Culture
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Hot sauce bottle labeled Secret Sauce

The Secret Sauce: ABC's 2023 Top Performers

Organizational culture marks the difference between a good and a great place to work. According to ABC Top Performer companies, it includes everything from leadership, safety and health to innovation, salary and benefits.
By Erika Walter
March 1, 2023
Topics
Culture
Workforce
Business

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote that is often mistakenly attributed to Peter Drucker. What the internationally renowned management consultant actually said, according to the Drucker Institute, was “Culture—no matter how defined—is singularly persistent.” Either way, the point stands: Organizational culture is paramount to a company’s success.

In the construction industry, culture is essential to fostering a thriving and vibrant workplace, creating safe and healthy jobsites and building better communities. That’s to say nothing of retaining top talent at a time when the industry needs to attract more than a half million additional workers on top of the normal pace of annual hiring to meet demand. Where does that type of culture come from? We asked a group of Associated Builders and Contractors’ 2023 Top Performer companies, who are recognized for being the best of the best in merit-shop construction. Based on their answers, it turns out that the secret sauce has six ingredients.

1. FAMILY ORIENTED

Instilling a family-oriented culture is a common theme for three woman-owned Top Performer contractors: Durr Heavy Construction in Harahan, Louisiana; JD James Inc., doing business as Nature Bridges, in Monticello, Florida; and Stronghold Engineering Inc. in Perris, California. “Our people often say that they are not just a number, and that is our No. 1 value proposition,” says Dana Stumpf, chief executive officer of Durr, a civil contractor that specializes in site preparation, demolition, utilities and concrete paving. “To be a functional family, we actively develop Durr’s culture through continuous improvements to who we are in all facets of life: contractors, professionals and humans.”

A 31-year-old general contracting, electrical, civil, renewable energy, design-build-design and construction firm, Stronghold Engineering has worked on high-profile, ground-up facilities; technically challenging repair and renovations for historic structures; significant seismic upgrades; and large civil, infrastructure and electrical projects exceeding $2.5 billion in cost. “We create the family atmosphere through our core values of quality, safety, teamwork, integrity and commitment,” says Beverly Bailey, president and chief executive officer of Stronghold. “In the marketplace, Stronghold is known for construction excellence, an eager team and a quality work product.”

Nature Bridges comprises two divisions: Nature Bridges, working on top-down construction bridges and boardwalks, and JD James Inc., specializing in architectural millwork installations. The company’s leadership thinks it’s important to give back to something that is bigger than yourself. “Because we are a family-oriented business, our culture allows us to offer competitive pay, benefits and flexibility,” says J.D. James, president of Nature Bridges. “We believe in giving people a second chance and helping them get back into society to be successful in the workforce.”

2. SALARY AND BENEFITS

Impressive compensation and benefits as well as open lines of communication are common threads for a strong culture. Brown & Root Industrial Services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which performs more than 30 types of industrial services in nearly 30 states and five countries, is a $1-billion company that employs approximately 9,000 people. “We pay well, offer great benefits, create nice work environments and invest in our people through development programs, upskilling and creating career paths,” says President and CEO Andy Dupuy. “Each employee has a succession plan, and they know where they are heading in their careers.

“We are a favored employer and believe diversity of thought is of vital importance to Brown & Root,” Dupuy says. “All of these factors contribute to our dynamic culture.”

The same goes for Mountain States Fence, which offers a range of commercial and industrial fencing products in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the 60-year-old small business employs 40 people. “When you look at our culture, the levels of trust and loyalty are high, we compensate well and we win quality work,” says President and CEO Rick Higgins. “We all believe in this company, and we are fair and honest with our employees.” Another culturally outstanding company is SDV Construction, a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business in Albuquerque that is a full-service general contractor for clients such as the U.S. Department of Energy, local school systems, the Catholic Church and the space industry. The diverse contractor has a workforce made up of nearly 25% veterans and revenues of around $25 million annually.

SDV’s culture centers around its core theme of “OTOG”—one team, one goal. “OTOG is everywhere; it’s on our jackets, hardhats and backpacks,” says President and CEO Paul Farless. “Our employee value proposition is to keep compassion and humanity in the organization. We care for our team and the contracting teams we work alongside. We treat people like humans, knowing our work is not always the priority; our families are the priority.”

3. LEADERSHIP

Another ingredient in the secret sauce of organizational culture are leaders who create and embody the culture, with strong recruitment and retention programs in tandem with a commitment to employee health, safety and innovation. SDV’s leaders, for example, believe it’s important for their team to operate holistically, both mentally and physically. Benefits and perks include a wellness program that offers a $250 check for completing an annual physical and bloodwork; an insurance program that requires minimal copays; remote work options; a 4% match to employee 401(k) contributions; tickets and parking passes to sporting and entertainment events; and bonuses.

“We call it life–work, not work–life, because we want to make our teams’ lives better,” Farless says. “We believe in promoting from within by utilizing ABC’s apprenticeships programs.” Adds Stronghold’s Bailey: “Our leadership team and structure are very intentional. Our leadership team radiates our core values in everything that they do. We meet regularly to remain aligned on our initiatives and try to improve as a team.”

For Brown & Root, leadership is about empowering people to lead themselves. “The leadership team sets the priorities, outlines expectations, gives direction and then allows our people to innovate and execute,” Dupuy says. “We don’t tell people how to do their jobs; instead, we give them a vision and goals.”

