High-Performing Contractors & Proven Keys to Drive Through Pandemic Adversities

With much of the world squarely in the grip of COVID-19 pandemic, the construction sphere has also felt its impacts and encountered numerous unique challenges. Given that, some strong performers did manage to step up to the plate and deliver in a crisis.
Walsh inspection team on site
Source: Walsh
By | 13 min read

Beyond any doubt, the construction landscape is cyclical, riding the ups and downs of economic trends. Once this market growth was proven to be steady with a plethora of upcoming bright prospects, those prospects faded like greased lightning as the COVID-19 pandemic made its presence felt.

Given the initial expectation of growth, the industry, in many parts across the U.S., ground to a halt since countless profitable construction projects were put on pause and yielded no profit at all.

Notwithstanding that, a handful of contractors have managed to weather through and even flourish within such a tough socio-economic crisis. Who are they? And how have these top performers established their robust empire to navigate against all uncertainties, including the COVID-19 outbreak?

#1. Bechtel – Strong Culture as A Pillar of Preparedness

Bechtel website homepage
Courtesy: Bechtel

Founded in 1898, Bechtel has grown from an epic dream of its nearly bankrupt founder to the globally leading contractor that wins the majority of construction projects in both public and private sectors. Notably, this engineering, procurement, and construction leader has ranked No. 1 on the Engineering News-Record list of Top 400 U.S. contractors for the 22nd consecutive year. And there are good reasons why Bechtel lands the top spot for so many consecutive years, even amidst the COVID-19 period.

Working within the infrastructure, energy, nuclear, water, environmental cleanup, mining & metals markets, the Virginia-based behemoth has differentiated itself with its strong focus on people and technical excellence to deliver a lasting positive impact. These commitments are fostered via its solid Bechtel-specific culture, especially amidst the crisis.

For Bechtel, culture is appreciated as a pillar of preparedness. “My biggest takeaway from 2020 has been a profound appreciation of an organization’s culture in determining success in a crisis. Many organizations don’t consider culture when doing risk assessments or crisis planning, but culture can drive how you recover when you face unexpected issues and how quickly you can bounce back,” stated Brendan Bechtel, Chairman and CEO of the Bechtel Group.

With strong culture ethos grounded in safety, compliance, transparency and innovation, Bechtel has made great strides to enhance its core business operation – to improve transit, expand access to safe energy and reduce hazardous waste – while forming trust with partners and maintaining its thought leadership within the space.

Just recently, in late May, with numerous competitors squarely in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bechtel was awarded the Front-End Engineering and Design (FEED) contract by Nacero for development of the multi-billion-dollar energy transition infrastructure facility in the Permian Basin. This emerges as the first natural gas-to-gasoline manufacturing facility in the United States.

“We are delighted by this opportunity to support Nacero’s pioneering approach to delivering lower carbon fuel with our record of large-scale project success,” stated Paul Marsden, President, Bechtel Energy. “This project is truly a game-changer. It will give everyday American drivers a chance to participate in the energy transition and will be a model for the kind of environmental improvement America is looking to bring about.”

#2. PCL Construction – Comprehensive Technology Integration for Life

PCL website homepage
Courtesy: PCL

Let’s move on to another major player within the engineering and construction spaces – PCL Construction, or better known as PCL. Since its inception in 1906, PCL has been operating primarily on heavy industrial, civil and building construction. Working on 700-800 projects each year, PCL has attained consistent results and broad geographic diversity to ensure its continued success.

With a long-established history of more than a century, this giant is well known for its “innovate or die” philosophy, which has not only driven the corporation through uncertainties but also reshaped the modern construction industry. In practice, PCL has made a fundamental shift away from “legacy IT” – Keep the Lights On (KTLO) technology – towards becoming an integrated business technology group. From homegrown estimating software to staff management applications, the Denver-based PCL has striven to be an active participant in technological change, instead of merely reacting to it.

As investment capital started to flow into the industry, PCL initiated extensive and comprehensive technology integration, consisting of 4 key pillars: cloud, integration, mobility, and data analytics. Shifting the business’s huge volumes of data from its hundreds of yearly projects to the cloud was a significant move for efficiency, as was integrating its technology more intelligently to allow innovations a quick gateway into daily operations. “If something new comes along that’s better, faster, or makes more sense for our business, we can rip out the incumbent technology and plug another one in. An integration framework allows us to be very agile,” shared Mark Bryant, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at PCL.

Technology also plays a critical role in regards to ensuring PCL’s return-to-normal operation within the COVID-19 and post-pandemic situation. As a true demonstration of the entrepreneurial spirit and a unique opportunity in the design and construction industry, P​CL Construction came together with WZMH Architects, Insight Enterprises and Microsoft to develop a smart screening prototype – Citizen Care Pod.

