

“That allowed us only five months to build out the interior, when we’d anticipated that would take at least nine months,” Taylor says.

Inside, unpleasant surprises in the reconstruction process added daily to the to-do list.

“With a 1923 vintage building, it seems like every time we opened up a wall, we’d be surprised at what we’d find, or what we didn’t find,” Taylor laughs.

Often, the crew would find pipe or wiring. Workers had to determine what it was used for, if it was still usable, and if so, how to conjoin it with new pipes or wiring.

“In other cases, there would be very little holding the wall up, so we’d have to put it back together and make it structurally sound,” he says. “Every time something like that turned up, it was one more thing to add to the to-do list — but it still had to be done in the same amount of time we were originally given to complete the project.”

Despite the setbacks, Taylor remained committed to the June 1 completion date.

Although he reported each Wednesday morning to the club’s building committee, Taylor admits that almost everyone associated with the club provided “feedback.”

“With 600 dues-paying members, they all feel obligated to point out whatever happens to be on their minds. You couldn’t go to lunch, dinner, or anywhere in Akron without running into a Portage member that wanted to make sure that their issue was being addressed,” he chuckles. “But we appreciated the fact that people were that interested in what we were doing, and we tried to take note of which issues rose to the greater level that needed to be addressed.”

Taylor also worked closely with the city to install in the building a sprinkler and fire alarm system that would meet all the new building codes and blend into the interior of a 1923-style structure.

“Our goal was to do all these things and still make it look like the old Portage Country Club,” says Taylor.

For example, there were fleurs de lis (heraldic emblems) in the original plaster of the walls, and much of it had to be repaired. To preserve the original detail, the team brought in tradesmen who removed old sections of the plaster, kept the emblems intact and made molds of the castings so the original designs were incorporated into the reconstruction.

“It’s not something we pointed out to everybody, and probably 590 of the members haven’t yet noticed. But it’s the kind of detail we were proud to be able to restore,” says Taylor.

After the ball

During the July 4, 2000, weekend, the grand reopening of Portage Country Club drew about 1,200 attendees.

“We had done what we set out to do, even though the bar had raised on us because of the slow design and permitting process. Our tradespeople were under intense scrutiny and pressure from a time standpoint, but they were still able to produce high-quality results that were appreciated by the membership,” Taylor says. “It felt good that we were able to pull this off, and we felt the reward from people appreciating the results of our work.”

In reflection, Welty speaks as if he’s praising his own son.

“I’m very proud of him. He did an excellent job on that project and everybody seems to be happy with it. So I’m delighted the whole company pulled together on that,” he says.

Taylor says that’s exactly why the project was successful.

“It was a team effort. The architect, the superintendent, the tradespeople — everyone was absolutely phenomenal, staying on task and focusing on how we could make this the best facility it could be, without getting overwhelmed by the amount of detail that had to go into it.”

Taylor also credits Dale Koblenzer, former club president at Portage Country Club.

“He was optimistic, positive and upbeat, and he didn’t let situations deteriorate into finger-pointing,” says Taylor. “That’s what got us through this.”

So, how does Taylor plan to top what Akron is still talking about?

“I don’t want to be so presumptuous to say what all we’re going to be involved with, but the Akron area is really about to boom, and the amount of work that’s out there for the next year is incredible,” he says. “We hope to be involved with some of those signature projects.”

It seems Taylor has come to enjoy the high-wire act.

“It’s like a moth being drawn to the flame. You get a feel for being a part of those big projects that people are talking about and you want to continue to be a part of it.” How to reach: Welty Building Co. Ltd., (330) 867-2400