Q & A with Neal Workman, Founder and Chairman of Trehel Corporation

Trehel recently celebrated our 34th Anniversary and to commemorate the occasion we sat down for a Q&A session with our Founder and Chairman Neal Workman. Questions ranged from reflections on the past, the construction industry, and a few personal anecdotes.

How it all started

In 1982, Neal was a vice president with Vector Corporation, a residential general contractor located in Oconee County. When a large northern firm acquired Vector, Neal decided it was time to take a risk and start a new company. To begin his new venture, he borrowed $4,000 and purchased a used Ford F250 truck with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer.

When Neal Workman took that leap of faith many years ago, he had no idea that one day his small family business would become one of the top privately-held general contractors serving the Carolinas and Georgia.


What was the construction industry like 34 years ago when you founded Trehel Corporation?

Interest rates were 18 percent, and you couldn’t find anybody that needed anything done. I thought, what in the world have I done!


What was the biggest struggle during your first year?

Finding work and being able to get enough work to meet your payroll and take care of your people.


For those who don’t know, how did you come up with the name “Trehel”?

Well, I figured if you could name something like ex-lax or milk of magnesia, then why couldn’t you name something Trehel. So I took the first three letters of my son’s nickname “Tres” and the first three letters of my daughter’s name Helen.


What advice do you wish someone had told you 34 years ago when you founded Trehel?

You don’t know, what you don’t know and if you knew what you didn’t know then, I don’t think you would have started a company. Once you’re in it, you start learning fast; start drinking through a fire hose about all the things you didn’t know, but needed to know to run a business. It had nothing to do with how to estimate or how to construct. It was how to run the business. Those are things that you just learn over time, primarily through making mistakes.


As you look back over your career, what was the most powerful lesson that you learned?

Is if your arm gets bit off, it will grow back. Never stop doing good just because something bad happens to you. Continue to do good and realize that at the end of the day, you will not be damaged or hurt by it. If you lose money or have something that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go, but you did the right thing, then that means your arm grew back. You will still be here, and you will recover.


What advice would you give to someone starting out in the construction industry?

It’s a great industry, but you have to work hard. It takes a lot of personal sacrifices to make it work and to be good at it.


What do you do when you are not working at Trehel?

I watch TV and I think a lot. My mind is like a file cabinet. I’ll come up with thoughts and store them away for later use. For instance, like the tiny homes we are building now, or it could be about assisting someone in the future. Right now I do a fair amount of consulting with people, not in the construction industry about how to run a business, how to take care of your people and how to make your business better. I guess my entertainment is working on businesses.


What is one quality you feel best describes you?

I provide grace for people. Not sure if it’s a good quality, because you can go broke doing that, but your arm grows back. (See above question about powerful lesson for reference.)


If you weren’t involved in the construction industry, what would be your dream profession?

Never has been a dream profession. I just want to be involved with people making things happen, and I don’t care what that is. I could have been in the clothing store or owned a janitorial service. It wouldn’t have mattered; it would be the same thing. It is finding out what people need, finding a way to package it and giving it to them. You find a way to get good people on board that can deliver that service. It wouldn’t have mattered to me what it was.


Who has had the most influence on your career?

I can’t think of an individual. There have been groups and different people at different times. I can’t say there is one person that has influenced me the most.

From a construction perspective, it was probably an architect who is no longer with us. It was Jim Neal with Neal-Prince Architects. He taught me how to look at buildings from an architectural perspective and how to look at details and materials. It helped to develop Trehel into a design build firm. If I would have never of had that experience, I don’t think it would have happened.

Really in life, at different times there would be different things that I needed to learn or know, and God has put somebody in my life at every one of those phases to teach me the things that I needed to become better.


Looking at all the people in history, what one person do you respect the most? Why?

Of course, Christ would be my first because of the influence he has had on my life. The second would be my wife, Fay because she has been sacrificial her whole life with me. She gave up her career; she did everything so that she could create a calm, peaceful nest for me to come home. She would take care of all the other little things that you typically get involved with and do. She did all of those things to allow me to build this business.


What makes you angry?

Nothing! I don’t get angry; I become disappointed, but not angry.


What disappoints you?

People’s behavior or lack of owning up to their responsibilities or looking for excuses for why things don’t work rather than saying I don’t know how to do it. Why not ask for help or assistance. Just admit I did a terrible job, and say what it is and move forward. We all mess up.


What is your favorite food?

Black-eyed peas and cornbread or field peas and cornbread… Fay’s cornbread is the best. She has the special touch. It’s buttermilk cornbread, and it’s soft in the middle and crispy on all sides; cooked in an iron skillet.


What is one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

 I think everyone knows me. I’m an open book, all you have to do is ask.

Well maybe one thing, I like chick flicks, that would be it. I like this type of movie because they all have emotion in them, and I like everything that has emotion.