Lee Lewis came to Niceville in the 90s with a dogged determination for success. His company, AVCON, came with a mind to expanding business for the company – which plans and oversees road, airport and other civil engineering projects around the southeast United States.
“The goal wasn’t financial,” Lewis remembers, “I was going to prove [an AVCON office in Northwest Florida] would work.”
Work it did. AVCON now has a serious book of business that includes airports, the department of transportation, municipalities, and private developers.
AVCON is an Orlando-based civil engineering firm with 35 years of experience. The company employs about 100 employees in offices around the Southeast.
The company began to service the aviation industry for all of its civil aviation needs. In the last 35 years, the business has expanded to offer planning, engineering and construction management needs – especially for government contracts, like airports, facilities that need expert stormwater retention and management, as well as roadway projects.
The 24-Hour MBA
Proving an office in a small town like Niceville for a technical company like AVCON would work would have something to do with the Engineering skills the firm brought to the table. It was about building the right staff.
“I like to say I got my MBA in 24 hours,” Lewis said, “there were light bulbs that came on for me in terms of setting goals. What do I want my office [structure] to be? How big are we gonna be? What kind of positions do we want to grow into? What kind of services do we want to provide?”
It meant acting in an entrepreneur’s role – wearing many hats. “We were marketing, we were production, we were construction administration, we were doing some level of accounting,” Lewis remembered, “so the variety was a lot of fun.”
With staff in place – AVCON began to expand and get business around the Panhandle. They visited airports near and far to interest them in using their services for runways and aircraft aprons. Business grew.
About ten years into his work in Niceville, Lewis and his team of engineers stumbled upon something new. Something that could change the world of airport pavements.
A researcher at the Asphalt Institute, a think tank for – you guessed it – the use of asphalt discovered a new, high-polymer, asphalt would hold up to the constant punishment of airport life better than anything used previously. The think tank pushed a high-polymer asphalt as the future of the airport aprons.
But, many people in Florida were skeptical about the high-polymer asphalt. It hadn’t really been tested according to the big wigs in charge of the grant money Okaloosa County and AVCON used to rehabilitate pavement at the Crestview Airport (known by its call-letters CEW).
Untested and Unfundable are synonyms as far as the Florida Department of Transportation is concerned. “Everyone is scared of their shadow, right?” Lewis said, “[DOT] said, ‘we’re not funding it.”
Plenty of people would have ‘shut up and colored’ – after all, a government contract is a government contract – do the work and get paid, right?
As he drove home from the disappointing meeting with DOT he asked his passenger in the car, the scientist from the Asphalt Institute, if he’d defend the new asphalt’s superior composition on the merits of the case in an official statement. The scientist agreed – and Lee wrote a memo to everybody. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the DOT, the Army Corps of Engineers, The United States Air Force – everybody. “We requested permission to exceed state standards, and they said, ‘we have no problem, as long as you stay in the grant amount.’”
They applied the new asphalt. The risk worked so well, the asphalt is now used across the country as the latest asphalt pavement specification adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, because [the technological advance] with [asphalt] technology,” Lewis said, “we were really the first ones [to formalize the specification for the asphalt in a commercial setting], which was the cool part.”
When they are not taking calculated risks to innovate in the world of civil engineering, the team at AVCON takes their skills and spreads them across the community.
Many of the team members who’ve earned the Professional Engineer (PE) credential use their talents to help the community become stronger and more resilient from storms and natural disasters. They also give back to the young people in the community and protect the environment.
Lee Lewis, the team’s leader, recently served as the Chair of the One Okaloosa Economic Development Council and continues to work with other community leaders to promote athletics and good sportsmanship with the All Sports Association of Okaloosa County. They’re the folks who award the Danny Wuerffel Trophy to the college football player who exemplifies the traits fans respect about the legendary University of Florida Quarterback, like community service and humility.
Professional Engineer John Collins, another team member, gives back to the community by serving on the Okaloosa County Planning Commission – a task requiring technical know-how and a caring touch.
Tonia Nation, another Professional Engineer with the firm, has given her free time to preserve the beauty of South Walton Vistas as a volunteer board member with Friends of Scenic 30A.