E.W. Howell Co., Inc. History
Woodbury, New York 11797
Telephone: (516) 921-7100
Fax: (516) 921-0119
Founded: 1891 as Brown & Howell
Sales: $142.7 million (2005)
NAIC: 236220 Commercial and Institutional Building Construction
At E.W. Howell Co., Inc., our mission is to provide our clients with the highest level of quality and service, accompanied by competitive pricing and timely performance. Our outstanding reputation allows us to serve our customers with unparalleled excellence through our solid teamwork.
- The company is founded by Elmer Howell and George Brown.
- Howell buys out Brown.
- Howell's sons become partners in E.W. Howell Co.
- The Manhattan office opens.
- Elmer Howell dies.
- The last member of the Howell family retires from the firm.
- Obayashi Corporation acquires the company.
- Howard Rowland is named president.
E.W. Howell Co., Inc., is a Long Island-based midsized general construction and construction management company, mostly doing work in the New York metropolitan and Long Island markets. Known for the luxury homes it once built on Long Island's "Gold Coast," the firm now serves a variety of clients. Cultural/institutional projects include work for the New York Botanical Garden, the Cradle of Aviation Museum, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. E.W. Howell also builds schools as well as projects for institutions of higher learning such as Columbia University, New York Medical College, and Long Island University. Another part of the firm's portfolio is assisted living facilities. Projects in this sector include the Norwegian Christian Home in Brooklyn, the Suffolk County Nursing Facility, and several facilities on Long Island for Sunrise Assisted Living Facilities. E.W. Howell also does work for a number of retailers--such as Target, Lowe's Home Improvement, and Costco Wholesale--and restaurant chains like Olive Garden and Red Lobster. The firm also does interior work, ranging from corporate offices to country clubs. A longtime family-run business, E.W. Howell is now a subsidiary of Japan's Obayashi Corporation, a global contractor that does more than $12.7 billion worth of business each year.
Company's Founding in the Late 19th Century
The firm that became E.W. Howell was founded by Elmer Winfield Howell and his father-in-law in 1891. Howell had been born 30 years earlier in Yaphank, Long Island, where he received six years of education in a one-room school before quitting at the age of 13. When he turned 17 Howell became an apprentice to an area farmer, but after four years of back-breaking labor he forever swore off the agricultural life, and in 1882 he relocated to Southampton, Long Island, to pursue an occupation more to his liking, becoming an apprentice to a carpenter. After two years he became a journeyman carpenter, plying his trade for different Long Island employers. In 1887 he became a plant foreman for a Staten Island narrow gauge railroad, the same year that he was married to Kizzie Brown in Babylon, Long Island. In 1891 he quit his job on the railroad and teamed up with his wife's father, George S. Brown, to launch a Babylon construction company dubbed Brown & Howell.
Initially, Brown & Howell concentrated on the construction of small, well-built houses. The firm quickly established a reputation for quality workmanship, an important factor in the young firm's ability to weather one of the periodic economic crises, the Panic of 1893, that plagued the United States during this period. After ten years the partnership was dissolved when Howell bought out Brown, and the firm became known as E.W. Howell, Builders. The firm survived the Panic of 1907, and a second generation became involved, Howell's 18-year-old son, Elmer B. Howell. A second son, Ralph DeWitt Howell, joined the company in 1918, leading to the 1926 creation of a partnership between the three Howells and a new name: E.W. Howell Co. A cousin, Louis Emerson Lee, came to work for the firm two years later.
While the family partnership was taking shape, the firm moved beyond the construction of small houses and began to make its mark by building many of the fine Long Island estates on what was known as the Gold Coast. Around the turn of the 20th century this area of Long Island's North Shore, stretching from Great Neck to Huntington, became a popular retreat where New York City's wealthy built lavish mansions, held fox hunts, and played polo--an era that F. Scott Fitzgerald captured in his novel The Great Gatsby. Until the stock market of October 1929 changed everything, the Gold Coast saw the construction of scores of mansions, most of them built by E.W. Howell. Illustrious clients included Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Marjorie Merriweather Post of the Post Cereal fortune, E.F. Hutton, Theodore Roosevelt, copper baron Henry Guggenheim, Henry S. Morgan (son of banker J.P. Morgan), Charles Lindbergh, Marshall Field, Vincent Astor, John T. Pratt, Charles Payson, Henry Luce, and Robert Moses, the longtime autocratic czar of New York City-area parks, highways, and bridges. It was Moses who bullied all opposition and forced the construction of the Long Island Expressway and other highway spurs that cut through many of the Gold Coast's palatial estates. Today, only a handful of the mansions remain in private hands. The rest are either museums, open to the public, or have been converted for use by colleges, religious institutions, or parks.
