Matt Emma, 26, worked his way through college as a website developer for nightclubs. Three years after graduating from college, he never dreamed his skills would help Turner Construction Co. meet its schedule for the nearly $1-billion overhaul of Madison Square Garden in New York City.

In 2011, with time running down on the arena's scheduled opening for the 2013 sports season, Emma's manager at Turner asked him to devise a way to make the projects' field operations paperless. Six months, many weekends and $1,000 later, Emma rolled out Turner eManager, a web-based project management application built on the WordPress open-source blogging platform.

Field personnel, including subcontractors, are using iPads to track change-order processing on the project, says Emma, Turner's arena superintendent for concrete and sprayed-on fireproofing.

Emma now plans to add more workflow management functionality to the WordPress-based tool, which Turner staffers across the U.S. are beta-testing before its next release.

From coding in a college dorm to major project innovation, Emma's experience reflects a strategy that has helped one of the largest and oldest general contractors in the U.S.—with 1,500 ongoing construction jobs, 46 offices and 5,400 employees—stay profitable and prepared for the next generation of leaders.

For his work, Emma was one of three Turner employees to tie for first place in the company's first-ever award for innovation (see sidebar, p. 35). The winners were selected from more than 100 submissions.

The innovations and awards, each with a $10,000 prize, demonstrate some of Turner's new priorities: continuous improvement, staff recruitment and retention, and youth and diversity, among others. Five years after the Great Recession sparked major soul-searching about the firm's core values, Turner's culture shift is paying off. "When the market tanked, we looked inward at what we could fix," says Peter J. Davoren, chairman, president and CEO of Turner Construction and chairman and CEO of Turner Corp., which also includes Turner International (TI). "We lifted the lid off every pot," he says.

When Davoren took the reins of the company in 2003, he urged more communication outside of traditional lines. "We grew up never violating the organizational chart," he says. "Now, all parties can communicate, no matter their rank."

Adds Jim Barrett, Turner's director of integrated building solutions, "It's critical to develop an environment that encourages experimentation and forgives failure. That's hard to do. The worst thing we can do is straitjacket the recruits."

Higher Priorities

In the 1980s, Turner eased up on recruiting college students. That mistake won't happen again, says Davoren. Staff development is now such a high priority for the firm that Davoren pulled Turner veterans Tom Gerlach and Karen Sweeney away from projects and put them in high-level positions, in charge of delivering on recruiting goals.

Turner's annual turnover rate is 10%, considered normal in the industry. "If we don't keep recruiting well, our system will have a gap," says Gerlach, senior vice president of human resources, who has been with Turner for 33 years. During the worst of the recession, Turner increased its recruitment goals, he adds.

Of the 300 to 350 college recruits it hires annually, 60% are engineering graduates and 28% are CM graduates. The firm visits at least 150 colleges a year. "It's a huge investment," says Davoren.

Turner also recruits 300 interns from high school each year. Further, it reaches out to kids as early as kindergarten with its YouthForce 2020 program and participates in the ACE Mentor program.

Last year, 51% of college recruits were women or minorities. "We are drawing from a limited pool of graduates," says Sweeney, vice president for diversity and inclusion.

The commitment to diversity is not only internal. "We're on our eighth year of awarding over $1 billion of work to minority- and women-owned businesses," says Sweeney.