April 2019 Vol. 74 No. 4


Forging Ahead the Cleary Way

Family Construction Company Overcomes Obstacles by Going Above and Beyond

Ken Beck  |  Contributing Writer

Cleary Construction crewmen check the coating as they prepare to install a section of 16-inch gas main pipe while working on the South Knox Street Gas Pipeline project last summer in Knoxville, Tenn.

Eleven years ago, wedged between a rock and a hard place, Cleary Construction faced a bucket load of challenging decisions.

Ronnie H. Cleary, who founded the family business in 1985 in Tompkinsville, Ky., with nothing more than an idea, a dump truck and a front-end loader, died suddenly. The same day of his passing, a tornado roared through Monroe County and tore the roof off the company office building, leaving everything inside to be drenched by heavy rains.

Cleary’s wife, Shirley, and son, Darren, had to make some difficult decisions.

“Two thousand and eight was a terrible time for contractors of any kind. It was a tough economy. We had to figure out what we were going to do. We all pulled together and got stronger because we knew that we had to,” said Darren, who, surveying the big picture a decade later, can see they made the right moves.

Today, the business continues to grow in the able hands of three generations of Clearys with Darren as president and CEO; Shirley, secretary-treasurer and CFO; and Darren’s sons, Wesley, as vice president and chief operating officer, and Joe, as vice president and chief administrative officer.

The Cleary Construction leadership team, from right, includes Darren Cleary, Shirley Cleary, Joe Cleary and Wesley Cleary. In the background stands a piece of surveying equipment favored by the late Ronnie H. Cleary.

Numbers tell the story

In 2008, Cleary Construction ran two crews and employed 23. Today, the company operates 12 crews and employs 140.

A family of faith, the Cleary’s know their success did not happen overnight, but came by hard work, savvy decisions, a dedicated staff and by the grace of God.

The business began small, doing paving, chip sealing and dozer and end loader work. Darren joined his dad as an equipment operator and superintendent, and soon had crews installing septic tanks and small-diameter water lines, excavating residential foundations and performing local soil conservation jobs. Since then, they have expanded to performing work covering the entire spectrum of municipal and commercial construction throughout the Southeast and Great Lakes region.

“At our core, we’re a utility contractor, but we are unique in the sense we cover such a large footprint and focus in large-diameter pipe, tough projects in tough environments that challenge even the most seasoned contractors,” said Darren. “We’ve recently expanded into larger site grading projects among others, and we are always mindful to be diverse and efficient enough to survive even the toughest economy.

“That diverse mindset and drive has led to not only the success of Cleary Construction, but also to the success of Rock Solutions, a drilling and blasting company that has taken off and is doing well.”

With its corporate headquarters in Tompkinsville, a town of less than 2,000, Cleary Construction operates in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, and has auxiliary offices in Louisville, Ky., and Birmingham, Ala. The company plans to break ground on another office this year in the Carolinas.

Quality is Clear

With a motto of “Quality is Clear,” Darren said that what also sets the company apart “is doing it the Cleary way. We like to think we’re a step above everybody else. We strive for perfection and being the best. We want engineers and owners to say, ‘We want Cleary back. We enjoy their work. We enjoy their people.’”

The company CEO, like his father and mother, two sons, daughter and three grandchildren, was born and raised in Tompkinsville.

“Right out of high school, my dad put me to work on a paving crew and I quickly saw I didn’t like paving. I said, ‘I’d like to get a backhoe. I think we could make a living with it and help the company.’ Reluctantly, he agreed. Shortly after, I started doing local private work digging footers, septic systems, just small-scale stuff, and I did that for a few years before advancing to doing municipal work,” said Darren, recalling that his starting pay was $5 an hour.

During his childhood, Darren helped his father grow tobacco and hay and raise cattle. For a diversion, he and his parents owned and trained Tennessee Walking Horses. Many weekends the family showed their horses at equestrian events. For Ronnie, this was a passion that began in 1969 when he showed his first horse at the local fair. He went on to show his walking horses across the Southeast, where they reaped numerous awards and honors.

Then things took a drastic turn.

One day in late December 2007, Cleary became unconscious after suffering intense headaches. Rushed to the hospital, he was given tests and promptly informed by doctors that he had cancer and had but three to six months to live.

After getting a second opinion and the same diagnosis, he began treatments, but they proved futile. Ronnie Cleary passed away Feb. 5, 2008, some 40 days after his diagnosis. He was 61.

That night the family gathered at Mrs. Cleary’s house. From the back porch they noticed a red sky to the west and then spotted a tornado.

“We saw the funnel cloud and heard that noise like a train. We jumped in the basement and it hit. I thought, ‘This house isn’t going to make it.’ Finally, it calmed down and somehow the house was still intact. We went outside, and the windows were knocked out, and shingles were blown off,” recalled Darren.

