ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: For Tim Farrell ’81, trust is the bedrock of success

By Noell Barnidge
Tim Farrell, a graduate of the Benedictine Military School Class of 1981, is the President and Chief Executive Officer of TD Farrell Construction, a full-service general contractor specializing in retail, grocery, restaurant, and auto dealership construction.

Farrell began his career with Abrams Construction in 1985 after graduating from Clemson University with a degree in building science and management. During his 13 years at Abrams Construction, Farrell was promoted from project manager to second in command.

In 1998, Farrell decided to strike out on his own and founded TD Farrell Construction, Inc., in his garage using his life savings as seed money. He has been debt-free and profitable ever since, as the organization has grown to more than $150 million annual volume and has completed well over $2 billion of work throughout the country.
Farrell, who lives in Alpharetta, visited BC in October to help his BC Class of 1981 celebrate its 40-year reunion.

What does the BC brotherhood mean to you?
“It’s really nice to be able to walk into a group of guys like that and feel like you’re all caught up in no time. I hadn’t seen some of them since high school, and a lot of them in several years. It’s important to be part of something, and BC is something special. That kind of brotherhood is something that is hard to find. Most go their own way. They might keep up with one or two people but that’s about it. BC is a special place. That’s why I keep supporting it. My nephews go there now. I had all daughters, so you’ve got to give me extra credit for having all daughters and still contributing to BC. I had three daughters. They’re all grown up now.”

What lessons did you learn at BC that have guided you in your life and career?
“That’s a big question. Let me see if I can answer it. The bottom line is hard work pays off. I had things going on in my personal life, too. My parents got divorced. My dad had a heart attack. There was stuff going on. And I just knew that I had to push through. Sports, of course, were big for me. I played football with Coach (Jim) Walsh, and soccer as well. I understood that the harder I trained, the better I would do, and the better the team would do. That was a big lesson for me. You just have to buckle down and do what you have to do to get better and it pays off. I don’t want to sound funny about this, but school came relatively easy for me. I enjoyed school. I enjoyed my college (Clemson University). It was also, financially, a challenging time. I had financially challenging times in my life that taught me how to take care of money. I’ve always had to keep a line of credit because the bonding company requires it, but I’ve never drawn on it. I’ve never borrowed anything. But I did put everything I had on the line. At the time when I started the company, I had a 2-year-old and an almost 1-year-old, so it was pretty tight.”

You began TD Farrell out of your garage in 1998 and now you’re licensed to work in 48 states. How did you scale your company? What were the ingredients that led to your success?
“When I first came out of school, I worked for a company called Abrams Construction for 13 years. I started there right out of college and ended up, when I left there, I was second in command. I was Executive Vice President. I learned a tremendous amount there. What to do and what not to do and so forth. I was running all the operations of the company for probably the last five years I was there. My boss was more of a sales guy. I learned a lot and I also made a lot of really, long-lasting relationships, and that’s what carried through starting my company and even today. I still work with some of those same people. Relationships, but part of that is trust. I trust them to treat me fairly and they trust me to get the job done and treat them fairly.”

Your clients are some of the largest and most successful retail companies in the world. And they are repeat clients! What makes TD Farrell Construction their general contractor of choice?
“One of the companies that helped me more than anybody when I started my company was Home Depot. At the time, they were probably the best company all-around in the country. Their employees loved them. They treated them so well. They listened to their voices. Everybody was very on board and that was a great environment to be in. But the point is, they rewarded good service and good relationships. Give a little, take a little, everybody take care of each other. That was a great environment to be in in my early years, and they were, again, they gave me chances they probably wouldn’t have given somebody they didn’t already have a relationship with. And I delivered. And they gave me more. And I delivered again. And that’s just the way it is. I’ve always had a long-term outlook on business. I’m more interested in getting more work than I am in making a lot of money on one job.”

What are you working on right now?
“Right now, we have 21 active projects in eight states, including California and Arizona. We are nationwide. We are working for great companies. Costco, CarMax, PGA Tour Superstore, Academy Sports, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Home Depot, Best Buy, Burlington, Amazon. Some time ago, I built the Home Depot there on Victory Drive. After that, I built the Home Depot in Pooler. That was some time ago. And then we built a CarMax there on Abercorn. And we built the Dick’s Sporting Goods on Mall Blvd. I’m sure there’s other stuff. We did a bunch of work at the Home Depot distribution center in Savannah. They had some kind of storm come through and it spun off a mini-tornado that just ate up their roof. It’s like a million-and-a-half square feet down there. It bent up a bunch of the steel structure and so forth, so when we got into it, we found other things that needed repairing that were long-term projects that had never been discovered so we were there for a year. I was in Pooler the last few days getting the final touches done to open the Costco which, by the way, had a tremendous opening day yesterday (Nov. 18).”

