by Caleb Talley
Little Rock’s Sam Alley may have always known what he wanted to do in life, but it’s not likely he knew just how he’d get there.
He wanted to be an engineer, specifically a civil engineer. “My family always spoke highly of civil engineering,” Alley says. “I wanted to be one. But I never knew that I’d be a contractor.”
He succeeded, now owning and serving as CEO of VCC, the largest retail contractor in the United States. But his journey was not one without obstacles. Namely, Alley was forced to start over – new surroundings, new friends and a new language – at the age of 14.
“When I moved to the United States of America from Jerusalem, I was 14 years of age. I started junior high in Rose City in North Little Rock. I didn’t speak a word of English. When I got to school, the students had never seen an international student before. They thought I came from Mars,” he says with a laugh.
Despite an obstacle that would have derailed most, Alley never changed course. He buckled down, leaned in and found inspiration in education. He’s quick to credit his teachers for their dedication to his transition to a new world. “They knew I was going to work hard and try to make it. They always assisted me. That’s why I’m always thankful of teachers,” he says.
That hard work paid off, and after high school, Alley went on to study civil engineering at the University of Arkansas. There, he met Gus Vratsinas, a fellow engineer with a background in construction. They went to church together, and soon enough, Vratsinas would introduce Alley to the world of construction. And he was hooked.
“I loved construction because it combined business and engineering,” Alley says. “I’ve always, been raised around my father, who was a businessman, being a civil engineer and business equals construction.
“I started, during the summers, as an engineer out in the field. I loved it. When I graduated, I started full time at Pickens-Bond Construction Company.”
In 1987, Alley, Vratsinas and Ed DeMoss came together to form their own construction company – VCC. “We were equal partners, the three of us. My father helped us because none of us had cash,” Alley says. “My father put $100,000 into the company.
“When the three of us started the company, we started with three chairs, three tables and three phones. We walked into the building, and they thought we were bookies,” he adds with a laugh. “We had to work really, really hard to develop the business.”
And work hard is precisely what they did. That hard work, combined with a dedication to quality employees and a commitment to culture, has helped VCC build a reputation as perhaps the leading general contractor in the nation.
“Our success in business really starts with our culture,” Alley says. “Our competitors can copy a lot of things. But they can’t duplicate our culture. The rest of it is our people. It takes people to make things happen. We’ve been blessed to have great people over the years. People have been with me for over 30 years. Many have been with me for 20 years.
We take care of our people, and those people take care of our company,” he adds. “Being consistent, doing things right and doing what you say you’re going to do. We’ve been blessed to have so many repeat customers over the years because of that. We’ve been working for Simon [Property Group] for over 32 years. We’ve worked with Brookfield [Properties Retail Group] over the years.”
In retail construction, consistency is the name of the game, according to Alley.
“Being the No. 1 retail contractor in the country puts the pressure on you to always be on time,” he says. “It puts a lot of pressure on our people to stay focused. Retailers don’t want to hear excuses. They don’t care if it rained or snowed, if a subcontractor didn’t show up. They want it done on time. And that’s what we do. It’s a lot of pressure, and sometimes it seems impossible.
“But we’ve always been fortunate. We’ve worked hard and done the right thing. Retail contractors have the most demanding schedules. We’re very schedule-conscious, even when we’re not working on a retail project.”
While Alley and VCC have been fortunate, there have been bumps in the road, or as he calls them, storms. “We’ve always survived those storms,” he says. “But 2008, that was a tsunami.” The economic downturn of 2008-09 was an especially big hit for companies like VCC, as the Great Recession hit the construction industry earlier and harder. A study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showed that the construction sector accounted for 52 percent of the decline in employment and 35 percent of the decline in output during the Great Recession. Nearly 20 percent of construction firms in the United States disappeared.
But not VCC, thanks to Alley’s philosophy towards business. “We’ve positioned our company to have no leverage,” he says. “We have no debt. When you have no leverage or debt, you can survive those storms.
“We started with the philosophy that we don’t want to borrow any money because we want to survive those storms as they come. We continue to work with good clients who pay. We continue to perform and be profitable.”
