How R.D Olson’s Detail-Attentive Mentality Makes a Top California’s General Contractor

With over 40 years into the market, R.D Olson’s go-to strategies focus on cultivating a loyal customer base and nurturing its people.
R.D Olson leadership team at a beach hotel
Courtesy: R.D Olson
By | 10 min read

Founded by Bob Olson in 1979, and led today by its President Bill Wilhelm, R.D. Olson Construction (R.D. Olson) is an Orange County-based national general contracting and construction management firm. Recognized for reliability and customer loyalty, the company is known for its hospitality construction experience, and a growing presence in multi-unit, senior living and higher education projects. This year, R.D. Olson Construction commemorates 42 years of building and is one of the top 40 general contracting firms in California with an annual revenue of $65 million.

The Start of a Construction’s Legend  

Bob Olson began working in construction at the age of 8, pulling nails for his stepfather. By the time Olson was 16, he could build pretty much anything, up to and including cabinetmaker-level carpentry. Hoping to go to college to study architecture, he learned that his working-class family couldn’t afford the tuition and fees, and he instead joined the carpenters union and went to work for a builder who specialized in room-remodeling projects.

Nearly two decades later, he approached USC with his portfolio of successful real-world projects, and they agreed to overlook his lack of undergraduate work and take him in their MBA program. During this time, “I drove my staff a bit batty: I’d learn something new in class and come back to the office to try it so many times that my employees became apprehensive: ‘What is Bob going to make us try now?’”

Then, when Olson was 23, “I didn’t know any better, so I started a construction company, putting half-page ads in the local real estate rags: ‘Why move when you can improve?’ It went pretty well most of the time, though I made some colorful mistakes,” including being overly optimistic about the weather and failing to tarp-over an open roof for one of his earliest clients’ homes; the unexpected rain proved “biblical, at least as I remember it now.”

R.D Olson CEO and leader speak in an entrepreneur event
Courtesy: R.D Olson

In spite of a string of successful projects and happy clients in the home-renovation business, Olson realized that this residential work, although enjoyable, wasn’t paying all that well, and he started to wonder what more his skill set could allow him to achieve.

Then, one day in 1981, Olson got a call from Sonny Bono, the singer, actor, and soon-to-be congressman, who wanted to know if Olson would build the first Bono’s restaurant, in West Hollywood. Not only did Olson take him up on the offer and end up building multiple restaurants for him over the years, up until his death in 1998, but, Olson smiles, “I was able to learn a lot at Sonny’s expense–nothing too catastrophic; all good life lessons.” The early non-Bono restaurants that signed up to work with Olson were all independent operators, and often had a tenuous grasp of the economics of this tricky line of business, “It was always scary whether we would get that final payment; if we didn’t, we’d end up losing money on the job after all that work, and all those subcontractors we’d already paid.”

I wondered, though, “But then, at least, you’d own a piece of the restaurant?” Nah, says Olson; “If that was the situation, it meant it wasn’t a viable restaurant. You wouldn’t want any part of it.”

Learning his lesson here more than once, Olson made a point of finding work with more stable, better financed restaurateurs, going on to build 15 Morton’s Steakhouses, 55 California Pizza Kitchens, various Darden brands like Red Lobster, and more, before getting his feet wet in yet another new line of building: hotel construction, starting with a Hyatt remodel in 1987.

R.D Olson leadership in Nonprofit event
Courtesy: R.D Olson

This new line of endeavor treated Olson well until the catastrophic industry collapse that followed 9/11. With travel at a standstill, “I was wondering why I had strayed into hotel ownership and not just stayed with what I knew, construction, until Mr. Marriott came to visit.”

This visit from Bill Marriott, Sr. in early 2002, only a few months after 9/11, was just what was needed to bring Olson’s spirits. The visit–Mr. Marriott had read about Olson’s design and construction of an innovative Marriott Residence Inn and was there to check it out–was inspirational, “particularly in watching Mr. Marriott speaking so thoughtfully and encouragingly to housekeepers and other employees, all of whom had to be feeling as nervous as I was up until that moment, and in sensing his unflagging faith in the ultimate success of our sector.”

It was also the start of what has become a great partnership. Olson’s construction company has built 50 hotels for Marriott since then and been crowned Marriott International Developer of the Year twice in the last five years.

“When Every Detail Counts”

When you open R.D. Olson Construction’s website you are greeted with the phrase, “When Every Detail Counts”, which goes beyond being an opening statement. For the past 42 years, this Orange County – based company has been embracing that motto for every project and embedding it into the very core of their identity. Every associate is dedicated to taking the ideas of their clients and turning them into a reality while finding innovative solutions and tackling challenges in a way that makes them stand out from the competition.

