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Three years ago we decided to plant a few tomato plants beside our office. That small patch of land has become much more.

Our plot has grown into a full garden featuring silver queen corn, rosemary, strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, turnip greens, cucumbers, peppers and of course—tomatoes.

Beyond the beautiful produce, the beds have become a way for our company to share with the community. In the height of the growing season we harvest vegetables and put them on our kitchen table.

We share among our employees, friends that drop by and our neighbors. One year we had an over-abundance of tomatoes, so it became a team effort to see what all you could make out of a tomato. You’d be amazed at the creative recipes.

It is a joy for all of our employees to share what we grow with our customers. When we build a building we give them a home for their team, but being able to share from our garden extends into their homes as well.

Those personal relationships are the foundation of our company.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Every year, we have a Christmas gathering to bring all the Stewart Perry families together.

The first year this reunion was held at our place, we spent one Saturday morning planting several hundred daffodils across the lake on the hillside. We chose that spot because it is visible from our conference room and is a reminder of renewal and hope that comes with each new year.

The experience that Saturday with our team and their families was invaluable. We all worked together to create a nice addition to our campus. In the years since then we have added more daffodils so that now every spring across the lake we have a beautiful vista of flowers.

Our daffodils are the gift that continues to give year after year. When we construct an “owner occupied building”, during the design stage, I share with the client that to me a building should be more than 4 walls and a roof and that it should leverage important values of the company. In our case, the daffodils serve us as a reminder to our team of the importance of being cohesive. I wonder what are the important values that your environment helps to communicate?




Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Last week we finished our United Way campaign in the city but it was not without a real push by its leadership and the United Way. Someone said that while the economy is cyclical, community needs are constant.

I have been thinking of some ways that small businesses can give back to the community that provide value to the recipient organization and at the same time provide some value to the company. A few suggestions came to mind:

  • Give time and services instead of money. Most of us can afford to part with a few hours of our time, and the personal experience usually is much more rewarding than simply writing a check. Like many, we have participated in community service for a number of years, which is fun for our folks and helps worthy organizations. The Pig Iron BBQ competition is one that fits this category we usually do annually.
  • Develop a charitable project for the entire company. Finding something the company can do together is a way to build a stronger bond among your team and help build morale.
  • Donate to non-profits instead of charging them a reduced rate for your services. If you charge the full rate and then donate some of it back to the non-profit, the donation is tax-deductible.
  • Join forces with other companies. If you cannot afford to give as much this year, reduce the amount of your donation but try to find some other companies to match it. A way to turn less into more.
  • We allow non-profits the use of our facilities. A much-needed conference facility can be of much use to a lot of non-profits nowadays.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you and your company help others. What’s the ROI on helping others?


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

When the first Tour de France bicycle race was held in 1903; Maurice Garin, the winner, clocked in nearly three hours ahead of the second-place finisher, Hippolyte Auconturier. This year, the margin of victory was a mere 39 seconds. The three-week-long race covered 2,263 miles. That means winner Alberto Contador traveled each mile 0.0172 of a second faster than second-place finisher Andy Schleck; a miniscule margin to victory.

Things are looking brighter, for sure, yet the margin for error to get a project and to be successful is definitely smaller than it used to be. To me, it is important that we watch out for every opportunity and be ready for the right ones that are a fit.

Our attempt at finding and securing new business is similar to a fisherman stretching a net across a river. The web in our net has to be pretty tight these days to catch opportunities that come by and not let them slip away. There are project opportunities out there for all of us; the key is to ensure that we land our fair share.

Everyone does business different ways, but here’s what works for us:

• Remain true to our core competencies and make the most out of the opportunities.

• Building brand awareness utilizing social communications and other marketing efforts.

• Strategic Relationships with others in the industry. We keep the radar up for each other.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

In my travels I get to experience some cool things and this recent experience reminded me of things that many us take for granted. This recently happened to me during my last visit to the Dakota’s this fall.  After arriving, we gathered in a small bar and were approached by a young man who had overheard us when the discussions turned to football…particularly the Auburn and Alabama rivalries.

Serving as a weapons officer, Capt. Pat Helton is with the 37th Bomber Squadron that is based at Ellsworth Air Force Base. This historic squadron has served in many missions including Doolittle’s Raid during WWII. The 37th Tigers have also flown in Operation Desert Fox, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Capt. Helton had dinner with us that evening and afterwards asked if we would like to come over and see the plane that he flies based in Ellsworth. But this wasn’t any plane, this was the B1 Bomber. The supersonic bomber that was first developed in the mid-70s, but wasn’t actually put into duty until circa mid ‘80’s. Most recently, it has served during our mission in Afghanistan.

We met Capt. Helton on Sunday morning and after going through security clearance. We were shown the flight lines and how the B1 approaches its missions.  We learned that at any given time, there are at least two B1s flying over Afghanistan providing support to ground troops.

We also learned that they spend an average of 15 hours in the air with a 24 hour service cycle;  flying in cramped quarters like an angel out over the countryside protecting their fellow soldiers. When called into action, Capt. Helton has direct communications with the ground troops deciding which type of ordinance to use.

After we wrapped up the tour of the 37th Squadron and saw the B1 bomber on the flight lines. It made me thankful that I was able to visit with Capt. Helton, learn about his duty and in addition, very thankful for the role our military is playing keeping peace in the world.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

While I think our economy continues to heal from what we are seeing the next 12 to 18 months will see more failures of the weak in commercial real estate and the construction industry.  2012 will be a tough year on the sureties and surety credit will even be harder to obtain over the next couple of years.

