After 25 years, a low-profile powerhouse is ready to go public

But we also want to give companies in Wilmington something they can be proud of, because we want the people of Wilmington to be proud of their city. There’s no reason we can’t do here what’s been done in the Research Triangle Park, or Charlotte. There's no reason the whole region can't grow.”

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WB Brawley President Chris Nesselroade with a map of Armed Forces contracts across the country; for 25 years these contracts have been the company’s stock in trade. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman).

WILMINGTON – WB Brawley was created in a small office off of Old Eastwood Road. A quarter-century later, it has grown into a $21 million design and construction firm. Yet, in spite of this growth, the company’s 17 Wilmington employees still work in the same office building.

For a company that prides itself on building and renovating world-class office spaces, it’s a seeming contradiction.

“This office is not representative of our competencies, it might not be the best place to bring clients to get ideas for office design,” said Preisdent Chris Nesselroade. “But it is absolutely representative of what we’re about, about our roots, our ties to this community, our history. We have the space we need for people to work well.”

Getting to the heart of the contradiction, Nesselroade added, “One day we’ll have to move. It’ll be painful.

“Growth can be painful … [founder and former president] Bruce Brawley still has an office here, even though he retired. I keep telling him one day he’ll have to move out, we need the space. That’ll be painful, too,” Nesselroade said. “This place, this office, it’s family – these are our people. The question is how to we grow and still take care of them. How do we grow and not lose ourselves?”

Nesselroade said that question goes back to the founding of WB Brawley.

The company, founded by Brawley in 1992, grew by developing contracts with the armed forces to build and renovate living quarters, officers’ clubs and other related projects. Brawley chose Wilmington for its proximity to military bases at Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point. By the time Brawley retired in 2014, his company contracts in 27 states and seven countries.

“Like our office, we were low key. We deliberately stayed off the radar for a long time,” Nesselroade said. “Bruce started this company with one desk and one employee. We built our contracts on personal relationships, slowly but surely. The constant idea was sustainable, controlled growth.”

After Brawley’s retirement, Nesselroade, CFO Steve Ezzel and COO Kim Williamson bought the company. Then, Nesselroade faced a dilemma.

The WB Brawley corporation had quietly kept a low profile for 25 years. Now, with Nesselroade at the helm, the company was headed toward expansion. Could he do that and keep the humble, family atmosphere of the little office off of Eastwood?

“I’m a conservative, in terms of business models,” Nesselroade said. “But I’m aware that there’s risk in anything. The question wasn’t whether we wanted to gamble on this project or that project. It was about our employees. How can we take our business to the next level and not endanger the quality of life of our employees? Their work-life balance is important to me.”

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One of Wilmington’s most successful businesses operates out of this humble office space. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

As WB Brawley expanded into hospitality and senior living – winning awards for its work on the Lake Shore Commons facility – the company continued to take projects cautiously. When Nesselroade decided to pursue commercial development, he hired Brian Millen and his wife Heather, who had previously worked with Vertex Rail, Baldhead Island and PPD.

The Millens brought their experience of desiging high-end work-spaces; places very different than Bruce Brawley’s 25-year-old office. But, there is an underlying philosophy that ties the two ends of the spectrum together.

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(Left to right): Brian Millen, head of WB Brawley’s new commercial division, Millen’s wife Heather, commercial interior design specialist, and fellow designer Michael Steiner. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Millen said companies like Live Oak Bank, nCino and PPD are setting a new standard for work-spaces, not just in terms of eye-catching architecture, but in their thinking about employees. For these growing companies, “taking care” of employees meant giving them not just offices, but “campuses;” that is, environments that extent beyond a desk and a computer.

“Some people say to us, ‘you’re expensive.’ Well, we’re not the cheapest option. And we’re not for everyone. I’m okay with that. But at the end of the day, more and more companies are starting to think, to really think, about their work-spaces,” Millen said. “Where are people going to be able to do great work? You have to think about the whole space … we can help companies create that.”

Nesselroade noted his sentimental attachment to Bruce Brawley’s old office might not work for a larger company with hundreds or thousands of employees.

“A company has to do what’s going to be right for them. We take care of our family here, and every company has to do that. And it’s not just being a nice guy. It’s part of the bottom line,” he said. “Turnover is expensive. Losing good minds and good workers is expensive. If you have a workplace that helps a company treat their people right, those people will stay. If you don’t, if you have a space that alienates people, that people don’t respond to, you will have workers leave.

“That’s part of the true cost of a building, but also part of the value of a building,” he said.

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“Companies know they need a space,” Nesselroade said. “Sometimes, though, they don’t have any concrete ideas. But they need to pick a wallpaper, carpet, desks and all those other things that shape a space and the lifestyle of a future employee. We can help them with that here.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WB Brawley is one of the only regional companies to offer “turn-key” services, according to Nesselroade, handling everything from general contracting to interior design. “We’re there when you break ground,” he said. “And we’re there when you’re putting up curtains and picking out light bulbs.

“One of things we do best is when a business comes to us and knows what they want, philosophically, but not logistically,” Nesselroade said. “So, we can show them what that space looks like, from architecture to FF&E [fixtures, furnishing and equipment]. They don’t have to deal with a half-dozen different contractors. They know they want a space were people can thrive. We can release the vision they don’t yet know they had.”

Millen said, though WB Brawley is expanding, the company is still selective.

“Everything we do starts with relationships,” Millen said. “We do a lot of listening. We talk to partners in architecture, in interior design, in the commercial real-estate market. We’re not going around knocking on every door, we’re not bidding on every contract that comes across our desk.”

Nesselroade and Millen said they believe Wilmington’s business expansion will “raise all tides.”

“Contractors are busy, designers are busy,” Millen said. “We’re all chasing market share. But we also want to give companies in Wilmington something they can be proud of, because we want the people of Wilmington to be proud of their city. There’s no reason we can’t do here what’s been done in the Research Triangle Park, or Charlotte. There’s no reason the whole region can’t grow.”

Nesselroade added, “I’m sure it sounds like a façade. But that philosophy, caring about Wilmington, that’s who we are to the core.”

Nesselroade, who has been involved with weekend Meals-on-Wheels for a long time, said his company is always looking for ways to give back to the community. WB Brawley donates to local non-profits and community groups chosen by its employees.

“Again, I know how that sounds, like a shameless plug,” Nesselroade said. “But it’s for real. That’s who we are. Wilmington is our home and we know that when this city thrives, we’ll thrive too.”