At AGC of Utah’s 2018 annual convention, a delighted Slade Opheikens, president and CEO of Ogden-based R&O Construction, accepted the Contractor of the Year award from the Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management (DFCM) for his company’s recent projects with the state of Utah. Currently, R&O is at work on its largest state project to date, a $90-million, 1,600-unit student housing building at Utah Valley University in Orem.
Both events are major milestones on a long and winding road for R&O, and, Opheikens admits, a pretty good way to celebrate an anniversary for a company that began as an area home builder 40 years ago. In the years since it founding, R&O, which reported regional revenue of $177.5 million in 2018, has completed projects across the country. In addition to its Ogden headquarters, the contractor has offices in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.
Opheikens is the second generation of family leadership at the company, which was founded by his father, Orluff, Lynn Wright, Frank McDonough (who still works at R&O as an estimator) and friend and business partner Les Randall. Orluff and his partners had built a strong reputation in home construction, but when mortgage-interest rates jumped in the late 1970s, the housing market soured.
“Les put up some money, along with my dad, and they were able to bond and get into the commercial market,” Opheikens says. The two formed Randall and Opheikens Construction Co., or R&O Construction, and began bidding for work. They eventually landed a renovation job for a local grocery chain, Smith’s Food King (now part of the Kroger network of companies). That led to more retail work, and the company earned a reputation for completing projects on time. It began sending teams to work at retail locations across the country. Over the years, R&O has established relationships with and built multiple projects for retailers such as Chick-fil-A, Maverik convenience stores, Utah-based Harmons Grocery stores and IKEA.
“Specializing in retail construction was how we would market ourselves, and retail and tenant improvement work was where we made most of our money, but we started to be concerned that it was the only thing people thought of us for,” Opheikens says.
In the long lead-up to Salt Lake City hosting the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, the company got an opportunity to prove itself with a large, non-retail project, building a 350-unit apartment complex at The Gateway, a shopping center just west of downtown Salt Lake City.
“NBC was going to be moving a whole bunch of their people and operations into that building for the Olympics, and we only had ten and a half months to complete 350 units,” Opheikens says. “We were successful there, and so the owner, Simpson Housing Solutions, took us to California to do more housing projects. That really helped us diversify.”
The company continued to take on projects outside the retail sector, but the 2008 recession forced a reevaluation by R&O’s leadership team. “We decided if we were not going to make any money for a few years, we should try to break into doing work for the federal government,” Opheikens says.
He says the work started with small projects in neighboring states and gradually grew to larger ones in North Dakota and California. “We learned a lot doing federal work, and we teamed with a lot of other contractors. When the recession ended, we had added to our résumé and had done some $40-million and $60-million projects. We had done projects beyond retail and found we could manage them,” he says.
The experience with federal government projects served the company well as the economy began to recover. Around 2012, Salt Lake City-based Woodbury Corp. was awarded the contract to develop Falcon Hill, a first-of-its-kind mixed-use project on 150 acres at the eastern edge of Utah’s Hill Air Force Base. Woodbury Corp. COO Tyler Woodbury oversaw the project. He says in addition to serving as general contractor and performing value engineering, R&O learned to successfully navigate the many details of working with the federal government.
“We’ve been working inside the fence at Hill Air Force Base, and the Air Force has some unique requirements for that,” Woodbury says. “R&O has been amazing at coordinating and working with the federal government but still maintaining privately competitive bids and schedules. The value engineering they’ve done helped us recently complete one of our buildings there for $10 a square foot less than estimated.”
R&O has started work with Woodbury on a similar development known as Project Unity, at the northwest side of Hill Air Force Base. Woodbury also is the developer of the new student housing project at Utah Valley University.
Opheikens says the firm got its chance to begin working with the state in 2014 and was awarded the contract for a multi-use building that would be the first phase of Utah State University’s satellite campus in Brigham City. Designed by Salt Lake City’s Jacoby Architects, the building included classrooms, offices and space for community events.
“We had almost given up trying to get DFCM jobs. We felt like we were locked out. I think after those federal jobs cracked the door for us a little bit,” he says, “our team got together and said, ‘Not only do we have to get this, we have to get it and do the best job we can possibly do on it.’ Getting that award from DFCM really meant a lot to us.”
The completion of the Brigham City campus led to a second project for USU, this time on its Logan campus. In 2017, R&O again teamed with Jacoby Architects on the university’s $28-million, 100,000-sq-ft Sorensen Center for Clinical Excellence. It includes classrooms but also serves as a clinical facility for people with physical and mental disabilities, providing a wide range of therapeutic treatment. The project received an ENR Mountain States award for higher education and research facilities in 2018.
“They (R&O) are incredibly knowledgeable, sophisticated, organized and, most importantly, make the process of construction enjoyable, even with a 15-person steering committee,” says Joe Jacoby, president of Jacoby Architects. “They assign multiple team members to each project, with very specific roles on the jobsite to keep the project running smoothly and on schedule.”
R&O has long been a supporter of community events in the Ogden area and encourages its employees to get involved in volunteer efforts. Under the leadership of past president Dale Campbell, who passed away in 2014, the company became deeply involved in working with the Utah Chapter of the American Cancer Society. The firm donated services and funds and served as general contractor for the Hope Lodge project in Salt Lake City. Hope Lodge provides free, temporary housing to patients who travel to the city for treatment at local specialty hospitals.
Future Lessons Learned
Opheikens says in the coming years he sees R&O being more selective about the projects it pursues but also remaining focused on steady growth and developing a future leadership team.
“We don’t travel to jobs as much anymore, and I don’t want to chase work all over the region,” he says. “Our focus is not on reaching a billion dollars or something, but on how we can keep work in front of us. We want to have steady growth and be big enough to be qualified for bigger jobs but also serve the clients we have had for a long time.”
Opheikens notes the company today has fewer divisions for different types of work and focuses more on leadership.
“It is going to be a challenging time, because as the projects get bigger, so do the stakes,” he says. “There’s a point where if you have a bad $3-million or $5-million job, you can survive that, but if you have a bad $40-million or $60-million job, that’s the kind of thing that can take you out as a company.”