The Ellison men of EWI Construction talk family, business and more

The dictionary definition of a father is as follows: one who loves, supports, guides, encourages and inspires his child or children.

Sam Ellison, patriarch of the Ellison family, checks all those boxes and more.

His eldest son, Casey Ellison, established EWI Construction, in Tampa, in 2007. His younger son, Cory, joined big brother as the company’s first employee not long after and, in 2014, Sam joined his two sons and is currently chairman of the company.

With 40 years of experience in the business, he’s been able to pass on lessons, while learning a few of his own, during his tenure at EWI.

With major Tampa projects like the Oxford Exchange, Armature Works and Stovall House, to name a few, on their résumé, it’s safe to say, the father and sons have a winning business model. With projected revenue of $110 million in 2022, and its first major project in downtown St. Petersburg coming out of the ground, a 23-story residential tower called the Nolen, the sky is literally the limit for the Ellison men. 

***

The story begins in Georgia. Sam was born in the city of Thomson, the youngest of eight children. He spent his time outdoors with his father, hunting quail every Saturday morning, fishing, and even played on the state championship football team at Thomson High School. 

His mother, he says, was the best southern cook you ever knew. She is who taught him how to make his famous chili.

“She taught me that before I went to college because she didn’t want me to starve,” Sam says with a laugh and a twinkle in his eyes.

The patriarch of the Ellison brothers is laid-back and jovial. And when the three are together, there’s a sense that you’re in the presence of a family that shares a lot of love, a lot of humor and a lot of common interests and beliefs. The Ellison apples did not fall far from the tree.

Sam started in the construction industry with an internship in Georgia. In 1984, he relocated to Tampa to establish its presence in Central Florida, thus establishing the Ellison name in the industry and planting roots that would remain in the Tampa Bay area.

“We grew that into a powerhouse. We were the largest in the whole area, and maybe one of the biggest in the state,” Sam says.

Decades later, both of his sons would follow suit, even though neither of them, admittedly, ever planned to.

***

EWI Construction was established in 2007, at the start of the major financial downturn that continued into 2008 and beyond.

Casey told his father he wanted to start the business. Sam says he thought he was off his rocker.

“He told me he wanted to do it because he didn’t want to be sitting around when he was 70 years old, thinking he wished he would have tried,” Sam says.

The truth was that Casey had an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. For example, he would sell candy out of his school locker, his “bubble gum business,” as he describes it.

“I’ve always had a side hustle. For a long time, I had a business that renovated bathrooms and kitchens,” Casey says. “I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit.”

Growing up, Casey had a childhood much like his father. He was outdoors a lot, fishing and spending time with his friends.

The family lived in Tampa’s Town ’n’ Country area, where there wasn’t a whole lot built up quite yet.

“I would get up in the morning and ride my dirt bike from Hillsborough Avenue, on the north end of the Bay, to where Westchase is now and come back at night,” Casey says. “I had a group of guys I hung out with, and we would stand in the front yard in the evening while my mom would spray the mud off us. Running around, building forts and camping in the woods, that’s how we grew up.”

Casey went to Jefferson High School while his brother, Cory, went to Plant High School. They are six years apart and have a younger sister, Cari, who also works for EWI.

Cory says he spent more time tagging along with Casey, and his friends, than he did with his own friends. It’s the reason Casey and Cory went to different high schools. Casey wanted to go to school with his neighborhood buddies.

“I had to protest pretty hard not to end up at Plant or Jesuit [high schools],” Casey says.

Casey eventually studied finance at the University of South Florida.

“At the time, I did not intend on staying in the construction industry,” Casey says. “At some point, I decided that I wanted to be in the real estate space. Construction was in my blood, though. We’d been doing it for years.”

After college, Casey worked on the development side of the industry and, during that time, he had the idea for EWI Construction.

“I felt like there was an opportunity to have a construction company and a development company and make margins on both sides of the equation,” he says.

Even though the development side of things came to an abrupt halt after EWI began in 2007, the construction side picked up and remained steady in the coming years.

Cory was entering the workforce not long after Casey established EWI. He came on board as employee No. 1.

“It was a way to bridge the gap between the economy coming back to when real estate companies were actually hiring people again. And he just never went away,” Casey says, with a laugh.

“It was an interesting time because with everything going on, the rest of the market seemed to cool completely off and we seemed to just get busier and busier,” Cory adds.

Like his brother, Cory didn’t want to be in the construction industry either.

“I wanted to be on the real estate side, but [Casey] needed a superintendent. Literally, as I was graduating (college), I was interviewing and then everything fell apart. Then I realized I really enjoyed it,” Cory says.

“It’s a unique business in the fact that there’s a tangible thing when you’re done, which is something that I really enjoyed about the business. We just kept rolling and rolling and rolling and rolling, and it turned into what it is today,” he says.

***

In 2005 Sam and his wife had moved to Mexico to run the international division of the Beck Group, but when Casey and his wife, Alissa, had their first child, it was time to come home, Sam says.

