Last year, as the world came apart, contractors hatched a plan to come together. Determined to keep jobsites open and deemed essential around the U.S., a group of construction contractors partnered on turnkey COVID-19 prevention protocols for all companies to use. As statewide pandemic policies changed overnight, these competing firms focused less on winning and turned to the challenge of stopping everyone from losing.
“We do quite a bit of importing from China, so we definitely had an early pulse that COVID-19 was going to negatively impact the U.S. the way it tremendously did,” says Bob Clark, executive chairman of Clayco, a Chicago-based company that operates 13 hours behind China. In a “barrage of phone calls” and “feverish” 20-hour workdays, he says the company brought customers, craft workers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), competing firms and even the White House to the decision-making table in real time.
“Our safety people led those calls,” Clark explains. “We wanted a working document in which we all had input—because the next step was to go to various governors to approve our guidelines,” he adds. “It was a trying time. It was very fast-paced, really long days, but it was really worth it.”
This year’s Top 400 Contractors revenue results don’t immediately show how virus prevention methods changed productivity among firms. But numbers do show that securing construction’s essential status helped contractors avoid devastating losses. Despite the pandemic, aggregate 2020 revenue for the Top 400 reached $414.88 billion, 0.12% more than on last year’s list—another record year, albeit by a small margin.
Contractors expect increased vaccinations to revive markets, but the vaccine is far from being a panacea for construction’s looming workforce shortages. Entering the pandemic’s second act, contractors are searching for solid footing in uncertain times.
CATCHING RAYS: Burns & McDonnell (No. 45) began construction on a 50-MW solar farm in Troy, Ind. The project consists of about 150,000 solar panels covering 300 acres.
Photo Courtesy of Burns & McDonnell
Open for Business
The new normal arrived overnight. Top 400 firms reported moving thousands of employees off site and online in days. “Like most companies, we learned that our office support staff could work remotely without a significant impact to productivity,” says Scott Parrish, president at water and wastewater construction contractor Garney. After an initial work-from-home culture shock, many firms dug into different ways to unite employees remotely. Video conferencing software and daily project management platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, monday.com and Trello helped office operations come together in the cloud.
On the ground, project management software brought collaborators and project stakeholders together from a safe distance. “Aside from using Microsoft Teams to chat, collaborate and meet, we’ve invested heavily in Autodesk BIM 360 for project management and have scaled up to encompass the vast majority of our projects over the past 18 months,” says Chuck Binkowski, COO and executive vice president of Barton Malow Holdings. “We’ve also invested in tools such as Textura to add more transparency to our pay request process.”
An ecosystem of new and existing project management and cloud-based applications also bolstered remote business operations for many firms.
“The scale and the complexity of the projects in our marketplace have made collaboration necessary for a successful project,” explains John Cowles, COO of Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Co. “Simply put, today’s projects cannot be completed without a team environment and the easy exchange of information among stakeholders. We use a variety of programs including Procore and Autodesk BIM 360 Collaborate Pro to freely exchange information through the team.”
Hardware in the form of personal protective equipment (PPE) for craftworkers was an unexpected cost for many firms initially. But face masks, hand sanitizer and increased hygiene stations now are commonplace. Among jobsite participants, limiting contact points became part of project planning. “When it comes to hardware, we’ve deployed field kiosks to each jobsite so everyone can access the current documents,” says Binkowski. To keep jobsite workers current on health screenings, Moss Construction deployed JobSiteCare, a physician-led telehealth platform that provides immediate triage, diagnosis and guided treatment services for ill or injured workers. “In 2019, we introduced JobSiteCare as a pilot program for teams on our solar energy projects, which tend to be in remote locations,” explains CEO Scott Moss. “We were delighted to find that employees and subcontractors participating in the pilot program were extremely happy with the rapid and personalized health care they were getting. Better yet, they were experiencing better medical outcomes and returning to work faster.”
