The ‘How’ Behind The ‘Better’
Northcentral Construction Corporation aims to create ‘a better construction experience’
If you ask any of Northcentral Construction Corporation’s team members what their top priority is, the response will likely support the firm’s mission—to provide “a better construction experience.” According to Pat Donovan, Northcentral’s Director of Marketing, that’s because this phrase not only conveys the company leadership’s commitment to providing first-rate general contracting services for clients throughout Wisconsin, it also expresses the strong sense of personal ownership Northcentral’s employees bring to their work.
“The pride that each employee takes in providing a quality product has led to 85% to 90% of our work coming from repeat clients or referrals,” Pat says. “We all look at each project as though it is a building we own and ask ourselves what we would expect.”
This personal dedication and esprit de corps aren’t surprising given the fact that Northcentral was founded in 1990 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, by two contractors who enjoyed collaborating: Jeff Donovan and Jeff Kowalik.
“Donovan Construction worked on jobs that Jeff Kowalik was project managing prior to the formation of Northcentral Construction Corporation,” Pat explains. “As Northcentral grew, Donovan Construction performed less work for other companies until, ultimately, the two companies merged in 2004. The merger allowed employees to retain their seniority, which explains how four of our team members each have more than 30 years of experience with a company that’s been in business for 29 years.”
A Cohesive, Experienced Team
Longevity remains a theme in Northcentral’s history. “Over 30% of our team members have been with the company for more than 10 years, 25% over 15 years and 23% over 20 years,” Pat adds. “This leads to a cohesive and well-run team.”
Jonathan Brinkley, Senior Project Manager for Excel Engineering, Inc. in Fond du Lac, agrees. “I’ve worked with Northcentral on 40+ projects and, as the architect, made over 300 monthly observation visits to Northcentral job sites,” he says. “I often see the same employees and frequently they are wearing clothing that touts how many years of service they have completed with Northcentral. It’s not uncommon to see 10, 15 and 25 years of service…with experience comes valuable lessons learned over decades of work.”
Although Northcentral has built a diverse portfolio, Pat points out that the company doesn’t try to be all things to all clients.
Quite the contrary.
“We mainly do multifamily, commercial and hospitality projects with the bulk of our experience being in multifamily residential work—from high-end, market-rate and low-income housing projects to senior living, community-based residential facilities and residential-care apartment complexes. We have completed more than 500,000 square feet of commercial work, including building stores and restaurants for national companies such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Panera Bread, PetSmart, T.J. Maxx, Staples, Walgreens, McDonald’s, Dollar Tree and others. We’ve also completed more than 700 hotel rooms throughout Wisconsin,” he says.
Along the way, Northcentral has developed expertise in rehabilitation projects that qualify for state and federal tax credits. Pat says the company has worked with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to complete 64 tax credit compliant projects that provide 3,850 residential units.
Delivering a Better Construction Experience
So how, in practical terms, does Northcentral deliver a better construction experience?
“We start as early as we can in the process,” Pat explains. “We have a genuine, honest, commonsense approach to aligning the objectives and vision of the developer and architect with the budget and timeline. We’re responsible for assessing buildability and providing a realistic cost projection. Then we use that information to make sure the owner experiences true cost-to-projection results.”
This is a key reason why developers, such as Callan Schultz, Owner of Keystone Development, LLC in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Robert Gregorski, Principal at Gregorski Development, LLC in Menasha, Wisconsin, work with Northcentral on an ongoing basis. Callan says he has hired Northcentral for all his company’s construction projects for nearly two decades because the projects they’ve done together have all been completed on time and on budget. And, he adds, “Northcentral’s staff is extremely professional with outstanding knowledge and expertise in all aspects of construction.”
Robert’s high trust in Northcentral is also based on its performance record. “Northcentral has been a preferred contractor for my company for nearly 15 years and has performed as a general contractor on a wide variety of our construction projects,” he says. “Throughout this time, Northcentral has satisfied high-demand, end-user retail tenants such as Guitar Center, AT&T Inc., FedEx Corp. and Chipotle Mexican Grill. They have always met these demands and have performed honestly and efficiently.”
Optimizing Efficiency & Quality
To keep projects on track and running smoothly, Northcentral self-performs its work. “We have over 45 employees working in the trades, specifically carpentry and concrete,” Pat says. “This allows us to control the pace and schedule compliance of each project better. Nothing will get you off track faster than the carpentry and concrete not being completed on time.”
This strategy also helps Northcentral to minimize change orders, provide field-verified shop drawings and keep punch lists short.