How did you decide to pursue a career in construction?
“One thing that was tough at the time, but it turns out it was probably a good thing, is that I had to decide what I was trying to do for a living. Nobody in my family is in construction. A lot of people get in this business because their dad or uncle or somebody is in the business. I made that decision because I’m pretty good at thinking like that, spatially and so forth. And then I had to figure out how am I going to get there? I decided that Clemson’s program was the best one for me. (Georgia) Tech had a program but I just wasn’t feeling it. So I went to Clemson, which is out of state, and I was paying my way through school. I paid every dime. I paid for everything, pretty much, I’ve ever owned. I paid for all of my cars. I even bought my bikes. Seriously. Pretty much everything I’ve ever owned, I’ve paid for myself. I learned how to work really hard, really early. And manage the money. And figure out how to live on not much. A lot of times, dinner at Clemson was I would go to the grocery store and buy an apple, a banana, and some grapes, an orange, cut it all up and make fruit salad, and that was dinner. I could do it for like $1.20. When I was trying to get through school, I did every kind of job. In my high school years, of course, I cut grass and did all that. For a while, I was installing ceiling fans and doing some other odd jobs like that. And when I went to Clemson, in my summers, I worked two summers at Union Camp (Corporation). And I worked two other summers on construction sites. Both were in Savannah. (The construction job) paid a lot less than Union Camp but I needed the experience. When I was at school, meaning Clemson, my senior year, I had an opportunity to go to Italy and study abroad for a semester. That was one of the best experiences. It was awesome. But I didn’t have any funds. I almost turned it down because it cost me $1,500 more for that semester. I did it but when I came back, I was really, really, really hurting for money. I literally went around and knocked on doors and asked people if they needed anything done. I ended up, there was a landscape architect who was a professor at school who had extensive landscaping projects all the time, so I became his yard guy. When I was trying to find a job, a lot of things are lucky timing. Construction wasn’t in great shape in the early ‘80s. It was kind of in a recession. When I graduated, which was in ’85, it was just coming out of that so they were looking for people. So I got lucky that way. I decided I wanted to work in Atlanta, and I decided what size of a company I wanted to work for. I got the directory from my professor for the ABC, the Associated Builders and Contractors, and decided I wanted to work in Atlanta. I love Savannah but at that time, there was just nothing. Construction was really slow. Everybody that fit my criteria, I wrote a letter to, and it was like probably 30, 40, typed letters, on a typewriter. You can imagine how much time that took. So I sent all those letters off and I got lots of responses. I stopped interviewing after seven offers and I just took the one at Abrams because it looked like the one that had the best opportunity to grow there. And it turned out to be a good choice. That’s how I got started.”

Speaking of letters, if you could write a letter to Tim Farrell, the senior at BC in 1981, what advice would you give the 18-year-old version of you?
“I’d probably just say, ‘Things are tough right now, but you’ve just got to keep going, keep working hard, keep focused, and things will get better.’ And it certainly has.”

Which teacher or coach was influential when you think back to your time at BC?
“It’s hard to pin that down to one or two people. The fact that I still know their names has to say something about it. Really, just as a group, everyone was really supportive. Honestly, I think they cut me a little slack because I was a good student. Hopefully, they trusted that I wasn’t going to break their trust. That’s what I think it’s all about. That’s the key to success, in my mind, is work with people you trust and make sure they can trust you. Because if that’s not there, nothing else will work. I was never in the service, but I imagine if you go into battle, you have to trust that guy who’s backing you up. In sports, in particular, because that’s just kind of a microcosm of the world, you know, everybody has to do their part to make the team successful, and you have to step out of the way when it’s not your time. You can’t always get to play when you want to. You just have to be part of the team. And what’s best for the team is what’s best for you. That’s how I run my company. It’s very important that everybody feels like they are supported by me and our leaders here, and that they truly are supported. And they also help us get better. Everybody benefits when there’s a level of trust. There’s nothing that can really be accomplished when there’s not. We’re right at 70 (employees) but I think of it like 300 or 400 because they all have families. It’s funny, there was a guy who came out and helped coach me. I was an offensive lineman. There was a guy who came out and volunteered, I think, junior and senior year for me. I think that’s probably all he did because he was an older gentleman, named Bob McBride. He was just such a cool guy. I don’t know how much you know about his story but he was an offensive lineman at Notre Dame. He started his freshman and sophomore years, which was amazing because that was Knute Rockne days. And then he went to World War II, got captured as a prisoner of war, went down to 109 pounds or something like that. He was a prisoner for, I want to say three or four years, and if you just met the man, you’d know why he survived. The most incredible thing is he came back. He did whatever he had to do to get healthy again and he started for Notre Dame his junior and senior years. And when he left, I think he started a trucking company that was very successful and that’s why he retired and moved to Skidaway. But he was just a really inspirational guy and he appreciated effort and hustle, and he made that clear how important that was. He would always take us out and get us started on the drills before everybody else even got dressed. The harder you work, the luckier you get. My cleats were falling apart, and they had given him some cleats to wear when he was coaching and he said, ‘I’m going to give you my cleats.’ Anyway, he was just a good guy. He was only there for a brief time, but he had a big impact just because of who he was and how he treated everybody.”