Jes Pedersen helped take the fear out of change at Webcor Builders

Originally published in Smart Business News,

“You look for ways to free people up so you don’t micromanage them and you trust them. But they have to know where you’re going and know how to make those decisions themselves. You try to give them the tools to do that so it’s a more efficient system with less oversight needed. That drives efficiency and cost in itself.”

Jes Pedersen was five years away from becoming president and CEO at Webcor Builders when the company found itself at a critical point in its history.

After years of taking on nothing but private construction projects including office buildings, hotels and residential units, the sector began to dry up in 2007.

“Anyone trying to continue doing 100 percent private work either went out of business or had to pare down to bare bones to ride it out,” Pedersen says. “We had to find a way to pivot into the public world, which is a very different way of doing business. It’s not a partnership. It’s, ‘Here’s your contract, here’s your terms, take it or leave it and tell me what the price is.’ We’d always been quite reticent about jumping into that arena when there was plenty of private work.”

“You look for ways to free people up so you don’t micromanage them and you trust them. But they have to know where you’re going and know how to make those decisions themselves. You try to give them the tools to do that so it’s a more efficient system with less oversight needed. That drives efficiency and cost in itself.”

Things had changed and the company needed to adapt quickly in order to survive. As a senior executive, Pedersen would play a key role in transforming the construction contractor into a company that could thrive in both the public and private sectors.

“We had to start rationalizing what does that really mean to translate the way we do business with people who set out to do it in a very specific way,” Pedersen says. “We had to change the culture and paradigm enough to go ahead and protect our interests, yet not so much that we lose the culture of who we are and suddenly, people think we’re a different company.”

Here’s a look at how Pedersen led that transition and then as president and CEO, helped bring a more strategic approach to the $1 billion company’s planning process.

Looking for hope

One of the key components of any effective transition plan is the ability to see the change as an opportunity rather than a threat.

“When it’s a threat, you’re running away in fear,” Pedersen says. “When it’s a challenge, you’re running at it saying, ‘How do I wrestle this thing to the ground?’ Everybody was looking for hope at the time.

“You get your best and brightest together and you look at changes incrementally, but sometimes drastically. You validate the changes until you get a good sense that the decisions you’re making are good ones and you build up confidence behind that.”

A project for the California Academy of Sciences provided an opportunity to avoid some of those drastic steps. The academy is a place for states to house materials that are unique to that state or that it wants to investigate scientifically.

“It was a private entity that was building it, but it was given public money,” Pedersen says. “So we had to use public means to acquire subcontractors, but we weren’t strictly held to a public contract. We had a chance to wade into the water without just jumping into the deep end. It gave us some insight into the public world.”

It was a very unique project comprised of five different aquariums and a planetarium, in addition to a museum with thousands of live animals and millions of scientific specimens. There were distinctive aspects to the way these projects were completed and Pedersen and his team took note. But there were also similarities.

“We’re still putting in drywall and painting the walls and doing those types of things,” Pedersen says. “So it’s not totally different. But it’s unique in the way you take risks and in the way you do the work that you do. You run at it head on and look for the best way to motivate your staff and give them confidence that it’s doable.”

Pedersen focuses on looking for commonalities in the risks that come with a particular project.

“There are very similar risks that affect the scheduler, someone pulling together a schedule or looking at constructability and design. Rally around what’s normal and what’s change. What are those risks and how do we go ahead and account for our own costs in those risks?”

After managing the multiple parts of the academy project, a hospital project that soon followed seemed relatively easy by comparison.

“A hospital is still one unique cultural entity,” Pedersen says. “You’re not trying to do a hospital and a hotel and an office building and an aquarium. So you learn the culture of what it takes to build a hospital.

“You get a few people who have built hospitals so you know how to deal with all the permitting agencies and everything else that goes with it. Then you put the full force of the company behind it and you figure out how to go ahead and build it as economically and expeditiously as possible.”

Think strategically

Whatever the project might be, Pedersen needs people who can take a strategic approach to meeting the goal. It’s why technical or specialty skills are often not the priority when it comes to making hiring decisions.

