If tough economic times test a company’s mettle, then Clark Construction Group can expect to remain a steadfast market leader for years to come. As the financial world breakdown continued and more new development opportunities eroded in 2009, the Bethesda, Md.-based contractor banked on a solid backlog of multi-year megaprojects and took in a record-setting $2.9 billion in regional revenue.
Although the 104-year-old company typically finds itself atop the list of largest local contractors, its recent revenue spike is stunning. It garnered more than its next two largest competitors combined, with The Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. of Towson, Md., and Turner Construction of Arlington, Va., earning $1.69 billion and $1.07 billion, respectively. Its 2009 revenue is more than double its tally for 2006, when it ranked third behind Whiting-Turner and Turner Construction with $1.35 billion.
Over the years, the company has positioned itself to compete in nearly every construction sector, but its success in federal contracting has been the difference maker in recent years. With the federal rollout of the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005, Clark saw market opportunities play to its favor. Given the tremendous scope and fast-track demands of many local BRAC projects, the field of competitors was significantly narrower than would be seen on a typical commercial project. Many large BRAC projects used design-build and other procurement methods that removed design-bid-build contractors from the running.
The large projects “play to the strengths of companies like ours,” says Brian Abt, division president and general manager of the Mid-Atlantic region at Clark. “The much smaller contractors don’t have the experience or ability to perform some of these megaprojects. We have strong competitors in that arena, but less than those that would compete for a $20-million office building.”
Last year, the company began turning over the first completed buildings at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s $1.4-billion New Campus East project at Fort Belvoir, Va., which it was awarded in 2007 as part of a joint venture with Balfour Beatty Construction of Fairfax, Va. Clark also topped out the $640-million 667,000-sq-ft Walter Reed National Military Medical Center project at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda last year. That project, which broke ground in May 2008 and will complete in 2011, is also a joint venture with Balfour Beatty.
In December 2008, it began work on the $695-million 1.8-million-sq-ft BRAC 133 Project at Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., which will complete next year.
Last year, Clark continued to rack up major federal jobs. In the fall, it began construction on the $435-million 1.2-million-sq-ft U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, which is partially funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Completion is scheduled for 2012. In September, it was awarded a $229-million contract by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the 526,255-sq-ft U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense replacement facility at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Harford County, Md. Completion is expected in summer 2013.
Forming Partnerships With an increase in megaprojects, Clark has partnered on more deals, out of necessity, to spread the risk. Although the company prides itself on its proprietary practices, it has adopted a level of openness to foster collaborative teams.
“You’d be hard-pressed to go to Walter Reed, where it’s a joint venture [with Balfour Beatty], and go into the trailer and figure out who worked for whom,” says John O’Keefe, division president of the Mid-Atlantic region for Clark. “Integrated teams are what the client expects. If you don’t get that, it won’t work.”
In pursuing projects, the company’s in-house capabilities have paid off at the negotiating table. The company has its own concrete and foundations groups. Subsidiaries Shirley Contracting of Lorton, Va., and Atkinson Construction of Bethesda can be called on for heavy civil duties. Clark tapped those resources to help with some federal jobs, and it also uses them on a wide variety projects, including Contract C of the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and infrastructure for the new AeroTrain at Dulles International Airport.
“We’re able to leverage those capabilities to go after projects that frankly our competitors can’t do in-house,” O’Keefe says “They would have to team with others to have the capability to do that.”
Clark Concrete proved a valuable asset on the $102-million Arena Stage project in Washington, D.C. The project includes a 200-seat theater with cast-in-place, 90-ft-high concrete walls. The walls are constructed along eight different ellipse and radius layouts, with a four-degree outward slope. The new facility is scheduled to open this summer.
Institutional Opportunities Although the company’s highest-profile projects have been on the federal side, Clark keeps itself diverse and nimble. The company gained a reputation for its extensive commercial and large mixed-use work around D.C. at the beginning of the decade, but if has found recent success in institutional work.
Last year, Clark won a contract with Virginia Tech to build a 144,000-sq-ft research facility in Arlington. Completion is slated for next spring. Clark also began construction in early 2009 on a $51-million 140,700-sq-ft Science Center at Montgomery College’s Rockville, Md., campus. The project, which is scheduled for completion next spring will be integrated with the college’s existing Science East building. Also set to complete next spring is the $80 million Oakland Hall Dormitory at the University of Maryland in College Park. The 200,000-sq-ft project, which broke ground in December 2008, is the first new residence hall built at the campus in more than a quarter-century.
This year, Clark will also wrap up work at The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s new $573-million clinical facility in Baltimore. When it broke ground in 2006, the 1.5-million-sq-ft building was the largest health care project under construction in the nation. It is the centerpiece of a $1.2-billion Johns Hopkins redevelopment plan. Clark is building the project in a joint venture with Banks Contracting Co. of Baltimore.
Training Pays Off Although the company has had to weather considerable upheaval in the construction market in recent years, Clark executives credit its extensive training programs for keeping their people nimble. Clark hires heavily from colleges, preferring to train employees that it can retain for years. New hires take introductory classes through Clark Corporate University and have courses available to help existing employees expand their talents. In-house federal contracting courses have been particularly helpful in recent years, O’Keefe adds.
“Everyone we hire, we hire, not for specific projects, but for a career,” says O’Keefe, who has been with the company for 25 years. “In doing that, people develop diverse skills. We don’t have a lot of niche players that are only good at one thing. They are good at our business and are able to move and shift in the direction we need them.”
Sustainability has also been a big push for Clark, especially as demand has sharply risen among clients. In 2008, the firm had less than 100 LEED-accredited professionals and placed No. 7 on Engineering News-Record’s Top Green General Contractors list with $752 million in green construction revenue. In 2009, Clark jumped to No. 4 with $1.9 billion in green revenue. Today, it has more than 350 LEED AP employees and Clark expects to report more than $2.5 billion in green revenue. “This has become a part of our everyday life” Abt says. “It’s no longer a new thing, it’s part of the fabric of how we do things.”
But Clark is not ready to rest on its laurels. Despite a year of record-breaking revenues, the firm’s executives are keeping a close eye on the uncertain road ahead. While they remain cautiously optimistic, they also recognize that the general market could continue to struggle with federal programs coming to a close and private investment still slow. Abt says the company will continue to lean on the secret to its success—its people.
“The challenge is, when does the private market come back?” he adds. “People are hopeful that it will be this year, but no one has a crystal ball. In the bigger picture, this is viewed as a vibrant market and we still see others coming into this region. There are certainly worse places to be right now than D.C.”