Internal strength Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

When Clark Construction Group LLC came to the West Coast 14 years ago, Richard M. Heim’s goal was simply to survive.

Though the construction services juggernaut had been very successful on the East Coast, Heim was suddenly 3,000 miles from the home office with a new territory and new challenges.

To build up the business, there was one thing Heim, president of Clark’s western region, decided would grow the new region with the same success as the old — his people. When the company was ready to move forward, he always looked within his existing people to find the next leader.

“We can be as big as we want to be on the West Coast,” Heim says. “But you have to have some controlled growth, you can only grow as fast as you’ve got good people. We want growth not for its own sake but controlled growth as necessary, given the caveat that we can’t grow beyond our ability to take care of each customer, and we can’t grow beyond our ability to have good people.”

As the western region became a bigger and bigger part of the $2 billion company — building San Diego Padres PETCO Park and starting construction on LAX’s Tom Bradley terminal tower improvements — and it became time to grow into two new western markets, Las Vegas and San Diego, Heim again turned to his existing staff to push forward. Not only did his staff members have knowledge from previous construction ventures, but he knew he was also providing them a growth outlet, keeping them loyal to the company.

By allowing his existing employees to grow, while aggressively recruiting and assimilating new employees into that loyal culture, Heim has been able to push employee numbers to more than 250 without losing momentum. And with those new employees starting to fit in, Clark has been able to push projected revenue for 2007 beyond $800 million in the western region after topping out at $600 million in 2006.

Build on what you have

Heim knows one thing about his leadership style: He does not wish to be an inch high and a mile wide. With projects across the West Coast in 22 different cities, Heim says that Clark has to grow leaders to keep growing the company. And the best place to find those leaders is in your own backyard.

“Try to promote from within, that’s your first primary purpose,” he says. “That way you are getting a known entity, you know what you’re dealing with, and you are also providing growth opportunities for your own people. Rarely do we hire officers outside of the company, probably 95 percent of them are homegrown.”

In order to promote from within, he goes through a talent evaluation process that touches on every employee by going to different leaders and talking about expectations and potential.

“I sit down with the officers probably three times a year, and we go through every employee we’ve got and talk about them, where are they in their development, where are they in their excitement, how they fit with the synergy of where the company is going,” Heim says.

From there, he says you need to give the talented ones a chance to take on more responsibility so they can see where leadership is going — and how they might fit in to that. By letting people grow into new positions, Heim says they will also be more inclined to stay with the company because they find it easier to buy in to a leader’s growth plans.

“They have to believe in the leadership because it costs an awful lot to replace that person once you’ve invested three years or five years or 10 years into that person,” he says. “Each employee is an investment, and it’s just like a diamond, you have to polish it to give it more value and make it shine more brightly.”

Clark teams future leaders up with current leaders in a mentor-ship program that lets the new leader see what he or she will be doing.

“We are very interested in promoting the new guard, so we have set up a program in some of the new markets where we have a younger person shadowing an older one, so there is a smooth transition to that leadership.”

The idea is that someone on the leadership track can learn a lot by spending a few months seeing how a current leader works his or her daily plan into the Clark vision. Not only does it give the future leader a good base — and help give Heim more leaders he can immediately call upon if needed — but Heim notes there has been a side benefit he didn’t expect: The seasoned leaders enjoy the process.

“We don’t have any hiccups; that’s beneficial not only to the young person, but the older, more seasoned leaders tend to enjoy the mentoring,” Heim says. “Our operations could never rise and fall with one person, and you need to have that wide-based leadership to do that.”

Recruit young talent

Even though it’s nice to move existing employees up when a company grows, you still have to fill in holes at the entry level. Heim’s phone is always ringing with employment agencies trying to sell him on a new candidate, but he has a better plan in mind. Instead of just looking at the existing market, Clark heavily recruits from a group of local colleges and returning military personnel.

“If you go out to the open market right now, employment services are calling daily with candidates that they are pushing,” Heim says. “But the market has been picked over pretty hard in terms of who is out there, and you need to be very careful.”

