Branch is celebrating the 1963 founding of Branch this year. 2023 marks a turning point in our history, with a record backlog, the start of combined Branch company projects, and possibly breaking the record for the number of employee owners.
How it all started
Tangible testaments to the Branch Group’s 60 years in business — from schools to highways to manufacturing facilities — can be found throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States, and especially around the Roanoke Valley, the location of our headquarters.
We are an employee-owned business with total revenues of nearly 480 million, made up of three business units: Branch Civil, which provides site development, heavy civil construction and design-build services; Branch Builds, a construction management firm with public and private sector clients; and Hopkins | Lacy, a mechanical, plumbing, electrical, and service contractor. The Engineering News-Record (ENR) ranked Branch No. 210 on its 2022 Top 400 Contractors list.
While today it’s we are one of the largest general contractors in Virginia, Branch took root as a modest operation when Bill Branch and his father-in-law Claude McAlister launched a business in 1955 digging basements with a front-end loader and building roads for subdivisions in Roanoke.
McAlister Construction gradually won contracts from the Virginia Department of Transportation to build highways and grew about 20 percent each year. By 1963, McAlister was ready to retire, so Mr. Branch bought his portion of the company and formed Branch & Associates year.
Gradually, Mr. Branch added building and mechanical divisions to the company’s highway building operation. In 1972, Branch and Associates’ overall volume of work was $1.3 million, $7 million in today’s dollars.
From the beginning, the company made the safety of employees and the people who live in the communities we serve a priority. Branch & Associates was the first company in Southwest Virginia to mandate that employees wear hard hats on job sites in the early 1970s. Today, every company gathering, whether it’s a meeting of carpenters or the board of directors, begins by discussing an issue related to workplace safety.
A good man
Mr. Branch’s character made Branch & Associates a special place to work, according to Diane Kidd, who retired in 2020 after 48 years working for the company. “He just trusted his employees to do their job,” she says.
“It’ll sound like I’m going overboard and exaggerating how good of a guy he was,” Matt Wise, our VP of Accounting and Corporate Controller, adds, “But I’m not, because it’s true. He was one of those rare people. He had such a good heart. He was great to his employees. He treated them well.”
In 1982, Mr. Branch made a bold decision: he adopted an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) for the company, which gave employees ownership of the company in the form of stock.
“I maybe feel there’s something more in life than making another buck,” Mr. Branch said.
Gradually, he sold his shares to the ESOP until 1997, when employees amassed 100% ownership.
As the company celebrated the achievement, Mr. Branch said, “It makes me feel good that all of these employees can get a little bit of a bundle that will help them.”
The size of the annual ESOP contribution, which is declared annually by our Board of Directors, is based heavily on company profitability. So, it is no surprise that the ESOP rewards longevity. The longer tenured employees tend to have the larger account balances. Since its inception, we have paid over $175 million in ESOP payments to employee owners.
“We’ve had multiple people retire here as millionaires because of the ESOP,” says Wise. “When companies are employee-owned it changes the office culture,” he adds. Employees all have skin in the game. “Everybody knows they have the same goals, so everybody works together.”
Over the years, Branch & Associates continued to grow. The overall volume of work in 1982 was $38 million, $118 million in today’s dollars.
In 1984, Branch & Associates purchased G.J. Hopkins, a competitor contractor in Roanoke that offered full-service mechanical, electrical and plumbing that also had their own sheet metal shop. Branch & Associates merged its mechanical division with the newly acquired company.
In 1986, Branch & Associates split off its highway and equipment division to form a separate subsidiary, Branch Highways, while the building division kept the Branch & Associates name. Later that year, the Branch Group was created as a holding company for Branch & Associates, G.J. Hopkins, and Branch Highways.
In 1993, the company’s overall volume of work surpassed $100 million. That year, Mr. Branch stepped down as company chairman to focus his energy on philanthropic endeavors. He handed the company reins to Ralph D. Shivers, who had worked at the company for 25 years and was a former president of the Virginia Road and Transportation Building Association.
In 1994, the company moved Branch Highways, then located on Franklin Road in Roanoke, and its G.J. Hopkins unit, which operated out of a building in Roanoke County, to a new headquarters on Rutherford Avenue in Roanoke.
In 1997, Branch purchased E.V. Williams Co. Inc., a longstanding Virginia Beach-based paving contractor to expand its reach to the Hampton Roads region.
In 2003, James C. Harrison, who got his start as a surveyor for the highway division, came on board as CEO. Four years later, the Branch Group expanded into the Northern Virginia market by purchasing R.E. Daffan, a general contractor that offered construction and architectural services in Manassas. This helped cement the company’s presence in the Northern Virginia market.
J. William Karbach replaced Harrison as CEO in 2010. He had joined Branch 14 years earlier as an assistant project manager for Branch Highways.
In 2015, executives rebranded R.E. Daffan as a division of Branch & Associates, becoming Branch-Daffan in the Northern Virginia Market.
Not long after, the Branch Group announced the consolidation of its civil subsidiaries Branch Highways and E.V. Williams into a single company: Branch Civil.
In 2018, The Branch Group purchased L.A. Lacy Inc., a Charlottesville mechanical and plumbing company, which officially integrated with G.J. Hopkins in late 2021, becoming Hopkins | Lacy. This purchase helped Hopkins | Lacy expand their commercial and service division into Central Virginia.
Later in 2018, Branch & Associates and Branch-Daffan combined and rebranded to became Branch Builds.
In late 2020, Donald D. Graul brought 38 years of industry experience to Branch as the new CEO. Most recently, Graul served as president of construction and connected communities for the Parsons Corp.
Last summer, Graul welcomed Branch employee owners to new headquarters on Peters Creek Road in Roanoke. The 58,000 square-foot building provides room for consolidating the three business units and shared services under one roof with room to expand.
Recently, Hopkins | Lacy expanded and moved into a new metal fabrication facility in a Roanoke industrial park. Additionally, Civil completed a brand-new equipment shop in Suffolk. as In the last two years, all business units offices consolidated and expanded in Richmond, Chantilly, and Chesapeake, Virginia, and Morrisville, NC.
While the construction industry can be a feast or famine business, lean times don’t appear to be on the horizon. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Biden in 2021 will inject $110 billion of new funds for roads, bridges, and major projects. “It’s just booming on the highway side,” Wise says. In 2022, Branch, for the first time in its history, exceeded a $1 billion in contract backlog.
“We are excited to see what the future holds,” says CEO Donald Graul. “Our employee owners are the best in the business, and I’m confident that we will be here another 60 years.”