“As the crow flies, that tornado came right through here [the office] and blew the roof off this place. Not only had my dad just passed, we had an office with the roof gone, and by this time a torrential rain started falling. Everything in here got wet: the paperwork, copiers, computers and furniture.

“The next day we had to make the funeral arrangements. We came over to the office, and there were people everywhere, doing whatever they could to help. They patched us up the best they could.

“If you look back on tough days, that was a horrible day, but we got through it. We lost our founder. We lost our dad, our grandfather and so much more, but at the end of the day, we looked to God and moved forward, just like my dad would have demanded.”

While installing 30-inch gravity sewer pipe for the Morton Street Lift Station Force Main project last July, the Cleary Construction team dewaters the ditch and lays pipe, while maintaining a safe environment for workers and the citizens of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Finding work

To survive in a competitive business, the Cleary’s concluded they would have to go to where the work was. “We moved forward with the mentality that we’re going to have to travel. It may even be several states away, and we did that,” said Darren.

The family patriarch and driving force behind the company was sorely missed, but Ronnie Cleary left a legacy that served the business well.

“Going through the next few years without him was really tough for me, and it still is today,” said Darren. “Before dad’s death, he had gotten where he had kind of turned things over to me, but he was here every day, and the big decisions we’d always run by him and ask, ‘What do you think?’ That was the biggest change I had, not being able to talk it over and seek his guidance. It took a lot of prayer to get through that time.”

In describing his father, Darren shared, “He was a tough man. He was stern in what he said and meant what he said. He could come across blunt. He always had something for me to do every day when I got out of school. That’s where I think I got a lot of my work ethics, but he had a soft side too, and it was really gold when you got down deep into his personality, but you had to get there. When the grandchildren came along, that really softened him up.”

Shirley Cleary, who stood beside her husband, whom she called “H,” when Cleary Construction got off the ground, said, “I think he would be very proud,” assessing the business that thrives today.

No stranger to hard work, Shirley worked at a Tompkinsville drug store right out of high school, and when she and Ronnie married in 1966, she began a stint of 30 years working at two local garment factories.

Serving as the bookkeeper and using the kitchen table as her office, she recollected they had a handful of employees when they began.

“When we started the business, I would work at the factory and then come home, and I remember some of the workers would be sitting in our house on Friday evening and wait until I got the checks ready,” she said.

She still works five days a week to fulfill her duties.

Back in her home kitchen, she enjoys cooking for her family and occasionally brings in something for the office staff to enjoy, showing her appreciation for their efforts.

She recalled, “It was a sad and difficult time when H passed away. I knew then things would never be the same, but I am blessed to have a loving and caring family. I knew it was a hard time for Darren, but he didn’t hesitate. He seemed to know what to do to move forward, and that’s what H would have wanted. We were surrounded with good people and friends. With God’s help and prayers, we were able to survive that devastating time in our lives.”

Diverse project

Cleary Construction currently is involved in a massive 54-inch sewer replacement project in Fort Wayne, Ind. Another major effort is going full speed ahead as nearly 20 miles of 24-inch water main are being laid from Guthrie, Ky., to Springfield, Tenn. Two other big sewer replacement jobs are rolling along in Birmingham, Ala., and Knoxville, Tenn.

As for the most challenging task the company has confronted in the past 10 years, Darren recalled the Schenkel Cave sewer replacement project in Frankfort, Ky.

“We installed a 36-inch diameter sewer line in a cave. With an opening no bigger than 8 feet by 8 feet, the use of equipment was very limited, so it required a lot of manual labor for handling and installing the large pipe, not to mention the blasting that was required and removing the rock by hand.”

As larger jobs came the company’s way, more workers were hired, but the Clearys have continued to nurture a family atmosphere.

“We try to be personal. We want to know when employees have sick kids and when they have deaths in their families. We celebrate the good times together and comfort in times of sorrow. I want our employees and their families to know we’re invested in them as much as they are in us,” said Darren.

Regarding his own family, Darren married Dawn Comer in 1986. She earned a degree in elementary and middle school education from Western Kentucky in 1992 and retired in 2017 after a 26-year career. The couple has three children: Wesley, born in 1987; Joe, born in 1992; and Mariah, born in 2000, who is a freshman at Western Kentucky University.

Wesley and Joe learned the business from their father, just as Darren did from his, and recall they were initiated into the business before they began first grade.

Said Wesley, “I remember the summer before I started kindergarten. My first job was to pick the rocks out of the ditch. Pretty much every summer or break, I would go with my dad. I probably got put on payroll when I was 13. I did whatever needed to be done. I’d clean the shop on Saturdays and wash equipment.”

