How a general contractor thrives when everything in the world goes wrong

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Garry Myers, senior estimator/planner with Clark Construction Company and his approximately 120 colleagues at the Lansing, MI-based general contractor, have had more than their share of challenges in the past few years — and decades.  Confusion with the much larger Clark Construction Group LLC (based in Bethesda, MD) is probably the least important issue, though Myers jokes about how a publisher proudly presented him with an award, recognizing technological and planning achievements purportedly achieved at the “other” Clark Construction.

Clark Construction Integrated Project Delivery

A pre-construction meeting for a Michigan State University project to renovate a dining area in a 50-plus-year-old building. The meetings included the chefs, maintenance, anyone with input on the design.

The challenges here are more fundamental.  How can a regional contractor which traces its roots to providing construction services for the automotive industry retain its employment level and scale, large enough to be on the lower-end of the ENR 400 chart — when the entire Michigan regional economy experiences a multi-year recessionary battering, far longer and deeper than virtually any living person has survived?

I learned the answers are a combination of adaptability and roll-up-your sleeves effort and a willingness to look outside of traditional boundaries, with the ability to take risks others would find uncomfortable, because of the company’s effective use of technology and strong pre-construction planning and BIM understanding.

A company newsletter celebrating the business’s 60th anniversary in 2006 recalls the first wise decision — back in the 1960s —  from the founding Clark family:

It was around this time that the once thriving American automotive industry started to show signs of instability. With a wary eye on the current business climate of the industry, Leon and his sons decided that in order to assure the company’s success, they would  have to diversify their range of business.

The company began building schools, office buildings, even prisons, diversifying into a solid general contractor, but still focusing virtually exclusively in the regional Michigan market.

Myers says Clark Construction began embracing technology and became one of the earlier investors in BIM software, which helped the organization break free of the barriers of conventional fixed-price bid work to providing extensive pre-consultation and construction guidance with developers and institutions.  With the software tools, Clark could generate solid cost estimates based on various “what ifs.”

The You Tube link above is is for a project recently completed in Ann Arbor, MI.  ”We built this model in-house and the city linked it to an information website on the project during construction,” Myers said.

In one case, this information resulted in a developer forgoing plans for a $100 million project.  ”After seeing the impact of the site on the propsosed project,” the developers put the venture on hold,” Myers wrote in an article describing the “optioneering” process in The Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Americas Constructor magazine.  ”Much faster than using traditional methods, the macro BIM model gave them the facts to make a fiscally smart decision.  Instead of languishing in limbo or spending huge amounts re-engineering the site, they can get started on their next signature project.”

Yes, this work — and it took some effort on Myers’ part — meant Clark would not get the job that would not be built, but the process of evaluating the site with BIM modeling technologies saved everyone headaches and struggles, and undoubtedly the developers for this project — with the capital and resources for other large initiatives — will call Myers (and Clark) in early for other future plans.

Nevertheless, even this technological focus and incredible level of foresight and expertise could not help Clark Construction make it through the recession without further adaptation.

Myers said Clark Construction has increasingly been bidding smaller projects, and it has gone after work involving conventional fixed-price public tender opportunities on an increasing scale.  (He said before the recession, Clark had reached the stage where it could win about 90 per cent of its work through construction management and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD)  rather than fixed public bids.)

“Now the traditional contracting part may be 30 to 40 per cent of our business,” he said.  The company also expanded outside of Michigan, taking on work in Kentucky, Georgia, Texas, Ohio and Kansas.  ”We’re covering a much wider area,” he said.

This diversification and geographical expansion has allowed the company to maintain its staff and remain viable even economic condition have remained much more challenging than anyone expected a few years ago.  In previous (recent) recessions, “there usually always has been a fairly good upturn, after all the pent-up demand starts to take place,” he said.  So far, that hasn’t happened.

Undoubtedly, the BIM and estimating/planning tools available to Clark have helped reduce its risk in moving into new markets and smaller projects, where fierce competition remains a challenge.  Even in fixed bid projects, the BIM tools allow Clark to check for inconsistencies and issues within mechanical and electrical systems — allowing it to catch what could be dreaded and costly incompatibilities before work starts.

Of course, the human element is still there — when you are new to the market, you lack the depth of local knowledge and understanding of sub-contractors and suppliers in the area.  Clark has been picking up that knowledge in the new markets it is serving.  With its excellent reputation, as well, it can win work where qualitative as well as price standards are important.

In the future, Myers expects increasing use of BIM and other technologies as owners appreciate the advantage of having the modelling planning capacities for future maintenance work.  He also senses mobile technologies and IPads will become much more important.

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