Though it took longer than other sectors, the construction industry has bounced back from the economic downturn of the last decade. Alley does, however, see other challenges on the horizon for his industry, especially in the decline of skilled laborers and tradespeople who make up VCC’s subcontractors.
“The biggest challenge we have are finding good people to be in our industry,” Alley says. “In addition to having good people is finding good subcontractors. The subcontractors, or who we call trade partners, are so busy right now that they’re taking on more work than they can handle. It’s caused us an issue, schedule-wise. We’re very selective of who we hire. Hiring the right subcontractors is what makes our company so strong.
“A lot of tradesmen are leaving our industry,” he adds. “That’s going to be a challenge in accommodating the demand… It makes it difficult, and that causes construction costs to go up — that, and tariffs, and other things that are happening in our economy. Costs may get so high that developers won’t be able to make the numbers work. That’s one of my biggest concerns in the next few years.”
The construction industry, Alley says, is a good measure of the economy. When the economy is good, construction projects are abundant. When the economy is struggling, construction lulls. While he says a good economy is driving a vibrant construction industry, Alley believes labor shortages and tariffs could slow the industry down.
“I can see this slowing the economy because the construction industry is a good measure of the economy,” he says. “But I’ve always said, ‘If there’s a recession, I’m not going to join it.’ We operate in all 50 states. We’ve worked in other countries. But right now, we’re so busy here in the U.S. there’s been no need. If the economy slows down, as it did in 2008, that’s probably something we’d consider.”
Alley, himself, has no plans of slowing down any time soon. He and his company are currently working on a pair of central Arkansas projects, including the AC Marriott in Little Rock and the Orion building in North Little Rock, as well as a great deal of construction projects around the country.
And he’ll do so with his family at his side. All three of Alley’s children have joined him at VCC, adding to the family culture he’s worked hard to develop at the firm.
“Family is so important to me,” Alley says. “Three of my four brothers have worked with the company. The fourth, who we call the black sheep of the family, is a dentist. It’s a family business and not just those who are blood. Everyone who works for this company is part of the family. You don’t have to be immediate family to be family.
“And now my three children will be working for my company. Two have been working with me. It’s taken me 11 years to convince the third one. The third one kept saying, ‘Dad, you can’t afford me.’ But we were able to make a deal,” he adds with a laugh.
His wife, too, he says, has played a major role in helping him build a successful company. “I wouldn’t be here today without my wife, Janet. She’s been incredibly supportive.”
But though he has no plans of slowing down, Alley says it is critical for any business leader or entrepreneur to consider succession. In the case of VCC, leadership will be handed to family. And that’s because, at VCC, everyone is considered family.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to have succession planning. My partners and I had succession planning. We have started that thought process. And it will be a family member, because like I said, everyone that works for me is part of my family,” he says. “Our president, Ryan McClendon, who lives in Dallas, we hired right out of college 25 years ago. My son works closely with him. That’s something we think about, not even for when I retire, but, God forbid if something were to happen to me. You have to be prepared. You have to plan.”
Alley’s passion for what he does is palpable. He takes pride in every project he’s taken on, but especially those early projects that helped start it all. He doesn’t like to pick favorites, but he will if you press him.
“I was once asked by a friend while playing golf, ‘What’s your favorite hole?’ I said, ‘All of them.’ And that’s how I feel about our projects,” he says. “When you look around at everything we’ve worked on, they all have their challenges, and they all have their positives and beauty.
“If you were to pin me down, I would have to go back to when we first started our company and built the University Mall. That’s what we did first, and it always comes to mind. It started it all.”
If there were ever someone who embodied the American dream, it was Sam Alley. Having come to America, learning English while working as a grocery store cashier in Prothro Junction to leading the largest retail construction firm in the nation, he’s proof that one’s goals can be achieved when enough grit and determination are applied.
“When we came to Arkansas, it was the land of opportunity,” Alley says. God bless America for the opportunities it has given people like me. I want to say that over and over again. The American dream can be accomplished by anyone. You’re given the opportunity, here in America.
“I don’t know if I could make it anywhere else,” he adds. “In America, you have that opportunity.”