“We don’t generate change orders unless it’s truly something that wasn’t foreseen or disclosed—or that materially changed the design of the building,” Pat says. “We also have multiple levels of internal review—both on paper and in the field—to ensure shop drawings are complete before we send them to the architect for approval.”
As a professional architect, Jonathan especially appreciates this level of diligence with shop drawings. “For me, review of shop drawings is the truest indicator of how proactive or reactive a contractor is,” he says. “A reactive contractor passes shop drawings to the architect, unreviewed, and expects that the architect, from the office, will somehow coordinate dimensions, systems and issues with other trades. In contrast, a proactive contractor carefully reviews shop drawings and understands that shop drawing coordination directly affects the schedule, quality of the end product, potential change orders and ultimately the owner’s construction experience.”
The Northcentral team also appreciates the challenge in addressing unforeseen conditions. For example, while converting a historic woolen mill complex in Appleton, Wisconsin, into loft-style apartments, Northcentral’s construction crew discovered that a cobblestone wall wasn’t structurally sound. “When we started to remove the windows from the wall,” Pat says, “we realized they were helping to hold it together. We shored it up and called the architect and structural engineers. Then we sat down as a team to figure out a long-term solution. Even though this all happened on a Friday, by the time everyone left, all that remained was to run calculations to make sure the solution we had come up with would work.”
The Employee Experience
The company invests in its employees, values their experience and provides them with opportunities for growth and advancement. “Our managers have an average of 20 years of experience and mostly come from the field as tradespeople,” Pat says. “So, they have a realistic understanding of the work that needs to be done.”
The members of Northcentral’s senior management team all come from within the company, having taken very different paths to their current positions, Pat says. “Mark Dudzinski joined our team with a carpentry background,” he notes. “He worked his way up through the company from his first role as a site manager to project manager, then vice president of project management, chief operating officer and, now, president.”
Pat adds, “Chief Financial Officer, Raquel Schraufnagel, joined our team 24 years ago as a receptionist to help pay for school while attending college. After she completed her degree in accounting and business management, she accepted opportunities that led her through payroll, property management and accounts receivable/accounts payable to become corporate controller and, currently, CFO.”
He continues: “When Ralph Grebe joined Northcentral 20 years ago, he already had 10 years of construction experience. Ralph worked as a Site Manager on many different types of projects. In his current role as Senior Project Manager, he specializes in multifamily and historic rehab projects. Jim Brunet has been with the company 31 years and runs all its self-performed work and manages the field employees. He also directs our apprenticeship program and is responsible for trade employee training. He completed an apprenticeship after graduating from high school, became a carpenter, a carpenter lead man, a carpenter foreman and a site manager before moving into his current position as director of field operations.”
Providing good benefits, conveying clear expectations and supporting causes that matter to Northcentral’s staff are some ways the company demonstrates its high value of its people. “We provide a useful, good quality health care program,” Pat adds. “We believe strongly in the merit shop philosophy. All our employees are recognized and promoted based on how well they perform.”
While Northcentral supports several nonprofits on an ongoing basis—such as The Salvation Army, Jaunt for Jonah, Fish for Kids, Boys & Girls Club of Oshkosh, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Fond du Lac County, Boy Scouts of America Bay-Lakes Council and Habitat for Humanity— employees can also bring requests to the leadership team. “We sponsor several youth sports teams because one or more employees has kids on the team,” Pat says.
Team members also support outreach efforts. “One of our employees, Carl Irving, a concrete worker, is from Jamaica and his family adopted a school for underprivileged children there,” Pat says. “Our employees took up a collection to purchase and ship school supplies to the students. And, as a company, we donated some playground equipment.”
Raquel reflects on how “life has an interesting way of coming full circle.” Northcentral’s extensive experience building hundreds of low-income housing units took on new meaning for her after she and her daughter traveled on a mission trip to inner city New York. While there, they served homeless and underprivileged people at food pantries, soup kitchens and on the streets. “The experience was eye-opening and life-changing,” she says. “It gave me a firsthand feel for the impact Northcentral has on helping to provide a better future for others. I am proud and thankful to be part of a team that is truly making a difference.”
Northcentral is a member of the Associated Builders and Contractors as well as the Associated General Contractors of America, with several staff members serving on committees for these professional organizations.
By using a common sense, honest and accurate approach to all that it does and by recruiting and retaining employees who are personally committed to upholding the company’s high standards, Northcentral not only optimizes the construction experience for its clients, it earns loyalty from its project teams.