Atlanta Paving’s Growth Goes Sky-High
When McCarthy Improvement Company, Davenport, Iowa, hired Atlanta Paving, Peachtree Corners, Georgia, as a subcontractor to pave at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2016, it was a big deal. “That was the first time any contractor outside of Atlanta’s biggest two or three had touched the airport in a long time,” said Atlanta Paving Vice President Mandy Neese.
Although the job wasn’t on the airfield itself, but instead mostly ancillary pavements and parking areas, Neese said the airport was initially hesitant. “We weren’t the normal contractors they were used to working with, so they put us under a microscope at first,” she said. After all, the airport has been considered the world’s busiest airport since 1998. “Once we proved what we could do, they’ve come to trust what we do and how we do it.”
Since its first job at Hartsfield, Atlanta Paving has been involved in numerous others, paving multiple ramps, around the cargo bay, parking facilities and shoulder repairs along the runways. Atlanta Paving also worked on the 9L end-around taxiway, completed November 1, 2022.
“That first job at the airport has opened so many doors,” Neese said. Not only other jobs at the airport, but across the city. Since then, Atlanta Paving has also done several projects for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), including paving the Atlanta Streetcar route along historic Auburn Avenue with CW Matthews. “We’re getting ready to start work on MARTA’s bus rapid transit route with Archer Western,” Neese said. The company has also paved at the Atlanta Speedway, for CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads, and at both Truist Park (home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team) and Mercedes-Benz Stadium (home of the Atlanta Falcons football team)
Although Neese enjoys those high profile jobs, she also still appreciates the company’s smaller jobs. “When you pave someone’s driveway, you know you’re helping create their dream home,” she said. “We take just as much pride in a driveway as we do in a runway.”
In the fall, Atlanta Paving paved a driveway at-cost for the Calvin Center, an equestrian therapy center for children with special needs, in Hampton, Georgia. “I called Ernie [the owner of Atlanta Paving] to get his permission and he said let’s send our salaried employees to drive down the costs and see if our supplier will donate materials,” Neese said. “The equestrian manager was in tears of joy when we got done and she was able to take these kids down a newly paved driveway from the housing facilities to the barn, some in their wheelchairs. Now that we’re large enough to give back in a big way, we love being able to do those sorts of projects.”
How it Started vs. How it’s Going
Atlanta Paving was started by Ernie Lopez III in 1997 as a driveway paving and patching company. “Like many asphalt paving contractors, Ernie built the business little by little, one year at a time,” Neese said.
After more than a decade of slow but steady growth, Lopez was ready to go big and grow big; he wanted to get approved to perform work for the Georgia Department of Transportation. In 2009, he hired Neese and Chief Financial Officer Darryl Adams. “Ernie knew that to survive and thrive through the recession, he’d need to set the company up to do government work,” Neese said. “Ernie knew he could do the work, he just needed people who could manage the finances and bid the jobs.”
Neese had been working at one of the largest asphalt paving companies at the time, but had young children and was looking for a job that required less travel at a company with strong family values. Atlanta Paving was a perfect fit.
The company was able to acquire its GDOT certification and Neese got to work bidding bigger and bigger jobs. “I can remember the first million dollar job we did, and the first $2 million job, and it wasn’t long before I was bidding our first $5 million project,” Neese said. At the time, the company’s bonding capacity for a single job was $5 million, so Neese’s bid was $4,999,999.99. “Each one of those moments was a turning point for us.”
“Back in the ‘90s, a $25,000 job—like a shopping center or maintenance contract—was probably a big deal for us,” Neese said. “Now, our average project is $2 to 3 million, and our upcoming MARTA project is worth $8 million.”
When Neese started at Atlanta Paving, the company had 17 employees. Today, it has 176. “Our growth has been exponential,” she said. “I remember talking to Ernie in 2015 and thinking 50 employees is a good size. Then we’d get a big project and hire 10 more employees.”