PCL manufactures and assembles the pods by retrofitting 20-foot and 40-foot shipping containers with customizable alternatives to ensure rapid delivery and installation to any site, in both high-traffic and remote locations. Well equipped with a suite of state-of-the-art technologies such as cloud and AI, the Citizen Care Pod incorporates Insight’s Connected Platform and PCL’s Job Site Insights™ Internet of Things hubs to deliver on safety and security in the physical testing environment. With its customizable features, the smart screening pods make COVID-19 testing mobile for any high-traffic business or community to expedite testing, screening and eventually vaccination on a mass scale to partly foster a health-secure future.

#3. AECOM – To “Digitize” Is to “Sanitize”

AECOM website homepage
Courtesy: AECOM

Headquartered in Los Angeles, AECOM is a premier infrastructure consulting firm, acknowledged as a leader within all of the key markets that it serves – including environmental, energy, oil and gas, water, high-rise buildings and government. This Fortune 500 is well proclaimed for its operational excellence that has been driven by its clear growth direction geared towards digital transformation.

As for AECOM, when it comes to managing capital assets and construction projects during the pandemic and for the future “new normal”, “digitize” is the new “sanitize”. Realizing mounting safety and operations concerns, AECOM developed innovative digital program management technologies that empower their engineering and design team to implement the strategies needed for safely returning to operations, and for long-term optimization of business objectives in the new normal.

Capital project management software and data immigration to the Cloud stand out as critical parts of the new normal. Whilst revenue streams may be more uncertain as a result of economic impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, AECOM smartly harnesses digital tools to gain critical insights in order to help their clients accurately manage construction project funding and financing planning. Once the construction work operations fully resume, AECOM teams would also offer ongoing digital-based financial monitoring.

Amongst their most innovative digital solutions are AECOM’s Revenue Optimization and Delivery Solutions that present a visualization of revenue optimization planning, and can incorporate projected COVID-19 impacts. Notably, their revenue modeling can also incorporate demand forecasting planning for post-pandemic mitigations.

“We’re a tight-knit community and we’re rallying together to learn from each other and provide a united front in dealing with the crisis. We can’t be islands in implementing solutions to help minimize the impacts of the crisis—it doesn’t serve ourselves or the industry well.” – Jay Badame, AECOM, President of Construction Management

#4. DPR Construction – Blending Innovation with Philanthropy

DPR website homepage
Courtesy: DPR

Founded in 1990, DPR Construction is a forward-thinking, self-performing general contractor and construction manager that specialize in technically complex and sustainable projects for the advanced technology, mission-critical, life sciences, healthcare, higher education and commercial markets.

With the “ever-forward” mentality of self-improvement, DPR Construction emerges as a great story of entrepreneurial success as a privately held, employee-owned company that has grown to a multi-billion-dollar organization with offices around the world. With a diverse work portfolio ranging from large-scale new construction to small tenant improvements and special projects, this Redwood City-based behemoth consistently ranks among the top building contractors and employs more than 6,500 professional staff and craft employees.

Amidst the pandemic situation, DPR Construction realizes that it is of utmost importance not only to run its business efficiently and safely, but also to give back to the communities in which it operates. With this as a backdrop, an innovative team at DPR has strived to develop an application that improves efficiency and safety, while also creating an avenue for philanthropy.

As shared by DPR Construction’s National Director of Innovation, Kaushal Diwan, one of the challenges the Coronavirus outbreak brought to the forefront was a massive requirement for forms to be filled out before entry at a jobsite. Essentially, as part of efforts to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus on jobsites, anyone desiring site entry had to have temperature checks and take written medical declaration in accordance with the CDC guidelines. For a jobsite with hundreds of people entering and exiting every day, these practices, including filling in written forms and manually inputting the form data into DPR’s systems, led to considerable time spent and also tremendous paper waste.

“We quickly realized that using paper forms was probably not the best way to gather the form information in an attempt to prevent any kind of spread of disease if somebody had any symptoms. We thought a better way was to leverage technology, especially given the fact everyone carries a mobile device,” stated Kaushal Diwan. As a result, a mobile app and online portal, the so-called Prescreen, came into place. Addressing the inefficiencies of the conventional approach, Prescreen provides a COVID-19 prescreening questionnaire, along with documentation of screening results, which greatly improves the tracking of people visiting an office, jobsite or event.

