Building Through Understanding
Unified Construction Group listens and adapts
Unified Construction Group (UCG) was formed in late 2008 by a pair of former colleagues, Nathan Ries, who was a project manager at the time and Noel Valenti, who was a superintendent. The two first worked together during the high-rise condominium boom in Chicago in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While starting a construction company in the middle of a recession is less than ideal timing, the duo set their bar high.
The first few years the partners acted as owners, project managers, superintendents, accountants—they wore every hat needed in order to ensure success. Ries, the President of UCG, says the fledgling company did $1 million in sales in its first year and has since steadily grown.
Their strategy proved to be foolproof: partner with clients, build mutual trust and get the job done right every time.
“Our first project was based on a close relationship with someone we had built condos for years earlier,” Ries says. “Our expertise was major condo projects, but we put ourselves in his shoes and learned his restaurant business. We saw his process, listened and made it work into the budget he required. We took away knowledge that could help us with future clients. It was just our instinct to listen, and we’ve taken what we learned from that process and used it on projects for all of our clients to save them time and money, and ultimately provide them with the best possible product.
“We learn from every client we’ve built for. If it’s a landlord or retail client, we want to understand their leases and what has been committed to so that what is delivered is accurate the first time. It’s not just building, but helping our client be successful long term. We dig into the details many builders don’t understand.”
Where They are Now
Since its first year, the company has grown exponentially, with sales now exceeding $30 million annually for clients’ projects across the country.
Today, UCG is led by Ries (President), Valenti (Senior Vice President) and Erik Bolsinger (Vice President of Operations) who rejoined his former high-rise condominium colleagues in 2018.
“We got the gang back together when Erik came on,” Valenti says, with a laugh. “The three of us always worked so well together when we were building condominiums. We just fit. We knew what each other was thinking and what we had to do. Getting Erik back has really helped us with our operations and brought us to another level. He’s much more familiar and comfortable with the technology and is making us more efficient.”
Bolsinger says the team’s ability to adapt and eagerness to grow are just a couple of reasons why he rejoined his former co-workers in 2018.
“We have a good understanding of each others’ skill sets and complement each other very well as a team,” he says. “One of the things that works out well on every level is, we all have different outlooks. Having come from three different professional experiences, we often have three different approaches and we work together to create the best possible end solution. As a result, we are able to stay flexible while serving 11 different building types.”
Along with the fundamental UCG strategy of building mutual trust and getting the job done right, Bolsinger brought along with him a deeper focus to their approach.
“Our goal is to use communication with innovative project approaches to facilitate collaboration among the stakeholders,” says Bolsinger. “We have a detailed understanding of complex projects and being able to ensure that our clients’ goals and objectives are met.”
Now, Valenti says, their business is based nearly 100% on repeat customers and referrals, and one of the biggest keys to success has been the team’s adaptability.
“We started the company at a difficult time,” Valenti says. “We took a leap of faith and, while I’m somewhat surprised by it all, I’m very proud of the growth we’ve had over the past 12 years. I started at the very bottom in construction as a laborer and learned on the way up, hands on. I then went from being a superintendent for a 35-story high-rise to UCG with very little capital and no customer base. And it’s been very successful.”
Ries credits UCG’s approach as a key to success.
“For us, the biggest thing is our approach to partnering with our clients and the whole project team,” says Ries. “The way we’ve differentiated is our ability to partner and make everyone successful instead of just being remembered as the builder. Another great example of this has been our ability to learn the evolving business needs of one of our food processing clients, constantly collaborating with their design engineers, then executing design-build services for their new and unique food production lines. In doing so, we have developed into an invaluable partner for their nationwide company.”
With this approach and a drive to take on all types of projects, UCG’s diverse portfolio now includes grocery stores, industrial food processing plants, multifamily residential, theaters and other entertainment venues, restaurants and bars, fitness clubs, office buildings and corporate space buildouts, super regional mall renovations and related mall anchor space redevelopments, and large landlord and tenant retail build-outs.
What’s Ahead for UCG
If there is a likely focus in the future, it may very well be the necessity of repurposing the growing number of hollow retail properties across America into useful and profitable spaces again.
Ries says this is an emerging market, which UCG is poised to jump into after already working though the successful rebirth of The Shops at South Town in Sandy, Utah, and other similar comprehensive renovation and redevelopment projects UCG has completed.
“We’ve renovated super regional malls from California to Long Island,” Ries says. “Six were for Pacific Retail Capital Partners out of Los Angeles who we met while we were working at Yorktown Center in Lombard, Illinois. They brought us in as a construction manager to salvage the first phase of Yorktown’s renovation where we were able to immediately partner with their ownership and design teams to extensively value engineer as well as simply get creative, and in doing so, get back to their original budget and schedule.”
Ries says UCG ended up general contracting Phase 2 of the Yorktown renovation and quickly moved forward to execute the renovation of six of their malls over the last eight years.
“Malls today are faced with a glut of vacant anchor spaces, and we are experts on how to divide, reconfigure and ultimately redevelop those spaces for the benefit of ownership,” says Ries. “Mall anchor as well as outlot parcel redevelopment will be huge in the upcoming years. These properties need to be repurposed, and we know how to efficiently put multiple junior tenants, new inline tenants and concourse space, and large fitness and entertainment uses into previous anchor spaces in order for ownership to draw more leasing dollars. Surrounding property around malls is also seeing redevelopment opportunities into multifamily and other uses, as the properties are already typically positioned within positive growth areas.”
Another sector UCG sees continued expansion in is the industrial food processing business.
“Our previous experience in this field, including our ability to innovate alongside our clients while being nimble and flexible during design development and execution, all place us in a unique position to grow our client base within this field,” Ries says. “We see many new niche food production products coming online as a result of new dietary needs and demands at a much more frequent pace than in the past.”
Ries says that in a few years the trio could make it a $100 million company with its current growth and structure. A key reason is the team’s willingness to listen and adapt.
And while their growth and success have been noteworthy, the partners have not lost sight of the strategy that got them here to begin with.
Listen and learn.