4 contractors on how to pivot under pressure & keep business going strong

Take a breath. If the true test of a good leader is how they handle the tough times, 2020 has been a test for the ages. Navigating an economic recession in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis is no small task, but the construction leaders in this article have taken on the challenge and come out stronger for it.

We’re not out of the woods yet, though—at print time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a total of 5,176,018 coronavirus cases in the United States and 165,148 deaths to date.

Epidemiologists and health-care professionals are predicting that by the time you are reading this, there will have been somewhere between 140,000 and 160,000 deaths due to the virus in the U.S.

Regardless of your personal feelings about wearing a mask, it’s only right to be worried about the safety of your employees and any further effects the ongoing pandemic will have on your business.

More than that, you have a duty to your workforce to take measures to protect their health and safety while they’re at work. And that’s no small job.

But here’s the thing: whether we’re in the midst of a full-blown pandemic and a recession or we’re enjoying a building boom in a strong economy, the real strength lies in how we prepare.

And while you surely value on what economists are predicting and what the numbers tell us about what to expect in the rest of 2020, you also need insight from your peers on what they’re doing to mitigate the effects of our current situation.

If you take nothing else from their words, hear this: Planning is everything. You’ve heard the saying, “Plan for the worst of times, even in the best of times.” In 2020, the proof is in the pudding.

The Lineup


CBO: Tell us About your experience leading your company during the coronavirus pandemic. What processes has your team put in place?

Gary Ellis

Ellis: Jacobsen has proactively sought the guidance of the CDC, as well as state and local authorities where we perform work, about best safety practices. We have implemented these practices, including mask-wearing, physical distancing and increasing access to on-site handwashing stations, as a way to ensure our employees on the jobsite can stay both safe and working.

We have also instituted safety practices at our corporate offices, including encouraging employees to continue working from home whenever possible. Early and often, Jacobsen set a clear expectation that nobody experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19 should come to work.

Our company implemented a COVID-19 paid leave program, separate from other categories of paid time off. We have also paid close attention to workforce morale through regular surveys and encouraged input.


Jacque P. Ballay

Ballay: Like most businesses during COVID-19, this has been a substantial challenge for our leadership team to keep the company moving forward during the pandemic, but most importantly, keep our employees healthy and safe.

Being that we have active jobsites throughout the continental U.S. and overseas for the federal government, APC was able to shift our work platforms to video conferences, daily and weekly phone calls with management, etc., pretty quickly.

We put in place additional contingency plans, which established a level of confidence with our management team and workforce.

Because we are headquartered in the New Orleans, Louisiana, metropolitan area, we have already had to establish a disaster recovery program for hurricane season. Our operations team has tirelessly worked in keeping our projects moving, along with our corporate administration team, who have processed payroll remotely and ensured timely subcontractor and material vendor payments.


Adam Owens

Owens: The most trying aspect has been juggling employee and family health while running our business. Although it has been a steep learning curve, we have tried to keep everyone safe by following the CDC’s guidelines and expert advice regarding to health recommendations and social distancing.

Since the pandemic started, we have also been sending regular emails to all of our employees to update them on our company’s efforts, where we stand in the state’s planned economic reopening, and the latest recommendations. This is to help keep everyone healthy—not only on our jobsites, but also to help ensure they have all the information necessary to keep their families safe as well. Also, we are requiring handwashing/sanitation stations on every RLTurner-controlled jobsite.

J. Wickham Zimmerman

Zimmerman: We proactively developed continuity-of-business and disaster recovery plans years ago. That preparation and forward-thinking approach has paid off in our ability to move quickly and effectively during these trying times. In March, we made the decision to close our physical offices in both Texas and Anaheim, California, and had all employees of those offices up and running remotely the same day. In addition, our data-analytics capabilities allow us to monitor our work in progress, backlog and bid-hit rate in real time, run what-if scenarios and plan accordingly.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, our leadership team quickly pivoted to evaluating every aspect of how we do business to reduce the risk of potentially transmitting the virus among our staff and clients. We instituted sanitary, disinfecting, mask-wearing and social-distancing policies in all areas of our company to ensure we complied with the strictest protocols mandated by local and state government officials.

Team members that were not required to be on-site moved to working from home, and those on-site wore personal protective equipment (PPE) as needed. Also, in late March, OTL developed a COVID-19 Specific Safety Plan for our employees. We provided all superintendents with digital, noncontact thermometers, and each employee’s temperature is taken prior to the start of the day.

CBO: Has your company experienced project disruptions, stops or delays?

Ellis: Like all major contractors, we have seen delays in some planned projects. In the spring, we launched a concerted effort to determine the following things:

  • What are the impacts that we’re facing this year because of these changes?
  • What are the most prudent strategies to help us move forward?
  • What are the right steps to help us reset?

The answers to these questions have been our guide to steadying our course and charting the best path forward for both the short- and long-term success of the business.

Keith Porta

Porta: Yes, unfortunately, due to COVID-19, our entire West Texas field services division, which services the oil and gas sector, was compelled to temporarily cease operations.

Owens: At RLTurner, we had a few jobs we were planning on starting that were pulled out from under us, with owners citing uncertainty regarding COVID-19.

However, other than those few cases, we have actually increased our workload. Since we are considered essential work, we were able to start some projects, such as interior school renovations, earlier than scheduled.