After returning to Tampa, Sam joined his sons at EWI Construction, in 2014.

Some of EWI’s most notable projects include The Oxford Exchange, the indoor AdventHealth Training Center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, University of Tampa’s Ferman Center for the Arts, Hotel Haya, Armature Works, Sparkman Wharf and, more recently, the Stovall House.

Oxford Exchange was a huge win for the firm, described as a defining project in EWI’s history.

“That was truly a remarkable hospitality offering in this market and we were a very young company when Blake [Casper] chose us,” Casey says. “I think that was a big part of how we’ve ended up in so many placemaking projects. I can tell you, Oxford led to Armature.”

One of the differentiators EWI has, according to Cory, is how committed it is to having a strong, collaborative relationship with architects.

“We make sure that we’re protecting the designs and the architects,” Cory says. “I think that’s why we end up with spaces that are as good as they are, because we take just as much pride in the design portion of it as we do the construction.”

In addition, attention to detail and maintaining authenticity is another way the EWI team creates such warm, welcoming spaces.

“What I realized with Oxford, and others, is it’s all about authenticity,” Casey says. “If you can’t afford wood paneling in a project, then don’t do fake wood paneling. Do something real. If you do it real, there’s something subconsciously that people connect to.”

Next up is a big first for the company. A multifamily tower in downtown St. Petersburg, the Nolen, which will be 23 stories high.

“This shoots us into a whole other market that we weren’t in before. In many ways, I think that kind of removes the last roadblock for us,” Cory says.

The Nolen breaks ground this month and is expected to be complete in the summer of 2024.

The versatility of EWI is one of its greatest assets ensuring longevity.

“You have to do a pie chart. You don’t put all your apples in one sector. You can’t just do multifamily or just retail, you must divide that out. Part of the pie must be education-related because everything else slows down at some point. But education will take you through the slow times,” Sam says. “If you do the pie and you split your business up into various sectors of the industry, that’s how you get through slow times.”

While this philosophy is good in theory, it can be a challenge. Having the right team in place makes the difference.

“If your people care and they understand how to build a building, they can build anything,” Casey says. “I think if your team cares and the craftsmanship is there, then the process is no different. It still has the same systems and the same building pieces that go together. I’m not a believer that construction needs to be specialized.”

***

Like any family, especially one that works together, there will be disagreements. But like any other family, all of it is manageable.

“We definitely don’t always agree. But at the end of the day, you just got to work it out,” Casey says. “I don’t think there’s a set way that we end up working it out other than lots of gnashing of teeth and slamming of doors, sometimes,” he adds, jokingly.

Cory agrees: “We may butt heads, but what we do, implicitly, is trust each other. That’s the most important piece. “We are certainly aligned in a lot more ways than we’re not.”

Being able to complete such iconic projects, which have changed the landscape of Tampa, and doing it together as a family is a source of pride for the Ellisons.

“There’s nothing better than when we finish a place and people are enjoying it…It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that,” Cory says.

Expanding and growing capabilities and reaching into new communities is the future of EWI Construction, but none of it will change the family dynamic that’s been built.

“I can tell you I want [this business] to forever feel like it’s a family business,” Casey says. 

Philanthropy

The Ellisons are extremely passionate about giving back to youth-oriented causes.

Tampa Bay Metropolitan Area YMCA, Junior Achievement, Frameworks and the Florida Council on Economic Education are just a few organizations that receive time, talent and treasure from Casey, Cory and Sam. That’s in addition to the family’s long-time support of the University of Tampa and the Tampa Museum of Art. 

“Having a strong family dynamic can set you up to be successful, and I think there’s a lot of people in this world that don’t have that,” Casey says.

In addition, EWI Construction encourages its employees to get involved with the Hillsborough Education Foundation.

All About the Barbecue

Barbecue is serious business for the Ellison family. They compete in four to five barbecue competitions every year, including the American Royal World Series of Barbecue. They were also named the most decorated team in Tampa’s Pig Jig.

Sam started the trend when he used to make barbecue for Sunday dinner, when the Ellison children were growing up.

So, what are the barbecue secrets the Ellisons are willing to share?

“It’s all about precision,” Casey says.

Cory adds that you can’t rush a brisket. “It will tell you when it’s done. You don’t get to pick and choose that.”

But, as always, Dad knows best. “Patience, patience, patience,” Sam adds.

Lessons Between Father and Sons

“Be genuine in everything. In your relationships, in your career … in every aspect of your life you should be genuine. That doesn’t mean you have to always be the nicest guy in the room but be genuine. People need to know where you stand, whether it’s positive or negative.” — Casey Ellison

“Being genuine. That’s definitely something that he has instilled in us. If you’re not genuine, people aren’t going to trust you. They’re not going to believe in you. And if your word doesn’t mean anything, then what are we here for?” — Cory Ellison

“Out-of-the-box thinking. They do crazy things, but they’re innovative ideas. They’ve taught me how to be a better builder.” — Sam Ellison

Photos by Michael McCoy

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