An Environmental Niche Pays Off for This N.C. Contractor

Working alongside his family in the homebuilding business, development and site work, Kevin Ennis knew he would have his own company someday.

“Just seeing the flexibility and the freedom they had was always intriguing to me,” says Ennis. “I think you realize, if you’re ambitious, you can plow your own path. The older I got it drove me to create something of my own.”

Anything that is, except a homebuilding company. “I just like equipment. I like machines. I enjoy being in the dirt and being able to start something and finish it relatively quick and see a result,” he says. Rather than pounding nails, Ennis started working for himself doing environmental inspections and erosion-control consultations. It was a new and rapidly changing field and many of the developers and large contractors didn’t have the time or staffed expertise to keep up with the constantly changing rules and regulations. That gave Ennis great opportunities.

“I did a lot of self-educating and research,” he says. “My wife had just started med school, and we didn’t have kids then, so I had a lot of time to do it. And fortunately, the market was not saturated, and I could generate revenue. All you needed was a computer, a set of wheels and healthy legs.”

Ennis became partners with the original owners of Eco Turf, Andy Smith and Clayton Phillis, in 2003 on a handshake deal, giving the company a new partner and a more diverse set of offerings for customers.

In addition to leveraging his knowledge of environmental inspections, Ennis expanded the company into design, inspection and installation of erosion-control measures, such as stormwater ponds, reconstructed wetlands and bioretention devices, to help clients stay compliant with local, state and federal environmental regulations. After Phillis decided to relocate to Florida, Smith and Ennis bought him out. (Smith, who was vice president, has recently retired.)

When the recession of 2008-2009 hit, Ennis and Smith endured some anxious nights. Neither took a salary for a while. They put the capital back into the company to keep it afloat.

Then an interesting thing happened.

As the recession wore on and contractors and developers started abandoning projects, it became clear that if somebody didn’t shore up the erosion control and environmental aspects of the sites, the financially responsible parties could be liable for civil penalties. Given the scope of its work, Eco Turf quickly found itself categorized as a critical vendor. This resulted in a growing number of emergency no-bid, get-it-done-now contracts that helped sustain the company during the downturn.

contractor of year finalist Eco turf bioretention pondLarge projects like this bioretention pond are a key part of Eco Turf’s installation business.Equipment World

Inspections + installations

Today installations are the bread and butter of the company, but environmental inspections and permitting are still a crucial part of its success.

Of its 80-plus employees, 30 are involved in the environmental compliance division. And Eco Turf’s roster of clients has some of the biggest contractors in the state, including Barnhill Contracting, KWI, Wellons Construction, Gaines and Company, Tennoca, Allegiance Contracting Group, Brinley’s Grading, Wynn Site, Fred Smith Company; and homebuilders like Lennar, Pulte, MI Homes, DR Horton, Taylor Morrison, as well as local developers and custom builders.

“We came out of the recession trying to control our growth while being cautious about purchasing new equipment,” says Ennis. “In 2014, we started seeing some really good numbers and some good profit. And then every year, growth continued to get better and better. We’ve added two additional project managers, an additional mechanic and six management level positions on the inspection side.”

While growth is good, too much can strain management. Ennis believes the company is sized right for the market.

“We are at a size that is healthy,” he says. “For us to go from where we are now to the next level would be a considerable amount of overhead and expense.” 

Hiring from within

Because of the technical nature of the inspections and work performed by Eco Turf, Ennis always promotes within if possible. “I think everybody deserves a fair chance to grow.”

Retaining employees also involves fostering an atmosphere of collaboration.

“You have to get to know and value your employees, their goals and ambitions,” he says. “If you let everybody give input and give them a chance to be successful, you create a family atmosphere, which creates longevity in your workforce.”

“I’m all about transparency and open doors,” he adds, “and I never want our employees to feel that they don’t have a say, or their opinion doesn’t matter at Eco Turf.”

contractor of year finalist Eco turf silt fenceControlling erosion often starts with a silt fence, and Eco Turf installs miles of it every year.Equipment World

Customers agree

A customer of 20 years, Jeff White, CEO of Green Hawk, says: “They are the gold standard and the go-to guys in our market. Eco Turf and its employees are topnotch and a pleasure to work with on a regular basis. This is a great company.”

Another longtime customer, Sean Ryan, project manager and estimator for Barnhill Contracting, says: “They are one of the most well-rounded, adaptable and dependable subcontractors that we work with, and they do a tremendous amount of work for us. If they tell you they will do something, you can count on them to get it done in a timely manner.

“Eco Turf treats us with the utmost respect, and from the outside looking in, it seems that they treat their employees, vendors and all their other clients with the same respect.”

Recipe for success

Over the long-term, contractors need to know how to manage both failure and success, he says.

“You’re going to have successes and you’re going to have failures, and more failures out of the gate, than successes,” says Ennis. “But if you’re determined mentally and emotionally and have the will and determination to be successful, you’ll figure out a way to do it.”

A good example of this philosophy is to look at the careers of great athletes, he says. “There are highs and lows, and then there are careers. The key when there are lows is to not beat yourself up.”

“Examine why something failed, but get back up and try again,” he adds. “Hopefully your failures will happen early and not later when failure might be financially crippling. Then position yourself from a business standpoint to bounce back with a different approach for success.”