As a preemptive strike against the pandemic, JobSiteCare was made available to all Moss employees and subcontractors. “We quickly adopted industry and CDC guidelines and designated a COVID-19 coordinator for every jobsite to ensure compliance and a safe environment,” says CEO Moss. Over the year, JobSiteCare treated 1,579 workers on site, 70% of which were subcontractors. “The team’s physicians and staff managed workers’ cases from start to finish, leading to maximum medical improvement as quickly as possible while ensuring optimal local and federal OSHA compliance.” he said. Lost time incidents were reduced by 75%.
Despite initial jobsite disruptions, most Top 400 general contractors and construction management companies leaned on projects in their pipelines to keep 2020 revenue strong. A majority of firms reported backlog abundance from a strong 2019. More than a few mid-size firms report backlogs that can carry them as far as second quarter of 2022. Larger firms report backlogs lasting well into 2023. Quickly implementing CDC guidelines saved many firms from having to furlough, lay off or cut staff.
“Following the CDC guidelines was absolutely crucial to our survival last year. It really saved us because we weren’t going to have a business without it,” says Turner Construction Co. President and CEO Peter Davoren. “So we were able to continue to function all through COVID after a slippery slope in the second quarter of last year.” Collaborating with competing contractors early on helped firms figure out their options. “It was an interesting dynamic,” he adds. “You would talk to one competitor, who would say, ‘Well we are just concentrating on letting people go and furloughing people.’ Other companies were saying no, we have to figure out this CDC [guidance].” Davoren says that Clayco executives Bob Clark and Russ Burns “gave us information about what they were doing. We reciprocated, so we shared that information to keep people together.”
No one left behind and no one out of a job was the goal, says Davoren. “Turner has 10,000 employees; we employ about 120,000 construction workers. We didn’t want to see anyone go to the unemployment line. Next thing you know, competitors are talking to each other all the time and we were collaborating on how to make the industry better.”
Those firms included Clayco, the Walsh Group, Kiewit, AECOM Hunt and Tishman, Gilbane, McKissack, Mortenson, DPR Construction, McCarthy and Clark, among others, according to Davoren.
“They were all vocal about what they were doing, and we were all learning from each other. It was quite an extraordinary event” to have so many contractors working together, Davoren says. “Our industry was able to trip, fall, get up, brush itself off, and continue to build [what] we set out to build from the beginning. It was really one of the more profound things that I’ve ever seen our industry do.”
The median revenue for Top 400 listed contractors jumped to $501.9 million in 2020 from $492 million in 2019. Nearly half of the Top 50 firms increased revenue while upper middle-tier firms stayed strong. Revenue from mid-tier firms generally outpaced firms at the same ranks last year. Of the 150 firms ranked between numbers 150 and 300, 138 had more revenue than that group had last year.
*Data for Asia and Australia had been reported together in previous years. View full report.
Several firms ranked last year did not participate in this year’s ranking for various reasons. SNC-Lavalin Inc. says it has chosen to focus on higher-margin engineering services and exit fixed-price construction after losses last year.
Houston-based KBR Inc., which ranked at No. 35 last year, told ENR that its current structure as a “high-end solutions-oriented organization” no longer fit the survey profile. Also missing is McDermott International. Ranked No. 6 on the 2020 Top 400 list, ENR reported that the company filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2020. Emerging from Chapter 11 last summer, the company announced restructuring plans. Together, those firms’ revenue totaled $10 billion on last year’s list. However, the return of Fluor Corp. and Worley to the Top 400 after not filing for the 2020 list more than made up for that revenue.
Half of the top 50 contractors increased revenue relative to last year. However, large firms still had their ups and downs, Bechtel being a standout among those firms. The company lost its long-held top spot on the Top 400 list after revenue declined in nearly all of its market sectors. In a statement released March 31 along with the firm’s annual report, CEO Brendan Bechtel deemed 2020 “the toughest in our company’s history.” Total revenue fell to $17.6 billion, down from $21.8 billion in 2018, and less than half of the $39.4 billion recorded in 2013. The firm’s backlog also fell to $36.7 billion from $38.3 billion in 2019—just 35% of the $104.4 billion noted on the company’s books in 2010.
