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Best Firms, Shawmut Design and Construction: A Talent for Development

Boston-based Shawmut Design and Construction's focus on customer service and career development helps its employees meet today's toughest construction challenges.

May 01, 2006 |

After dropping out of both Brown University and Amherst College and finally giving up his dream of playing professional hockey, 22-year-old James Ansara started a small construction company in 1979. Three years later Ansara was invited to bid on the build-out of an ice cream shop in Somerville, Mass. Two much bigger contractors put in bids of more than $100,000 and claimed they would need 10–12 weeks to get the job done.

Ansara put in a bid of $85,000 and promised Joseph Crugnale, the chain's owner, that he'd finish the work in eight weeks. Crugnale gave him the job but inserted a penalty of $500 a day for going over the deadline in the agreement.

Working around the clock, Ansara and his handful of employees got the job done in five-and-a-half weeks. Crugnale was able to open his new shop in time to serve the crowds in Somerville for that year's Boston Marathon.

With the bonus earned for finishing ahead of deadline, Ansara took a brief Caribbean vacation; it would be his last for the next seven years. When he returned, he incorporated his fledgling company as Shawmut Design and Construction.

Since 1982, Shawmut has continued to build its reputation by taking on challenging projects with the most horrendous deadlines. Last summer, for example, the firm completed a $9 million upgrade to meet fire codes in Brown University dormitories, well ahead of the 11-week deadline for the return of students in the fall.

The Boston-based company, which has expanded to include offices in New York and Providence, R.I., specializes in restaurant, corporate, retail, and institutional construction, in particular, higher education. By taking on hard-to-do projects, Shawmut's nearly 500 employees put $500 million of construction on the ground across the country in 2005. Except for one year during the recession of the early 1990s, the firm has grown annually in revenue and employees. Shawmut executives say that both customer service and employee development have allowed their company to accomplish its stellar growth and delivery rate, two key factors that made Shawmut, a 100% employee-owned company, one of Building Design & Construction's "Best AEC Firms To Work For."

"We're all about delivering what the client wants," said Susan Ehrlich, vice president of people strategies at Shawmut. "But it's through our people, our processes, and our corporate culture that Shawmut is able to successfully deliver on those goals and expectations. 75% of our volume last year was from repeat clients."

Shawmut is growing its client base—it increased 14% from 2004 to 2005—and staff—up 27% in the same period. In 2005, 100 employees were promoted from within, and voluntary turnover has been steady at 9% for the past three years.

Ehrlich credits Shawmut's training methods for the high retention and promotion rates. "One of our core values is to focus on growing and developing our people," Ehrlich said.

Trained to meet the challenge

Every Shawmut employee must complete an independent development plan (IDP), a set of goals based on the skills appropriate to specific job profiles; for example, IDP goals for estimators are different from those for construction managers. The company's in-house continuing education program, Shawmut University, was created in 2003 to enable employees to achieve their IDP goals. While a few special classes are taught by outside facilitators, almost all of the more than 200 classes in 15 learning areas are taught in the field by some 80 trained Shawmut experts. Employees must take 16 hours of classes, but last year they averaged 23, including electives. In total, Shawmut employees logged more than 11,500 hours of training in 2005.

The courses cover technical skills, client service and other "people" skills, best practices, and management and leadership development.

"The offerings change every year and they're all based on an employee needs assessment that comes out of the IDP process," said Karen Norcross, Shawmut U's director of training. "Every year the training team evaluates the curriculum and adds and subtracts courses."

Class instructors are required to spend at least eight hours planning their Shawmut University classes, but some put in as much as 20 hours to develop their courses.

Staff members are also encouraged to pursue educational opportunities outside the company. Employees pursuing advanced degrees are eligible for $10,000 a year in tuition reimbursement. Currently, 35 Shawmut employees are benefiting from the plan at universities in Boston, Providence, and New York.

The company also trains some of its youngest employees through more structured development programs. Shawmut hires a handful of students from select colleges every year and puts them through its Construction Management Skills Training program. The CMST program gives new hires a 360-degree view of the construction process through one-year "rotations"—much like a medical residency—in project management, project supervision, and estimating.

Upon successful completion of the program, the employees are eligible for positions as assistant project managers, assistant superintendents, or assistant estimators. Shawmut recently added a two-year estimator development program and a leadership development program for executive trainees.

There's a buzz in the air

Shawmut offers employees a robust menu of perks, such as a paid employee volunteer day, free First Aid and CPR classes, and free emergency daycare for those days when the employee's babysitter isn't available.

But the corporate culture also encourages its employees to have fun while at the office or job site, something they call "the Shawmut Buzz."

Shawmut's Boston office has a café with a pool table, foosball, Ping-pong, and darts. Every Friday afternoon there's a beer social in the café. The Shawmut social committee puts on an annual Fall Ball and a "Winterfest" ski trip. Employees participate in company-sponsored basketball, flag football, hockey, and softball teams.

"When you're in this industry and you put in the long hours, you have to have some fun in the workplace," Ehrlich said. "It's like the heyday of the companies, except we're still doing very well."

In 1989 Jim Ansara lost Joe Crugnale, the restaurant owner who first hired him to work on the ice cream shop in Somerville, as a client. Shawmut just wasn't giving this trusted customer the individual attention he deserved, and he took his business elsewhere.

This untoward event set off alarms at Shawmut and caused Ansara to evaluate how he was running the business. He realized he was trying to micromanage Shawmut as if it were still the tiny entrepreneurial shop it was when he started out 10 years before. He knew he had to let go.

Over the next few years, Ansara gradually turned over more and more control of the company to others, notably Thomas Goemaat, an engineer whom he had recruited from Turner Construction. In 1998, Ansara announced that Shawmut would become a 100% employee-owned company through an employee stock ownership plan. With the liquidity he gained through the ESOP, Ansara was ready to bow out as the day-to-day leader of the firm. In 2001 Ansara promoted Goemaat to president and CEO and assumed the title of chairman.

The training and service programs Shawmut has instituted since 2003 undoubtedly have helped the firm to become a $500 million company. And, while the company has grown beyond recognition from its humble beginnings, its nearly 500 employees still proudly maintain the Shawmut tradition of meeting tough deadlines and the needs of the most demanding clients.

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