Suffolk Construction Sizzles in Hot South Florida Market
The Southeast Contractor of the Year Achieved a Hefty Revenue Gain in 2015
“A tower crane on every corner” is not a stated goal of Suffolk Construction Co., insists the firm’s Southeast chief operating officer, Peter Tuffo. But considering Suffolk’s performance of late—$552.6 million in 2015 Southeast revenue, an 83% increase over the year before—one wonders if such a scenario could well happen for ENR Southeast’s Contractor of the Year.
Since the middle of 2015, the contractor has started work on such notable South Florida high-rise residential projects as the 52-story Ritz-Carlton Residences in Sunny Isles Beach; the 25-story Bristol Palm Beach in West Palm Beach; the 19-story, 76-unit Altaira in Bonita Springs; and Prive at Island Estates, a $180-million, two-tower development in Aventura. Nearby, Suffolk is constructing the 7.5-acre Aventura Park Square mixed-use development.
Suffolk has also been tapped for the expansion of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, which will include a 500-room hotel tower, retail and banquet facilities, and renovations to the existing signature restaurant.
And that’s all on top of what may well be the region’s most transformative job—the $200-million, mixed-use MiamiCentral Station complex that will anchor All Aboard Florida’s Brightline passenger rail system.
Tuffo admits that Suffolk enjoys the advantage of having several clients with significant project backlogs in a generally upbeat building environment, noting that 82% of the firm’s current workload comes from existing clients.
But he’s quick to add that the company has long been highly selective about who it works with, eschewing the low-bid “transactional” approach rampant in the pre-recession days in favor of creating lasting relationships built on mutual respect.
“We want good-hearted people who value what we offer,” Tuffo says. And in turn, “they trust us to produce the best with the best utilization of resources.”
Owners are also looking for project teams with an established history of working together, says Jeffrey Gouveia, Suffolk Southeast president and general manager. Where once individual experience was the priority in choosing contractors, “clients now want to know how long a team has been together, and what they’ve done together,” he says.
An increased use of construction manager at-risk and design-build delivery methods “shows how much collaboration is valued today,” Gouveia adds.
A contractor’s ability to innovate is likewise valued, particularly for executing technically complex projects that are increasingly the norm. For the $325-million, 61-story Jade Signature luxury condominium tower, currently under construction on Sunny Isles Beach, Suffolk and developer Fortune International spent a year researching excavation and soil-mixing strategies that would allow the structure to rise from a three-level underground garage sited just 200 ft from the Atlantic Ocean.
Virtual design and construction (VDC) technology and other advanced tools helped Suffolk and foundation subcontractor Malcolm Drilling Co. fine-tune the elements of a soil plug strategy for the 52-ft-deep “dry bathtub,” from foundation element sizes to equipment needs and schedule.
“This was the first time I’d been involved with the current technology available for general contractors,” says Ron Choron, Fortune’s vice president of construction. “It’s hard enough to get jobs done normally, and a project this big has to go right.”
Choron adds that with VDC and other modeling tools, “We can do a better job of getting everything correct up front and minimizing change orders, which is a bad word to developers.”
Advanced design and construction technology has likewise proved invaluable for MiamiCentral Station. Along with rail tracks rising 50 ft above street level, the project integrates multiple transportation modes and retail uses into a podium from which will rise two residential towers and an office tower, all within a nine-acre, constrained site that Gouveia characterizes as “the 50-yard line of Miami.”
But because every element of MiamiCentral’s ultimate build-out has already been modeled, and all tight tolerances accounted for, “we know exactly where everything will be,” Gouveia says.
Lean construction practices may prove equally valuable for tackling issues inherent in Suffolk’s other complex urban projects, such as the recently completed 32-story Met 3 tower and its soon-to-begin counterpart 43-story Met Square, both of which feature luxury residences built atop multistory, mixed-use podiums.
By embracing lean, Gouveia says Suffolk “went from being a construction manager, producing ‘our schedule,’ to one where everyone has input into how the work is going to flow. It has been a sea change for us.”
Admittedly some owners, designers and trades have needed to be convinced about the merits of lean construction, but Gouveia says skeptics are typically won over.
“Collaboration breeds more collaboration,” he says. “They say, ‘Those people kept their commitments so I was able to keep mine. I want to work with them again.’”
It also makes for safer jobsites. Tuffo credits hazard mitigation through predictive analytics and heavy trade involvement for Suffolk’s company-wide 0.68 EMR.
“An interactive approach with the trades raises awareness and helps trade workers stay tuned in, which is far more effective than policing,” he says.
Perhaps the most valuable service Suffolk has brought to its clients is predictability, a quality that Chris Kennedy, Suffolk vice president of preconstruction, says has always been important. “Only now, we have more tools to do it.”
For example, Suffolk self-performs much of its concrete work in order to provide better schedule reliability. “It’s important to control the schedule because everything follows it,” Tuffo says.
Suffolk’s innate understanding of client needs and priorities is likely a result of the company’s experience as an owner’s representative, says Kent McRae, COO for the 83-acre Moorings Park Institute upscale retirement community in Naples.
“They come to the table with ideas and ask questions,” says McRae, who is currently working with Suffolk on a 220,000-sq-ft project that includes a 64-bed assisted living and dementia building, a Center for Healthy Living, a clubhouse and parking garage. “They know the codes, and they know the people who oversee them. If an obstacle arises, they have a way to work through it and keep the project moving forward.”
As with its client relationships, Suffolk strives to find employees that fit with the company’s culture, whether it’s a newcomer to the business or an industry veteran. Like Fortune’s Choron, McRae knew many of Suffolk’s senior staff when they were at other firms, a factor which provided a degree of comfort in awarding the company its current assignment.
Yet neither had any qualms in 2014, when Gouveia replaced the previous president and general manager, Rex Kirby, who had headed Suffolk’s Southeast operations for nearly 15 years.
“The change didn’t affect us at all,” McRae says.
Suffolk has also built strong ties to the community through its Giving Circle program, which benefits employees and other “Suffolk family members” who may be in need. In the past 12 months, the Southeast region’s Giving Circle program has raised $291,000 through payroll deductions and fundraising efforts. The company also regularly supports a variety of local and regional charities.
Sustaining Suffolk’s current high pace of activity may prove as challenging as getting the work done. Some softening in the market is already evident, which is not necessarily a bad thing, says Kennedy.
“The key is to keep our subs in balance with the right volume of work in the pipeline so that they can go when we need them,” he says.
Gouveia agrees, adding that because every market cycle eventually undergoes a correction, long-range planning is particularly important.
“For all of VDC’s immense power, using it is a challenge because the technology is not inexpensive,” he says. “So we make a calculated decision on who we train to use it.”
But as long as Suffolk sticks to the strategy that brought it to this point, Gouveia says managing the future will be easier.
“If we try hard to collaborate,” he says, “we will get good results.”