A famous jazz singer was once asked if “jazz was coming back.” Her response was: “Where did it ever go?”
The same might be said of Hensel Phelps Construction, ENR Mountain States’ 2016 Contractor of the Year for Colorado and Wyoming. Many industry observers believed that the $3.1-billion, Greeley, Colo.-based firm had downplayed the local market, especially during the recession, only to roar back recently with several high-profile Colorado projects. Those include the 40-story 1144 15th Street building in Denver, being built for developer Hines, and Union Tower West, an office-hotel complex at Union Station, underway for Portman Holdings LLC.
Allan Bliesmer, vice president and district manager for Hensel Phelps’ Plains district, working out of the firm’s Denver office, sees it differently. “I’ve had people say that to me that [we] kind of exited the Denver market and came back,” Bliesmer says. “And it’s nothing intentional that we did. With the economic changes, as a contractor you try to find the opportunities for [the] company. And a lot of things factor into that—your experience level, the location and proximity of your people, the return you can get on projects,” he says.
“All those things factor into your analysis of which projects make sense for you and which ones don’t. And it was just one of those times where the federal government had some very large-scale projects in the region and on the edges of the region here in the Rocky Mountain area. They made a good fit for us, they made good sense for us, and they were long-standing projects. And those kinds of projects really help you ride through [an economic downturn].”
Indeed, federal work has long been a mainstay for the 79-year-old national contractor, which was founded in 1937 by builder Hensel Phelps. The U.S. government retained the company to rebuild the wing of the Pentagon damaged by the 9/11 attacks. The firm launched a decade-long project to renovate the building, wedge by wedge.
Other federal work included projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the General Services Administration and NASA. Recent regional defense projects have included a new hangar at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, and a flight training facility at the High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site in Gypsum (Eagle County), Colo.
Ryan Martorano, chief estimator at Hensel Phelps, says the post-9/11 work was especially gratifying. “When you’re in those situations, I think most people just want to do anything they can to help, and yet most people feel pretty helpless,” he says. “It gave you the ability to do something when you felt like you wanted to help your country.”
Closer to home, public-sector work has also served as a mainstay for the company. Hensel Phelps built the Denver Justice Center and the city’s Downtown Aquarium; expanded the Colorado Convention Center; and was one of the initial contractors involved in the creation of Denver International Airport. The company is working on DIA’s continuing renovations and expansion and has a three-year contract to perform on-call services there.
Aviation is another key sector for Hensel Phelps. The firm has worked on major airport facilities in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Houston, Austin, Dallas and Baltimore, among others.
“We like airport work,” Bliesmer says. “We think it’s really good, solid work. It’s something where we have a great depth of experience throughout our organization and not just in one region or the other. So it’s something that really attracts us.”
Another of the company’s historically deep sectors is health care. Hensel Phelps has built more than $5 billion worth of medical facilities around the country over the past seven decades, according to its website. Local endeavors include the University of Colorado Denver Research Complex, the Banner Health West Greeley Emergency Dept. and North Colorado Medical Center’s 2nd Century Project, also in Greeley.
Last October, Hensel Phelps broke ground on the Denver Health and Hospital Authority’s $54.7-million 601 Broadway Hospital Support Services Building in Denver.
Company officials say that both the 1144 15th Street office high-rise and Union Tower West projects are on schedule, and the owners appear pleased. The 1144 15th Street project is Hensel Phelps’ first for global developer Hines. The project broke ground in June 2015, and Dave Klebba, Hines vice president of construction, says he anticipates completion in early 2018.
“They [Hensel Phelps] seem to have a culture that’s very steadfast and really concerned about meeting the client’s expectations,” Klebba says. “In construction, that’s a hard thing to do, especially with an owner that’s so involved with these projects.... It can become a contentious process, as we all know in this business. But they’ve done a really good job managing our expectations. We’re more than a year into a 31-month project, and I think we all come to our meetings happy.”
Charles A. Pinkham III, vice president for development at Portman Holdings LLC, says the $56.2-million Union Tower West’s 100,000-sq-ft office space should open in December, with the 180-room hotel following in mid-January. He is impressed by what he terms Hensel Phelps’ “solution-oriented” approach.
“If we have found something that has been challenging from a cost perspective, they oftentimes will come to the table with ideas for different ways to execute certain elements that maintain the design intent and aesthetic appeal but achieve it in a more economical fashion,” Pinkham says. “Sometimes it’s hard for architects to see something different from their original vision, and Hensel Phelps brings an in-the-field perspective that really helps to get the creative minds moving.”
And, Pinkham adds, “When it comes to execution, in my experience they’re second to none.”
Another satisfied client is Carl Kline Jr., director of planning and construction for the Denver Health and Hospital Authority. Kline said by email, “We have a strong relationship with Hensel Phelps, as we can trust them to deliver a highly professional team and successful project. From the design process to certificate of occupancy, the Hensel Phelps team has always had strong collaboration and plays an important role with project integration. Hensel Phelps does not believe in problems; they believe in solutions.”
Satisfaction extends to Hensel Phelps’ staff as well. The employee-owned company of nearly 2,600 people (around 40% of them craftspeople) is rated at 3.9 out of 5.0 by the employee-satisfaction and salary website Glassdoor.com. More than 75% of Hensel Phelps respondents on Glassdoor say they would recommend the company to a friend, and 99% approve of CEO Jeffrey Wenaas. Kurt Seeman, operations manager, says the firm strongly promotes work-and-life balance and “making sure that people enjoy coming to work.”
Today, the firm ranks 141st on Forbes magazine’s list of privately held U.S. companies and landed at No. 23 on ENR’s 2015 list of U.S. contractors. In ENR Mountain States’ 2016 Top Contractors list, Hensel Phelps ranks fifth, with nearly $340 million in regional revenue reported for last year. That’s up significantly from its 2015 regional ranking of 13, at $209.1 million—further proof that the regional comeback is fully underway. Even so, the company, which had humble beginnings as a home builder and remodeler, didn’t succeed overnight—or even just in the past few years.
Says Bliesmer: “It’s been an 80-year venture.”