In the statement about its earnings, Bechtel said the company lowered its cost structure, “making us more competitive.” Bechtel’s portfolio includes infrastructure, mining and petrochemical markets, and numerous projects for oil-producing Middle East countries—which are subject to price risks.
The change in revenue reflects a change in direction for the company and its customers, says Bechtel President and COO Craig Albert, who took over operations last September. “I’m really proud of how we responded to it,” says Albert, explaining that the company already had a pandemic response for projects overseas. “We immediately established a pandemic committee. It’s all about how you protect your people in the main offices, at the jobsites—your craft labor, your subcontractors,” he adds. “It’s almost a triage mode of just how do you protect people.”
The contractor also focused on protecting customer projects and investments. “We have a really good safety culture in our company, and the industry has a good safety culture. I think that was a huge advantage,” says Albert. “As far as our customer missions are concerned, we actually drove all of our work forward. We exceeded our financial operating plan, so we found ways to deliver.” Included in that financial operating plan is Bechtel “allowing itself to get smaller.”
Albert says that the company is “very careful about pursuing and winning work that we know we can execute, where the rewards outweigh the risks. The quality of our backlog is what allows that to happen.” He adds that “if the market is conducive to being the biggest, then we are really happy with that. But if the market is not conducive to being the biggest, we’re happy to not be the biggest.”
A year of global hardships and political divisiveness reshaped Bechtel’s idea of success. “In many ways it’s a year you’d like to forget, but from a performance standpoint and what our people did, it ironically was a year to remember,” Albert says.
If there is one thing contractors learned from 2020 market performance, it’s the importance of flexibility. Firms with flexible services, revenue streams, project deliveries and business operations pivoted early and reaped big rewards. COVID-19 collided with business-as-usual on levels that observers say won’t be fully understood for generations. Now with post-pandemic life on the horizon, as vaccinations expand, firms have the shot in the arm they need to innovate.
“The pandemic challenged us to find different and better ways for us to be successful in our industry,” says Stephen Gray, president and CEO of Gray Inc. Those “better ways” are here to stay. “Through creativity and flexibility, we found ways to continue being productive while keeping our team members safe,” he says.
Another firm that found strength in 2020’s challenges is MW Builders. A strong company culture helped it pull through, says President Todd Winnerman. “This past year challenged our team along with the rest of the world, but through all of it, we’ve rallied around one another. All of our employee-owners demonstrated tremendous determination, kindness and hard work.”
Winnerman adds, “We’ve only grown throughout the last year, and I think we came out of 2020 stronger as a company and as teammates.”
At Clune, COVID-19 prevention protocols have also improved company operations. While the pandemic “has negatively affected productivity on jobsites accessed by vertical transportation” due to social distancing on elevators and hoists for workers, says CEO Dave Hall, “it also forced us to think differently.” While safety “has always been our No. 1 focus, in the past 18 months, Clune has sped up some of our safety initiatives and increased the frequency of our safety training.”
With the recent CDC announcement that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear face masks or social distance, contractors are entering the busy 2021 construction season with renewed optimism. As virus protocols ease, contractors expect a more flexible working model for jobsites and office operations.
“Workers are ready to come back, but under different conditions with more flexibility in their work locations and schedules,” says Bob Mullen, CEO of STO Building Group. “Many firms are gauging what other companies do before committing to any changes,“ he points out. “The big takeaway, as we see it, is that flexibility will continue to be key. Whether that’s a more fluid hoteling system in the office, the use of flex space facilities or other adjustments, workplaces must now accommodate more types of working than ever before and implement the technology to support employees both in the office and remote.”
Some firms count the days until they can do away with social distancing, others acknowledge that getting back to normal is contingent on vaccination rates at their firms. Still, the COVID-19 vaccines won’t cure construction’s looming staffing gaps.
Landfill Excavation | By Emell Adolphus
Sukut Construction (No. 313) moves 2 million cu yd of material at a landfill excavation project in Redlands, Calif. Construction includes a desilting basin, two engineered stockpiles, 17 acres of composite geo-membrane liner, leachate collection and a stormwater system and paved haul road.
