When Mansour Aliabadi was forced to flee his native Iran in 1979 at the onset of its Islamic Revolution, he had a civil engineering degree, public- and private-sector construction experience and an early inkling that construction management, then an emerging discipline, might be the wave of the future. More than three decades later, Aliabadi has steered the growth of Vanir Construction Management Inc. and its parent company from a local minority business into a global competitor, while raising practice standards for CM professionals in his firm and others.

CEO Aliabadi at the site of the California grid operator�s HQ project, where Vanir is CM.
Photo: Dan Hood/ENR
CEO Aliabadi at the site of the California grid operator�s HQ project, where Vanir is CM.
Seeking New Directions By Raising the Bar on CM
Photo: Vanir Construction Management Inc.
Vanir CM managed construction of a $29-million deep outfall into Puget Sound, the technical innovations and management of which won the project numerous industry awards last year.

Sacramento, Calif.-based Vanir, where Aliabadi has been president and CEO since 1992, ranks 27th on ENR�s list of the Top 100 Construction Management-for-Fee Firms, with $67.2 million in 2009 revenue. The firm now is the juggernaut of the Vanir Group of Cos., built around a development unit that was the firm�s base when founded in 1964 as a minority-owned business by Frank Dominguez.

Vanir businesses now comprise CM and program management, construction, commercial brokerage and, most recently, alternative-energy development. Officials decline to release total group revenue, but Aliabadi says the CM business unit employs about 90% of its total 350-person staff.

Aliabadi also is a former president of the Construction Management Association of America and was an early proponent of CM certification, which he and other proponents say has elevated the discipline�s image and boosted its impact for practitioners, employers and clients. CMAA says 1,345 practitioners have earned the designation since the program was launched in 1995. Forty-five Vanir employees are CM-certified, the most among industry firms, its officials say.

Aliabadi�s journey brought him to Houston and a job with CM Inc., a spinoff of CRS (later CRS Sirrine) that was formed to practice �pure� CM, says Chuck Thomsen, its founder and a long-time advocate. At that time, construction management was an emerging industry born of the incentive to expedite project completion and beat rampant cost inflation. The company �was a bunch of young people, growing fast and making money, and an exciting place to work,� says Thomsen. �Mansour had a vision for where the industry was heading.� Adds Another CM Inc. veteran who co-founded the Vanir CM unit and was its first president, Don Russell, says, �It was like graduate school.� He is now a firm director.

The outlook for CM�s future led Russell and Aliabadi to California just as CM Inc. was sold to Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. and work ramped up for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The value of adding a CM unit to a developer with minority business status was clear. Vanir Group founder Dominguez, who died in 2004, may have been clairvoyant in choosing the company�s name 20 years earlier. According to one translation, �Vanir� were ancient Norse gods �associated with fertility, wisdom and the ability to see the future.�

Moving Up

Vanir started with large government prison contracts and then geared up for the wave of school construction in the 1990s. Aliabadi became the CM unit�s CEO in 1992, replaced as executive vice president and corporate director of operations by another CM Inc. alumnus, Mani Subramanian. The CM business now provides services for more than $10 billion in construction projects, officials say, and has grown to 15 offices across the country as well as in Dubai.

The hundreds of school-district clients Vanir has served include Los Angeles, still in the midst of a $20-billion expansion and modernization of its buildings. Neil Gamble, director of facilities construction for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), says, in the past, it has used construction management companies such as Vanir to augment in-house staff because they have specific expertise. Last month, however, LAUSD began a new �agency CM� program that will contract out for all construction management at each school site. �They are there to make sure the contractor is building what we paid for,� Gamble says.

Aliabadi says, �Schools are great candidates for construction management because students come on the first day of school whether the building is ready or not. There are huge consequences for a project missing deadline.�

He also points to the $314-million Coalinga State Hospital project in Coalinga, Calif., as an example of how CM use enabled project participants to meet end users� needs. With both medical and security issues, the facility had conflicting patient and staff issues, as well as NIMBY problems. Aliabadi says the 1.2-million-sq-ft project, finished in 2005, was delivered on time with no claims, and that change-order management is credited with saving $3 million.

Infrastructure projects are often good candidates for CM, Aliabadi adds, because their technology may be more complex and the projects large. Vanir has managed construction of wastewater treatment plants for large cities such as San Diego as well as for small facilities at prisons.

The firm was CM on the $29-million Brightwater marine outfall project in King County, Wash., completed in 2008, which is part of an ongoing $1.2-billion wastewater upgrade. The project, at 650 ft below the surface of Puget Sound, is one of the world�s deepest outfalls.

Work was completed 22.5 months before the contracted completion date and came in $8 million under budget, officials say. Use of innovative techniques provided additional seismic protection and cut costs and time, winning the project a number of industry awards last year. �A constructability review easily can...