Williams Industries Inc. may be one of the smaller publicly held companies in the region, but that didn't stop it from speaking in a loud voice in its last earnings release.
A small, specialty construction company in Manassas -- among other things, it fashions big pieces of steel for bridges and highway overpasses -- Williams blasted Congress and the Bush administration last month for letting an entire year go by without putting a new highway spending bill into law.
Since that day two weeks ago, Williams has gotten more than four dozen calls from people applauding its public stance.
Among the callers was Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which lobbies in Richmond and the District of Columbia for new roads.
"I told them if we had more companies speaking out, we'd probably be a lot further along," Chase said. "It's unusual for an individual company to do this, but if more would get involved, some of these logjams might be broken."
In a news release explaining why the company lost almost $800,000 last year, President and Chief Executive Frank E. Williams III, a Republican, said last month, "The fact that Congress has been unwilling or unable to pass a new infrastructure spending bill after more than 18 months of political haggling is an indictment of our lack of domestic priorities. Our elected officials on both sides of the aisle can't seem to find time to focus on what is clearly a priority for the safety of the American people."
The callers weren't just from local advocates. Calls came in from as far away as California and Connecticut.
"The guy in L.A. wanted an investor packet," said Marianne V. Pastor, director of investor relations. "The fact we were fairly blunt about Congress's negligence got people's attention."
But Robert F. Norfleet, a stock analyst, said he thinks congressional inaction on the highway bill played only a small role in Williams's loss last fiscal year, which ended July 31. The far bigger factor was the high price of steel. Indeed, he said, the company's backlog of work increased over the year.
"Just because you have a lot of work, it doesn't mean you're going to make lots of money," said Norfleet, an analyst at Richmond brokers Davenport & Co., who recommends buying the stock as a long-term investment. "As a result of higher steel prices, your profits get hit. And that's what has really happened to Williams."
"Steel prices are killing us," said Edwin Jennings, president of Richmond's Liphart Steel Co., which fashions and erects steel beams and girders for the framework of buildings. "If you signed a construction contract a year ago, and you're buying steel for it now, you're dead."
Jennings said steel costs him $100 a ton, double what it cost a year ago.
Williams noted briefly that high steel prices contributed to its loss. But the company looks at the issue another way: The delay on the highway bill cost it contracts more profitable than the ones in its backlog because the new ones take into account the higher price of steel.
The delay in the highway bill hurt Williams by forcing it to close an Alabama plant for fashioning huge pieces of steel. The company hoped the plant, which it plans to close soon, would allow it to expand into the Southeast, but the plant doesn't have enough work.
Congress and the Bush administration have been at odds in an election year over how much to spend on highways. President Bush wants a $256 billion outlay over the six years usually covered by the bill, which was to have been passed a year ago. After months of haggling, the House and Senate recently failed to compromise on a $299 billion bill. Meanwhile, Congress has been patching together short-term spending bills, the latest to run through the spring, which means that next year is the earliest a complete six-year bill can be passed.
That is a serious problem. State and local governments that depend on federal highway money are holding back on putting out bids for much-needed road projects. One such project is the widening of Interstate 95 south of Newington, where it becomes three lanes from four. The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance supports the project, saying that if Washington needed to be evacuated during an attack, that is where one of the worst bottlenecks would happen.
Williams can be blunt about his feelings because his name is on the front door and his family owns much of the company's stock. The company, though, has had its troubles, and some of them started before Congress began dawdling over the highway bill.
Frank E. Williams Jr., father of the current chairman, started the company in 1960 and spent the go-go 1980s acquiring other companies and running up debt. When the recession hit in 1990, the company began losing money and defaulted on most of its bank loans. Williams retired in 1994 but still owns almost 17 percent of the company; the family owns almost 30 percent more. The stock was delisted from the Nasdaq for several years. In 1997, it had to trade forgiveness of $4.5 million in bank loans for equity in the company. The company has been trading between $3.50 and $4.50 a share since March.
In 2001, the company moved its corporate headquarters from more expensive Falls Church to just outside the city of Manassas. It is the only publicly held company headquartered in Prince William County.
Despite the delay in the highway bill, Williams is working on some of the biggest projects in its history. Those include the underground visitor center being built in front of the U.S. Capitol; the Springfield interchange; and a $30 million deal to fashion and erect girders on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac, its biggest project ever.
The company's revenue last year was $53.9 million. Although it's a relatively small company, its political profile in the industry might grow.
Pastor, the company spokeswoman, said that Williams will keep banging away at Congress and the administration. "I've even registered to lobby," she said.