General contractor Zernco growing by leaps and bounds

04/17/2014 12:00 AM

08/06/2014 10:56 AM

Ashley Thill is taking a breather.

Her company, Zernco, based in Augusta, grew revenue 74 percent last year.

Thill, the company’s CEO, said she’s turning away work in an attempt to grow more slowly and allow management to adjust. The company had sales of $21 million last year and expects sales of $30 million this year. It has 50 employees.

“I want to get our feet under us,” she said.

Zernco is a general contractor that specializes in construction and remodeling of restaurants and convenience stores for national clients. Her crews are strung across the eastern half of the United States.

“We have some crews working in the middle of the night,” she said. “Applebee’s is a big client of ours. We’ll go in after the stores close and be out at 8 or 9 in the morning.”

She said she’s looking to hire 10 people right now, but is having a hard time finding the right people.

“I’m starting to have to turn away business,” she said. “The challenge is to finding skilled craftsmen. We must maintain a quality product. The reason I took over was to continue the family legacy and protect the family name.”

The company was founded in 1991 by Thill’s stepfather and mother, Dave and Jan Zerngast. Her stepfather had worked construction for years, traveling extensively, but decided to start a company in Augusta to be closer to family. He started doing cabinet work in the garage, moved to a workshop and, later, to the location on U.S. 54. Jan Zerngast handled the financial side of the business.

Thill was working at accounting firm Kennedy & Coe’s wealth management division when, in 2009, she took over as Zernco’s chief financial officer. The idea was that after three years her stepfather would start to back away from the business, and after five she would become the majority owner. But that’s not how it worked out.

“We got together in 2011 to see where we were, and he said, ‘I’m going to move out over the weekend, and you’re going to take over.’ And I said ‘What?!!’ I came in Monday and his office was empty,” Thill recalled.

Her parents have spent most of their time since then traveling, checking in every few weeks. Dave Zerngast has recently come back as a consultant on construction operations for the company.

The leadership transition during a time of national recession as well as corporate growth has gone pretty smoothly. Thill has assembled a team that works well and being a woman in an industry dominated by men isn’t much of an issue – most of the time.

“Some in the industry have pre-conceived notions,” she said. “When I attend events a couple of men will ask me what do you do for Zernco. And I’ll say, ‘I’m the CEO,’ and they’ll say ‘No, really?’ and I’ll go ‘Well, that’s what I do.’”

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