The Korte Company on How Building the Community Makes a Notable Builder
The Korte Company has been helping America grow since 1958 when it was founded by Ralph Korte in Highland, Illinois. Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., the company specializes in design-build, construction management and services, and manages, on average, an excess of $330 million in annual construction volume.
Birthed from a desire to build, that drive has never slowed down and today, executives at the Korte Company attribute the company’s success to quality, ethics, fairness, community involvement and doing the right thing.
A Humble Beginning that Sparked the Desire to Learn
Ralph was a farm kid— and didn’t even go to high school, let alone finish it. By age 19, he had bigger plans. He’d always had a knack for building and spent that summer of 1954 masterminding a new milking parlor setup for the farm. Because his brothers had other plans, Ralph was in line to run the farm when the time came.
One thing stood in his way: A two-year deployment to Korea.
That’s when he first got the bug to learn. Prior to shipping out, Ralph saw a notice for GED tests on a base library billboard. He signed up to take a test and passed in the 87th percentile despite never having stepped into a high school classroom.
Later, in the tent that passed for a library at his artillery outpost within spitting distance of the Korean DMZ, Ralph met a law school grad who was looking for soldiers to take a Business Law 101 course. Ralph wasn’t particularly interested in business law, but his comrade needed six men to sign up for the course before the Army would pay him to teach it
“If I would not have taken those classes there for two to three months in Korea with those other guys, I doubt I would have had the courage to go to college.” Korte said. “It gave me the inner confidence that I could keep up with those guys. I just never had any fear of much.”
That courage, inner confidence and drive to learn would suit Ralph well when he returned to Highland.
The Korte Company: Doing the Right Thing
Back home from his service in Korea, Ralph Korte had his life planned out — and it didn’t include building a national construction company or disrupting an industry. He was set to take over the family farm from his father, who was ready to retire at age 63. If it weren’t for a new wrinkle in Social Security, The Korte Company may never have existed. A change in federal law extended Social Security benefits to self-employed farm operators, but the retirement age was 65. Naturally, Ralph’s father went back to work for the next two years to enroll in the program and retire with the benefit. He asked Ralph to work as a hired hand on the family farm, so Ralph milked the cow day and night to pay for his room and board for two years. In his spare time, he got to do what he loved best — swing a hammer.
Ralph felt he could find enough work around the countryside to help pay the bills and save, so he picked up a $79 electric saw and began building for farmers at $2.00 an hour. As Ralph made his way around Highland building for farmers, word spread about the quality of his work. Before long, Ralph had farmers coming to him, willing to pay.
It was supposed to be 2-year gig,” Korte said. “Somehow, the work just kept coming.”
His formula was simple. He always gave his customers more than they expected. If quitting time was 4:30, he’d be there till 4:45. “Always deal all the cards face up; never try to cheat them,” Korte said. “Keep your word to the customer. Keep your word to the employees.”
In 1958, what was a side project to pick up extra money became Ralph Korte Construction Co. To this day, that same honest work ethic and personal dedication Ralph Korte brought to building for his neighbors remains a core value, cemented into the culture of what has become The Korte Company.
A Culture of Innovation to Reach New Heights
With classes at night while setting out to hire the best people to build his company, Ralph encountered Vern Eardley who later with his brother Larry formed a decades-long business partnership that would alter the course of The Korte Company.
With Vern on board, Ralph had another fearless innovator pushing the company to new heights. The company aggressively took calculated risks, adopted technologies and pioneered new ways to build. “We were always trying something new. There was always another hill,” Korte said. “We didn’t have anybody else to hold us back. It was just an exciting ride.”
The bold, innovative spirit of The Korte Company was born, and the company never looked back. In 1976, the company was one of the first in the construction industry to adopt computers for estimating, scheduling and planning. In 1977, they launched Ralph Korte Planning and Management, an internal Design-Build division. That same year, the company delivered its first integrated Design-Build project and adopted the practice of Tilt-Up concrete construction. Many of these developments came directly from the impassioned pushes of Vern Eardley. Together, he and Ralph simply refused to settle.
For decades, The Korte Company continued to aggressively adopt newer and better technologies, methods and processes. The company contributed to the development of the Design-Build Institute of America and the formal development of the Design-Build method. They were one of the first in the industry to adopt Building Information Modeling and deliver LEED-Certified projects.
Today, long after the leadership of Ralph Korte and Vern Eardley, aggressive, fearless innovation remains a core value of the company. The Korte Company implements an “Innovation Committee” which includes employees from cross-functions to discuss and speak up their minds on what’s going right and what isn’t or to propose changes and adds-on they need to aid their working.
Todd Korte and his brother Greg Korte, who remains the president of the company also follow suit his father. With the two taking helm, the company never misses a chance to integrate the latest technology into smoothing the workflows. For example, instead of using Microsoft SharePoint and Dropbox for Business which often causes cumbersome processes in file storage, the company leveraged CTERA’s gateway appliances at regional offices as all-in-one file servers and backup appliances to store construction project documents and design file.
