Andy Ball leads Webcor Builders into a new age of construction Featured

8:08pm EDT August 31, 2011
Andy Ball leads Webcor Builders into a new age of construction

Andy Ball is a leading advocate of new technology implementation at Webcor Builders. Under his leadership, the San Mateo-based company has become a pioneer for innovation of LEED and virtual building in the construction industry. Yet incorporating cutting-edge technology is just one way Ball embraces change to position Webcor for success in today’s business environment.

“What I’ve found is the best strategy is that most of the time you don’t completely know just what it is you are preparing for, but you’re improving the company, you’re making the company better, you’re training people, you’re bringing in good people, and you’re doing the right thing,” says Ball, the president and CEO of Webcor. “You’re preparing yourself. Opportunities will come up, but if you don’t prepare yourself, one, you won’t recognize an opportunity when you see it, and two, even if you did, you would not be able to take advantage of it.”

In recent years, Ball’s role as a change agent has been even more vital in helping Webcor adapt to challenges in its industry.

“Change is never easy, and it has an emotional toll and it has a financial toll,” he says. “Initially it has a reduction in productivity in order to have a significant gain in productivity. So all of these things sort of work against change, but if you don’t embrace it and you don’t move forward, you’re just going to move backward and fall off the back because it occurs every day.”

When the economic downturn caused a complete collapse of private sector financing, which typically funded the company’s projects, Ball was forced to change the company’s business model completely so Webcor could survive.

Smart Business spoke with Ball about how he’s kept Webcor in front of change and focused on continuous improvement to stay competitive.

Build client relationships

When growing in a new area, you have to make sure you have a thorough understanding of that market’s needs so you know how to meet them. To prepare Webcor for a transition into public sector building, Ball realized the first step was to forge strong relationships with new and potential clients to find out how their needs varied from and aligned with Webcor’s strengths.

“That really was a surprise but shouldn’t have been — that we really had to learn about our clients,” Ball says. “We had to understand what they wanted and we had to understand how to respond to their requests. It comes down to people. You have to get out and you have to meet the people who make these decisions. You have to meet the people, talk to the people, allow the people to understand who you are. You have to develop the trust relationship with them. These things are every bit as important in public or government contracts as they are in private sector contract.”

Fortunately for Webcor, the company had begun taking on some public sector work several years prior to the downturn, including the $120 million California Academy of Sciences project, partly funded by the city of San Francisco. As Ball and his team worked with city leaders, they realized a new process for selecting subcontractors better suited the client’s goals for the project. After implementing the change with positive results, Webcor was able to secure future projects with the city, including the San Francisco General Hospital.

“In succession, we started to pick up these large public- and federal-funded public sector projects that we had not done before,” Ball says. “And when the market turned down, we were very fortunate to have already started growing in that sector and taken on some very significant large projects that we could turn to.”

Ball also saw building companies grossly under do projects because they didn’t take time to create solid client relationships. In these cases, the company and the client often end up worse off. Understanding the full magnitude of your client’s needs is how you adapt and develop solutions that are innovative as well as effective.

“It takes time to build relationships,” Ball says. “You can’t do that overnight. And to say that, ‘Wow, the bottom’s falling out of our market so we need to just go and do public work.’… You’re not just going to waltz in there and figure out what is important, how do you staff it, what are the expectations.

“You really have to understand the agency that you are dealing with. You have to understand their strategy. You have to understand how to respond to their request for qualifications, what they are looking for, what makes the difference.”

Make big bets

As a leader, adapting your business for growth requires you to identify and evaluate growth opportunities constantly. It also means you have to be able to make a decision when the right one comes along and not be afraid to put in legwork to seize it. To excel in an increasingly competitive industry, Ball isn’t afraid to takes risks in areas that build on Webcor’s strengths, such as being a leader in virtual building.

“People often believe that the easiest task is to broadcast and integrate new technology into your own company, and actually that’s probably the hardest step,” Ball says. “You have to get your finance department to believe in the investment, you have to get the people in operations to change the way that they’ve been doing things for their entire career.”

Implementing technologies at Webcor, such as building information modeling and integrated project delivery, has involved significant training, resources, financial investment and buy-in. Yet Ball and his team have continued to invest further in virtual building technologies because they also represent significant long-term value — for example, allowing architects to send digital drawings in hours instead of weeks.

“By very nature, any return is a risk,” Ball says. “Without taking a risk, you will never get a return. A lot of people fail to see that … I went all in on virtual building. I went all in on implementation of technology. I completely believed and dreamed and did it before people could prove to me that there was return on it, just because we believed that it was the right thing to do.

“That is never ever easy to do and most people look at it and say, ‘Well, that was easy.’ Yeah, it is easy when you look back to know what happened and know that you were right or you were wrong. But it’s never easy when you look forward.”

