A Formula for Success
Unified Construction Group, LLC brings proven collaborative approach to building
When Nathan Ries, Noel Valenti and Erik Bolsinger worked together for a Chicago builder constructing high-rise residential buildings in the 1990s, they developed a management ethos that integrated the input of developers, architects and general contractor with an emphasis on intense collaboration, coordination and safety. They followed this formula to bring about the construction of six remarkable high-rise residential buildings in the South Loop District in as many years.
Today, as the leaders of their own Chicago-based company, Unified Construction Group, LLC (UCG), they’re following the same blueprint for success in fields far broader than just multifamilies.
Their project list includes jobs as diverse as manufacturing plants and warehouses, restaurants and grocery stores, mixed-use retail/residential, fitness and entertainment centers, aviation and public works facilities, office space and retail stores. They’ve worked on renovations and repurposing of spaces within superregional malls in states coast to coast.
“Our original general contracting formula holds true today,” says Nathan, who serves as UCG’s President, “whether or not the project is large with complex deep foundations or an interior renovation, and regardless of building type.”
UCG is, at its core, a customer-focused operation, notes Noel, Senior Vice President. “We partner with owners and developers to look at sites and their potential uses, understand their vision and craft plans to meet those expectations,” he says. “We put ourselves into their shoes and learn their businesses.”
Rising in the Face of Great Recession
Nathan and Noel formed UCG at what seemed the most unlikely time: 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, a point when multifamily building prospects were crashing.
“Some people thought that was crazy,” says Nathan. “But we saw the market pivoting away from multifamily, and we had an opportunity to jump-start our operations with a new direction. We knew a foodservice developer for whom we had built a high-rise condo at our earlier company. We had built and maintained positive rapport with him,” he says.
“He wanted to open a pair of large ground-up Mexican restaurants, and he knew the quality of our previous work.” He hired the startup UCG in lieu of larger established general contractors to construct three Chicago-area Zapatista Mexican restaurants and a fourth South Loop restaurant/bar called Flo & Santos.
“We took a leap of faith and went in a new direction on our own,” Noel says. “Our client had confidence in us. He knew our commitment to learning the ins and outs of his business, to meeting his needs and to working advantageously within his budget. These first projects went off without a hitch. From there, things just snowballed, and we were able to add clients and unique projects with the same formula.”
Erik joined Nathan and Noel as UCG’s Vice President of Operations in 2018, reestablishing their old collaborative team. Erik oversees projects, but he also provides a focus on improving processes on both internal and external fronts, like using innovative technology to streamline collaboration among project stakeholders. “He makes us much more efficient and accountable,” Noel says.
UCG is a midsized company but it has a large reach and executes a wide range and size of projects. At its headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Westmont, it operates with a core staff of 10 to 15 project managers, field superintendents and other professionals. Its work has taken it to seven states, coast to coast.
Client and UCG Versatility
From Mexican restaurants, the company quickly moved on to groceries—most prominently seven stores in the Tony’s Fresh Market chain, each sized from 60,000 to 70,000 square feet. UCG is starting on its eighth store development, which will also include prepping for an adjacent junior anchor and smaller inline tenant spaces. Additionally, it completed the construction of Tony’s corporate headquarters and distribution warehouse.
While working on a restaurant build-out project at Yorktown Center mall in Lombard, Illinois, UCG immediately impressed Los Angeles-based Pacific Retail Capital Partners and its investment partner New York-based KKR. That contact ultimately led to Pacific Retail contracts to renovate six superregional malls from California to Mississippi to New York, totaling over $75 million in construction revenue.
They’ve continued to work on unique projects such as a ground-up new prototype 100,000-square-foot PepsiCo distribution center in West Virginia; a 50,000-square-foot ground-up, mixed-use retail, restaurant and office building in the city center of suburban Elmhurst; and the headquarters for the Chicago nonprofit agency CEDA, which leased up the entire top floor of the Chicago Transit Authority building. At Yorktown Center, the company recently repurposed a Sports Authority junior anchor space into a 50,000-square-foot, full-service UFC GYM.
In the realm of public projects, UCG recently completed a ground-up 16,000-square-foot expansion of a maintenance building at DuPage Airport, just west of Chicago. Another was the construction of a new fuel station for the Waukegan Public Works Department, involving a new three-pump system with three 10,000-gallon underground fuel tanks. Construction of the new fueling station and removal and environmental remediation of the old facility were all done without disruption to the city’s vehicle fleet.
