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Watts Up in Construction

Denny Watts is back in town, stirring up the industry

MAKING HIS MARK: Miller/Watts Constructors Chief Executive Officer Denny Watts says this time it’s personal. Photo: Olivier Koning

In July 2003 Denny Watts decided to hang up his hard hat. A long-time fixture in Hawaii's construction industry and former president of the Hawaii General Contractors Association, Watts resigned his post as chief executive officer of Pittsburgh contracting giant Dick Corp. He moved to Seattle with his wife, Janet, intending to travel, golf and visit the Islands regularly. But Watts just couldn't settle into a life of leisure. And he was driving Janet crazy around the house. "I had all this energy and I really wanted to do something more in the field I love," said Watts.

His salad days lasted a week. After seven long days in Seattle he agreed to start up a branch office of Walsh Construction in Washington state. But his heart never left the Islands. In late January, Watts became chief executive officer and part owner of Miller/Thompson, a mid-size Bay Area contractor with annual project bookings of $25 million to $35 million. In February, Watts announced the firm would be opening a Hawaii office. Now the Islands represent a key thrust in Watts' strategy to grow the newly renamed firm, Miller/Watts Constructors, into a major construction player on the West Coast and around the Pacific Rim.

His return to Hawaii comes after a trial by fire at Dick. After heading Fletcher Pacific for four years, Watts had stayed on to head Dick Pacific after the Pittsburgh firm bought Fletcher's Hawaii operations in October 1999. Watts ascended to the corner office at Dick's East Coast headquarters in July 2002. He inherited a badly bleeding company. Power-plant projects had fallen through, leaving the company on the brink of bankruptcy. Watts was the man of the hour. He cut costs and made painful decisions including one to sell the unoccupied new headquarters building his predecessors at Dick had erected for $10 million. These moves ultimately pulled Dick back from the brink.

Even while he was running the two-minute drill in Pittsburgh to save the company, Watts made time to travel to Hawaii to talk story with his team in the Islands. His efforts to maintain strong ties to the local construction community proved prescient. Watts knew that Hawaii's economy would eventually turn around and the construction market would rebound. Or at least the golf would be good when he retired.

What Watts didn't anticipate was that he would return to Hawaii as the head of a scrappy upstart. However, after running big construction firms for most of the past two decades, Watts decided he wanted to build his own company. "This was a life change for me. I wanted to step into a company that I knew could grow quickly and be extremely profitable. This would be my personal mark," said Watts. He hopes to grow Miller/Watts by 25 percent annually over the next three years and blow through the $100-million mark in annual project bookings.

Watts has already begun to hire some of his former employees for the new Honolulu office, including his new chief estimator Larry Neal and top project manager Milton Kutaka. Miller/Watts bagged a big win in late May by securing a $28.2 million U.S. Navy project for waterfront improvements at Pearl Harbor. With a sterling reputation and a huge Rolodex of subcontractors, Hawaii construction insiders expect Watts to make waves. "He comes with a wealth of knowledge and tons of contacts. Denny is going to do well," says Johnny Higa, executive vice president of the Hawaii General Contractors Association. For his part, Watts says that Miller/Watts started getting phone calls requesting bids the first week after the announcement of the Hawaii office. That's a homecoming of which any Hawaii construction expat would dream.

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