Coates Construction Builds 60-Year Legacy

NILES, Ohio – In the more than 60 years since Mike Coates Construction Co. Inc. hammered its first nail, the family-owned company has had its hands on many iconic buildings in the Mahoning Valley.

From high school buildings in the Warren, LaBrae and Girard school districts to the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor, and the McDonough Museum of Art, Coates Construction has helped to shape the identity of the Mahoning Valley through its work. And as general contractor for large construction projects from Pittsburgh to Columbus, the company’s footprint extends well beyond its headquarters on Summit Avenue in Niles.

In 1958, Mike Coates Sr. set up shop a few miles away from his home. His father was a handyman, which led to him gaining experience in construction early in life.

“If you wanted a garage, you had to build a garage. If you wanted an addition on the house, you had to build the addition,” he says. “I guess we were brought up in the construction business.”

Coates started the company by building houses.  Eventually he found a niche in industrial and institutional work, particularly hospitals and schools. Pairing quality work with “some good estimators,” the company began to expand, Coates Sr. says.

“We always did good work. And that’s what helped me climb up the ladder,” he says. “I had a lot of repeat customers.”

One of the first projects he tried to bid on was for a church that required a $35,000 bond, which the company couldn’t obtain at the time. “I didn’t even know what in the hell a bond was,” he says with a laugh.

His first big project was an addition to the three-story Bolindale Elementary School in Warren. At the time, the project cost $250,000. Today, he estimates, the same project would cost about $1.6 million.

As the company took on jobs, it was able to increase its bonding power, he says, which was necessary to bid for bigger jobs. Industrial work for titanium furnaces and rolling mills drove the  growth of the company in its early days when other industries were down, Coates Sr. says.

“We got into industrial work, which was a big shot in the arm for us, because everything else was slow. But industrial work was going pretty good,” he says. “We did quite a bit of work for them.”

As Coates Construction accepted more jobs and built a name for itself on its quality of work, it increased its bond threshold. Today, the company is bondable up to $60 million with Zurich American Insurance Co. through L. Calvin Jones in Canfield. It’s also been able to get bonding approved for $100 million projects.

“We have more bonding than most of the contractors in this area,” Coates Sr. says.

That $100 million job was a hospital project in Columbus, says his son,  Mike Coates Jr., who assumed the role of company president from his father within the last year.

When the company bids for projects in larger metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh or Columbus, it competes with companies 20 times its size, Coates Jr. says. Because it’s smaller, it has less overhead and can be more competitive.

The company is also fluent in general contracting, as well as design-build and construction-manager-at-risk contracting, which gives it an edge, Coates Jr. says, because it can price products better.

Some of the larger local projects in its portfolio include the Ohio Supermax Prison complex near Hubbard, the Mahoning County Justice Center in Youngstown, and projects with Mercy Health St. Elizabeth hospitals in Youngstown and Boardman.

The supermax prison was a particularly tough job, because the project was constantly inspected to ensure work was being completed to the exact details, Coates Sr. recalls. The company had to watch every move it made.

“If they wanted nine inches between the bars, you couldn’t give them 9½ inches,” he says. “You had to watch everything in that building.”

Coates Construction handles much of the structure of a project – including masonry and carpentry – and outsources other aspects, such as mechanical, plumbing and electrical. Projects are typically located within 90 minutes of its headquarters.

On average, the company does about $25 million to $35 million in business annually, Coates Jr. says. Business has slowed somewhat the last few years with some projects postponed because of economic reasons. But the company is seeing work pick  up and is bidding on projects.

“It seems to be starting to come back now, but not at a rapid pace,” Coates Jr. says.

Currently, Coates Construction is building a large parking deck in the Pittsburgh area and is bidding on a project right next door to build a research center.

The company has been in Erie, Pa., for about a year and a half working on a $30 million addition to the historic Warner Theatre there, Coates Jr. says. The project removed the back part of the building and created a 90-foot concrete structure that adds another 13,750 square feet of space, rehabilitates 9,000 square feet of existing space and increases the stage depth by 20 feet.

“There’s a new stage, dressing rooms, orchestra pit,” he says.

“We’re kind of just on the end of that project.”

Locally, the company has a wastewater project in Warren and has done some carpentry and interior work for the main branch renovation of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County.

“Everything you see inside, we’ve done,” Coates Jr. says.

Although they are modest when talking about it, having their hands on such historic buildings is a point of pride for the father and son. In particular, they cite the Historical Center of Industry and Labor – known better as the Steel Museum – for its significance to the economic past and present of the Mahoning Valley.

“Most people realize the building is the monument,” Coates Jr. says. “The building itself is a tribute to the steel industry.”

As with any construction company, labor and materials are the two top challenges. On the labor side, Coates Jr. says the company has been “lucky that we’ve typically had a minimum of 85 tradesmen,” sometimes up to 150.

“We’ve had enough to pull from to man the projects properly,” he says. “We’re union, so we can also get people out of the hall as well.”

In terms of materials, “Everything is backed up” and has long lead times, he adds. Shipments expected to come in can be suddenly bumped back by months. Even if the company buys materials as soon as possible, “It doesn’t seem to make any difference right now,” he says.

So far, that hasn’t forced the company to put any projects on hold. “But at some point, it could,” Coates Jr. says. “You get to a point where you have to have the material. And it’s simply not made.”

Despite the challenges, the local contractor is looking forward to continued expansion within its footprint, particularly with local projects.

Based on its catalog of work, an internal team of estimators, project managers and field workers, and the lasting quality of its completed projects, Coates Construction reminds local companies they don’t need to seek a large national firm outside of the area to complete a large project.

“We’ve done it and we can do it again,” Coates Jr. says. “We can do those buildings using local people, local talent.”

Pictured: Mike Coates Jr. and Mike Coates Sr. show photos of their many projects.