When the financial cataclysm erupted in the fall of 2008, Thomas Murphy Jr. and his team at Coastal Construction Group took comfort in the big book of business already in the pipeline.
Then came the cancellations, one project after another.
“We had $1.6 billion in active construction projects in October 2008, and about another $1.5 billion in the pipeline. Then two jobs in 10 days said they were putting off construction,’’ said Murphy, founder, chairman and CEO of the family-owned Miami company. “Soon, we had seven jobs for $800 million that were not going to start construction.’’
Soon as the first two projects were shelved, Murphy Jr., 63, huddled with executives to brainstorm on getting through the crisis.
Coastal, one of the largest Florida-based construction firms, slashed its ranks from 325 employees overseeing 4,000 subcontractor workers at job sites to 150 employees with 1,200 subcontractor workers within six months.
Salaries were cut 10 percent to 25 percent for all but the lowest-paid employees, with executives taking the biggest whack. Benefits were pared back, too, even as employees were loaded with more duties.
Confronting a bleak recession, Murphy Jr. budgeted for no new work in 2009 — a stark difference from the $650 million in contracts in 2008. Reality proved marginally better, with one job for $27 million gelling in November 2009 and $20 million added to an existing project.
“I always believed you go deep fast,’’ said Murphy Jr., whose easy manner and ready sense of humor belie an ironclad will. “If you cut early and fast and get ahead of it, then you can live to fight another day.’’
By the end of 2010, the worst had passed.
Over the past year, the private company, which has no debt, has hired 50 people, rebuilding to about 200 employees at its headquarters at 5959 Blue Lagoon Dr., including many who had been laid off.
“We’re structured to do three times as much work as we have,’’ said Thomas C. Murphy, 43, an executive vice president who oversees new work and the eldest of Murphy Jr.’s three sons.
So far this year, Coastal has signed contracts for $450 million in new work and could exceed $650 million by year-end, according to Murphy, Jr.
That comes after some mighty lean times: New work at Coastal totaled $47 million in 2009, $76 million in 2010, and $265 million in 2011.
Bullish on Miami’s future, Murphy Jr. sees increasing signs of a comeback in the construction of hotels, retail, apartments and condominiums in South Florida. Some developers who put off projects are checking current prices. Architects are finalizing plans. Building permits are up.
To be sure, with many projects still in infancy, such activity has yet to translate into a revival in construction jobs, which in South Florida are still down by roughly half from the pre-crash peak.
“The world wants to come here more than ever,’’ the CEO said. “I’ve been such a believer this town is going to come roaring back.’’
Another sign business is strengthening: Murphy Jr. urged Coastal’s long-time president, Dan Whiteman, to forget about retiring when he turned 65 in July 2012. “He’s the greatest complex problem solver,’’ said Murphy Jr.