Luxury Residential Market Collapse During the 1930s
As the luxury residential market collapsed during the mid-1930s, the result of the Great Depression set off by the stock market crash, E.W. Howell was forced to shift its focus. With the founder well into his 70s, the second generation took greater control and moved the firm away from residential to commercial construction, opening a second office, located at 101 Park Avenue in Manhattan, in 1935. Given that it had built the homes of many of the country's greatest industrialists, E.W. Howell was well positioned to take on the commercial needs of many of these same individuals. The economy picked up with the advent of World War II, spurred by defense spending. Then during the postwar boom housing developments sprouted up throughout Long Island, as the parents of the baby boom generation fled the New York City boroughs for the new suburbs. Although E.W. Howell elected not to become involved in the construction of housing developments, limiting its residential work to the luxury market, it did take advantage of Long Island's expansion to take on the construction of other projects made necessary by the growing population: schools, hospitals, commercial buildings, and industrial space.
In 1947 several younger family members were named partners: Ralph D. Howell, Jr., Rogers Howell, Elmer B. Howell, Oliver B. Howell, and Louis E. Lee. In February 1954 Elmer B. Howell died, followed several months later by his father and founder of the firm, E.W. Howell, at the age of 94. Over the next 30 years other members of the Howell family sold their share of the business to outsiders, so that by 1984 only Ralph D. Howell, Jr., remained. When he retired in November of that year, he left the firm in the hands of five nonfamily partners.
The Howell name lived on with the firm, which continued to reap the benefits of its reputation for building quality homes. During the 1980s the firm took on a number of renovation projects on older buildings and, in some cases, the restoration of historic buildings. In 1981, for instance, E.W. Howell restored a pair of landmark Manhattan townhouses to create offices for U.S. Trust Co., work for which the firm received the New York Landmarks Conservancy's 1981 Chairman's Award, and in 1985 it restored the Rhinelander mansion on Long Island, allowing the structure to be converted to a retail store. E.W. Howell was able to draw on older workers as well as the offspring of some of the firm's employees who had worked on some of the Gold Coast mansions to provide some forgotten skills needed in these restoration projects. But the firm still had difficulty finding enough skilled workers, since younger people in the construction trade had been trained to work with steel, concrete, and sheetrock. As a result, E.W. Howell began pouring over old work rosters and looking up the progeny to see if little-used skills had been passed on from father to son. The firm also turned to preservation societies and architectural experts to compile a list of craftsmen, which were then compiled into a computer database for future reference.
In January 1986 Norway's largest civil engineering and construction company, Selmer-Sande A/S, acquired an 80 percent interest in E.W. Howell. At the time, the firm ranked 180th among the largest 400 construction firms in the United States, generating annual sales of $120 million. In addition to its Long Island headquarters, E.W. Howell maintained offices in Manhattan; Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Valhalla, New York; and Denver. Less than three years later, however, the Norwegians sold the company to Obayashi for $7 million.
Obayashi possessed a history as deep as E.W. Howell. Its founder, Yoshigoro Obayashi, founded a construction company in Oskaka, Japan, in 1892, a year after Howell and Brown launched their business. Obayashi's first major break came in 1901 when the firm won an important contract to design and build the grounds for the fifth National Industry Fair held in Osaka three years later. In 1920 some of its executives traveled to the United States to study modern construction techniques, which the firm applied to the construction of major projects in Japan, including the Mainichi Newspaper Office, the Sumitomo Building in Osaka, and the Merchant Marine Building in Kobe, Japan. Expertise gained in earthquake-resistant and fireproof construction techniques were then put to use following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that virtually destroyed Tokyo. After Japan's defeat in World War II, Obayashi spent a decade recovering, not winning its first major postwar contracts until 1956, when it built the Tokyo railroad station annex. Other projects from this era include work for the Japan Broadcasting Corporation and the firm's first hydroelectric power dam. In the mid-1960s Obayashi branched out further, building its first highway.