Clark employs a full-time college recruiter to scout the colleges with degree programs that fit in to the company’s mold, and the company also works to make a good impression with the students by providing speakers for ceremonies and regularly contributing financial donations. Clark also sponsors a graduate-level construction competition.

“It gives us the opportunity to meet and interact with the best students produced from the various colleges of construction throughout the nation,” Heim says.

From there, Clark also lets several of the more impressive candidates get their foot in the door with a large internship program.

“At any given time, we have 20 to 30 interns from a variety of different colleges,” Heim says. “It gives us a chance to look at them and gives them a chance to look at us.”

Beyond giving talented college recruits a chance to find an interest in Clark before they go into the open market, Clark also actively recruits military men and women, finding that those trained in the armed services are much better qualified than the average candidate off the street. In the last two years, Heim’s region has had to hire 100 new employees, and he estimates 20 percent of them have come from the military. For many entry-level positions, the immediate benefit of that background will help push a company.

“They have good work ethics, they understand chain of command, they understand teamwork,” he says of military hires.

“When you take somebody right out of school, it takes a couple of years for them to sort of gain the experience and those types of life experiences where their efficiency gets to a certain point. The military people are obviously more mature in age, they are focused, they are looking for careers, many of them have families, and we looked upon that as an opportunity, and it’s been very successful.”

Assimilate new talent

When you hire more than 100 employees over a two-year span, there is more of a challenge to continuing growth than just bringing in new talent. Assimilation is job No. 1 after a new hire is made.

“The challenge is how fast you can assimilate those employees not only to where they are productive, but they are also brought in to our culture,” Heim says.

This challenge is really a threefold process of getting employees involved with each level of the company. The initial challenge rests heavily on middle management, which has to make it a goal to continue to move existing employees forward while blending in training for the new team members.

That means making things that are the normal parts of the day also act as educational tools. Meetings where senior staff members are going over projects can include younger employees to give them some background on what they are doing.

“If you are on a specific project, staff meetings where that staff sits down weekly and goes through all aspects of the project, these new employees get significant knowledge and info, and it’s very much a learning process for them if you include them,” he says.

Beyond the middle management taking time to include new employees in the loop, Heim makes it a point for higher management to make a connection with new hires to help them blend in. Today’s employee needs more feedback, and that is best served from the top.

“I sit down at least once a year with all of our new employees, and I have dinner with them — just me and them,” he says. “I talk about our way of doing business, what’s important, and I look for feedback from them because they are an important part of our employee set.

“Performance evaluations are extremely important to our employees that have been with us one to five years, they want to know what they are doing right and where they need to improve on, so the timeliness and genuineness of those is very important. The new group of employees — call it the millennia group, if you will — is looking for that feedback almost on a continual basis. There are all kinds of ways of giving feedback on performance, but nothing replaces that one hour of quiet time where you’re giving the employee time to speak and you talk about what they are doing right, some areas they can grow. That is extremely important because it shows that in all the hubbub and whirligig of everyone being busy, we’re going to carve out some time and talk about you and what your contribution is to the puzzle, and that openness with them lets them feel free to give you feedback.”

Beyond working with different levels of management, Heim says the third step in assimilation is blending new employees with experienced nonmanagement staff. Clark has a program that takes a group of young employees and let’s them meet informally with an elder employee for an hour or so to talk about how the new job is going. New employees are also offered training through Clark University, which is a program with classes taught by senior employees.

The idea is to work with new employees on all three levels to communicate where they fit in to the company and what the expectations are.

“You have got to be in touch with an effective, candid, crisp communication channel with your employees at all levels,” Heim says. “Communication is probably 50 percent of your success. How well do you articulate, how well do you encourage feedback, how well you follow on the feedback, how you filter that feedback, your communication skills in terms of listening and expressing yourself are extremely important.”

HOW TO REACH: Clark Construction Group LLC, (714) 429-9779 or www.clarkconstruction.com