What does Neese think is the root of the company’s success? “The willingness to invest and to take a chance,” Neese said. For example, when the company purchased its first milling machine, a 4-footer. “That was a big decision in those days. Ernie has always been willing to invest, and it’s his fearlessness that gives our company its ‘We can do it’ mentality.”
“I think that’s one thing that sets Atlanta Paving apart,” Neese said. “We’ll take on jobs other companies won’t do.” For example, the MARTA streetcar project or paving at the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, the police and fire training facility in downtown Atlanta.
“No one wanted to do that job because it’s been in the news a lot and there have been protests there [related to the ‘defund the police’ movement],” Neese said. But she felt Atlanta Paving was up to the scrutiny and challenge. “That’s been our mentality every step of the way: let us show you what we can do.”
Also key to the company’s growth are the relationships it’s built with its customers. “They’ve watched us grow and they’ve come to know that they can rely on us,” Neese said. “And that boils right down to our crews, who always show up and do what they’re supposed to do.”
All in the Family
Despite the company’s growth, Atlanta Paving continues to be family-owned and family-oriented. Lopez’s four sons and stepson all work for the company. Ernie Lopez IV is an estimator and project manager, Brandon Lopez is a paving foreman, Zach Lopez is a paving foreman, Joey Lopez is a milling foreman and tanker driver, and Dustin Bryson is the vice president of Dykes Materials.
“Each one of them has a unique talent that they bring to the company,” Neese said. “They were kids when I started working at the company, so it’s been really cool to see them graduate and come work for us full-time. Now, I have these four boys I can lean on, who are as invested in the company as I am because they love their dad and have taken this company into their hearts.”
Like the Lopez namesake Ernie, Atlanta Paving is a tradition that will continue throughout the generations. Ernie IV has a five-year-old son, Ernie V, and two of the other brothers also have children. “One of them is named Houston Silo—as in asphalt silo,” Neese said.
After 14 years at Atlanta Paving, Neese also feels like part of the family. “Ernie is like a father to me,” she said. When Neese was diagnosed with cancer in December 2022 and required major surgery to remove a football-sized tumor in her abdomen, the Lopez family was at her side. “The concern Ernie and his boys had over my health was unreal. To have the owner of the company standing over me in tears saying ‘My family is your family and your family is my family’…there are no words.”
Today, Neese’s husband, Darrell Neese, is the company’s safety director, and her step-son, Joseph, is a milling foreman and runs the company’s airport milling crew. “I think we’re up to 12 sets of father-son and father-daughter combos, not including the Lopez boys,” Neese said, adding that a lot of the company’s employees recruit family members to work at Atlanta Paving. “You see a lot of the same last names come up on our time reports.”
“In a time where it’s this hard to recruit people to work blue collar, having our employees help us recruit the next generation is huge,” Neese said. “What better way to train than to have a dad teach his son?”
The Place to Be
To have employees recruit those they love to Atlanta Paving shows a high degree of loyalty. Loyalty, Neese said, is at the heart of what makes Atlanta Paving a great place to work. “Loyalty is a two-way street,” she said. “Our employees are loyal to us, and we are loyal to them.”
What does loyalty look like at Atlanta Paving? “We pay people well and we keep our crews employed year round,” Neese said. “We want to make sure they feel secure working for us.”
In the fall, she strives to line up projects for the whole winter to best use the company resources and keep its employees busy. “Over the winter, we do a lot of demolition work,” Neese said. For example, they performed a large demolition project at Hartsfield Airport last winter. This winter, they’ll be milling the MARTA BRT project.
The company also invests in quality equipment. “Ernie has always made sure all of our equipment is top-notch,” Mandy said. “He’s also taken it very seriously that they have whatever they need to do their job.”