“You can never hire enough skill sets if you’re hiring people for tactical things,” Pedersen says. “You need some of those, but if you find people who are more strategic than tactical, then they can adjust. They can start looking at what are the new strategies you need to put in place to do things and from those strategies, you can derive tactics and goals and everything else that follows from there.

“You’re going to need the tactical people to help you with the specific details. But you need the strategic people to tell you how to build it and put it in place.”

Focusing on the strategic mindset has made it easier for Webcor to transition into doing public projects. Identifying that mindset in the interview process requires that candidates be put in situations where they demonstrate whether they have those skills.

“There is no way of knowing other than putting people into a situation that is commensurate with what they would be doing and seeing how they react,” he says. “And then seeing from that reaction how well that fits with the culture or what we would like to see when people are trying to solve problems.”

Customer service is another factor. The mindset of some contractors is to scan project documents for deficiencies and then insert a claim to ultimately gain a higher fee.

“We’ll ask someone, ‘If you come upon these different conditions on a job site, what do you do?’” Pedersen says. “If that person is answering, ‘I go ahead and pull together the documentation so I can submit a claim and derive a greater fee for the company,’ we know that’s not our guy. We’re the fixer. We find those things early and help the owner or architect mitigate them before it becomes a big cost issue. We try to find ways to maintain that partnership.”

Perception or reality?

When Pedersen became president and CEO at Webcor in 2012, he was not new to the company. He had been there and helped lead the organization through its transition to taking on more public work. He had also seen flaws in the way Webcor approached the overall strategy of the company.

“If you’re not open about everything that is taking place, there is always something going on in the background,” he says. “There is some element of politics or lobbying trying to push an agenda. You have to have candor in its highest form so that everyone is willing to say what they need to say and what they think. Either it’s reality or perception. If it’s perception, tell me what you’re thinking and let’s dispel it. If it’s reality, then we should all find the right way to solve it.”

Every company needs to take an open approach to where it is headed or it will miss little problems that left unaddressed, turn into bigger problems that threaten the company’s ability to operate effectively.

“In a strategic plan, you have to start with your vision, you align your values with it, you cement the mission of the company and then you start coming up with some of the goals and the tactics around them,” he says.

“You look for ways to free people up so you don’t micromanage them and you trust them. But they have to know where you’re going and know how to make those decisions themselves. You try to give them the tools to do that so it’s a more efficient system with less oversight needed. That drives efficiency and cost in itself.”

The ability to develop a plan and have the discipline to stick to it no matter what hurdles come up along the way is a difference maker.

“Any time you’re trying to initiate change, you have to keep pushing,” Pedersen says. “The spring is going to keep bouncing back to where it was if you aren’t always on that spring trying to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to do this.’

“One of my biggest jobs is to be out there trying to push our strategic plan and where we want to go and show people in continuous incremental ways how we’re going to get there and getting them to change behaviors so we get there as an entire company.”

Takeaways

  • Find the opportunity in every threat.
  • Hire people who can think strategically.
  • Don’t let little problems become big ones.

The Pedersen File

NAME: Jes Pedersen
TITLE: President and CEO
COMPANY: Webcor Builders

What was your first job? My first paycheck was in the construction industry. I got my welder’s license when I was about 17. I was working with structural steel, but it wasn’t really sustainable during the school year. During school, I would work in the food industry as a combination bus boy and waiter. In the summertime, it was working in the construction industry.

Did you envision going into construction? There has always been something cool to me about construction. You look at a set of drawings and you can visualize what the structure is ultimately going to be. Then through the efforts you put in, something very demonstrable comes from the thoughts that are brought about from the design or a preconceived idea of what it’s going to be. I didn’t know that I would ultimately do it and that’s why I tried to explore a little bit in college. But it was very natural for me. I stayed with it because I enjoyed doing it, I was natural at it and there were a lot of rewards from it.

How much pride do you take in the work Webcor has done? That is one of the hallmarks of a construction company compared to a legal firm or something else like that. You’ve got something very demonstrable for all the effort you put in to make something happen. It’s really rewarding to see the spaces you make be used for recreation, for education, for families or creating things in other companies. There is just a huge variety. It’s always rewarding to have that.