Navigating a niche market and a creative approach to specialized structural repair

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Written by Molly Shaw

When there’s a unique structural concrete or waterproofing challenge, clients of all shapes and sizes call on Compass Contracting (Compass) to navigate the way toward a solution. “We operate in a very niche-type market,” explains Phil Bashford, founding principal and secretary-treasurer of Compass. “We deliver specialty structural concrete repair mainly for restoration work, including epoxy crack injection, carbon fiber, air barriers and all types of waterproofing for the government, commercial and industrial sector.”

In 2002 Bashford and his then co-workers, Robert VanDivender, now principal and president, as well as Sam Neighbors, principal and vice president of Compass, bought the Virginia-based company. “We were working for the company and when the owner became ill, we decided to buy the business,” recalls Bashford. “I had been with the previous company for 15 years and Robert and Sam for six or seven years.”

Today, Compass remains a small, local business, with just 20 employees in Hampton, Va. The company serves clients throughout Virginia and northeast North Carolina, performing projects for local municipalities, state and federal government installations, as well as many high profile commercial projects, historic properties, hospitals and industrial facilities.

“Compass has ongoing contracts with area names such as Colonial Williamsburg, William and Mary, Langley Air Force base and even NASA,” reveals Bashford. “We’re a go-to for our clients. If they have a problem and don’t know the solution, we’ll come out and look it over, write up a recommendation and estimate and figure out the best way to fix the problem. They look to us for expertise.”

In-house exterior expertise

There are few companies with the in-house capabilities Compass holds. “Not everyone does what we do because it takes a specialized skill set,” details Bashford. “Because Compass is a spin off from another firm, most of the people we have working with us have been here for 20 plus years. We are typically a subcontractor, but we’re also a general contractor, as well, and we generally do everything, 100 percent in-house.”

In 2009, Compass was recognized as the Small Business Subcontractor of the Year for its construction technology, support and services in renovations and repair structures for the NASA Langley Research Center and the company has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with NASA for many years. “In 2012, we did three exterior restorations on area NASA buildings,” adds Bashford. “We’ve worked with NASA since 1982 and we’ve probably completed 30 projects from wind tunnels to monument structures – we’re a catch-all for whatever they need.”

Compass has also played a significant role at Jefferson Labs in Hampton. “This was a very specialized project,” details Bashford. “We delivered 10 to 12 pipes with hydrophobic grout injection for the electron accelerator beam facility.”

From the specifics of a lab to detail-oriented restorations, Compass has the skill set to pilot any project. “We’re also restoring the limestone and building elements of the historic structures at Langley Air Force Base,” adds Bashford.

Greener on top

While Compass’ expertise shines on the ground, the company also takes to the roof as a manufacturer trained and authorized installer of green or garden roofs and plaza deck systems. In commercial applications a green roof offers water run-off credit for the installed system, including a waterproof membrane over the structural deck, protection course and root barrier, insulation board, drainage material, moisture retention material, specified soil and vegetation.

Bashford says Compass’ experience with hot, fluid-applied, rubberized waterproofing which is commonly used in green roof applications, sets the company apart being such a niche service. “We replaced the roofing at the U.S. Naval Academy King Hall with the hot, fluid-applied, rubberized waterproofing application” he notes. “Unlike a traditional roof, the application is seamless.”

But even a range of focused services couldn’t completely shield Compass from the recession. “50 percent of our business is government based, so when the cutbacks hit, we were affected,” reveals Bashford. “Fortunately, we were able to make up the difference in the commercial and industrial market. It certainly hasn’t been easy, but we’ve made it through and the government sector is picking up again.”

Bashford says Compass turned to a network of repeat clients to weather the downturn. “We called on past contacts and we were lucky enough to have blanket contracts with area universities as a continuous source of work,” he notes.

Compass’ affiliation with the Builders’ Exchange Association of Virginia (BEAV) has also contributed to business running smoothly. “We subscribe to the BEAV because it’s one of the vehicles area general contractors use to publish jobs,” explains Bashford. “Using the online plan room, we can go through the jobs and select the ones we want to look at. We can print drawings and specifications right off the website and that saves a tremendous amount of time.”

Through word-of-mouth business and specialized service, Compass has pulled through the recession and Bashford says the company plans on sticking to what it knows best. “I think we’re going to stay right where we are for now, offering niche services that allow us to bid against five people as opposed to 35 in general trades.” Compass Contracting continues to point the way to improved structural concrete and

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