When Thomas O'Connor was 25 years old, he saw an opportunity. A chance to establish a niche in the management general contracting profession and make an impact. That was nearly 12 years ago.

Today, O'Connor's Pittsburgh-based Flynn Construction is one of America's fastest-growing construction firms. With 110 employees, the company concentrates its general contracting, design-build, and construction management services among the Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states.

“Essentially, we've identified a market,” says O'Connor. That market consists mostly of national retailers and restaurants, including clients Cellular One, General Nutrition Centers, Hooter's, Hugo Boss, Jillian's Entertainment, Office Max, Starbucks Coffee, Steve Madden Shoes, The LeMont, Toys ‘R’ Us, Wendy's International, and Wizards of the Coast to name a few.

“Our clients know what they want, they have the budget to pay for it, and it's up to us to provide a good product and a great service,” notes O'Connor. “Quality is a given. Service is what you sell.”

O'Connor reiterates that point several times. And service definitely seems to be one of Flynn's strong suits — one it affords its clients as well as its employees.

On the client side, the company offers an extensive website (www.flynn-construction.com). The site provides clients with, among other things, an “In Progress” link. Accessible to clients by password, the section serves up a current schedule and up-to-date digital photographs of a specific project's progress.

On the employee side, the company prides itself on its open-book policy. It literally shows its books to all office personnel so “everyone can see the margin we are working with,” says O'Connor. He adds no one has ever left the company and “we guarantee no lay-offs.”

If that weren't enough to distinguish Flynn from other fish in the barrel, O'Connor has even more to say when asked how his company differs from the competition.

“One of the two things that make us really stand out are the friendships we have with our clients. It sounds like a cliché, but it's true. Our clients really are our friends.”

Flynn's director of national marketing, Dana Walters, concurs. “What makes us different from most is that I can call up our clients when I want to go out on the weekends or have dinner. And it's not because I'm trying to build professional relationships, it's because I have built personal relationships with people that just happen to be our clients.”

O'Connor sites the way the company treats its employees as the other big difference maker. Although almost every firm boasts benefits and perks as employee retainers, there are instances when some employers really do go above and beyond the call of duty to prove an employee's worth. Flynn Construction is such a company.

Case in point: One Flynn superintendent was traveling on a hectic schedule, causing him to be away from home for nearly four months. Finally on his way home, his car broke down. Did the company find a replacement vehicle via a rental agency? Did they call a tow truck to the scene? Such actions might be considered saving graces at other firms. But, in this instance, Flynn rented a private jet to pick up the stranded employee and deliver him home in time for the weekend.

Although such events are not everyday occurrences at Flynn, when the situation calls for it, Flynn goes the extra mile. “I try to remember you rent your employees, you don't own them,” says O'Connor. “They have lives outside of work, and I like to see to it that they get a chance to enjoy those lives.”

The work

“Our main staple is probably negotiated work,” says O'Connor. “In negotiated work such as new remodels or concepts, you actually work harder for the client than in any other stage because you have to hit their budget.”

“Flynn is somewhat new in the ground-up business,” adds Joseph A. Green, national project manager for Flynn, whose job it is to oversee the work in 14 states. Most of Flynn's projects are commercial interior alterations and retro-fit projects, with close to “90%” being retail focused, at least on the national side. On the local scene, that figure might be nearer 60%, but renovations still account for the bulk of Flynn's work.

Green, who has been with Flynn for three and one-half years, joined the company as a laborer. He became a superintendent and was promoted to his current position after completing what he terms his “biggest achievement” while at Flynn: the construction of Jillian's Entertainment in Philadelphia.

“Jillian's was a massive undertaking,” says Green. At 63,000 sq. ft., “you would look across the job site and people on the other side looked like they were an inch tall. There were 125 workers, 18 job trailers, and three back hoes going all the time.” Completed in July of 1999, the $8 million Jillian's project included five bars and restaurants, a bowling alley with 18 lanes, a game room and dance club.

To get the ball rolling on the Jillian's project, Flynn flew a crew to Kentucky to view an existing Jillian's. O'Connor explains the rationale behind the decision: “Having those people be able to see a finished product, especially when the project they're about to embark on is near 70,000 sq. ft., makes them more comfortable with the undertaking. It's not so intimidating.”

“We did it to serve a purpose,” he adds. “We're not wasting money. Flying to Kentucky offered a benefit at the end of the day without hurting the profit.” And that's what it's about.

Stephanie Flack is a Louisville, Colo.-based writer.

Recent projects

Hugo Boss

  • An upscale men's apparel store
  • Opened November 2000
  • CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Fla.
  • 5,100 sq. ft.
  • Extras: Imported limestone slab flooring; lighting fixtures costing nearly $1,000 each; installers flown in from Germany

The LeMont

  • A five-star restaurant
  • Opened March 2001
  • North Bridge Centre in West Palm Beach, Fla.
  • 6,700 sq. ft.
  • Extras: Encompasses the entire North Bridge Centre penthouse (20th floor) with views of the Atlantic Ocean

Retail client list

Flynn Construction Retail Client List
(not inclusive)

  • Aaron Rents
  • Advance Auto Parts
  • Bass
  • Book Warehouse
  • Cellular One
  • Cohen's Fashion Optical
  • Delia's
  • General Nutrition Centers
  • Jillian's Entertainment
  • Gourmet by the Weigh
  • Hugo Boss
  • Izod
  • London Fog
  • Natural Wonder
  • Office Max
  • Phillips-Van Heusen
  • Relax ‘N Wash
  • Ritz Camera
  • Select Comfort
  • Steve Madden Shoes
  • Stride Rite Shoes
  • Tie Rack
  • Toys “R” Us
  • Uptown Salon
  • Wicks ‘N Sticks
  • Wizards of the Coast