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Gilbane Building Company: building people, not just buildings

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Gilbane Building Company: building people, not just buildings

August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200803 issue of BD+C.

G ilbane Building Company, a full-service construction manager and general contractor based in Providence, R.I., reported annual revenues of more than $4 billion in 2007. Last year, the company allocated nearly $7.6 million, or almost $4,000 apiece, to train its 1,900 employees. That substantial investment, however, was one that the company views as invaluable for attracting and retaining top-notch people to the firm.

“An employee is a resource that is never fully developed,” says Gilbane, Inc., chairman Paul Choquette, Jr., who heads the 135-year-old family-owned business, founded by brothers William and Thomas Gilbane in 1873 as a carpentry shop. Choquette’s philosophy toward employee development is burnished in the company’s slogan: “Building more than buildings.”

The great bulk of the firm’s multimillion dollar training budget supports Gilbane University, an in-house educational program that was established in 2000. Now, eight years later, Gilbane University offers more than 500 courses that help new hires get off to a running start in developing their careers and that enable seasoned employees to continue to advance in theirs. Last year, 20% of Gilbane’s total workforce earned promotions.


Gilbane University is just one of several substantial investments the company makes in its employees, including performance recognition programs, profit sharing, and an emphasis on work/life balance.

These investments in people are working for Gilbane, which reports an annual turnover rate of 10.5% compared with the industry average of 21%. The firm cites employee retention as a key factor in its ability to sustain its growth and momentum over the years, because they know that each time they lose an employee, it costs the company about $50,000 to find a replacement.

Gilbane faces a problem not unfamiliar in the AEC industry: a talented but aging workforce getting ever closer to retirement. Sixty-three percent of Gilbane’s workforce is over 40; 37% is over 50. So, even with the loyalty of the firm’s workforce—some employees have logged 40 and even 50 years with the CM—Gilbane is promoting its extensive training program and roster of benefits to attract young new talent to the firm.

Gilbane University is a “major asset and differentiator for Gilbane,” says Thomas F. Gilbane, Jr., chairman of Gilbane Building Company. “Gilbane University allows our employees to learn, do a far better job for our clients, as well as grow personally. It is critical to success in our strategies related to people and leadership, operational excellence and customer satisfaction, and profitability and sales.”

Gilbane University courses are designed to teach the firm’s best practices on topics such as construction management, construction processes, company values, client satisfaction, safety, leadership, interpersonal skills, and software systems. Some courses were developed internally, while others were created with external education partners, but all were designed to help employees chart career paths and offer them the ongoing training critical to their advancement. Some courses are even open to Gilbane’s clients and subcontractors.

Courses are offered in various formats—instructor-led, online, distance learning, virtual classrooms, simulations, lending libraries, and educational portals. They can involve group discussions, role playing, and hands-on work. Gilbane employees who successfully complete certain courses can earn continuing education units (CEUs) from the University of Rhode Island; many colleges and universities nationwide accept CEUs for undergraduate credit. The credits are also used to maintain professional certification.

In addition to Gilbane University, new hires and younger employees are mentored through the Gilbane Young Professionals peer group, which was started in Gilbane’s New England region and is growing nationally. The group sponsors various events where employees can network with one another, as well as learn more about career opportunities. A GYP representative also attends monthly management meetings, which provides invaluable feedback to the GYP group. They’re also assisting the human resources team in instituting an onboarding program to help new hires get acclimated to the Gilbane culture.

Employee recognition programs constitute another incentive investment for Gilbane. The firm’s four top national awards are given for teamwork, safety, excellence, and innovation. Winners receive $2,000, with an additional $1,000 for the charity of their choice. Gilbane’s 31 regional offices also make numerous awards, including gift cards ranging from $100 to $1,000.

In 2007, the firm added a special Values in Action award, where employees recognize one another’s work. The award, which comes with a $25 gift card, has proven popular both inside and outside the firm, having been featured on a National Public Radio segment.

Gilbane’s retirement plan was designed to promote employee retention by rewarding employee loyalty based on years of service. Implemented 32 years ago, the program contributes points equal to about 8% of an employee’s annual salary, with additional points awarded for years of service—from two points for employees with less than four years, to 20 points for employees with 35 years or more of service. In 2007, the company’s contributions to employee retirement accounts totaled $12.5 million.

Supporting an effective life/work balance is an essential part of attracting and retaining the best employees. In 2007, Gilbane instituted a new paid time off policy that gives employees almost an extra week away from work (as compared to the traditional model of separating vacation time from sick/personal time). Employees now accrue between 216 and 296 hours of PTO annually, which includes holidays, vacation, sick time, vacation, and personal days. With all that time off coming out of the same “bucket,” employees have the freedom to use the time however and whenever they want. Flex work schedules are also provided, and are especially popular with younger employees who are just starting families, as well as with other employees who want the option of tailoring their schedules to suit family or other obligations, provided they fulfill their required work hours.

Gilbane also supports healthy lifestyles and, in partnership with healthcare provider United Healthcare, conducts employee health assessments and offers seminars dealing with stress, time management, and other work-life issues. The company subsidizes gym memberships, various exercise classes (such as yoga, karate, and Pilates), and the purchase of exercise equipment.

Looking ahead, this privately held, family-run business will continue to take a long-term view of operations and its future, as it continues to grow. This past January, Gilbane opened a new office in Indianapolis, further solidifying its position in the Midwest. Its Northeast region has been so successful that the firm recently divided what was once a single entity into three regional offices, and the thriving Western region, based in Phoenix, will follow suit in about another year.

—Jay W. Schneider, Senior Editor

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