“But merely having 21st century capabilities isn’t enough. It’s critical that we understand how these programs can work together to allow our teams to share information effectively and make the most informed decisions.” – Todd Korte shared.
With all the innovation already in place, the company quickly pivoted during the pandemic. “We’re fortunate to have had systems in place to allow for a seamless transition to remote work for our office staff. And our on-site crews are doing a commendable job looking out for one another, our customers and our subcontractors and vendors.” – he said.
Korte believes that innovation should be born out of challenges. With travel curtailed and on-site visits often out of the question, his team has made great use of HoloBuilder. By taking 360-degree photos and then tying that information to floor plans, the company can give project stakeholders real time progress reports no matter where they are. “We see challenges like these as opportunities to innovate. That means our teams are finding new ways to use the tools at our disposal to maintain transparency with customers and preserve communication channels” – he shared.
The Winning Strategy: Building People
Whether in old or current days, the Korte business has always been built surrounding people. Starting with the enlightenment of Ralph Korte “regardless of how hard I work, I could only produce eight hours of work” when he recognized the importance of hiring and delegating people, his two sons take on the next generation with the same strategy.
When recalling what sets his company apart, Todd Korte bets all on his people. “Hire good people, work with good people and treat everyone you work with fairly. Deal with people who keep good company, and who have like values and mindsets.” – he said.
To Greg Korte, “be a part of a community” is what enables the company’s successful expansion to four other cities including St. Louis, Las Vegas, Oklahoma and Houston.
“When we came into Las Vegas, for example, we definitely focused on making sure we remained very much a part of the community.” – he shared. “We’re very involved in the community through United Way and various trade organizations. It’s about giving back to what gave you success. Giving back to the community to make it a better place. We try to follow some straightforward advice we always got from Ralph: “Always do the right thing.”
Greg Korte made his way out to Las Vegas to work as an office engineer at a local firm shortly after earning a construction management degree from Kansas State University in 1987. Just ten years later, he had worked his way up to become President and CEO of the firm as well as its majority stakeholder. But when non-payment on a big job loomed in 2002, Korte faced a dilemma: Save himself and fold up the company or find a way to protect the subcontractors and vendors who would be left holding the bag.
The Korte Company absorbed Greg’s firm. It was the best kind of one-two punch, marking the company’s first expansion beyond its home turf in St. Louis while demonstrating Korte’s commitment to doing right by his associates, clients, subcontractors and vendors.
“It’s hard for any company to just read that some region is hot and then jump in there and try to capitalize. It’s truly very difficult if you’re not connected. You need to get immersed in the community.” – he said. “Our expansion into Las Vegas was natural due to my prior involvement there. Our expansion into Oklahoma happened the same way. We already had someone down there who was a part of that community. It made sense to take advantage of his commitment in the community and knowledge of local subs and trades.”
Staying Connected to the Community
Staying connected to the community is not only the strategy to expand but also a defining value that The Korte Company has kept over 60 years.
Grown upon Ralph Korte’s simple philosophy: build high-quality buildings and leave his hometown of Highland a bit better than he found each day, the company left positive marks wherever they went. One of the most notable philanthropic works is the long-standing engagement with the SIUE’s Construction Management Program. With Ralph Korte involved as an initiator, Todd and Greg continues his legacy by constantly partnering with the school and offering studying opportunities to support future constructors. Most recently, the company has welcomed a professor from SIUE to gain field experience and construction insights from Korte that will be essential to his teaching career.
“Our ongoing relationship with the SIUE School of Engineering, as well as our history with the construction management program as a founder, help provide the link between education and real-world experience that we believe benefits not only the program, but also the construction industry,” said Todd Korte.
In its homeland, the company forge bonds with many philanthropic organizations to execute one-off projects, like the installation of exercise equipment in a local park or partner with area schools to bring students to construction sites to help spur their interest in a career in construction. Korte’s community involvement stretches beyond its hometown, as well. In Las Vegas, Greg Korte led the company’s efforts in the area, including involvement with organizations supporting at-risk youth and involvement with St. Jude’s Ranch for Children.
“Throughout our company’s history, we’ve benefited from people and organizations who believed in lending a helping hand. That motivates us to pay it forward, guided by a simple belief: If we can help make our communities better for the folks who live there, we should. So we do.” – Todd Korte shared.
The Bottom Line
“At one point in time it was easy to be motivated by wanting to be the biggest. And becoming the biggest and most profitable won’t get you there. It’s more about maintaining culture and reputation.” – said Greg Korte.
Eventually, this is what sustained The Korte Company over two generations, and on to the next one. By staying at the cutting edge, caring about its people and the surrounding community, Korte has established its name as one of the best design-build construction firms in the country.