Chris Eccleston of Delmarva Veteran Builders featured in this month's edition of "At Ease" magazine
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Story by Brian Shane | photos by Todd Dudek
Chris Eccleston's pinch-me moment came in 2016 when the Department of Defense had honored his still-growing construction firm with the Secretary of Defense Freedom Award, the government's highest honor for companies that support National Guardsmen and Reservists.
"I was like, 'wow. I can't believe it.' I mean, I was on the stage with the CEOs of Lowe's and Alaska Airlines," he recalled. "For me to be in the same room and give the same speech on the same stage as these high-powered CEOs? We'd been in business three years at this point. It was unreal."
Eccleston, 37, is a navy veteran who founded his own construction company with the explicit goal of hiring fellow service members- and has skyrocketed to remarkable success in just a few short years.
His firm, Delmarva Veteran Builders, handles multi-million-dollar commercial and military contracts in Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. In 2017, they did $18.5 million in business; in 2018 that figure rose to $25 million. More than half of the company's 25 employees have past military service or currently serve in the Reserves.
Eccleston's goal of having 50-60 percent veterans on the payroll came from his own experiences of being told he was overqualified for construction jobs because of his military resume.
"I knew the potential that was there," he said. "Construction's the easy part. The attitude, showing up to work every day, the tenacity, the innovation - that's the stuff that's hard to find. So, if you have a bunch of people with a winning mindset, you can harness that, and teach them."
Eccleston joined the Navy out of high school in 1999, and expected to one day extend his enlistment to officer candidacy, followed by a career in a the Navy. But the game plan changed after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
The first of his three deployments embarked exactly one week after that fateful day. He would go on to spend more than four years aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where he last served as a machinist mate second class in the nuclear reactor room.
Being deployed, he said, "gives you a much different perspective on things" when you're back in civilian life.
"It hardens you," he said. You have this ability to handle adversity and this kind of resolve that you get. You can embrace and live through the suck, if you will - that's a Navy SEAL term, 'embrace the suck' - while you're in it. You can live in the world of 'this isn't pleasant right now' because you've done it and you've been overseas."
After his service ended in 2006, Eccleston earned a college degree in construction management, a field to which he was drawn because he wanted to be a part of a team that could deliver tangible results. Back in his hometown of Salisbury, Maryland, he found work with the firm Gillis Gilkerson, where he spent seven years climbing the ladder from laborer to project manager.
"Construction became very easy for me," he said. "I'm not trying to brag, but one the process clicked for me, I could handle multiple projects at one time. And so I wanted to take on more, and do that kind of stuff."
in 2013, the nation's economic recession had just ended, and pent-up demand for construction projects began to take shape. Eccleston, at age 32, decided to leave his employment, and start his own company.
"We gained traction really fast, and that kind of compounded on itself," Eccleston said. "It seemed like the community waned to support it. And timing to the market, with the economy kind of taking off, helped as well. It was kind of like the perfect storm."
Delmarva Veteran Builders now boasts a track record to rival any long established construction firm. Their average project size is $2 to $3 million. They've constructed five Royal Farms stores, and built two major hotels, with eyes on a third. The firm continues to grow in 2019 and hire more veterans.
Another major milestone for Delmarva Veteran Builders was landing at number 456 on the list of America's 5,000 best companies for 2018 from Inc. Magazine, which reported its three-year growth at a staggering 1,114 percent.
"You're doing great locally, but when you're up against everybody in the country? For me, it was like, holy cow. You're talking about the top 10 percent of businesses in the country. That's something I'm really, really proud of," Eccleston said.
"I think it's a testament to our workforce, who and what they are."
Eccleston admits he already had drive and energy, he he credits the military with giving him discipline and focus to achieve the goals he set for himself.
"I'm ready for more, really. It's what's next, don't stop. I'm really and truly blessed. It's just fun and exciting. There's a lot of opportunity out there right now, and it's cool to see that activity and that spirit alive here in Salisbury," he said.