When Bryon White and Mike Milender launched their construction business in 1997—just two guys in a garage—their plan was to become a custom home builder. The two had started their careers together at Hensel Phelps, and they shared a vision of creating a special place for people to work. As their families grew, their entrepreneurial mindset ensured that their work would keep them close to home.
Two decades later, the Milender White team has grown to 150 employees working in nine states and building what White, the firm’s president and CEO, calls “big jobs in urban settings.” Both founders remain active in the firm, with Milender overseeing operations on MW’s various jobsites as an executive vice president.
With its headquarters in Arvada, Colo., and a second office in Newport Beach, Calif., MW specializes in what the firm calls multikey work—multifamily high-rises, senior-living, student housing and hospitality facilities—in addition to office, historic renovation, structured parking projects and more.
ENR Mountain States has named Milender White 2019 Contractor of the Year for Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas area. Ranked 15th on the regional Top Contractors list—with $196.6 million in 2018 revenue, up from $167.2 million the previous year—the firm prides itself on developing projects that matter.
“In 22 years, our approach hasn’t changed,” White says. “While the market has changed, we have consistently focused on providing high-value preconstruction services.”
But MW has become more than just a general contractor and construction manager. A new development team is on schedule to break ground this summer as the master-plan developer for the Fourth Street Crossing in Silverthorne, Colo. MW also is the co-developer and general contractor of a new apartment community in Aurora, Colo., that includes 36,000 sq ft of retail and 216 apartments. The project broke ground in April.
Earlier this summer, MW completed The Aliso, a mixed-use development located on a 5.85-acre site that abuts the Southern California Institute of Architecture in the hip Arts District in Los Angeles. The five-building complex is one of the largest residential projects to be built in downtown Los Angeles in recent years.
Eighty percent of MW’s work is for repeat clients. “We strategically bring on new customers, vet them, ask around,” White says. “We’re not so foolish to believe that we’ll build every single one of their jobs, but with our best customers, we’re building a good chunk of them.”
“They make us look great,” says Norrie Boyd, housing division manager for the Boulder County Housing Authority. As one of those repeat clients, she acknowledges that MW’s talent for tackling unique challenges with innovative solutions is what keeps her organization coming back for more.
An unexpected challenge arose early in their relationship when the 1,000-year flood of Sept. 2013 destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and left $4 billion in damages along Colorado’s Front Range. Boulder County was hit the hardest, and one of the Housing Authority’s 72-unit, tax-credit projects was just a few months into construction in nearby Lafayette. When the heavy rains started, MW immediately called on its team for support.
“Their subcontractors went out in the middle of the storm, when not a single soul was out working,” Boyd says. “They immediately sealed our site with their own equipment, minimizing the damage. While so many other projects were delayed for years due to insurance claims, MW didn’t skip a beat. They saved the project, and we finished on time despite the worst flood in Colorado history.”
MW also understands Boulder County’s emphasis on sustainability and is comfortable incorporating geothermal, solar and other technologies into the building systems of the three projects they’ve worked on together.
“Some contractors don’t like to work with that, but Milender White has been integral in [making this happen] for Boulder County,” Boyd says. MW worked through challenges to bore geothermal wells 400 ft atop old mine shafts, enabling the housing authority to include a geothermal heating and cooling system on each project. As a result, “We are reducing greenhouse gases and saving low-income households a lot of utility costs,” Boyd says.
The Boulder County Housing Authority is currently working on its fourth affordable-housing development with MW. The 26-unit Tungsten Village will be the first low-income tax credit housing in the mountain town of Nederland. “It’s an important addition to the community; it’s a big deal,” Boyd says. “We don’t do many projects—our motto is quality over quantity—so it makes a difference to have a high-quality construction partner.”
A nationwide labor shortage in stick-frame construction prompted MW to establish its own wood-wall-panel prefab facility in Golden, Colo. “We’re at the tip of the spear in taking that to a full volumetric facility,” White says. “A lot of the prefab modular products typically come from Kansas, Nebraska and Idaho, where labor is cheap, but you’re shipping these boxes across the country, and that is not cheap, and it’s not good for the environment.”
The firm’s factory-built system keeps construction moving forward during Colorado’s short building season, and it reduces onsite injuries during inclement weather. MW’s innovative approach includes putting a pop-up facility near urban cores where modelers and a framing crew assemble the custom-built wall panels in a controlled environment.
The prefab facility recently ran two shifts a day to finish up delivery on a 226-unit multifamily project in Boulder. The team has begun fabricating packs for a three-story, mixed-use development. The shop will produce 48,618 linear ft of wall in 65 days. The modular team has two upcoming projects that will include 1,154 prefab floor panels as well.
MW opened a Southern California office five years ago. By 2021, it is projected to be the same size as the Colorado office, White says.
Adam Mack, a Boulder native and MW executive vice president, is the district manager for Southern California. “The way we manage our projects—from the financial side to communicating with our owners—you will see it happen exactly the same way on each project,” he says. “It’s the Milender White way.”
“We empower our people to make decisions daily. We don’t micromanage. We focus on the culture, an organized approach and train every day across cost, quality, schedule and safety. Then we let them go do their jobs,” White adds.
A key part of this training is provided through Milender White University, an online library of more than 65 courses the contractor has built and makes available for training at every jobsite. The site hosts 15 trainings per year for each employee, with modules ranging from videos to PowerPoint presentations that are customizable for each project. The firm’s overall EMOD is 0.65, and it had only one OSHA recordable last year and none so far this year in both the Colorado and California offices.
“In any meeting with more than four people, the first topic is safety,” Mack says. “We have a human life in our hands, and we have to take all the precautionary steps to ensure we send that man or woman home just like they came to work. Our efforts [are spent] planning, enforcing and setting the standards we will or won’t accept.”
The firm’s reputation for high standards extends to its subcontractor relationships, and it’s one of the things that attracted global development firm Greystar to Milender White. MW is currently building three residential high-rises in downtown Denver for Greystar. “They really impressed us with their professionalism and knowledge of the market,” says James Ford, senior director of construction for Greystar.
“I have dealt with other contractors that are big and strong, but if they don’t have a strong presence with local subcontractors and don’t understand development, it just becomes too difficult,” Ford says, “and we might as well build it ourselves.”
Former Denver City Council President Albus Brooks joined the MW leadership team in July and is charged with building on the firm’s legacy of constructing and developing meaningful projects that improve communities. That legacy includes the Rose Andom Center for victims of domestic abuse, Denver Union Station and multiple affordable-housing projects across the region.
The concept of building community projects that matter is a common thread running through the culture of MW. In the aftermath of the Colorado floods, Mack approached MW with a way for its team to make a difference for the community where he had lived for 50 years.
The Boulder County Dept. of Housing and Human Services put the contractor in touch with a family in Lyons that had been living in a camper for more than a year after their home was destroyed in the flood. Everyone, from the accounting department to marketing to field personnel, showed up on consecutive weekends to build the family a new house, from start to finish—free of charge—and got them moved in as the first snowflakes began to fall that winter. “It brought the whole community together,” Boyd says.
Proceeds from the firm’s annual charity golf tournament go to 11 different nonprofits. Since its inception, the tournament has raised more than $793,000 for area charities. MW employees volunteer at the Family Tree Roots of Courage shelter. This year, the MW team and several subcontractors renovated the shelter inside and out, including installing a new playground.
“That culture of taking care of each other, and the people working on the site, is not something you always see in the industry,” Boyd says. “They do it because they care.”