Harrowing moments—usually triggered from afar—come with Nick Billotti's territory as president of project manager Turner International.
He recalls the time he was watching television on Easter Sunday morning in 2002, while at Orlando's Disney World. He did a double take when he realized he was looking at damage from a major earthquake in Taiwan, including tower cranes dangling from the half-erected Taipei 101, which now stands at 508 meters. "That's our building," he said to his wife.
Billotti wasted no time calling senior staff in Taipei to get damage reports and to advise about site safety. The counterweights had sliced though six levels of the concrete podium. There were five fatalities. Billotti flew to Taipei a couple of days later.
Billotti recalls another nail-biting project, which exemplifies how work abroad is different from the domestic jobs of Turner International's (TI's) sister company, Turner Construction Co. During a civil war in Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s, two 38-story towers were bombed three times.
Each time, there were only minor injuries. But one truck bomb took out every pane on one side of each tower and the podium glass. "That was followed by monsoon rains, which did more damage," says Billotti. Since then, TI tries to steer clear of politically unstable areas.
Wars and quakes do not affect most of the jobs of the 1,550-person TI, formed in 1965. And with the exception of the 828-m-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is the world's tallest building, most projects have low profiles.
The firm, which has 15 offices outside its U.S. headquarters in Manhattan, is active in 18 nations, including Vietnam, Russia, Mexico and India. Many of its hires are not from the U.S.
TI contracts are fee-based, not risk-based. "We're selling our brains, not our brawn," says Billotti, who started with TI in 1977.
Of all the firm's contracts, 80% include design management in addition to project management. TI often recommends design teams.
Architect Bradford Perkins, chairman and CEO of Perkins Eastman, doesn't mind that at all. "We regard Turner [staff] as team players and friends," says Perkins, who has a long history with TI. "It's a plus to have them [on a job], especially in less sophisticated countries."
Ahmad Abdelrazaq, senior executive vice president of Samsung C&T Corp., which built the Burj Khalifa, says TI is a strong collaborator. "Before it even had a signed contract [for the Burj], Turner dedicated key staff to attend to the client's and the project's needs," he adds.
Billotti works as if on a diplomatic mission, viewing every American working abroad for TI as an ambassador for both the firm and the U.S. "Others judge us as a people by the way we conduct ourselves," he says.