Your student housing development partner

Fast 50 #5: CW Construction

In the years following the recession, there's been no slowing in the apartment boom in the Southeast. CW Construction, which cut its teeth by building student housing, had all the right experience to benefit from demand for multifamily housing, which is a far bigger market.

Building apartments that appeal to millennial residents helped CW Construction double its revenue in 2013 over the prior year to make it one of the region's fastest-growing companies.

"Our clients in student housing are part of the 70 million echo boomers who are starting to graduate and get their first jobs and apartments," says David Helfrich, chief executive of CW Construction and CampusWorks Development, a student-housing developer. "We've been tracking the wants and needs of millennials for the last decade. We know what they want, and we build to their expectations and needs."

Helfrich has been an entrepreneur since his freshman year at Michigan State University, when he obtained a license to sell Ray-Ban sunglasses and quickly outsold off-campus stores. He began his construction company in 1993 in Raleigh. He moved it to Charlotte in 1996 and soon began to concentrate on multifamily development and construction. He launched CampusWorks Development and focused on student housing throughout the Southeast, which CW Construction built for its sister company.

That model worked until the financial crisis in 2008, when CampusWorks slowed its development activities and began to work for other clients. Today, more than 80% of CW Construction's work is for third-party clients. CW Construction is licensed in 12 Southeastern states.

CW Construction is building a $35 million, 670-bed apartment project at Mallard Creek Church Road and N.C. Highway 49 near UNC Charlotte. The project, University House Charlotte, is being built for Inland American Communities. CW has student-housing projects under construction at the University of Tennessee and the College of Charleston. The company is set to start in 2015 an apartment project on Central Avenue in Plaza-Midwood.

The company's experience developing and building apartments next to college campuses helped it develop a keen focus on meeting critical deadlines — housing must be ready before the start of school.

"We would argue that building student housing is more challenging than traditional apartments," Helfrich says. "It's very schedule-driven, and if you don't make the schedule, it impacts the tenant in a significant way. When you are building in a market with lots of supply, if you are able to get it built one to two months ahead of schedule, it's an advantage for our clients. We've made 17 of 17 on-time scheduled deliveries."

CW Construction specializes in conventional, stick-built, midrise buildings in urban settings. Helfrich says as former competitors in the general contracting industry let go of experienced staff members during the recession, he was able to hire highly qualified employees. "We had a strong balance sheet, and when the market rebounded, there were fewer contractors to do more work," he says.

Helfrich says the multifamily market remains robust, and he expects 2015 to be another strong year for CW Construction.

"There's been a fundamental shift in millennials' minds about owning a home versus renting," he says. "They came through the credit crisis and saw what happened to some of their parents and people who owned homes. We now see young people staying in apartments longer. They are mobile, and it gives them more flexibility to not be tied down to a mortgage."

David Helfrich, chief executive

You started a laundry business in college that's still in operation. How do you create a lasting business? I have focused my career and business endeavors on a strong demographic — college students. My businesses ranged from Ray-Ban sunglasses, student painters, a student laundry business, student housing and now conventional apartments, all focused around millennials or echo boomers. I have followed my client base.

How do today's apartments differ from previous models? The amenities are supersized. Millennials are attuned to interaction and stay connected across many media platforms. We provide managed services for the Internet in our student-housing communities and deliver 1 gigabyte of data to each unit.

What will future apartments be like? We will see smaller units like in New York and San Francisco, where renters want amenities, so they will choose smaller units to achieve this lifestyle.