Founding Principles, Passion Power Emery Sapp’s Firm Through Generations

April 26, 2024|

One employee, one piece of equipment.

When Billy Sapp launched what he hoped would be a turnkey construction solution for developers, he didn’t have much more than a vision. But that would prove to be more than enough for what would become a billion-dollar enterprise building infrastructure across the nation.

Naming the company Emery Sapp & Sons after their father, Billy and his brother started work in 1972 with grading for utilities, followed by paving – all serving the private development firms they knew from their family business growing up. The company grew slowly in the private sector until 1993, when a merger added bridge construction to the core disciplines and allowed ESS to expand its capabilities to serve departments of transportation.

That major milestone not only accelerated growth, but it also spurred the two owners to consider what the ownership succession plan would be – a process that would eventually lead to the formation of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan in 1999. Billy also chose his son, Shawn Sapp, to join the management team to help lead the company into the new millennium (and who still serves as an executive vice president today).

The strong foundation laid in those first couple of decades – plus choosing the best people along the way – are the reasons for the success the company has achieved over the past 50 years, said Tim Paulson, who has served as co-CEO since 2019.

“The secret sauce of our business is attracting and developing the right people,” Paulson said, “because any business with the right amount of talent can develop the right processes to profit from.”

Paulson was appointed to the board of directors in 2016 as part of the third generation of the management team. Together with fellow co-CEO Robert Gillis, PE, he now leads the firm to unprecedented success year after year. Paulson acknowledges that some of Billy Sapp’s initial founding philosophies still lie at the heart of ESS.

“Billy always said, ‘Focus on the speed of construction to our clients’ benefit.’ That DNA is still in our organization. We stay focused on performance, and we’re always talking about how we can build faster, build better.”

In fact, that mindset was there at the beginning, when Billy Sapp boasted about owning the first hydraulic excavator in the region in the early ‘70s and is still there today with the firm’s continued investment in innovative new technologies, including stringless paving technology and autonomous equipment on the jobsite.

The incredible growth of the ESOP – with a five-year annual growth rate percentage of 27 percent – is simply the cherry on top of a well-built construction success story.

“Great businesses with great processes and great results make great ESOPs, not the other way around,” Paulson said. “The secret sauce we have in place has made our ESOP so successful, and that ownership mentality has continued to drive that passion.”




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