“It’s not a race for stats or ranking,” explains Bill Wilhelm, President of R.D. Olson. “It’s an opportunity to exceed expectations and build our customer base, as well as building up our employees. In order to do that we have to take on chances to grow our infrastructure and employees internally. If you stay stagnant you limit opportunities for employees to improve. It’s all about quality over quantity; for us quality will always come first.”

Build Customer Loyalty 

One of the key traits of R.D. Olson Construction is to understand the customer’s product and vision. They negotiate 80 percent of their business and are always working closely with the customer to build something that they are happy with, and the company is proud of. Over time they have seen an increase in design-build type projects and have a sister company whose sole purpose is new development. Both works as very selective companies that know how to manage and make what they work on a success.  Whether it is initially just a sketch on a napkin or a particularly detailed mission, the end result will always be what the customer wants to achieve.

R.D Olson leadership and CEO in a ribbon cutting ceremony
Courtesy: R.D Olson

Considering the amount of significance that is placed on the customer, R.D. Olson maintains a focus on keeping already existing clients satisfied. These strong relationships are what they use to build their future endeavors.

“Part of our short- and long-term goal is to increase the repeat business,” Wilhelm says. “About 70 percent of our volume is repeat business, and that tells you what kind of company we have. It’s one that truly is focused on quality over quantity. When you have that kind of approach, success is always right in front of you.”

A belief that he likes to impart on his employees is that if 80 percent of the effort is put into the relationships with the clients that they already have, then it will generate 70 percent of the opportunities coming in. A major part of that is the company’s use of its resources, which focus on those relationships and not geographic boundaries for where they will and won’t build. Clients value working with 1 or 2 key RD Olson individuals that will be managing the project from the design development and estimating stage all the way through complete build out, punch list and property walks with property management.

When constructing the Irvine Spectrum Marriott, one of Marriott’s first “millennial-style” hotels which will boast extraordinary amenities and indoor/outdoor experiences throughout. While this particular project happens to be in their backyard, R.D. Olson would gladly and has traveled in order to work with Marriott; that is one of the many ways in which they put their customers’ needs first. When other owners/developers see the dedication that R.D. Olson puts into those relationships they know that it is something they want to be a part of.

The relationships that they have established over the years are based in hospitality and restaurant construction expertise and a growing presence in healthcare, education and multi-unit projects. They have been looking to expand their reach outside the state, but the focus is to grow with the companies they are already servicing. This dedication to growing alongside their customer is how they have become the $250 million revenue business that they are today.

Invest in People 

With the number of people working on these sites and the challenges that come with it, a common concern for larger construction companies is safety. When Bob Olson founded the company, he had the vision that “Our Company is built off of our people; they are our greatest asset”, so the concern for the employees is a top priority. The company has a full-time director of safety management and others on staff dedicated to inspecting and giving safety reports every week for each project. Training is provided for every job and everyone on site is focused on safety awareness. The amount of safety protocol and attention to that protocol is something that they attribute having among the lowest incident rates in the industry.

R.D Olson staff at the company's annual event
Courtesy: R.D Olson

The care that is put into R.D. Olson’s employees extends beyond just safety. There is obviously an interest in growing the company, but even more than that there is a desire to grow the individuals that work within the company. They have an education reimbursement program that allows the employees to continue their education on whatever aspect that they deem would help them be a better person both independently and professionally. This, combined with the community involvement that the company is devoted to, encourages long term association because employees know that the company stands for not only its own improvement, but the improvement of others.

“We are looking at our next generation of leaders,” Wilhelm says. “The last few years, we have been continuing to build within the ranks. We know sustainability is not just about having backlog, but also having tenured employees.”

The involvement in local communities is something that R.D. Olson prides itself on. One example of their commendable work towards the greater good is their ongoing seven-year relationship with the Golf Charity Tournament for the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, for whom they raised more than $60,000 in 2016 alone. It is this sort of long-standing belief in making change that sets apart the R.D. Olson employee; they strive to make their workers the example of their company just as much as the projects that they complete.

That phrase, “When Every Detail Matters” comes into play on a wide array of levels. There are many things that factor into that motto, including the delivery of a project that meets the customer’s vision and building relationships that are meant to last. Inside the company they look to create employees that are consistently improving themselves and be an active part of the community. These qualities are the details, which R.D. Olson makes sure always matter.

  • About: Lina Tran
    Joining EnvZone with a focus on performance analysis, Lina is thrilled to explore the business world by covering the ups and downs of hundreds of companies from which her clients…