“We partner with owners and developers to look at sites and their potential uses, understand their vision and craft plans to meet those expectations. We put ourselves into their shoes and learn their businesses.” Noel Valenti, Senior Vice President, Unified Construction Group, LLC
Food, Glorious Food
And, then there’s UCG’s food clientele, exemplified by the company’s commercial food-processing projects as well as the eight Tony’s Fresh Market stores mentioned above. From the initial Zapatista restaurants, UCG expanded to numerous other food service establishments—among them fast food outlets like Sbarro and Burger King in locations across the country, and dine-in restaurants like three Armand’s Pizzerias and Victory Tap restaurants in the Chicago area. Many of these “boutique” food-service buildouts were design-build projects, so UCG was on board prior to design development in order to drive budget savings objectives and expedite construction, Nathan says.
A food service client of a different sort is Buffalo-based Rich Products Corporation, a worldwide provider of desserts, baked goods and pizzas. For one of the company’s Chicago plants, UCG has built extensive infrastructure for its pizza crust and topping operations, including multiple design-built USDA- and FDA-certified production lines, large-scale refrigeration systems and storage rooms, ingredient storage silo buildings, non-refrigerated warehouse buildings and associate security and COVID-related upgrades to the multifacility complex.
“Any food operation has special needs,” Erik says, “elements like enhanced power, plumbing, refrigeration and ventilation systems, structural stainless steel to support equipment and other specialty provisions that address federal regulations on safety and sanitation.
“For food-processing projects,” he says, “much of the machinery is custom-designed. A lot of the elements they need don’t exist when a project kicks off. Again, we’re very good at immersing ourselves in our clients’ operations. They know their products, they know the equipment, and we have to get to know them, as well, so that we can design and build to accommodate special needs.”
Beyond that, Erik adds, work like this often has to be done while the plant is in operation. Sanitation is key, and UCG takes careful measures to maintain it, employing the use of temporary barriers, negative air flow, HEPA filters and other means to contain dust and debris, all while working around their customers’ schedules so ongoing productivity isn’t impeded.
‘Hire Us First’
“As a more digital and online economy develops and moves forward,” Nathan says, “different types of land re-use and construction projects will come to light. One example of that concept is that we’re going to see more and more large retail spaces and centers such as malls become available for repurposing. There are so many empty anchor boxes already—Sears, JC Penney, Macy’s, and it’s clear there will be many more.”
The UCG team sees these as opportunities for their technical expertise, working directly with landlords, management companies and lenders looking to redevelop and revitalize their properties, Nathan says.
The possibilities, he adds, aren’t limited to just the brick-and-mortar buildings. The surrounding property of these retail centers represents significant opportunities, as well.
“These major centers are generally located in desirable areas, with good traffic access and lots of land for parking,” Nathan says. “As they start to outlive their original use, many owners are selling off parcels of their properties for out-lot purposes. Structures like multifamily housing, hotels, day care centers and dining establishments can create ‘lifestyle’ centers that keep the properties vibrant and economically viable.”
He cites a large strip of vacant space at Yorktown Center that faced outward from the mall. UCG assisted with pre-development budgeting and design-build services to put in a collection of small boutiques, salons and fitness studios to create a cluster focused on health and wellness. That kind of shift in use, he says, is a win-win. It benefits property owners, business operators and customers.
“We know how these buildings work inside and out,” he says. “We know what can be done with them and how to do it efficiently and within an effective cost framework that works for our clients’ lease deals. We’ve shown that by executing successful renovations of superregional malls across the country, repurposing anchor spaces, and prepping spaces for junior anchors and other inline tenants.”
He notes, “A fairly typical workflow of a project is for a developer to acquire land or space, hire a design team to develop plans, then put out the project for bids. At that point, it’s difficult to make any significant decisions on ways to save money or streamline construction because everything’s designed and it’s been permitted. The ball is pretty far down the court.
“What Pacific Retail has done,” he says, “is send us into their potential developments as a part of their early due diligence. We provide an evaluation and costs for what existing conditions might need to be changed based on their typical redevelopment model.
“For their anchor redevelopment at The Shops at South Town in Utah, we went in and figured out how to salvage as much as possible of their electrical and plumbing backbone and elements of the building core and facade. We remained engaged in value engineering throughout the design process, which ultimately saved ownership millions of dollars in construction costs on an already tight underwriting deal.
“Every developer should engage with their builder prior to acquisition and certainly before design, regardless of what type of project,” Nathan says. “More particularly, they should partner with us and tap our breadth of knowledge. We’re very good at executing our formula for success, ever since our early days together.”