Notably, this platform is utilized in conjunction with other tools in DPR’s efforts to minimize the spread of COVID at its jobsites. In many locations, DPR has deployed cameras at jobsite entry points that perform temperature checks, with temperature readings then seamlessly added to each person’s form information in the app.

DPR’s initiatives did not stop there, though. As soon as this app proves its efficiency, the community-minded company has released this internally developed app into the massive market accessible to everyone. Strikingly, as of early November 2020, DPR has already gathered approximately 1.4 million forms and tracks 128,000 users.

Eventually, DPR is waiving the app’s fee for non-profit organizations, with all proceeds donated to a COVID-19-related charity. Whereas there is no all-rounded solution yet to navigate against all the risk of COVID-19 within the worksite, the technology-powered innovation by DPR has fostered the ability to efficiently limit COVID-19 exposure and contributed real value to philanthropic causes.

#5. Gilbane Building – Adapting to Supply Chain Disruptions

Gilbane website homepage
Courtesy: Gilbane

Established in 1870 as a carpentry and general contracting shop, Gilbane Building, as a construction arm of Gilbane, Inc., is now a globally leading building firm, providing full construction and facilities-related services from sustainable building to the latest in construction technology for clients across various markets. From its founding, Gilbane has been known for superior quality and craftsmanship paired with unmatched integrity and client satisfaction. The Providence-based giant has unwaveringly demonstrated its adaptability and resilience in the face of adversity, including the past “black-swan” COVID-19 outbreak

Actually, amidst the pandemic crisis, the “new normal” for construction contractors requires adaptations to disruptions not only on the jobsite but in the supply chain. “As the criticality of the coronavirus situation started to unfold, there was certainly some unfounded speculation and it was kind of a perfect storm of variables that had challenged the models, and the supply chain we’ve been perfecting for the last 20 years,” stated Joseph Piro, Vice President, Corporate Director of Supply Chain Management, Gilbane Building Company, who attested to this first hand.

Whereas “the manufacturers, the distributors did an excellent job of getting in front of these unknowns and restocking inventories to levels that would, at least in the short term, sustain some of these unknowns,” “certainly imports were impacted, in some cases significantly.” He further explained, “The key factor wasn’t a production issue. But the key factor, believe it or not, was the shortage of shipping containers that needed to return to the port of origin. Those returned containers really were a key contributor to the slow down.”

“We never really worried too much about tile coming from Italy or lighting coming from China or Mexico, or glass coming from South America, whatever it might be. Those lead times, for the most part, were fairly consistent. But now, this happens and we have some plants that are shutting down,” stated Joseph Piro. “The change has just been kind of like water dripping through a firehose. It has been very, very rapid. It’s a difficult thing to manage each of the variables all at once.”

To protect their supply chains, Gilbane Building acted promptly to diversify their supplier base, guaranteeing more leverage when the need arises. “What we’ve tried to do is identify critical commodity groups — maybe steel, maybe glass, maybe PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], whatever it is — and be sure that we have options within each. So, if our main supplier should decide to undertake some other strategy – for instance, to increase pricing, we can go ahead and pivot and move to the next supplier.” “We have leverage,” Joseph Piro added, “and our suppliers are more compliant and adaptive to our asks, rather than vice versa.”

Another crucial course of action is expenditure management, starting small, maybe even with office supplies. “It is a relatively safe way to start your journey toward responsible management,” he suggested. That’s also exactly what the Providence-based construction company acted on within the first few months. “We made sure that we were leveraged properly with the right suppliers. And then gradually we started to build our strategy toward more impactful commodity groups.”

With cost control top of mind for project owners and performed in such a detailed fashion, Gilbane Building managed to weather through all major supply chain adversities to deliver excellent construction works.

#6. McCarthy – “Prefab” as a Secret Weapon Against COVID-19

McCarthy website homepage
Courtesy: McCarthy

Let’s move on to another construction player who can step up to the plate and deliver in a crisis: McCarthy – a premier national builder based in St. Louis. Well known for the unrelenting focus on safety and a comprehensive quality program that span all phases of every project, McCarthy has built in nearly every state, with projects ranging in size from $1 million to well over $500 million in a wide variety of markets including healthcare, university, laboratory & science, K-12 education, commercial, government, renewable energy and heavy/civil.

“Where and how offsite production products are being sourced is changing dramatically. McCarthy deploys a national supply-chain approach to best align offsite production products with owner goals, as these methods and products continue to develop,” stated Benjamin Callam, McCarthy’s Senior Innovation Manager. For those who are not in the know, offsite production refers to an operational shift where all processes – once performed on the jobsite – are now performed within a collaborative, digitally empowered environment, enabling contractors to address typical building challenges earlier in the process, when they’re simple and cheaper to address. Prefabrication, or “prefab”, are the resulting elements of the building produced by this process.

