A Business Partnership Forged by Texas Tech
This team of three bonded on campus, then formed Southland Holdings: a construction company that recently rang the New York Stock Exchange Opening Bell.
Ashlyn Grotegut | April 24, 2023
With a round of fist bumps and Guns Up – it was official. They did it.
As the sound of the New York Stock Exchange's large Opening Bell filled the air, business partners Tim Winn, Rudy Renda and Frank Renda celebrated as their construction company, Southland Holdings, went public last month.
“They told us, ‘You're going to ring the bell for about 20 seconds and the emotions will probably take care of themselves,'” Tim said. “And that is exactly what happened. It was a really neat feeling.”
Each ding felt like a culmination of years of work that ultimately led Southland Holdings and its subsidiaries to become one of the largest infrastructure construction companies in North America, with their work spread throughout the world.
“They say every overnight success takes about 20 years, and that was the case here,” Tim mused.
Together, they have built transportation infrastructure that connects the U.S., constructed water pipelines and built treatment facilities to carry water across vast regions, bored tunnels through challenging geology, and completed some of the nation's most iconic structural landmarks.
But that was not enough in itself to qualify for the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Southland Holdings had to have a certain amount of revenue and public shareholders.
“Luckily, we qualified,” Tim said. “It allowed us to realize, ‘Hey, this really is something special.'”
Rudy could not help but feel a deep sense of appreciation through the commotion of the bell and the applause – not entirely for himself and his partners, but for their employees and the businesses that paved the road to this point.
“Our oldest company has roots back to 1900,” he said. “If you add up the cumulative years of all companies we owned prior to going public, it was almost 375 years of business those individual companies had done. So, we felt like we were representing everybody who came before us.”
This occasion was the next step to ensure Southland Holdings lasts hundreds of more years.
“There was so much hard work done for the country over the last 123 years of our company's existence,” Rudy said. “This was to celebrate that – and a new beginning.”
But to appreciate the true start of Southern Holdings, one must travel back to where Rudy, Frank and Tim first united nearly 30 years ago: Texas Tech University.
Teamwork at Texas Tech
It was Freshman Day in 1995, a three-day camp to prepare the newest Red Raider football team members before the upperclassmen arrived.
Tim, a tight end, still remembers the moment he saw Rudy, who played fullback.
“He had long hair and was this macho Italian guy, and I was this redneck from East Texas,” Tim joked. “We were polar opposites.”
Like magnets, they gravitated from teammates to close friends.
“Tim is a very smart, very interesting guy,” Rudy said. “He's very tough, physically and mentally, and very competitive.”
As the two grew to know each other, they discovered they had similar backgrounds. Rudy's family was in the construction business, while Tim's father was a civil engineer.
In pursuit of their passion to build, Rudy majored in finance and Tim majored in finance and economics at the College of Business Administration, now known as the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business Administration.
Before long, a coincidence occurred.
“Tim and Frank were in a business class together for almost a full semester and they were buddies in class,” Rudy said. “But they didn't connect the dots that Frank was my cousin and Tim was my teammate. When we found that out, we started talking about getting into our own business, because Tim wanted to go into construction.”
During football seasons, Rudy and Tim became three-year letterwinners. What fans did not see off the field was how they spent their spring breaks and summers alongside Frank, working together at the Renda family business: Oscar Renda Contracting.
“Tim actually lived with me going into our senior year,” Rudy said. “We were building a job together right before we went to two-a-days for our senior year.”
The three were not only gaining experience in their field of choice but also testing their compatibility as potential business partners.
“When you're looking for partners in business, two key elements you're looking for are dependability and resiliency,” Tim said. “Those are key if you want a long-term relationship with somebody in a tough business.”
Alongside those traits, Tim and Rudy also encompassed words of wisdom from their head coach, Spike Dykes.
“Football and construction are almost synonymous in a lot of respects,” Rudy said. “Coach Dykes used to tell us, ‘I don't care who gets the credit. We're going to be a great team when nobody cares who gets the credit.'”
Turns out, that unselfishness united the Rendas and Tim as they aimed for a shared end goal.
“We wanted to be the best at whatever we did,” Rudy said. “We wanted to commit with everything we had.”
The Rendas and Tim all graduated from Texas Tech by 1999. Tim estimates he has talked to Rudy 20 times a day through text or phone calls since that point as they made a bet on themselves.
“We've always had it all on the line,” Tim said. “We self-funded this company. With what little we had to start, we just kept reinvesting in our business and never really took money out.”
Building Their Business
Three years after their graduation, in 2002, Tim and the Rendas bought a tunneling company eventually known as Southland Contracting.
“We were able to grow that business to where it was not just a Texas-based tunneling business, but a North America-based tunneling business,” Tim said. “We got a nice job in San Francisco, another one in Washington D.C. and New York. And they all went well.”
That provided cash flow that enabled growth – eventually forming Southland Holdings in 2006 based in Roanoke, Texas.