That’s the case at Durr Heavy Construction as well. “Culture is one of my primary responsibilities, and it is my job to set the direction and the tone,” Stumpf says. “However, as it relates to our culture, leaders are at every level of our organization.”

4. TALENT RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION

“We invest in our people,” says Mountain States Fence’s Higgins. “We are involved in ABC, and we upskill our workforce through craft, safety and leadership courses.”

After conducting an employee survey, SDV moved to a permanent four-day workweek, at 10 hours per day. “The 4/10 workweek has been one of the major components of success in recruitment and retention,” says Farless, who is quick to say that SDV leaders are selective about who they hire. “We look for character over capability,” he says. “We try not to hire arrogance or attitude. The craft-skills part is trainable, but it’s hard to teach the soft skills. We don’t hire to fire; we hire to retire. Our intent is to hire someone who will work for SDV until they decide they don’t want to work anymore.”

Bailey points back to culture as an essential recruitment and retention tool. “Our culture of family creates a space that cares for our team,” she says. “We work hard to relay this to our team, and it shows by the level of talent that we recruit and retain.”

Given Brown & Root’s large workforce, the contractor invests heavily in recruitment. “We want the right talent and right person on the right project; it is important to match the craft strengths to the needs in the marketplace,” Dupuy says. “Right now, we have about 800 entry-level workers. We set up training classes at jobsites for these workers, and we put them through NCCER and ABC craft courses. We recognize that people want to know where they are going and want to advance in their careers. We want them to know they have opportunities in this industry.”

5. HEALTH AND SAFETY

Safety is a pillar of importance and a core value for the Top Performers we spoke with. “We think of safety first and foremost,” Nature Bridges’ James says. “No one wants to work in an unsafe environment.”

A culture of both physical and mental health and safety cannot exist without leadership taking a stand that includes an unwillingness to compromise safety—and modeling this belief in their every action. “Safety is the most important,” Higgins says, “and it is our biggest priority.” Adds Stumpf: “Safety first. Period.” All Top Performers participate in ABC’s STEP Safety Management System, which measures how leading indicators—proactive injury and hazard elimination tools on the jobsite—improve safety performance. The construction industry has long evaluated safety performance based on lagging indicators, which measure performance based on past incidents or conditions. Lagging indicators rate companies not on the steps taken to prevent jobsite injuries and fatalities, but rather on the number of past safety failures. Having a culture-defining commitment to safety means being more proactive. Challenging and transforming the status quo to create a belief that all incidents are preventable creates a culture where safety is considered a moral obligation—not just for leadership, but for all employees. “Safety is paramount,” Farless says. “It’s ingrained in our culture.”

6. INNOVATION

“Innovation is a good thing and a true necessity,” Higgins says. “We look for efficiencies through innovation to help with labor shortages.”
Similarly, Dupuy calls innovation a must to remain competitive. “We are consistently upgrading systems, services, software and procedures,” he says. “We are using predictive analytics, project-control systems and materials-handling systems. We are embracing VR and wearable technology.”

Stumpf defines innovation as new ways of thinking, processes and technologies, while James notes that the ingenuity her crews use in the field to get things done is incredible. And for Stronghold Engineering, “If there is a better way to get to the finished product,” Bailey says, “we will not hesitate to provide our thoughts to our client on the best innovative tools that will provide for a great quality project.”

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

How do these ingredients combine into an outstanding organizational culture that is reflected in a company’s work in the field and onsite? We asked our Top Performers to share a recent project that exemplifies their culture.

  • Brown & Root Industrial Services: “We recently completed a 14-month project at Louisiana’s Clean Diesel Plant three months ahead of schedule with zero safety incidents,” Dupuy says. “Quality, productivity, thoughtful planning and innovation were all essential to success.”
  • Mountain States Fence: “We are in the middle of building 16,000 feet of permanent and temporary fencing at the Salt Lake City International Airport,” Higgins says. “We are working alongside multiple contractors and securing materials with competitive pricing through carefully coordinated efforts. This $550,000 job speaks to our stellar reputation, because the clients and contractors trust us and view us as a company that does what we say we will do.”
  • Durr Heavy Construction: “Durr recently completed the expansion of a cold storage facility in New Orleans,” Stumpf says. “We had no safety incidents and brought in respected local subcontractors and vendors to assist in reaching the client’s goals. We were the first on call to address challenges or changes in scope. The client had complete trust in our abilities."
  • Nature Bridges: “Executing a project at Bonnet Springs Park in Lakeland, Florida, Nature Bridges worked diligently with all the team entities from the owners, engineers and designers to bring the owner’s vision to life,” James says. “We worked hard to design on budget, and we took into consideration everyone’s opinion to make the project come together.”
  • Stronghold Engineering: “Stronghold is in the process of completing our largest project to date at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California, and this exemplary project hits every mark,” Bailey says. “Our team excels at finding niche, technically challenging projects in remote locations. Our employees are hungry, humble, smart and ready to build a quality project done safely. This project was difficult to navigate, but we are happy with the result.”
  • SDV Construction: “SDV approaches every project the same way,” Farless says. “We are currently executing a $9-million upgrade to a historic courthouse in eastern New Mexico. We hire local and become part of the community. We pay per diem and keep the project on a four-day workweek, so employees can go home to their families.”

It seems that the secret sauce of organizational culture isn’t so surprising, or even all that secret. By offering an employee value proposition that is rooted in basic principles of fairness, opportunity and recognition, these companies develop their people, win quality work—and deliver that work safely, ethically and profitably for the betterment of their communities.

by Erika Walter

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