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Cross-training sharpens competitive edge for some firms

Kevin Hickman, director of business development for J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., stands inside the new boys locker room under construction at Parker High School in Janesville on May 6.   Photo by Dan Lassiter

Kevin Hickman, director of business development for J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc., stands inside the new boys locker room under construction at Parker High School in Janesville on May 6. Photo by Dan Lassiter

Paul Snyder

Office workers in construction firms are learning business expertise is not enough in a lean market overcrowded with companies desperate for a shot at any job that can keep them alive.

“The clients we work with are a lot more educated on the construction process than they were 10 years ago,” said Kevin Hickman, director of business development for Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc. “In areas like healthcare and manufacturing, there has to be a lot more communication, and you almost have to be more than just a construction company.”

For Cullen, that meant a return to the earlier days of construction when people on job sites also handled the communication and business work at company headquarters. To help Hickman learn more about the company’s on-site operations, Cullen sent him out to be a site engineer from September 2008 to March 2009 on the construction of the Green County Judicial Center.

“Some days I walked onto site thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Hickman said. “I’m dealing with the rough winter months, coordinating subcontractors, handling the submittals from architects and engineers.

“Any question that popped up, I had to answer and learn everything.”

But, he said, he now has a deeper understanding of the company and can discuss construction details on the front end with clients interested in contracting Cullen.

That was the point, said Dan Swanson, Cullen’s vice president of estimating and work procurement.

“In the past, the best business development people were construction people first,” he said. “If I’m buying a service from a vendor that doesn’t know the product, features or whether it can be customized, I get very turned off.”

But what works for one company might not for another. Jeff Tubbs, director of business development in J.H. Findorff & Son Inc.’s Madison office, worked with M&I Bank for 15 years and got the Findorff job because of his networking background.

“The attitude was, ‘We have enough people that know how to build buildings. We need someone that can follow up with customers, build internal camaraderie and bridge the office and field personnel,’” he said.

Although Tubbs agreed the market is competitive and said he occasionally visits sites, a months-long stint on a particular project is not in the cards. His priorities remain in the office, where he coordinates communication on multiple projects and chases down new work.

If he was spending months on site, Tubbs said, he could not fulfill those duties.

“Every company looks at it a little bit differently,” he said. “In the end, we’re all responsible for business development.”

From a project owner’s perspective, a project team’s ability to deliver a solid finished product trumps one person’s background, said Mark Wells, assistant dean for facilities with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

“What we look for is the quality and integrity of the company that’s working for us,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s more convincing to an owner because a business person has job-site experience.

“On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for a company if the person selling the project is involved from beginning to end.”

Wells watched the UW Medical School campus undergo major construction in the last few years, including additions to UW Hospital, construction of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research and the continuing development of the UW Medical Foundation Centennial Building. He said a company’s ability to work on the site with staff and the university’s plumbing and mechanical shops is one of the most important things the UW System considers on such projects.

And if someone talking to the project owner has personal experience with that kind of coordination, Hickman said, it is a significant sales tool.

“My least favorite thing about being a site engineer was continually having to verify plans and documents, from the most minute detail on up,” he said. “But if you can do it, you get a different kind of confidence, and I believe it makes us more competitive.”

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