Even though there are bumps along the road to change, it’s by taking risks that you learn how to adapt and improve. Though some risks may prove less successful, Ball doesn’t just see them as failures. Instead, every outcome is a source of information in how Webcor can address its weaknesses and exploit its strengths.

“The wrong decision is to not make a decision, so you have to get over that,” he says. “Then you have to also understand that some of the time when you make a decision, you will fail. If you are not failing, you’re not going forward. You’re not taking risk and you’re not changing anything and you’re not improving anything, because you will have failure.

“There is a lot of pushback any time you try and change things — change the technology, but we were successful to the point it became an industry standard. Widely embraced building information modeling followed, and now our bet is on virtual building.”

Lead by example

To have a culture that embraces change, people have to be comfortable with constantly altering the way they are used to doing things. Because Ball asks his team to engage in and embrace changes in areas such as new technology, he shows employees that he is also walking the talk.

“I think that this organization would say I am not an obstacle to change,” he says. “In fact, I am one of the leading advocates for change. We constantly have to embrace change, so I like to lead by providing an example of how we innovate, how we embrace technology, how we embrace green practices and how we change as we go forward, because I’m trying to lead the charge in every case and encourage that.

“I’m usually the guy that first uses technology. I think a lot of companies, they say the last person to embrace new technology is the CEO and typically it’s driven by the younger people. They want to use it and then they drive it to the top. In this case it’s the other way around. I’m the guy that loves technology and I want to try it out and I want to use it.”

Ball models the behaviors he wants his team to engage in from the top of the organization down. If he promotes or employs a new piece of technology at Webcor, it’s because he’s used it himself and decided it was worth pursuing. This shows his team that decisions about using new technology aren’t arbitrary but well-thought-out, so they are more likely to respect them.

“Before I sort of force that onto other people, I’m going to use it myself to see how it works and if I think it actually creates a benefit,” Ball says. “If it does, then I will go beyond just discussing it with my IT vice president. I’ll say let’s try and roll this out to a few people and see how they react to it and start to implement technology and change from the top.”

As Webcor has shifted into public sector building, Ball also supports and motivates his team by helping them focus on the positive aspects of change.

“It has been over 30 years since I was actually out in the field with my work boots on,” he says. “So I now have to take what I actually did in the field and say, ‘Well, over the years that’s changed. That’s changed for these reasons.’ I’ve got to, on a regular basis, get with my people at every different level and sector of this company and talk to them about what’s working, what isn’t working, what do you think we can do to improve and be very open to employees. I find that when I do that, people speak up and they’re not afraid to come up with great ideas because they believe that they are going to be listened to and that they are actually talking to me, somebody who understands.”

Ball’s lead-from-the-top philosophy works to cultivate a team dynamic at Webcor that supports change and enables the company’s continuous improvement. As a result, Webcor has been able to change its business dramatically in the midst of a recession. Though some outsiders doubted its ability to compete in the public sector, today the $680 million company brings in 80 percent of its work in the form of public and government sector projects.

“I think they were shocked when we got the Transbay Terminal and [San Francisco] General Hospital and the PUC building, the Cal Memorial Stadium … and the hospital in Guam, saying ‘Oh my God, Webcor has hardly ventured outside of California. How can they do something in Guam?’” Ball says. “But we’ve always been very creative. We’ve been forward thinkers. We’ve been visionary. We’ve been flexible and we’ve been quick to react. Those skills become heightened and more important in a recession. I think we surprised a lot of people when we very, very quickly adjusted, adapted, changed and brought on some really nice, new work and just kept moving forward.”

HOW TO REACH: Webcor Builders, www.webcor.com

The Ball File

Andy Ball

CEO

Webcor Builders

Born: Ojai, Calif.

Education: I attended school at Arnold House School and Highgate School in London, England between the ages of 6 and 15 years old. I was a weekly boarder at Highgate School which means I lived at Highgate during the week and went home on weekends. After Highgate School, I spent two years La Serna High School in Whittier, Calif., followed by my senior year at the Singapore American School in Singapore. I took undergraduate studies at UC Davis and the University of Utah, graduating from the University of Utah with a bachelor of arts degree in architecture.

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

I like to have a hot lunch each day with Webcor employees or clients. This is a holdover from my school days in England where the midday meal was the largest meal of the day and consisted of warm dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Although I enjoy this type of midday break, I don’t like to linger over lunch too long. An hour is a more than adequate break.

What do you do to regroup on a tough day?

At the end of a tough day, I enjoy going on a good, hard, bike ride. A 30-mile ride with lots of hills to climb is a great way of relieving stress.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I enjoy working with a project team — owner, architects, engineers and subcontractors — to solve design problems and develop cost-effective solutions during the pre-construction phase of a new building. I also particularly enjoy the challenge of incorporating cutting-edge technologies into the building process, resulting in new ways to build and do business.