In the 40 years that Jeff Niesen has been at The Boldt Co., many of the biggest changes he’s seen have been meant to make the industry more efficient.
A common complaint about construction has long been that it has failed to achieve the productivity gains that have helped buoy manufacturing and other industries in recent decades. Niesen, Boldt group president for central operations, said the criticism isn’t entirely fair.
“Unlike in manufacturing, we are building a custom product right out of the gate,” he said. “It’s always at a new location with a new set of partners. So we don’t have years and years to set up an assembly line. These projects happen in weeks or months or a year or two maybe on a big project. So you are always trying to get a team up and running.”
That’s not to say Niesen thinks the industry doesn’t have some ground to gain. Much of his time at Boldt has been dedicated to trying to make sure the company is running as efficiently as possible. In the early days, that was done through training in so-called Lean construction techniques, which seek to prevent the waste of time, effort and materials.
Niesen now sees just as much promise in modular construction and pre-fabrication. Many contractors, and ultimately owners, have come to appreciate the time and money savings that can result when structures are partially built at remote locations and then brought onsite for final assembly. Boldt itself has been using this technique to build pre-fabricated medical units that can be easily added onto hospitals to provide more room for COVID-19 patients.
Technological advances have been indispensable in all of this.
“Without virtual construction and 3D modeling, we couldn’t do this,” Niesen said.
But the technical side of construction is only one of Niesen’s interests. His time at Boldt has seen him do everything from manage large hospital projects in places as far away as Memphis, Tennessee, to overseeing the company’s human-resources department. He recently sat down with The Daily Reporter to discuss his experiences in the industry and hopes for the future. (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
The Daily Reporter: How’d you become interested in the industry? Was construction a big part of your life when you were growing up?
Niesen: My dad was a banker. But he loved Saturday afternoon challenges, and he had a good buddy in light commercial construction. He’d help us out with our projects. And I remember I just loved it.
TDR: You have a degree in civil and environmental engineering from UW-Madison. Why did you ultimately end up choosing construction?
Niesen: Well, I worked for a consulting engineering firm for a couple of summers. And I just remember being envious of the construction crews we worked with. I just was interested in physically putting the work in place versus drawing it on paper. Also, you got to play with big toys.
TDR: One of your first assignments at Boldt had you move to Memphis to work on a large hospital project. While you were there, you got an MBA. Why did you take that step?
Niesen: It turns out that, as important as my engineering degree is, it wasn’t enough to know the language and speak the language of business. And this is a business. You’re managing other construction companies and subs and owners and customers. The reality is that when I was working on that MBA, the accounting and finance were pieces of cake for me.
It was the organizational development and psychology that were challenging. In engineering school I never had an opportunity to take those basic social science classes. And yet those were some of those most beneficial to me in later years.
We are essentially a people business. You are dealing with hundreds and hundreds of people on any given project.
TDR: What did you learn from your time overseeing human resources?
Niesen: In this industry, the craft side of things is quite different from the professional side. So there are those considerations that come into play when you’re working with a pretty broad array of trades. And, with a company of our size, you have local agreements numbering in the hundreds. So it’s an interesting challenge to work with all those different agreements, with all the different pay and benefits that come with every one of them.
TDR: Boldt has nearly 1,930 people working for it in various trades throughout the country. What do you look for in these employees?
Niesen: Well, the ability to self-perform is a real advantage for us. So we really try to find people who can give us that capacity when we are recruiting people into the trades. We want to have a highly trained staff that we can put on the road.
And then we want to make sure we treat them well when we put them on the road. Even with all this wonderful technology and our changing way of doing business, this industry is still about working with people. And you’ve got to be able to be collaborative and communicative and motivate people and work with people. This is a small community, when you get down to it. And you will come across these same folks again and again.Follow @TDR_WLJDan