Mentoring the Next Generation Of Leaders

BJ Sullivan, co-founder of Clark/Sullivan Construction, knows what it feels like to build a successful company from the ground up and then create an exit strategy plan to transition ownership. For the past three years, he has been working with five current employees to usher them into their new roles as business partners/owners.  

The new partners will assume the following roles once the transition is complete: Kevin Stroupe, CEO/CFO; Jarrett Rosenau, President of Nevada Operations; Jerry Hogan, Vice President/Chief Estimator; Ted Foor, President of California Operations; and Sean Burnie, Vice President of Business Development.

“Probably the best thing that has happened to this company was the downturn of 2008.” – BJ Sullivan

The partners have seen the company transition through huge growth and then downsize considerably during the recent recession. Sullivan shared, “Probably the best thing that has happened to this company was the downturn of 2008. It was good for us because if you didn’t become lean and mean, you wouldn’t survive. I take my hat off to everyone in this room. It’s why we are here today. The transition in ownership makes sense because these guys were working here when we went through the heartache and trauma in 2008. Everyone bit the bullet as we were forced to cut wages and lay-off employees to keep the company afloat. Because of what happened in 2008, today we are a vibrant and a very successful company.”

Clark/Sullivan has deep roots that go back to the early 1980’s when Sullivan joined David Clark to form Clark/Sullivan Construction. Following the company’s inception, projects included numerous private facilities and later transitioned into primarily public works and healthcare. Projects included 24 Washoe County School District facilities, 15 University of Nevada projects, and dozens at the Renown Regional Medical Campus.

Sullivan admits transitioning out of a company, as the chief decision maker, has its challenges. In the company’s history, they’ve tried it before and it didn’t work out. But this time appears to be different. Each partner will be equal but will have a unique specific defined role in the company. The skillset and personalities of the new partners mesh well. Five years ago, he would inform the crew what they were going to do without much discussion. Today he asks those same people, “Have you thought about this?” He views himself as someone in a coaching role. He notes, “Everybody has a specific job except for me, as all the new partners have certain areas that they are responsible for at Clark/Sullivan.”

Rosenau shared, “It’s not easy being a person like BJ who is used to making unilateral decisions and now letting that go. It’s a process for all of us. For me, I was wired based on him making decisions that way. We are all rewiring the way we think. It’s been something we have been working on consistently and it gets a little more comfortable every day. There are a lot of moving parts and pieces with the transition, and that’s one of them.”

Building trust with clients is a big deal in this industry. It’s all about the trust factor. Sullivan shared a story about his mom and dad retiring in Green Valley, AZ, where they moved into a new house. While his mom was showing him around she said, “Look at these cabinets.” Sullivan replied, “They aren’t real sturdy, are they?” And his mom’s quick comeback, “Well you know, contractors are liars and cheats… except for you guys.” Sullivan will never forget that conversation.

One of the ways that Clark/Sullivan builds rapport and trust with clients is by focusing on their core values, which are prominently framed on the wall in their familiar lime green color. It’s all about people and building great teams, collaboration, open communication, innovation, building community, being competitive in the market and having integrity. These core values are the backbone of the business.

Stroupe added, “The core values do tie into how we operate our business on a day-to-day basis. The biggest thing we do to judge our integrity is asking ourselves this question, ‘Do we do the right thing when nobody is looking?’ We want to do the right thing for the client even if they would not know the difference. In my prior life, I was a CPA. I look out for the best financial interest of our clients. We may be a construction company, but at the end of the day we are looking out for our client. It’s not about making every single dollar possible on a project. We are in this for the long-term.”

According to Stroupe, “The construction industry has changed. It used to be based solely on price. All that mattered was you had a lower price than your competitors. But now it’s based on relationships. We’d rather leave some dollars on the table today and be able to do work with a client ten years from now. We are part of a partnership where collaboration is key. We work closely with our teams to ensure that our processes tie right in with our core values.”

Hogan added, “Longevity in the construction industry cannot be accomplished individually.  We place a high value, and priority, on our trade partners (subcontractors) and have a great working relationship with our teammates in every region we work. Without a team first business mentality, long term success in the construction industry cannot be achieved.”

Foor explained some the changes in the construction industry over the last decade. “The hard bid days are over. Almost all of our work is based on our resume and reputation. That’s what I’m excited about. Just seeing how that philosophy flourishes and where it takes us, I have a feeling it will take us to high places. All five of us are in a true partnership. We consider ourselves equal partners even though we have different roles and responsibilities. We are all in this together all striving for the same thing, client satisfaction, because you know at the end of the day, that gets us our next project. If our current clients aren’t satisfied and not bragging about us to other people and our architects aren’t raving about us to other architects, we might as well shut our doors. We are not going to get the jobs.”

Although Clark/Sullivan has offices in both California and Nevada, there is no “us versus them” mentality between the two divisions. Foor notes, “We have always felt as if we were one company even though we’re in different states. It all starts with the attitude of the leaders. We treat our supervisors or other team members the same as if we were one family. Our one team approach extends to our partners outside of our organization, including owners, architects and other trade partners. Our longstanding relationships with our partners have carried us through the good and bad times.”

Clark/Sullivan is developing a reputation for its innovative practices in the industry. Crews utilize mobile blueprints/drawings to ensure efficiency onsite. In fact, some of their jobs have zero paper on them. Digital drawings eliminate paper waste, encourage collaboration and speed up the process. Clark/Sullivan has a full-time software engineer on staff, whose sole role is to continuously improve their processes both on-site and in-office using collaborative technology. 

Innovation and transparency in business practices are something Clark/Sullivan is known for. The company believes in an open-book approach every step of the way, including owners and stakeholders as much as possible. As a result, they have about 80% repeat clients. Burnie shares, “Our tagline is the partner to build with. That’s who we want to be. Our goal/vision is bringing everyone together so we can all be successful.”

Notable projects include:

  • North Valleys & Spanish Springs High Schools
  • Renown Tahoe Tower and Parking Structure
  • The Nevada Museum of Art Sky Room
  • Dolan Lexus Automobile Dealership
  • Major expansion of the Reno/Sparks Convention Center
  • Reno Ballroom
  • Nevada Supreme Court
  • UNR campus projects including the Palmer Engineering Renovation, Center for Molecular Medicine, Brian Whalen Parking Garage, Paul Laxalt Mineral Research Center, Seismology Lab, and more.

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