Zimmerman: While the timeline on some projects has been extended a bit as the commercial real estate industry readjusts, our current projects are steadily moving forward. Some projects in the early stages and not under contract­—but were already scheduled to commence in 2020—have been postponed, but we expect them to pick back up again within the next year or so.

CBO: What lessons in leadership have you learned from this crisis?

Ellis: The pandemic has reinforced to me that we have incredibly dedicated, kind and loyal people in every corner of our company. While we find ourselves in unusual circumstances, our tight-knit culture and our ethos of producing quality work is the same today as it was before the onset of COVID-19. Another stark lesson during this pandemic has been that in unprecedented times, Americans look for symbols of our nation’s strength and economic resiliency. Civic and business leaders nationwide clearly see the industry as an important indicator of vitality, and for good reason. If this country’s economy is to come roaring back to life, construction—with its wide base of high-paying jobs, and its significant influence on large supply chains—will need to be the backbone of such a recovery.

Porta: The biggest takeaway for me during this crisis was the critical importance in attracting and retaining the best possible team with which to surround yourself. The men and women of APC have been nothing short of outstanding during this pandemic. We are fortunate to have such a devoted group of people working and fully investing themselves in our vision that APC is a contractor with greater aspirations for our future.

Ballay: Concurring with Keith (Porta), we have made it a top priority to build a culture of self-disciplined individuals at APC Construction. During this pandemic, it has been incredible to watch employees perform at such a high level when faced with such adversity. Hands down, our team is our No.1 asset.

Owens: No matter what path you take to address something as unprecedented as this, there is no prescribed way to get through it. Every company, every employee and every situation is unique and must be handled in that manner. We’ve adapted to what the pandemic has thrown at us, and we’re prepared to change the game plan mid-stride to keep everyone healthy and safe.

Zimmerman: The crisis has reminded us of the importance of being flexible and innovative in our approach. This applies to everything—from the way we design, to the systems we use, to the way we interact as a team and with our clients. I have also learned that consistent and frequent communication—both internally and externally—is vital.

Communicating that we were well-prepared for this crisis and providing honest and open communication helped to alleviate any fears our employees had and allowed them to focus on their work and their families, rather than worrying about whether they will get their next paycheck.

CBO: What aspect of the business has been most difficult to navigate?

Ellis: Our first concern has been ensuring our work at project sites can proceed safely. We have spent a significant amount of time planning and implementing new protocols at jobsites to keep our people safe and have spent significant funds on additional PPE to help make this possible.

A great deal of our COVID-19 response has involved consistently monitoring the morale of employees and ensuring they feel like they have the resources they need to be safe, successful and adequately supported by their team.

Porta: The most difficult aspect of running our business during COVID-19 is not having the opportunity to meet face to face with clients, strategic team members and our employees. I took those in-person meetings for granted prior to COVID-19. I realize that although video conferencing tools are a good, viable option during the pandemic, nothing beats simply being in front of someone and having that human interaction.

Ballay: [The most difficult aspect] has been to realize that it’s almost next to impossible to plan for every unknown and how that will impact our business, our clients, our suppliers and our employees. As a leader, you feel it is your responsibility to have a solution to every problem, even when there are so many unknown variables.

Owens: Many aspects of the business have been challenging. With the health and safety of our employees being our first priority, we will always focus on that above anything else. While that can indeed cause some scheduling and job-cost issues, our team has worked hard to keep us on the right track and moving forward.

Zimmerman: COVID-19 introduced a new aspect to staying safe for us to consider. We were suddenly responsible for preventing our team, our clients and their tenants and customers from acquiring an illness that arrived suddenly, and spread quickly and easily—and one even the experts knew little about. Adjusting to all the new information on the impact and progress of this disease that seems to be released almost hourly is a challenge.

CBO: What is your outlook for the rest of 2020 & how is your company preparing for it?

Ellis: America has not stopped building, nor have Americans stopped wanting to foster growth in their communities. The ability to proactively read changes in our various markets and strategically pursue the best projects—the ones whose client values we align with and which can generate healthy revenue—will be more important than ever.

Maintaining nimble development strategies will be critical to locating this kind of work amid a shifting economic landscape. Our company is placing an emphasis on maintaining a strong set of strategic plans for earning business from clients who are resiliently pressing forward with their dreams and aspirations for growth.

Porta: We have seen a definite resurgence in request for proposals going out in the last 30 to 45 days. Current clients are talking about new projects, and if the price of oil holds at current levels, I believe the rest of 2020 looks promising.

The pandemic has been a truly challenging experience as we continue to prioritize the health and safety of our employees while strategically balancing the company’s overall financial health. However, APC Construction will come out stronger than before, and we are better poised to capture a larger portion of market share now.

Owens: We are in a position to finish strong this year, and we are actively bidding on public and private opportunities. We will continue to look for the best opportunities for RLTurner while anticipating any effects the current health crisis may have on our industry in the future.

While we are fortunate to be in a good position, we certainly understand that other industries and businesses have struggled. We can do our best to help those around us and make it through these tough times together.

Zimmerman: As of the beginning of March, OTL was on its way to yet another record year in 2020. I am hopeful that 2021 will allow a solid rebound, although I expect the recovery to be shaped differently in different parts of the country. I expect that social-distancing mandates and sanitation protocols will remain in place most of 2020 and likely beyond.

The pace at which the economy reopens will depend on the trajectory of the virus and how the health-care system in different parts of the country is able to handle it. The situation is fluid; it changes daily, and OTL is keeping a watch on the reopening process in each area in which we have ongoing projects.