Business Journal April 4, 1999
Among the numerous items in Tony Davila's office, the one that stands out most is the Wurlitzer jukebox that sits in the corner of the room."That's been here since my dad was here," he says, smiling. "We used to crank it up on Friday afternoons."
"The jukebox still plays" said Davila, who took over the 43-year-old construction company in 1986. He has more than just the memories of the jukebox that have stayed with him and helped him continue the business that his father started.
Indeed, what he remembers best is how his father treated the people that helped to make the business.
"He dealt with problems in a unique way," Davila says. "He was very strict, exceptionally strict. He had the old values, old morals. When he gave his word, he kept his word. I'm doing my business the same way. I (stand by) my decisions."
Judging by the recognition that Davila Plumbing Inc., dba Davila Construction, has received of late, Davila's decisions have been good for his company. Founded as a plumbing company by Albert Davila in 1956, today Davila Construction has broadened its perspective to become a general contractor that also provides concrete, painting and plumbing services.
And recently, Davila and his company were featured in the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur magazine as one of the 1999 Minority Entrepreneurs of the Year. The event was sponsored by Entrepreneur and business information services company Dun and Bradstreet. The 10 firms listed were ranked based on sales. Davila's company ranked number 9 out of 10 with revenue of $6 million for 1998.
"(The recognition) quite frankly, it's good," Davila says. "At the end of the '80s, I thought I would have to shut down. I would've never believed (this success). It's great."
Like many businesses that witnessed first hand the real estate crisis of the '80s, the company survived, as Davila says, "by the skin of (its) teeth."
"We went from doing a million and a half a year to $150,000 (in revenue)," he says. "We barely kept our doors open."
But by selling the company's heavy equipment and trucks, Davila was able to keep the business going. Then in 1989, Davila also became eligible for the 8(a) program of the U.S. Small Business Administration. The 8(a) program helps small businesses in socially and economically disadvantaged areas by offering them access to federally funded projects.
Davila still remembers the first project he did under 8(a). It was for $87,000.
Times have certainly changed. Today, Davila's firm does jobs in the $2.5 to $5 million range that involve working with entities such as the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), the American G.I. Forum and area school districts.
"We don't advertise," Davila says. "We do a lot of work with the military, the federal government and SAHA and we've negotiated work."
Davila's most recent finished project with SAHA is the Christ the King apartment complex on the city's West Side at West Martin and 26th Streets. Also last year, Davila received the bid for the 69-unit independent living center, Casa de Esperanza, which was developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the G.I. Forum. The project was finished last month.
"It's not bad when you can negotiate a $3.5 million project," Davila says of the HUD project.
Davila attributes part of his company's success to the many services that he can offer in-house, which helps to give Davila a competitive edge in the bidding process.
But according to Oscar Cervantes, project architect for SAHA, Davila's true success stems from something less tangible than being able to save clients' money.
"He's very thorough. He has excellent personnel," Cervantes says. "Unlike a lot of different contractors, he has a bit of a soft side. He understands that the people who work for him will produce an excellent product.... He treats them right, and in return they treat him right."
For Davila, treating people right means helping out those looking to get in the construction field.
Five years ago, Davila helped his brothers Henry and Joe start Capital Electric, which has also become a steady subcontracting source for Davila's own business.
But Davila has also helped out others which he knows could someday be in competition with his own company.
"People who have worked with me in the past, or sub or general contractors, I help them out by telling them everything I know," he says. "Some day, they could be my competition. But there's enough work. I've been blessed."
Davila also appreciates the firm foundation upon which he had the opportunity to grow the business. Which is why, despite the growing array of services the company now provides, Davila refuses to stray far from the original name.
"The business is well known in the city. The family name is recognized," Davila says. "That means a lot."
After all these years, Davila says he is still awed by each finished project that his company helps to create.
"Seeing the project finished (is the best part)," he says. "To see all the labor, the sleepless nights, then everything is completed."
Davila admits that he still suffers many a sleepless night when his company has a bid out on a project.
"You kind of get used to it," he says. "I've spent a lot of sleepless nights over the business. It's the nature of the beast."
Now, however, the future looks bright. In the last two weeks, the company has received $7.5 million worth of work.
"It's all excellent," Davila says. "It's an adrenaline rush."
As Davila continues to take his company forward, he also continues to look back at the lessons and experiences of the past. With each decision he makes for his company, he uses a blend of calculation and risk-taking -- something that the real estate crisis taught him.
"I have a second opportunity. I may not have a third," he says. "We take chances; you need to take chances, especially when given the opportunity. You think about what's the worst thing that can happen. If you can afford it, then you go with it."
Apply that with the philosophy of the importance of the customer and the value of hard work -- values that Davila saw his father living out every day -- and you have Davila's recipe for success.
"My business sense is from my dad," he says. "I get in at seven, then leave at about six or seven. I come in every Saturday, and stay half a day. That's what my father would do, and he would check to see if I was here."
"The value of customer satisfaction and customer service (is important), whether it's a $50 or $5 million job; that was (Dad's) philosophy," Davila adds. "Sometimes, you sacrifice the bottom dollar, and do a little bit extra. As long as the person is happy."