The Big Short
Many firms predict multitiered worker shortages will be the biggest 2021 challenge. After an initial vaccination boom, states now report surpluses of vaccines as people refuse to take the shots or adopt a wait-and-see approach. Firms ponder whether this reluctance will slow the reopening of economies or if there will be enough vaccinated construction employees. Top 400 survey respondents say lower vaccination rates can increase risk of outbreaks, slow productivity, increase lead times and shortages and decrease project certainty.
On a jobsite, vaccinations should be considered another essential safety tool, says Clayco’s Clark. “I think if people don’t get vaccinated in larger numbers it will inhibit the urban cores to come back properly,” he says. “This could have a very negative impact on the overall U.S. economy, which has not been factored into the market. We see vaccinations as a strong tool in our safety program. Vaccines are the safety harnesses of today.”
Clark was an early proponent of COVID-19 vaccinations on jobsites. The company then revealed plans to make them mandatory for all employees—with a few exemptions—so they could safely and physically return to work. Like most trends, a plan for similar policies began to take shape at other contracting firms. Then guidance from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Heath Administration (OSHA) brought vaccination programs to a screeching halt.
Posted April 20 on its website, the agency advised that adverse employee reactions to the vaccine are recordable incidents at firms where vaccinations are mandatory. “The adverse reaction is recordable if it is a new case under [federal regulation] 29 CFR 1904.6 and meets one or more of the general recording criteria” in regulation 29 CFR 1904.7, OSHA wrote.
The news prompted contractors, including Clayco, to backstep and change mandates to “strongly encourage” employees to be vaccinated. OSHA’s position, firms alleged, directly conflicted with President Joe Biden’s wishes to increase vaccinations.
But on May 20, the agency updated its position to say it would not enforce recording requirements until May 2022. “We will reevaluate the agency’s position at that time to determine the best course of action moving forward,” OSHA said. Clark called the deferral “great news” in a local newspaper interview and plans to reinstate Clayco’s vaccine mandate.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently announced that it will create its own guidance for employee reactions to the emergency use-authorized vaccines and other return-to-the-workplace issues. Agency input is expected to help employers make decisions on vaccine protocols and decrease confusion over what is lawful and what isn’t. “In theory, vaccinations should restore normalcy to pre-COVID times and treat symptomatic people like the common flu,” says Alan R. Elia Jr., CEO of Sevenson Environmental Services. “However, managing vaccination information at the jobsites will be the challenge for management due to … privacy concerns as well as potential discrimination claims against those who refuse to get vaccinated.”
While vaccines course their way through the construction workforce, shortages of raw building materials such as copper, lumber, iron pipe and steel are an immediate concern. Suffering under long lead times, some projects are shelved until further notice—putting firms back into a pandemic pause.
Material shortages are sounding an alarm for everyone, explains Mark Luegering, senior vice president and COO of Messer Construction Co.
“Widespread materials price increases are certainly on everyone’s radar right now,” he explains. “From what we’re seeing, volatility is expected to continue through the second quarter for items such as reinforcing steel and mesh, cast iron pipe, lumber, insulation, copper electrical components, metal deck, steel joist, structural steel, pre-engineered metal buildings and roofing products.” Luegering notes that “price quotes have a shorter shelf life and shipping and delivery policies are strict, so we’re taking all of that into consideration in our operational and project planning.”
Materials in Demand
Shortages could have a major impact on 2021 revenue going into 2022, says the executive. “These issues are being caused by high demand in the busy construction market and reduced production due to COVID shutdowns at plants—potentially impacting schedule and cost commitments.”
A March 2021 price index report by the Associated General Contractors of America further revealed the extent of supply shortages among contractors and construction managers. Of 1,419 contractors, the AGC survey found 52% faced delays due to shortages of materials, parts or equipment.
“Both today’s producer price index report and our survey results show that escalating materials costs and lengthening delivery times are making life difficult for contractors and their customers, including … facilities needed to get the economy back on track,” said AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson in a statement about the survey results. He said AGC has asked President Biden to consider removing tariffs on key material imports or to take steps to ease shortages through regulation.
