COLUMBIA — More than 40 years ago, a young man was hired as a laborer by a construction company. His first assignment — picking up roots around a work site. He must have done a heck of a job, because from this inauspicious beginning that young man, Jayess native Thomas L. “Tommy” Wallace, created not only a career but a business icon, T.L. Wallace Construction Inc. of Columbia.
Wallace stayed with the industry, learning the business from the ground up. In 1955 he was appointed foreman at Singley Construction before joining Dixie Paving Company. Wallace eventually bought the company in 1974, calling it Wallace Construction Company, then changed the name to its modern moniker in 1985 when the company branched out into Alabama.
The company started small and the fledgling years were a challenge. Things finally came to a head while working on a project in New Hebron, and the outlook grew bleak. Wallace turned to a higher power.
“From the very beginning, I determined to make God the senior partner,” Wallace said. “In the crisis, the problem was turned over to Him, and He hasn’t failed to help us.”
Prayers obviously were answered. Today T.L. Wallace Construction does dirt work, clearing and grubbing, site work, bridge work, box culvert reseal and double bituminous surface treatment (dbst) all over Mississippi, as well as Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee. The company employs 250 people, with an annual payroll of about $5 million. In addition the company owns more than 300 pieces of equipment, and operates and maintains an extensive truck fleet.
A list of Wallace’s significant past projects is extensive, including jobs from the Delta and Aberdeen to extreme South Mississippi and beyond the state boundaries. Some of these projects include U.S. 49 in Forrest and Covington Counties ($22 million); U.S. 45 at Aberdeen ($17.4 million); U.S. 98 between Columbia and Hattiesburg ($16 million); U.S. 84 west of Brookhaven ($11.2 million); and, U.S. 61 north of Woodville ($10.3 million).
Business remains brisk.
“We are extremely busy,” said Jay Carney, vice president and a graduate of the construction program at USM. “We have plenty of work.”
Indeed, the company has an extensive list of current projects, which total about $130 million, with uncompleted projects for this year alone totaling about $50 million. From this Wallace Construction expects to earn about $45 million in revenues in 1999.
Some projects on the books are the U.S. 45 Bypass at Quitman ($23.9 million); U.S. 49 and Miss. 3 Interchange at Yazoo City ($17.9 million); U.S. 84 east of Brookhaven ($8.1 million); and, Miss. 438 at Flowood ($7.5 million).
Wallace said he is optimistic that the current trend of not only the company’s success but the generally great overall health of the construction industry will continue.
“The U.S. market for highway and heavy construction, robust for the last few years, could remain strong for several more,” Wallace said. “The latest boost to the market is expected from spending linked to the $203-billion highway and mass transit bill passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton last year. We already have a fairly strong market, and this incremental funding should just start hitting at the end of this year.”
Managing the company’s growth is a focus for Wallace. He said he sees his role as that of a visionary — to appraise, develop and approve strategic action plans. After that, he allows his employees to do the rest.
“My management philosophy is basically to allow people to use their judgment to make decisions which are in the best interest of the company,” he said. “My word is my bond, and I encourage my employees to do what they say.”
Wallace’s advice to others considering going into the construction business follow those same lines of honesty and integrity.
“Each job you do must reflect the integrity of management,” he said. “If sometimes you fail on your end, because we are human, you must find it imperative to do your utmost to make it right. I would strongly encourage someone starting their own company to include God in their plans and always do their best to do what is right.”
Wallace said the company’s focus will continue to be on highways and heavy construction in Mississippi, however, he looks to increase the company’s presence in surrounding states. But he said he was more concerned about quality rather than quantity.
“We want Mississippi to be recognized for having good roads throughout our entire transportation system.”