Matt Warner C'88
Building on Family Tradition:
Matt Warner, C’88, is a third-generation CEO of one of the largest contractors in central Maryland.
By Lisa Gregory
When Matt Warner’s two sons were younger, people would ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up and the little boys would enthusiastically reply, “We want to be R.W. Warner men,” a nod to the family business. And, while Warner admits to getting a chuckle out of their answer, he also says that he would never push the boys into the business. Much as his own father did not push him. “He always let me know that I was welcome, but that it was my decision to make,” he recalls.
Yet Warner found his own way there, working for R.W. Warner Inc. of Frederick, Md., for the past two decades. “I can’t imagine myself anywhere else,” says Warner, who is now president and CEO of the company.
The small plumbing business that Warner’s grandfather began in 1937 is now one of the largest contractors in the area, employing more than 300 employees. Today, R. W. Warner Inc. consists of five corporate divisions: R.W. Warner provides the major piping work; Warner Service provides residential plumbing and HVAC services; Kaempf & Harris is a sheet metal company; Warner Industrial focuses on industrial service work; and Warner Construction, the general construction division, recently finished the first significant downtown Frederick Class A, multi-use building in more than 20 years, with another one getting ready to start.
Like his grandfather and father before him, Warner followed his own vision of how the company could best succeed. “My father had faith in me,” reflects Warner. “I remember him saying, ‘It’s your time now. Take this company in the direction you want.’ That meant a lot.”
By then, Warner knew that R.W. Warner was where he wanted to be. But, as a student at the Mount, he wasn’t always so sure. Warner, who graduated in 1988 with a degree in business and finance, entered the school keeping his options open.
“I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he recalls. He was far more certain of his choice of colleges, though. “Growing up in Frederick County, I had always admired the Mount. It seemed like a good fit for me.”
It was. Warner says that the Mount prepared him well for his future profession. It was also the place where he met his wife, Marybeth Bigham Warner, C’89, a fellow business and finance major.
Looking back on his Mount days, he distinctly remembers a particular management class with professor John Hook that would shape his own management style in the years to come. “He was very easy going and reassuring,” recalls Warner. “I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to emulate that kind of management style. And I have. I’ve kept in mind that no one wants to work for someone who doesn’t treat them kindly or with respect. Dr. Hook’s approach really stood out for me.”
By his senior year, Warner began to seriously consider his future prospects. “A lot of my friends at the Mount were interested in going to Wall Street and working there,” he says. “I wasn’t sold on that. Then there was a big downturn in the market in 1987. At that point, I had worked in the family business during summers and holidays and had enjoyed it. I decided I would give the family business a try.”
Warner graduated on a Saturday and went to work at R.W. Warner that following Monday. He began as a project manager, quickly working his way up to general manager. By that time his father had become president, pursuing commercial, industrial and government contracts, and his grandfather had retired, but still visited the company often. “He would come by and talk to me about projects and what jobs we were doing,” says Warner.
As he took on more responsibility, Warner quickly made his own mark on the company. For example, R.W. Warner embraced computer technology earlier than most similar companies. Warner distinctly remembers a turning point when he knew that he, too, was a “R.W. Warner man.” “Things got really rough with the recession in the early 1990s,” he explains. “The construction industry got hit hard, and we went through a hard time as well. That’s when I realized that, hey, this is not just my job, but my career, my livelihood.”
Some of his decisions as he took more control over the company were not easy, but necessary to make. For example, “My father never turned down a job,” says Warner, “no matter how small.”
However, “smaller jobs take just as much time and effort as a larger job but with much less margin,” notes Warner. “My father slowly came to realize that it was okay to say no to a job that wasn’t the right fit.”
Warner adds, “We do a lot of work with hospitals and schools, as well as a lot of government work.” Recent projects include more than $20 million worth of renovations at Frederick Memorial Hospital and a design build contract to construct the Frederick County Public Schools’ new, multistory office building.
Despite his success with the family company, Warner has not confined his business prowess to R.W. Warner. Recently, he became an investor and will serve on the board of directors at the newly established BlueRidge Bank in Frederick. “It’s been great seeing it grow,” he says of the new bank, “and my finance background from the Mount helps me with my position on the board.”
These days, his sons no longer talk about growing up and becoming “R.W. Warner men” but are more focused on playing lacrosse and football like typical 11 and 9 year olds. But Warner knows the possibility is there for them, including for his youngest child, a daughter. If they want it.
“I’d be proud if they wanted to join the business,” he says. “But I would be prouder still if they chose something that they really wanted to do and had a passion for it.”
Much as their father does in his own work.
This article was originally printed in the Fall 2008 Mount Magazine.