Talking Points: Bob McCleskey, CEO, Sellen Construction Company

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Bob McCleskey, appointed CEO in 2008, miraculously survived a heart attack during a basketball game in March. Today he is taking advantage of a slow construction market to expand Sellen’s expertise, strengthen its collaborative culture and boost its productivity.

THE HEART ATTACK: I sat on the bench after an intense first half on court, and 20 seconds later I slumped back. I would have been done for, but a guy rushed across the court, put me on the floor, put defibrillator pads on me and got my heart started. I’m the luckiest guy. I’ve always lived life, so if I died today I would have no regrets.

LIFESTYLE: My wife and I spend a lot of time together. We like boating and we also like to visit our daughters, who are both grown and live in Los Angeles. I advise my girls to marry someone who is your best friend.

CAREER: My first job was for a contractor in Idaho building dams and powerhouses. It was exciting work, but I didn’t want to get uprooted every couple of years, so I made some calls. Sellen hired me over the phone. I’ve been here 30 years.

SELLEN CULTURE: We were always managed at the top by two or three people. I watched them closely. In 1988 we were doing work that required using toxic stuff. We vacuumed it up, but some of it got into a storm drain and into the Duwamish River. The EPA and the U.S. Attorney’s office took it up. Bill Scott [then the CEO] said: “Guys, we are about to be investigated and we are going to be asked a lot of questions. What we are going to do is tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.” Boy, I remember that like it was yesterday. We always try to do the right thing. We haven’t been in court on a construction-related issue in 60 years. For a construction company that has done billions of dollars of work, that’s pretty incredible.

SECRET of SUCCESS: We’re within 40 minutes [driving time] of our farthest project. That allows our senior people to be involved in each project—to help identify potential problems and deal with them before they become big issues. Almost every morning, we meet at a job site or here with the job site team to talk about cost, scheduling and quality. I’m in a peer group with contractors from across the country. They are envious of us in Seattle. With the economic impact of Amazon, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, we can maintain a pretty healthy growth rate and still stay local. [Sellen recently completed construction of the Gates Foundation campus.]

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: We are part of the fabric of this community; we’re very philanthropic. And we have good people. Going into a competition for a hospital, we can offer people who have deep résumés in terms of being able to estimate costs and give good feedback to the architect on design, scheduling and cost.

NEW APPROACHES: We are always looking to do things faster, better and cheaper. One initiative is to do as much prefabrication as possible. Hospital rooms, for example, have something called the headwall that has all kinds of electrical outlets, and [lines for] gases and nurse-call buttons. It requires a plumber, an electrician, a drywaller and a steel welder. You bring all those people together and make these up in a warehouse or garage and bring it to the site. There might be a hundred of those, and you can build them much more cheaply and efficiently off-site.

COLLABORATION: We’re working on ways to have everybody involved in decision making. In the old days, you created a schedule, sent it to the subs and kinda beat them over the head with it. Instead, if we are dealing with the steel structure, for example, we’ll bring in the people who fabricate the steel, the people who erect it, the engineer who designs it and the owners, and walk through it all. I see so many potential conflicts resolved that way. There is buy-in, a sense of accountability.

COMPUTERS: The biggest buzzword is information modeling. You build the structure on the computer before putting it in the field. It’s especially valuable for the above-the-ceiling spaces that get so congested. If you can sit down with mechanical and electrical guys and the architect and lay it out in 3-D, you immediately see 150 clashes. You work each out individually before you start building.

BETTER WORKPLACE: The number-one reason people leave a company is they want better bosses. We’re trying to give people in supervisory positions the skills they need to manage their people. But the main reason people say they stay at Sellen is that it feels more like a family. The top managers are visible, and we are open and honest with the employees.

PERFORMANCE: Our revenues, $600 million in 2010, might drop by as much as a third this year. We are doing OK because we have expertise in health care, education and life sciences. We’re adding expertise in manufacturing and data centers. We expect to see a nice bounce-back [in revenues] in 2013.

OWNERSHIP: We are owned by 50 active managers because we want to keep the company in local hands. Managers buy in, while departing executives are bought out.

SOUTH LAKE UNION: We’ve been here for 67 years, and we were first up with a new building in 1999. We like to say we’re visionaries. Four years ago, you didn’t see five people on the sidewalk. Now you can’t get a table at lunch.

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