“Outlook for the year does reflect the enduring COVID-19 uncertainty, but we have seen more momentum in awards in the first quarter of 2021,” says Jason Wits, senior vice president of Wood Construction. “We see relative strength in the built environment market that continues to mitigate lower project awards in conventional energy, process and chemicals. Overall, we have seen relatively little in the way of project cancellations or scope reductions to date, but we have seen some deferral of work and a slowdown in the pace of new order intake.”
Contractors face more rising costs when it comes to insuring risk for projects. Recent losses combined with the perils of the pandemic are driving increases, with insurance risk up 25% since 2018. According to brokerage firm Willis Towers Watson, umbrella insurance renewals, after limits are reached under other policies, are also increasing by 50% to 100%.
Loss history and project scope are major factors. Depending on the loss experience of a contractor, rates for general liability coverage renewals are 5% to 25% higher, with builders’ risk up 5% to 20% and subcontractor default insurance costing 5% to 10% more, reports the brokerage firm. Excess casualty insurance coverage for loss of property, damage or other liabilities, including workers’ compensation, is more complicated. Carriers are “pushing for pricing increases, deploying lower limits and increasing attachment points,” says brokerage firm Marsh McLennan.
What Clients Want
When asked about customers’ No. 1 request, Top 400 Contractors overwhelmingly report that certainty of cost and project timeline led the list. Amid shortages, some firms are putting certainty back into projects through preconstruction planning.
“Owners are always looking for more certainty in a project, from schedule to quality to costs. That’s why we’re focused on improving the entire development process,” says HOAR Construction President Turner Burton. “We collaborate with owners, architects, engineers and other stakeholders as early in the process as possible to find and resolve challenges before they appear and create more predictable outcomes for our clients. These preconstruction efforts are about more than estimating, and our building processes are about more than building safely with quality assurance.”
No company can predict the future, but firms can be forward thinking about addressing shortages. When it comes to materials, KBE Building Corp. has also turned to preconstruction. “When we first caught wind of pending increases in steel costs and lead times, we worked with owners to allow for the pre-purchase of all the material ahead of time and billed for stored materials,” explains James Culkin, executive vice president and COO. “That way, when the price increases did come, we were already locked in at the lower cost, preventing a bust or interruption in the project.”
When it comes to labor shortages, many Top 400 contractors are taking an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach by first focusing on company culture. But it will take long-term investments in diversity, equity and inclusion by the entire construction industry to make a difference, according to Drew Mucci, co-president of HITT Contracting.
“We spent months developing a vision based on four key principals with goals and actionable objectives that we launched publicly in April on HITT.com,” says Mucci. “We believe in this work and plan to make intentional changes and investments that will shift our company and the building industry.”
Recent headlines reveal that there is more work to be done. After a 2013 compliance review by the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, Bechtel’s oil, gas and chemicals division recently agreed to pay $200,000 in back pay and interest to 22 female employees for pay disparities from 2011-2013." A summary of the settlement is available here.
In another case, Hathaway Dinwiddie agreed to pay $725,000 to settle a racial harassment lawsuit filed by the EEOC on behalf of workers at a now completed California project. Dinwiddie denies the claims. Online retailer Amazon also recently shut down construction of a new warehouse in Windsor, Conn., managed by RC Andersen, after an investigation uncovered seven noose-like ropes on site, according to multiple news reports.
Companies say that policies against racism, sexism and harassment can’t exist in a vacuum and that real change requires a pandemic-level response from all contractors. At ENR’s Groundbreaking Women in Construction conference held in early May, Turner, DPR, Gilbane Building Co., McCarthy Building Cos. and Mortenson announced a coalition to take action against racism, hate and bias. The companies make up five of the top 20 contractors ranked this year.
“I think there was a very big wake-up moment during COVID. We were standing by and allowing things to happen,” says Turner’s Davoren. “Construction is hard enough” without having to deal with discrimination, he adds. “Now our industry is much more in a position to take action.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Keller, Richard Korman, Jeff Yoders and Debra K. Rubin