Englewood's Chuck Taylor

CHICAGO—Retail has started to escape the grip of the recession, and builders in the sector have seen the results. “We recently tripled the size of our estimating staff,” says Chuck Taylor, the director of operations for Lemont, IL-based Englewood Construction. “Activity is through the roof.”

Englewood and other retail builders have come a long way since 2008, the year construction activity dried up. Taylor says that year had been shaping up as their best since the company was founded in 2001. But “by Labor Day, the faucet just shut off, and there was absolutely nothing to bid on.” In 2012, however, inquiries from both landlords and tenants about possible projects were flowing into the office. And by July 2012, Englewood had already equaled the number of bids seen in 2008. Taylor estimates that the company is on its way to, by the end of this year, doubling the business they did in 2008. “I won’t say things are looking great, but they’re definitely looking good.”

Englewood currently does about $40 million to $50 million of construction per year. They specialize in the construction of American Girl Place outlets such as the 53,000-square-foot location in Water Tower Place, fast food restaurants, hotels, shopping centers and many other types of retail. Taylor calls the company “mid-sized. We’re not the small, pickup guys; we’re also not the ones you’d pick to build a hospital, but we can do a lot of things for our clients.”          

Taylor says that during the recession luxury shops for high-end buyers were still in demand. In addition, the company built a lot of outlets, such as auto parts stores, that served cost-cutting shoppers. “People were hanging onto their cars, fixing them up, and we rode a wave of these projects.”

Now, however, many of their bids are for the typical malls, stores or restaurants that serve the vast middle–income tier of consumers. “Middle market retailers are back,” he says, “which is great for general contractors like us.”     

“Everything we see happening in Chicago is happening across the nation,” Taylor adds. About 65% of Englewood’s work is outside the Chicago area, much of it with national retailers. “American Girl took us to Miami to build their store there; we follow our clients wherever they ask us to go.”

The revival of the middle-market has also caused retailers to start hiring construction managers again. “That’s a great sign,” Taylor says, perhaps a sign that retail may soon see even better days. “That whole displaced sector of the workforce is getting jobs again. That means they’re gearing up for something big.”