Chris Rivielle has taken a different approach to employee development at Plant Construction

Chris Rivielle had never worked for a construction company that earned less than $1 billion per year before he took the job as president and CEO at Plant Construction Co. LP in March 2015.

“They are great in the sense that they have these systems, procedures and depth of bench,” Rivielle says. “So the capability is there, but the ability to manipulate or influence to a large degree, because you’re one of many individuals, you don’t have that ability. I had always wanted to run something and this opportunity came along with Plant.”

Plant hasn’t topped the $1 billion mark in annual revenue, but did yield an impressive $312 million for 2015. The 300-employee company has made its mark with many high-profile projects in the San Francisco area.

“If there is a difficult renovation on a landmark structure in San Francisco, Plant probably did it or probably got invited to the process to go after it,” Rivielle says.

Renovation projects include the Ferry Building, the Fairmont Hotel, One Market and Pacific Place. Among the new projects are Market Street Place, Prada Beverly Hills, the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

“The company is very strong with zero debt,” Rivielle says. “Hardly any businesses out there operate that way. It’s the opportunity to come out and run something and to take what has been done and build on it without taking away from what’s already been achieved.”

The ability to take a company to the next level has to begin with an assessment of the team.

“If you don’t have people that are motivated, happy and supported, you’ll never get to the things that are measurable,” he says. “The last year has been spent figuring out the culture and what sorts of things are needed for us to get to the next level and how to implement those without upsetting something that works really well.”

Rivielle liked a lot of what he saw at Plant when he took over the company, but felt there were still some areas to improve.

“Project teams are looking at the job from a very up-close perspective,” Rivielle says. “They’re in it and they’re living the problems and the issues on a daily basis. You want to make sure each month is measured so your problems aren’t being compounded, but they are being dealt with immediately as they arise. We can do better at it.”

In order to make that happen, Rivielle wanted to create a culture where employees would have a deeper understanding of how things work in the business.

Provide growth opportunities

One of the keys to helping your employees develop a broader set of skills is to work with them to come up with a growth plan that is a good fit for their wants and needs.

“When people are ready to be better, you have to be ready to help them be better,” Rivielle says. “To me, that is a huge win for the person individually and for the company. You’re keeping it interesting and you’re strengthening that person’s mind and experience. When they go back out into the field, they are just better.”

Plant has a superintendent on its team who spent more than 25 years as a carpenter, and he’s one of the best, in addition to being a person who can get things done.

“If you went up to him and said, ‘Mike, we have to take two months off the schedule,’ he would say, ‘No problem,’” Rivielle says.

“He would just push everybody so hard. But he started to realize not everybody is geared up like him. Not everybody wants to work 16 hours a day. So we put him in a role where we asked him to start mentoring people and teaching younger people all the aspects of a construction project.”

It was an opportunity to help other employees grow, as well as help a veteran employee who was now being given a chance to add another skill to his already strong resume.

“What I’ve been telling him is they’ll never have your knowledge,” Rivielle says. “Everybody knows every day that you have every detail of that job. I told him let the work ethic rub off on them. Lead by showing, not by telling.

“He’s wound up with a few younger superintendents or assistant superintendents that are very loyal to him. Now he’s taking on the next level of management where he’s not pushing the job, but he’s growing people.”

The key thing to remember as you help your employees grow is that there is no one way to do it. Employees are unique, jobs are unique and so are the paths that employees take to learn new jobs.

“There are several different ways to rise up in the company,” Rivielle says. “We’re looking to round out their skill sets so they’re not going down the same path of doing the same types of work in the same role year after year. When they look back, they’ll have the strength of running field operations, knowing how to administer a project, knowing how to do detailed complex scheduling and how to do their own estimating, budgets and cost control.”

In Rivielle’s mind, learning a new skill does not happen by working in another position for a few weeks or a few months. Most of these education opportunities are geared to last for a few years.

Employees who are not willing to make that kind of investment in the opportunity are not penalized.

“If somebody really hates estimating, then you might want to shorten that assignment up and just keep it very specific,” he says. “The plan has to be flexible. People change. That same person might come back three years later and say I should have taken you up on that opportunity to work in estimating for two years and I’d like to do it now. You want to have that flexibility and not penalize them.”

Demonstrate patience

In order to have employees who are learning, you need to have mentors who are teaching. Rivielle says one of the keys to being a good mentor is the ability to be patient.

“First of all, they have to have the experience and qualifications,” Rivielle says. “Without that, you can’t do it. The technical ability has to be there. But then there has to be patience and an understanding that sometimes you might have to over-communicate what the goals and responsibilities are.

“Then there are those times when you have to sit back and let the person run into some walls on their own. What you’re looking for are the ones who run into the walls and who figure out how to go over the walls or avoid them completely.”

Another component to employee development is performance evaluation. If you’re set in doing a traditional annual review at the end of each year, you may want to re-evaluate what you’re really getting out of that conversation. Rivielle says feedback must be given regularly over the course of the year.

“There are 280 work days in a year,” Rivielle says. “You have to be paying attention the entire year. We sit down and we talk about our staff on a daily basis. Nobody is forgotten.”

It also can’t just be about the person who is identified as being the one who needs to learn more. The mentors need to be passionate about their efforts to help others in the company become stronger contributors to the organization.

“You have to have a lot of ambassadors at the senior level of the company that want to make those people better,” Rivielle says. “We have a lot of people who really care about each other. There is no shortage of senior people who are willing to throw their hand up when we’re looking for somebody to take a few people to mentor. That to me, it’s not being driven by anything other than the desire to make people around them successful.”

As he looks at Plant after a year on the job, Rivielle says it’s too early to tell if his approach to leadership has been a success.

“What’s different about the business of construction as opposed to most other businesses is things happen slowly,” Rivielle says. “It’s not like you just jack up sales and you’re a different company. You sell it and then you have to build a job and that takes a year to two years and then it has to be successful. My success here won’t be known for another year or two. So the things I put in motion, we’ll start to see the benefits of it this year, next year or two years from now.”

At the same time, Rivielle says giving employees the opportunity to learn more skills and be better-rounded team members is a pretty solid strategy to achieve success.

“A lot of the effort is having a bigger picture vision for each person individually,” he says. “That all rolls up into a stronger culture for the company’s growth.” ●

Takeaways

  • Everyone in your company has areas in which they can improve.
  • Be patient with employees who resist new opportunities.
  • Get your senior leaders engaged in the growth of your team.

The Rivielle File

NAME: Chris Rivielle
TITLE: President and CEO
COMPANY: Plant Construction Co. LP

Born: New York City

Education: Bachelor’s degree in architecture; MBA, New York Institute of Technology. I also did some teaching.
What did the experience of teaching provide for you? Every class was different. The interesting thing was I expected every class to be the same.

But the people make the class. Each class had its own personality. You have to go in prepared. You can’t go in and just rely on what you know. You have to be prepared for the lesson. It’s sort of a microcosm of the workforce. You’re going to have students who are really into what they are doing. They like the program and they want to learn.

The ones who want it, I’d always try to give them a little more and give them a little more attention. It was really rewarding to see them go on and take on positions at some of the competition. I even hired one and he became one of my top superintendents back in New York.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? I worked for a guy named John Krush. He practically invented project management in the 1980s when he was at Jones Lang Wootton. He was an old school construction person. He wore suits with ties. He studied and read up on the developers like Robert Moses and John Tishman.

He was just the most knowledgeable guy about development and the process of development that I have ever been with. Later, he became a client of mine. He taught me more in those three years then I probably learned in my whole career about management style and what it should look like on a larger scale when you’re dealing with larger projects.