Lately, loyalty has been particularly crucial to retaining Atlanta Paving’s employees. “These past two years, we’ve had people coming to our job sites trying to pick off our employees constantly,” Neese said. The company has strived to stay ahead of market wages, but even when other companies have tried to poach employees for $1 or $2 more per hour, most have remained with Atlanta Paving. “The men and women who work for us are committed to us because we are committed to them.”
This also benefits the company’s customers. “It’s made relationships with our customers easy, because my crews don’t let me down and in turn we don’t let the customer down.”
Even as the company retains employees, Atlanta Paving still faces the challenge of finding employees as it continues to grow. They’ve been involved in the Georgia Highway Contractors Association program to equip local schools with construction equipment simulators. “I think we’re up to 15 schools, spread out across the state,” Neese said. “The ultimate goal is to make sure every school in the state that wants one can get one.”
Growing its own talent has long been Atlanta’s approach. “I think companies resort to poaching employees when they get really desperate for the pool of talent available,” Neese said. “We’re trying to expand the pool.”
The company isn’t afraid to hire newbies and take on the time and cost to train them. “We try to pair every new employee with an older one who knows everything the new person needs to know to be successful,” Neese said.
They’ve also invested in BuildWitt’s training program. “We wanted a systematic approach to introduce our younger employees to what we do,” Neese said. “When you’re hiring right out of highschool, the two and three-minute BuildWitt videos pushed right on their smartphones are kind of Construction 101. The program sparks their interest in our industry and gets them thinking about the career options they have in construction.”
Atlanta Paving is also investing in technology to shore up its numbers as the company continues to grow. One of Neese’s passions is the potential for automation in construction. “Anytime you can automate a process to allow that labor and skill to be utilized elsewhere, you’re creating efficiencies, you’re improving accuracy, and you’re removing people from dangerous situations.”
In addition to dangerous jobs, Neese also thinks automation technology is promising for projects like those Atlanta Paving has done at the airport. “It’s a big, open flat area where things have to be highly accurate,” she said. “To be able to set up our milling machines with GPS, import our survey data and let that machine go—no spray painting on the ground, no survey control, the operator doesn’t have to control depth—that’s the accuracy and efficiency I’m excited about.”
Other technology Atlanta Paving has deployed includes drones to perform survey checks and take inventory, “things that used to take two guys weeks, we can now do in hours. And then those guys can go do something else instead.”
Despite the growth trajectory Atlanta Paving will likely continue along, Neese’s hopes for the future of the company are firmly planted in its family roots.
“I think it would come full-circle for me to watch the Lopez boys, my own son and all the young people we have working for us continue to grow, evolve, and take on leadership roles in the company,” Neese said. “I want Ernie to be able to someday retire happily and know his company and his legacy will continue.”
“I think I’ll probably stick around 20 more years or so, which will be just enough time to see Ernie V graduate and maybe come join the company,” she said. “I want to see the legacy of this company—of working hard and being fearless—continue into the next generation, and the next.”
Another major milestone for Atlanta Paving was its 2019 acquisition of Dykes Construction, along with its recycling and crushing operations and Astec asphalt plant in Peachtree Corners, just north of Atlanta at the intersection of I-85 and I-285.
“It’s in a suburb, but right between our two major interstate systems in Georgia, and in Gwinnett County, the second most populated county in the state,” Neese said. “So, it’s a great area to have our one and only plant.”
“The plant is a source of pride, for Ernie, for me, for the whole company,” Neese said. “We’re not integrated like the big players in Atlanta, but it is cool to be able to produce mix for our jobs up in that area.”
Having its own plant, run by Ernie Lopez III’s stepson, Dustin, has also enabled Atlanta Paving to do work on weekends if needed and during the two weeks around Christmas and New Years when many of the larger companies shut down. “Before we had our own plant, that meant there was less work for us to give to our employees.”
Neese estimates that 90% of the 60,000 tons the company produced in 2022 was placed by its own crews. “Buying our plant was definitely a start for us, and certainly a milestone in our growth.”