Building the Future
Four construction science graduates relive their journey to building Opifex, a successful equipment rental company in Austin.
- Written by Diane L. Oswald
- Photo credit: Opifex LLC
- Jan. 11, 20215 min read
Standing knee-deep in muddy water on a construction site in Austin, Texas, as customers waited to hear the steady hum of the pump they rented from his company, Joseph “Jay” Vaughn III ’19 labored to get the machine working.
Vaughn, who graduated two years early from Texas A&M University‘s College of Architecture with a bachelor’s degree in construction science, could have taken an easier career path. He could have remained on campus to enjoy the traditional four-year undergraduate experience, or he could have graduated and joined his family’s business, Vaughn Construction, in Houston.
Instead, he struggled against time and his program requirements to finish college two years early and establish Opifex LLC, a construction equipment rental company.
“It was at that moment, when things weren’t going well with my first rental and the pressure was on, that I knew I had made the right decision,” said Vaughn. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else! Growing up in a construction family, I developed an entrepreneurial spirit and a genuine interest in finance.”
From an early age, Vaughn wanted to start a business, but he didn’t know exactly what kind.
Growing up around the family business, he learned everything he could about construction company operations. “While reviewing expenses on a Vaughn Construction project for a Texas A&M laboratory, I realized that equipment rental expenditures for the jobsite, including rental fees across all trades, is one of the largest cost categories,” Vaughn said. “Additionally, equipment rental companies can use senior debt leverage because they have much higher margins than contractors and are not bound by typical capital needs for surety bonds or insurance. At age 20, when I graduated, I did not have any equity, so this seemed like the perfect industry to dive into because of the access to debt.”
What he learned in his construction science classes and internships helped him develop a vision. Vaughn researched publicly traded construction and heavy equipment rental companies to analyze revenue, expenditures and organizational structure, and he used this information to draft a business plan. “I approached manufacturers and showed them how we could buy their equipment on installment and make the payments based on reasonable estimates of rental demand and the fees we would charge,” Vaughn said. “In a relatively short period of time, we had major manufacturers like John Deere, Case New Holland, Terex and Oshkosh offering us millions of dollars in credit to increase their sales and expand our business.”
Vaughn’s classmate, Stefan Gresham Jr. ’18, soon joined Opifex as a partner, as did Connor Navalta ’18 and Cooper Hicks ’18. Established in 2018, the company is a historically underutilized/minority owned business with more than $10 million in assets and is on track to be one of Austin’s fastest growing businesses. Three of the four Opifex partners are following in the footsteps of family members who built lifelong careers in the construction industry.
Each partner has a specific role:
- Vaughn, the company’s chief financial officer, manages relationships with lenders and manufacturers, oversees the company’s investment portfolio and maintains the capital structure
- Gresham, the chief executive officer, manages all revenue producing activities including strategic business development, fee structures, and the sales team. He also manages many of the strategic business decisions including market analysis, strategic growth opportunities, and future CapEx planning
- Navalta, the chief operations officer, oversees the execution and completion of the company’s rental agreements
- Hicks, the vice president, supports everything from sales to operations, with a focus on managing assets and developing the company’s growing service department.
The partners employ service technicians, mechanics and drivers to round out the operation.
In addition to fulfilling leadership roles at Opifex, Gresham and Vaughn are committed to grow as business and industry leaders. Gresham was selected to participate in JE Dunn’s Minority Contractor Development program. The program, operating in 13 cities, provides Gresham and other minority and women contractors an opportunity to learn from experienced professionals and develop leadership and business skills.
The program is also helping Gresham learn to think more strategically about operations, future growth and how to better compete in an ever-changing marketplace.
Vaughn will pursue a Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard University beginning in fall 2021. Academics will fill much of his time, so Opifex’s future growth will be dependent on the continued leadership of Gresham, Navalta, and Hicks.
Recognized for his academic excellence, Vaughn, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA, received several merit-based scholarships, including the Lechner Scholarship, Larry H. Cumberland ’71 Endowed Scholarship and the AGC Constructor Endowed Scholarship.
Just shy of his 21st birthday, Vaughn used money left over from his personal undergraduate college fund to establish the Webb-George Endowed Scholarship in the Department of Construction Science.
“Thanks to the scholarships I received, money I earned on job sites, graduating early and matching funds from the Construction Industry Advisory Council, I was able to fund a scholarship,” Vaughn said. “The scholarship supports undergraduates in construction science, and it honors two students with disabilities who I mentored when I was in high school. They made a huge impact on my life.”
Ask any of Opifex’s Aggie partners and they’ll tell you—with success comes a responsibility to give back.
“Philanthropy is a shared value in our business,” Gresham said. “Three of our four partners received college scholarships, so we believe in investing in others.” Individually or as a company, the partners support the Department of Construction Science, The Association of Former Students and several local and industry organizations.
“Among other organizations, we support the National Association of Women in Construction, because we are committed to helping our industry become more diverse,” Vaughn said. “Our company is stronger because we bring different experiences, backgrounds and worldviews to the office each day. When we look at challenges from our varied vantage points, our collaboration is often richer, more creative and generates better solutions, in part, because of our differences.”
The future belongs to young professionals like Vaughn, Gresham, Navalta and Hicks. Their generosity, leadership and the example they set for others will help lead the way.
To learn how you can support architecture students and faculty through gifts to the college’s scholarships or programs, contact Larry Zuber at (979) 845-0939 or email@example.com.