Joe reflected, “I can remember being 5-years old and riding in the back of the equipment behind the operator as the crew worked. When I was about 15, I really started working full time, working for my brother. He treated me just like any other employee.”

Next generation

Wesley, who is five years older than Joe, has been with the company 13 years and has gone from laborer to superintendent/project estimator to vice president and chief operating officer. He described his daily role as being closely involved in current projects, as well as bidding on future jobs.

Originally riding herd over jobs in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and northward, he now handles projects in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. Since he covers multiple sites, he earned a pilot’s license a few years ago and flies a Piper Saratoga to conserve time, allowing him to be home more with his wife, Emily, and their children: Rowan, Lennox and Piper.

In the office at least two days a week, he said, “I’ve always enjoyed working with pipe and dirt and seeing the whole process, and I like working with the people. We’re kind of like a big family.”

As for the best lessons he’s learned from his dad, he said, “Always be honest and do what you say you’re going to do. Work hard and you’ll be blessed.”

Joe has 10 years under his belt and has moved from estimator and project manager to vice president and chief administrative officer. The transition has been an adjustment.

“I used to work four days a week in the field. Here [in the office] it’s five. I estimate projects and make sure the jobs I’m over don’t go over budget. There have been some jobs where I have had to stay onsite,” he said. “What I enjoy best is getting out of the office and seeing the work being performed.”

Director of field operations Dan Bryant also proves to be a key cog in the Cleary team. The Tompkinsville native served four years in the Marines before joining the company in 2004 as a general laborer. A quick study, two years later he had his own crew.

“I mainly move people. I move equipment. I make sure the job sites have what they need. I check productions to make sure we’re meeting goals and work with the project managers and superintendents to solve problems on the jobs,” said Bryant, who covers Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

With 14 years on the job, Bryant has seen the atmosphere evolve as the family business swelled from less than 10 employees to more than 140.

This aerial photo from November 2017 depicts the installation of 24-inch water pipe during a raw water line and water treatment plant aerator replacement in Morganfield, Ky. Here, the crew lowers and assembles pipe from the raw water intake to the plant.

Evolving company

“Back then Darren was a lot more stern and headstrong, a lot more like his father, who was that type of World War II generation where the quickest way to the point is a straight line,” said Bryant. “Mr. Cleary would tell you exactly what he was thinking, and Darren was driven the same way.

“He’s changed a lot. Just like Mr. Cleary, once Darren’s first granddaughter was born, we saw an instant difference in him. He’s become a lot more accommodating to different personalities and different points of view and different ways to do things and has embraced technology.

“The one thing that has always been appreciated here, you really feel it’s a family, but it’s an extended family,” Bryant continued. “It goes way beyond the Cleary’s. They make everybody feel like part of the family. They involve people when it comes to decisions. They surround themselves with good people, and they value their opinion. It goes way beyond the small family that’s here.

“It would be hard to find a company with the values we have because the family name lives on. There’s a lot that goes with that: the level of honesty, the standards we’re held to. In dealing with people, it’s expected that we get the short end of the stick. If were faced with a dilemma that’s 50-50, Darren would be disappointed in us if we didn’t take 49. I don’t think you would find that if it wasn’t a family company.”

Bryant pointed out that on each job the crew does something a little extra that they refer to as “going above and beyond.” He gave the example of an airport expansion project.

“It has nothing to do with the job, but we’re building park benches to put out front because we noticed they had an old, broken-down wooden bench. We can easily build nice metal benches with their logo on it and give it to them as a gift. We go the extra mile.

“We’re trying to build something here that will far outlast us. We want this to go on for generations and generations, and we believe those type things, those principles, are the core values that Mr. Cleary instilled and still required today by Darren that allow us to do that,” said Bryant.

As for hanging their hard hats in Tompkinsville for 34 years, Darren said, “We’ve grown to the point we could have moved and probably would have seen more benefits in a larger city, but we desire to stay here with people we know and trust, and we love this tight-knit community.

“This small community is full of young talent, and we’ve committed to getting the best and brightest this community has to offer. We’ve been fortunate to hire a lot of our office personnel from this area and have a great mixture of youth and experience that we believe sets us up well for the future. As for the crew members, they are from all over the states where we work, as well as from here and surrounding communities.”

In summing up Cleary Construction’s success, he said, “My dad laid a strong foundation for us to build on and without that we would have never had the opportunities we’ve had. It’s a blessing to know that he saw some of this growth and tried to do it the right way, tried to instill honesty and integrity in everybody, and that’s important to who we are. I think our story is a story of perseverance and strength.”



Cleary Construction, (270) 487-1784, clearyconst.com

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