“In many ways, the benefits of offsite production and prefabrication are being compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic.” In the case of McCarthy, offsite production and prefabrication help to heighten safety protocols and control quality while ensuring schedule certainty in the face of pandemic adversities and uncertainties.

Specifically, once the prefabrication approach is taken, the building process gets decentralized and fewer people are required on the jobsite, which facilitates social distance, increases flexibilities within construction worker’ work shifts and eventually lowers the risk of potential exposure to COVID-19. Plus, the burden of COVID-related safety requirements, including screening lines or contact tracing, are also released as fewer workers and visitors are involved. Actually, decentralized projects are also more resilient and carry greater safety, schedule and cost certainty – whether antagonized by inclement weather or global pandemics.

Furthermore, fabricating and assembling building components in a separate, controlled shop environment — rather than on a crowded jobsite — empowers McCarthy to guarantee rigorous quality standards while still ensuring COVID-19 safety guidelines. Besides, shop production is typically more repetitious and planned far in advance of on-site needs, which can probably buffer against worker absences without reducing quality or productivity.

Whilst it is not a one-size-fits-all approach well suited for every single construction project, fabrication – in many cases, especially amidst the COVID-19 outbreak – can make a world of difference in maximizing the value of the owner’s objectives.

 #7. Webcor Builders – Innovative Safety-Focused Business Practices

Webcor website homepage
Courtesy: Webcor

Founded in 1971 and operating offices continuously in California since then, Webcor Builders has marked its name within the construction landscape for its innovative and collaborative approach, cutting edge BIM/virtual building techniques as well as rich concrete construction expertise in building iconic projects, including flagship structures, infrastructure projects, luxury residential buildings, luxury hotels, healthcare and higher education campuses.

Undoubtedly, working to keep projects moving amid an unprecedented viral pandemic is a tough challenge for every single player within the construction spaces, including Webcor. “It’s difficult managing a crisis when you’ve got your normal business facilities and your typical practices, but now imagine running a crisis while you’re forced to learn how to do business in a completely different way,” stated Jes Pedersen, Webcor Builders CEO and President. “We are getting through it, but we have to manage not just our jobs, but our people.”

Given lots of shut-down orders in California and conflicting information from different levels of government, the San Francisco-based contractor is trying to keep its projects up and running. Yet, even when a jobsite leaves open during the pandemic, health concerns exist on all on the site: whereas some employees can work remotely from home if necessary, construction still requires boots on the ground to get things built.

“While remote work is common in many industries, it has never been a construction industry priority.” Yet, he added, “Figuring out how to manage multiple unique projects with some people who can’t be on-site has led us to innovate, another core value. We set up user groups to attack the challenges and create solutions, many of which have coalesced into the plan we are implementing now, even as we continually update it in light of new information, ideas, and obstacles.”

Particularly, this construction unicorn has promptly reevaluated and accordingly revamped jobsite practices to minimize COVID-19 infection the possibility – for instance, to skip all-hands meetings in the mornings in favor of smaller toolbox talks of 10 people or less. In addition, Webcor teams are “coordinating with our subcontractors—which ones will be congregating in which kinds of areas and then limiting that amount of congregating in a working space, dependent on who needs to be there,” said Pedersen.

Webcor’s safety culture on jobsites also gets some broader elements that can be adapted to the current situation. “We have a slogan called ‘Speak Up for Safety’ and it enables anyone on a job site to go ahead and speak up if they see something that’s not safe. So, if someone sees another individual who doesn’t look well, they have the right to speak up.”

Arguably, getting construction workers to admit they are “under the weather” has always been an issue. “Hourly [wage] workers are used to coming to work sick versus a salaried worker who very often won’t come to work if they’re sick,” explained Pedersen. “There’s an intense amount of grit in our industry and it’s one of those things where many people just suck it up and keep going to work.” Such a stubborn streak within the construction culture is taken into close account and expected to change in the interest of keeping everyone safe and healthy.

The bottom line

With much of the world squarely in the grip of the “black swan” COVID-19 pandemic, the construction sphere has also felt its impacts and struggled to navigate against numerous unique challenges. Indeed, a large number of contractors came up against hindrances on the financial front due to pandemic-induced setbacks, such as project delays—or outright cancellations—and issues related to project budgets, schedules and workforce safety as well as the problem of prices and availability of materials. 

Given that, there exists a handful of strong performers who managed to step up to the plate and deliver in a crisis. Their initiatives and specific courses of action to weather through those major uncertainties draw great lessons for professional contractors.

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