Reaching New Heights
Eastern General Contractors Raises the Bar for Community InvolvementWhen John Murphy Jr. was young, he wanted to become a musician or pilot. And although the founder, president. and CEO of Eastern General Contractors Inc. in Springfield did not end up pursuing either of those careers, he has spent the past 40 years orchestrating complex construction projects that often involve dizzying heights.
“We do anything that’s vertical,” Murphy said as he talked about jobs his full-service construction company has completed, such as building air-traffic control towers in Worcester, Cape Cod, New Haven, Conn., and Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, as well as many high-rise buildings. EGC just finished replacing the siding on six hangars at Westover, which are so high that he had to bring in a crane from Missouri to reach 150 feet into the air to handle the work.
The majority of EGC’s projects are public-sector in nature, with many undertaken for the federal government, and Murphy’s employees work throughout New England. But the company is grounded in Springfield, and both he and his staff spend many weekends engaged in volunteer work that ranges from building handicap ramps and installing elevators in local churches to a complete renovation of the Dunbar Community Center in Springfield and maintaining the cottages and buildings at Camp Atwater, a summer camp for boys and girls in North Brookfield, which they’ve done for 20 years.
In fact, Murphy believes successful businesses have a responsibility to give back to their communities. “The late economist Mark Friedman once said, ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business, and that is to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase profit,’” he told BusinessWest. “But we subscribe to a different value system. Although we certainly set the highest bar in corporate ethics, it reaches far beyond dollars and cents. Our company is not just a money-making machine or a balance sheet; it is a human enterprise run by caring people who understand the impact of the work we do in our immediate community.”
Murphy likes to fly under the radar, but has received so many accolades and plaques commemorating the volunteer work his company does that they line the walls of his office as well as the rest of the building.
Mayor Dominic Sarno gave him a key to the city in recognition of his work, and he has been feted in Boston as well as Washington, D.C. for those volunteer efforts. But he doesn’t like fanfare, and the interview he agreed to do with BusinessWest was the first since he established his company.
Still, he takes pride in the fact that EGC provides jobs for local people and serves as a flagship for community involvement. “We will continue to find innovative ways to forge ahead in that direction,” he said, recounting local projects as well as a scholarship association he started with a friend that awarded $500,000 to deserving high-school seniors in his hometown of Ridgeland, S.C. “There is so much that is needed, so we do what we can.”
History of Success
Murphy said he was introduced to both construction and social responsibility during his youth.
“My father was a handyman, and we built things together; I thought it was interesting,” he said, adding that his parents spent their weekends doing volunteer work and always took him along “to help someone.”
Before starting his own business, he spent 10 years working in production control at Hamilton Standard in Windsor Locks, Conn., which made aircraft parts. He said the responsibility he had there played a role in his later success in the construction business.
“There were 1,200 parts in a jet-fuel control, and I had to do all of the coordination required to build them,” he said. “When I began building homes, it seemed simple, as there were only about 30 components to keep track of.”
Murphy opened a construction firm he called Eastern Home Builders and Developers, and began building single-family homes while he was still employed at Hamilton Standard. The business took off quickly, and Murphy left Hamilton Standard when it became too overwhelming to work two full-time jobs.
During the ’80s, his company built a number of single-family homes in Springfield under the federal Housing and Urban Development Section 235 program, which allowed qualified families to purchase them with a $200 down payment.
As word of the quality work he did began to spread, Murphy received repeated recognitions, which included being named Contractor of the Year in 1987 and 1988 by the Small Business Administration.
When the government discontinued the HUD program, he switched his focus to historic preservation and high-rise projects, and changed his business moniker to Eastern General Contracting Inc.
The most challenging job the company has undertaken was a recent $6.5 million renovation of the four-story Whaling Museum in New Bedford. “Everything inside had to come out. It was challenging because the museum is on a corner and we couldn’t touch the exterior,” Murphy explained.
The company removed the roof, then began disassembling the building piece by piece, floor by floor, until they reached the basement. However, everything had to be labeled and saved so it could be put back inside when the renovation work was complete.
“There were planks used in the original construction that had been shaved with an axe that we had to take out in one piece,” Murphy said. “We had someone stationed inside the building with a radio who had to communicate to the crane operator outside because the person operating it couldn’t see what needed to be done inside. It was very challenging.”
Another difficult project involved installing five elevators in a 28-story library at UMass Amherst. “When we got to the 28th floor, we had to use a helicopter to put the equipment inside. The wind was blowing, and the opening was only four feet wide, so we had to make sure everything was dropped in exactly right,” Murphy said, explaining that renovation is challenging to begin with “because when you open up a wall, you don’t know what is behind it.”
The company recently finished a renovation of the historic Fanueil Hall in Boston. “We removed the moldings, the ceiling tiles, the window sashes … and everything had to go back in the way it came out,” said Murphy. “It was extremely challenging, but I like to see the finished product and be able to say, “I did that.”
Murphy said he likes to continually raise the bar for himself and his employees.
“Turning a vision into a multi-million-dollar reality is a lofty goal that many people aspire to, but precious few achieve,” he said. “I began by setting a goal, and once I reached it, I continued to set another, then another. You have to look at where you came from and where you are, at as well as the obstacles you have to jump across to move forward. I always say, ‘I am pleased, but not satisfied, because I think we could do more.’”
So they do whatever is needed and take pride in their accomplishments. “I tell my employees repeatedly that we have to be three times better to be considered half as good, and as long as we have that philosophy, we will be successful,” Murphy said. “People hire us because we save them time, worry, and money.”
The majority of his employees have been with him for at least two decades and share his philosophy of giving back to the community. “They often ask me what we’re doing on the weekend,” he said.
Their 20-year history of volunteerism at Camp Atwater began after it closed. “It was in great need of repairs and someone asked me if I could help,” Murphy said. Over the years, he built a laundry there and renovated a kitchen and recreation hall. In addition, “I took my crew there, and we built five cabins, supplying the labor and materials.
“I really believe in giving back,” he continued, adding that, at one point, his staff built a cottage at the camp from the ground up, finishing it in one day. “People were running all over, but we got it done,” he said. “When we do a project, we try to accelerate everything and do whatever it takes to make the customer happy.”
EGC still maintains a cottage at the camp which is used as a recreational building for staff members. The camp named it ‘the Murphy’ after him, but, again, it was not an honor he wanted.
Still, the donations, labor, and materials ECG has provided for nonprofits is remarkable, and requests for help continue to pour in. So, in recent years, Murphy has had to pick and choose carefully how to spend his resources.
EGC’s portfolio is substantial, but Murray said his employees are his most valuable asset. He has 31 full-time staff members and about 50 field employees.
“We are a family, and I appreciate the support I get from them as well as their honesty, loyalty, and integrity,” he said. “For many years, we have produced quality products in a timely and cost-effective manner, while providing jobs for members of our community and contributing to funds that keep our local, city, state, and federal governments up and running.
“We will continue to find innovative ways to forge ahead in the direction of larger building contracts and enhancing the community services we provide for free,” Murphy went on. “But our proudest goal will continue to be the success of our families and the success of the families around us.”