Before the Rendas and Tim knew it, in 2008, they had their first tunnel project that required a contract of more than $100 million.
“We were growing pretty rapidly at that point,” Tim recalled.
That acceleration caused the three to divvy up their roles – Rudy and Tim would drive, contract and organize the work, while Frank ran the business side of operations.
Their titles grew, with Frank becoming chief executive officer and Tim and Rudy chief operating officers.
“Frank knows how to push us and is very calm, thoughtful and discerning,” Rudy said. “We all know when we set our plan together, we're going to be on the same page and will attack it with all our energy and resources. We might not always be successful, but our approach is always going to have maximum effort and energy put into it.”
They knew they wanted to provide more services than just tunnelling to provide a steady stream of work for their employees, so in 2012, Southland Holdings acquired a company which specialized in transportation projects: Johnson Brothers Construction.
“We basically repeated that in different markets a couple more times,” Tim said. “Now there's six entities rolled up under the Southland Holdings name.”
The family of companies boasts several historic constructions: the Empire State Building, World War II landing ship tanks, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge east and west spans, among other work.
But each new expansion and project came with risk.
“It was all our capital we kept rolled up in it,” Tim said. “So every one of these jobs was a bet-all situation. We were essentially doubling down on ourselves with every single project we took.”
In tough scenarios, Rudy liked to bring more of Coach Dykes' advice into the business realm.
“When it's easy, everybody can do it,” Rudy said, “When you get a little bit of adversity and you're sore, tired and hurt, you still have to be the person they can count on.
“It's really all about perspective. He used to tell us in game film, ‘Hey, it's never as good as you think you did and it's never as bad as you think you did.' And what I take away from that is you just have to be level-headed. You can't be highly emotional about things.”
Hard Work Pays Off
By 2012, an “aha” moment of Southland Holdings' impact hit Tim as he looked across one of his favorite projects to date: the Kentucky Lake Bridge.
“I can remember standing back there and going, ‘Man, this is pretty incredible,'” Tim said. “Since then, there's been many similar projects. Almost every project we get now I look at it and go, ‘Wow, I can't believe we're here.'”
Those moments make Tim remember a conversation he once had with his dad.
“He said building infrastructure is a calling because you're helping so many people,” Tim said. “You build a major water line from a reservoir and that's water for literally millions of people, or you build a bridge in New York City and there's going to be millions of people every day using that. So, it's not easy, but it's impactful to the world.”
Southland Holdings' work can be found across all 50 states and more than 60 countries as they have tackled road, bridge, tunnel, water resource, marine and specialty projects that have shaped landscapes and created sustainable solutions for future generations.
Last year, when Engineering News-Record magazine released the Top 400 Contractors, a list published each May that ranks the 400 largest U.S.-based general contractors (both publicly and privately held) based on construction contracting-specific revenue, Southland Holdings moved up 14 spots to No. 69 with $1.38 billion in new contracts in 2021.
Landing a spot in those rankings was a personal goal for Rudy.
“The thing about construction is you get to look at what you do and have the feeling that you're helping society,” Rudy said, “and it's a good feeling.”
Looking to the Next Generation
At the height of their success, the Rendas and Tim both credit Southland Holdings employees as their most valuable asset.
In 2015, when they realized there would be a large infrastructure spend by the federal government with a shortage of contractors to complete the work, they decided they needed more capital to pursue larger projects – in turn, giving their employees more opportunities.
Hence the reason they decided to list Southland Holdings on the NYSE.
“It's our duty to find a way for our employees to grow within our company,” Rudy said. “We've felt that since we first got started.”
Some of the employees the Rendas and Tim have sent all over North America and wish to retain are Red Raiders like themselves.
“There's some kids that come out of school who have this sense of entitlement and they don't have a lot of work ethic,” Tim said. “They think just because they've got a ring they've earned something, and you don't see that with Texas Tech grads. They just put their head down and work, and you can go a long way in our business with that good work ethic.”
Rudy and Tim not only support their Red Raider employees but Texas Tech as a whole – particularly through generous donations to Texas Tech Athletics.
Tim also was recently elected to the Texas Tech Foundation's Board of Directors, which oversees the organization's partnership with the Texas Tech University System to raise, manage and invest gifts on behalf of donors and the component institutions supported.
“We're very proud to be Red Raiders and Texas Tech means a lot to us,” Tim said. “We got a lot out of it, so we put a lot into it.”
That mutual respect is why the three paid homages to their alma mater during one of the biggest milestones of Southland Holdings: the ringing of the NYSE Opening Bell, the “aha” moment of validation for Rudy.
“None of it really hit me personally until the day after we rang the bell,” he said. “We didn't celebrate success along the way very much. I think we always had high expectations of ourselves and our employees and believed we could do anything if we stayed aligned and committed.
“That was just part of our growth plan. Now, it's onto the next one.”