In the early 1980s the firm anglicized its name, becoming Obayashi Corporation, and began to expand internationally. It began doing work on mainland Asia, such as renovation work on the Shanghai International Airport in the People's Republic of China. In 1985 Obayashi entered the U.S. market, as did other Japanese construction firms around this time. In the beginning the Japanese came to serve as construction managers in the construction of manufacturing plants for Japanese high-tech companies, but it soon became apparent to their American general contractors that they planned to stay and start looking for building work. Obayashi opened a San Francisco office, where it won a contract to install a major sewer system. To expand its range of job opportunities, the firm in 1986 became a member of the U.S. Civil Engineering Society. It was then awarded a $62 million contract by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam on Elk Creek in Oregon, an ill-fated project that would be shut down a year later by the federal government because of environmental concerns. Nevertheless, Obayashi had established a presence in the U.S. market, one that was strengthened in 1988 by forging an alliance with the U.S. construction firm of Fluor Daniel Inc. to combine their efforts in building plants and research facilities in both countries.
Obayashi's acquisition of E.W. Howell was part of an effort to expand beyond the West Coast to take on projects in the Midwest and the eastern parts of the United States. Under Japanese ownership, E.W. Howell opened offices in Atlanta and Chicago, but the company remained very much a New York metropolitan-oriented construction firm. Obayashi took a hands-off approach to the management of E.W. Howell, allowing American managers to serve the market they knew extremely well, while the company expanded its operations to Europe and took on more work in Asia. E.W. Howell's current president, Howard Rowland, was well familiar with the firm and the market, having come to the firm in 1983 as a project manager, at a time when it was still run by the Howell family. He held a number of positions before ascending to the presidency in February 1997.
Marking Its 100th Anniversary in the 1990s
E.W. Howell celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1992. No longer a builder of fine estates, the firm embarked on its second century of business focused on commercial and institutional work. During the 1990s E.W. Howell completed projects such as the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York; a Short Hills, New York Saks Fifth Avenue department store; a Lord & Taylor department store; three Sunrise Assisted Living Facilities projects; the Huntington Hills Health Care Facility in Melville, New York; the Orange County Residential Health Care Facility in Goshen, New York; and a Multi-Purpose Health Technology Building for the Suffolk County Community College. Also during the 1990s, E.W. Howell established a relationship with Target Stores, building four of the big-box retail locations in the final years of the decade.
After maintaining its headquarters in Port Washington, New York, for 15 years E.W. Howell relocated to Woodbury, New York, in February 2000. The firm continued to do business with a wide selection of clients, with about 85 percent of sales the result of repeat business. E.W. Howell built more Target stores and Sunrise Assisted Living Facilities projects, and completed work for Saks Fifth Avenue. Other important clients included Lowe's Home Improvement, Tiffany & Co., Costco Wholesale, LA Fitness, Morton's Steakhouse, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster. With a 100-year-old reputation for quality work and legendary mansions on its list of accomplishments, the firm was well entrenched in the New York City area and likely to enjoy continued success for many years to come.
Principal Operating Units: Pre-Construction; Construction.
Principal Competitors: Skanska USA Building Inc.; Tishman Realty & Construction Co. Inc.; The Turner Corporation.
- Barohn, Ellen Sterling, Long Island: An Environment for Success, Montgomery, Ala.: Community Communications, 2001.
- Greer, Kimberly, "LI Builder Renovates a Golden Past," Newsday, November 24, 1986, p. 3.
- Manning, Jeff, "Japanese Cast an Eye on Local Construction Work," Business Journal-Portland, March 3, 1986, p. 12.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.72. St. James Press, 2005.