My Conversation with Bisnow

In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways.

Clayco is one of the nation's design-build giants, undertaking commercial and residential building projects nationwide for the likes of Amazon, Illinois' Cook County, Kohl's, Pfizer, Penn State University, Zurich and the University of Chicago Medical Center. Even during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the company took in $4.8B in revenue and had about 2,000 employees.

Innovation of one kind or another has enabled the company to grow from humble origins, according to Executive Chairman Bob Clark, who founded Clayco in 1984 when he was 25 years old.

"We began early as an integrated model, a very different building model than most companies in the industry in that we originated projects and functioned as real estate developers, financiers and as a design and engineering company," Clark said.

Providing all of those services has been essential to Chicago-based Clayco's growth over the decades, Clark said. As the company's clients have changed, Clayco has had to change too.

"When I started the company, there was no e-commerce and no Amazon, and Microsoft and Apple were small companies," he said. "We didn't have any tech clients. Now I'd say that about half of our business is for technology companies. So if you don't innovate constantly, if you try to stay the same, you aren't going to survive, much less see the growth that we've had over the last decade in particular."

Along the way, Clayco became one of the first construction specialists to use a full-room computer server to facilitate its projects, and later it adopted data-collecting project site drones. As important as adopting new technologies has been, however, Clark says that innovation also has meant paying attention to the wider business climate and adapting as necessary. At no point in the company's history has that been more true than during the pandemic.

For his efforts pushing construction forward on the fronts of technology and diversity, Clark is a Bisnow Innovator.

Bisnow: What is your growth philosophy?

Clark: Being agile enough not to confine yourself to one narrow niche. We cover a lot of bases, doing institutional projects and healthcare work and much more. When one side of the business is up — such as our industrial business, which is absolutely off the charts right now — another might be down, but it balances out. If you're a company that's mostly focused on a single geography or property type, you'll eventually end up in a bad place, such as retail or hospitality are in right now.

Bisnow: What kind of innovation did Clayco need to undertake because of the pandemic?

Clark: In March 2020, we started working remotely in our offices, but were aware that our construction field operations had to continue. We had to figure out new ways of keeping workers working while keeping them safe. We were on the forefront of writing the guidelines to keep construction going, working directly with the CDC on developing those guidelines. We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week on that, because it was critical that we keep our job sites up and running.

Bisnow: What were some of the procedures?

Clark: One thing was getting PPE to everyone who needed it, and that included not only us, but also subcontractors and suppliers, and minority contractors who didn't have access to the tools that they needed to keep working. We had to determine how workers on-site could be as far apart as possible and still get their jobs done. We also need to figure out detailed rules for travel. We canceled a lot of travel at the time, but some of it is essential for an operation like ours, such as by project managers, inspectors and field supervision.

Bisnow: It's been a year now. How did it work out?

Clark: In that 12-month period, representing about 14 million man-hours on our job sites, with between 10,000 and 11,000 people on the job every day, we only had 124 confirmed Covid-19 cases. And in almost every case, it was isolated to a particular area, so that we could keep our jobs going.

I'd say that our guidelines really worked. But early on, the situation kept me up at night. We were dealing with the unknown, after all. One of the things that scared me the most was that we really didn't know what the outcome was going to be, whether we were going to be able to keep working.

I envisioned what we went through in the last great recession in 2008 happening again. The people who were really hurt the worst then were the small contractors and vendors and the mom and-pop shops, and the diverse companies that we've cultivated relationships with for years.

Bisnow: How did you get the idea to visit all of your work sites during the pandemic?

Clark: I was doing a weekly video for our employees, so that they could see me and stay in contact with me. I ended every one of these videos with, don't forget that we're all in this together, but then I got a couple emails back in August from some guys saying, well, that's easy for you to stay. They were kind of kidding me, but they had a serious point.

So we put together a tour for me to go out and physically thank all of our folks. We started at the beginning of October and it took us four weeks to fly to all 45 job sites from the East Coast to the West Coast, just so we could say thank you, listen to them, and hear what they needed to keep doing their jobs.

Bisnow: What innovations is Clayco undertaking in diversity?

Clark: I have a Black son, adopted when he was 11 years old, and three Black grandchildren. My son now heads one of the larger MBE contracting firms in Missouri, but when he came out of college about 25 years ago, he really called us out on our lack of diversity. That was a wake up call for us, and it's been important ever since.

During the pandemic, we invited our main MBE WBE contractors to join a call. It started out as a call on a Monday to tell them what I was doing and what I was thinking about the crisis and how we were managing it. So they could get the perspective of a larger, broader organization. Then we decided to do it the next Monday. And the next. As it went on week after week, we really get into the issues and listened to them.

That was just the latest step. We've consciously tried to recruit a diverse workforce over the last 25 years. There are 46 different languages spoken at Clayco within the whole enterprise, which I believe is an incredible statistic.

After the Ferguson riots, we hired Sandra Marks, who's overseeing our all-encompassing diversity, equity and inclusion program. Sandra came to us with a background in data collection, and so we can track our performance and all the different areas of minority participation, such as using minority contractors, a requirement in our business, but something we want to do, regardless of whether our clients or the government mandates it.

This article was first published in Bisnow.

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