Jes Pedersen helped take the fear out of change at Webcor Builders

Jes Pedersen was five years away from becoming president and CEO at Webcor Builders when the company found itself at a critical point in its history.

After years of taking on nothing but private construction projects including office buildings, hotels and residential units, the sector began to dry up in 2007.

“Anyone trying to continue doing 100 percent private work either went out of business or had to pare down to bare bones to ride it out,” Pedersen says. “We had to find a way to pivot into the public world, which is a very different way of doing business. It’s not a partnership. It’s, ‘Here’s your contract, here’s your terms, take it or leave it and tell me what the price is.’ We’d always been quite reticent about jumping into that arena when there was plenty of private work.”

Things had changed and the company needed to adapt quickly in order to survive. As a senior executive, Pedersen would play a key role in transforming the construction contractor into a company that could thrive in both the public and private sectors.

“We had to start rationalizing what does that really mean to translate the way we do business with people who set out to do it in a very specific way,” Pedersen says. “We had to change the culture and paradigm enough to go ahead and protect our interests, yet not so much that we lose the culture of who we are and suddenly, people think we’re a different company.”

Here’s a look at how Pedersen led that transition and then as president and CEO, helped bring a more strategic approach to the $1 billion company’s planning process.

Looking for hope

One of the key components of any effective transition plan is the ability to see the change as an opportunity rather than a threat.

“When it’s a threat, you’re running away in fear,” Pedersen says. “When it’s a challenge, you’re running at it saying, ‘How do I wrestle this thing to the ground?’ Everybody was looking for hope at the time.

“You get your best and brightest together and you look at changes incrementally, but sometimes drastically. You validate the changes until you get a good sense that the decisions you’re making are good ones and you build up confidence behind that.”

A project for the California Academy of Sciences provided an opportunity to avoid some of those drastic steps. The academy is a place for states to house materials that are unique to that state or that it wants to investigate scientifically.

“It was a private entity that was building it, but it was given public money,” Pedersen says. “So we had to use public means to acquire subcontractors, but we weren’t strictly held to a public contract. We had a chance to wade into the water without just jumping into the deep end. It gave us some insight into the public world.”

It was a very unique project comprised of five different aquariums and a planetarium, in addition to a museum with thousands of live animals and millions of scientific specimens. There were distinctive aspects to the way these projects were completed and Pedersen and his team took note. But there were also similarities.

“We’re still putting in drywall and painting the walls and doing those types of things,” Pedersen says. “So it’s not totally different. But it’s unique in the way you take risks and in the way you do the work that you do. You run at it head on and look for the best way to motivate your staff and give them confidence that it’s doable.”

Pedersen focuses on looking for commonalities in the risks that come with a particular project.

“There are very similar risks that affect the scheduler, someone pulling together a schedule or looking at constructability and design. Rally around what’s normal and what’s change. What are those risks and how do we go ahead and account for our own costs in those risks?”

After managing the multiple parts of the academy project, a hospital project that soon followed seemed relatively easy by comparison.

“A hospital is still one unique cultural entity,” Pedersen says. “You’re not trying to do a hospital and a hotel and an office building and an aquarium. So you learn the culture of what it takes to build a hospital.

“You get a few people who have built hospitals so you know how to deal with all the permitting agencies and everything else that goes with it. Then you put the full force of the company behind it and you figure out how to go ahead and build it as economically and expeditiously as possible.”