Many years ago when we were getting started, it was another tough time for surety credit and I will never forget those times.   The surety industry talks about the three “C’s” to obtain bonding capacity:  Capital. Capacity. Character. To me it was more like Capital. Capital and more Capital were the three “C’s”.

I believe there should be an “E” added in for Experience. If I were a surety, I would take less capital if there was a healthy dose of “experience” mixed in, but this is hard to list on a financial balance sheet. To me no substitute for the experience of hard knocks.

Beyond the Three C’s

I asked our surety manager, Ms. Sandi Benford of Berkley Surety Group, what she looks for in a good credit risk (beyond the three C’s and other underwriting). Here is what she had to say:

  • A contractor that is able and willing to communicate the good and the not so good. No Surprises.
  • A company that is able to forecast with accuracy. Being honest with oneself.  If there is a problem on the horizon have at least some semblance of an action plan.
  • If the company is experiencing ongoing losses, does upper management act with personal responsibility equability considering others in the company?

Thoughts and Comments?


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

We at Stewart Perry like where we live, and we like our neighbors. Donna Sue Groves believes you can express those feelings through her relatively newfound art—barn quilts.

“The barn quilts are public art that celebrates the place people call home. They make people feel good about themselves and where they live.” – Donna Sue Groves

We decided to give it a shot on our woodworking barn. We plan to paint several quilts over the coming year to reveal the unique diversity within our small community.

Ms. Groves originated the barn quilt project in Adams County, Ohio in 2001. Almost ten years later, this simplistic concept of painting a quilt square on an eight foot square piece of plywood and hanging it on a barn for others to enjoy is now called the National Quilt Barn Trail, spanning more than 20 states and British Columbia.

She feels this phenomenon sweeping the nation reveals something about our communities. “When we all become part of a team, we actually weave the fiber that brings people together,” she says. I agree wholeheartedly.

Our first effort could not be a better illustration of how teamwork builds a better community. Mitchell’s Place, our across the street neighbor, is a center specializing in services for children, young adults, and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  This past Saturday, several Stewart Perry and Mitchell’s Place families joined together to paint our first barn quilt. As I watched everyone, especially the children, painting the 128 triangles that would make up 64 squares to finally form one large quilt, I could not help but be reminded of how rewarding it is when everyone comes together to accomplish a common goal. Even more rewarding was the laughter of the children, the smiles from the parents and the fun had by all as we got to know our neighbors better.

The geometric design, created by our own Lynn Wilkins, symbolizes the colors representative of autism awareness. All of the pieces, painted by several and pulled together as one, reveal our individual perspectives with collective aspirations. Our hope, like Ms. Groves, is simply for all to enjoy.

The barn quilt will be hung this week end. Please let me know if you happen to drive by. We’d like to hear your thoughts.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Since Planting Acorns evolved primarily as a forum to discuss views, encounters and takeaways from my professional life, it’s rare that I have the occasion to mention my family. With that said, I think facets of our personal lives shape the way we think professionally, so it’s important you know I’m a fortunate father of three healthy and reasonably bright children—a high schooler, a college student and a medical student. I’m thankful for a million things about them, including the connection they’ve given me to the next generation of American leaders.

It concerns me when I see the media paint their age group as a self-absorbed, unpatriotic bunch. From my perspective, I feel there’s a spirit that resides in the youth of America. Passion for freedom, patriotism and community has been passed down through our history, and I can’t dream that it skipped this generation. I was glad to get evidence last week.

Just after I posted the piece about our post-hurricane trip to New Orleans, our controller asked if I knew about the recent surge in college applications for New Orleans’ major universities—Tulane, Loyola and Xavier. Before Katrina, Tulane had around 16,000 applicants annually. Now they’re up around 34,000 for a freshman class of 1,400. Xavier is up approximately 20% and Loyola is projecting a 40% increase during the same period.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans has become a place to make a difference, where citizens can be a part of putting a battered community back on track. Judging by the influx of college applicants, our youth clearly want to be involved in this kind of movement.

Tulane has even started a public service requirement for graduation. What does all this tell me? There is a vital force inherent among Americans, no matter their age.  Sometimes it takes adversity to remind us of the common drive that calls us to action, but it’s very much alive in our youth, and it runs deep.



Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Blog-#6---Quilt-by-Bettye-Kimbrell2While traveling to project sites, I like to take the side roads “the roads less traveled” instead of the interstate, so I can get a better feel for the communities we are impacting. Along the way, I have come to know and support many local craftsmen and artists. Their unique pieces give me a chance to talk about where we have worked, who we have met and what we stand for.

It seemed natural to integrate those treasures into our new corporate campus. Inside, there is a prominent alcove that sat empty for a long time because we could not find just the right piece of art to occupy the space. We thought a quilt might work, so we engaged the Birmingham Museum of Art, which has one of the largest collections of quilts in the U.S. The quilt needed to look nice, and speak to both the homegrown nature of our business and the environmentally friendly overtones of the new office. The quilt that is presently hanging was sewn by Mrs. Bettye Kimbrell who was a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow.

We have two of Ms. Kimbrell’s quilts and another quilt from Mozell Benson who was also an NEA fellow as well, and the recipient of a home from the Rural Studio art/architecture program at Auburn University.

Our goal is to have 5-6 quilts in the collection and rotate them periodically. The quilts better the lives of the people in the building and also help support the our artists.


Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.</h6