Stellar Ideas and Applications
Collaboration and creative solutions fuel success of Sea West Enterprises, Inc.
Eric Simison, President and CEO of Sea West Enterprises, Inc. (Sea West), says the key to his company’s success is collaboration. “In an atmosphere where owners, contractors and architects often view projects from different perspectives, our team stays focused on schedule, quality and budget—the three things that govern the success of a project,” he says. This focus on a successful outcome and respecting everyone involved has benefited the company’s long-term clients and staff.
Sea West, based in San Dimas, California, is family-owned and operated. Eric and his wife, Jennifer, founded the company in 1977 and are still active in it. Eric handles specialty projects, such as observatories, and heads its development businesses. As CFO, Jennifer is in charge of all the financial, human resources and legal matters. Their sons, Jason Simison, LEED AP, Vice President of Construction, and Travis Simison, Vice President of Production, are also key members of the leadership team. Jason handles estimating and marketing and Travis manages projects through completion. “Mom has tracked all our financials over the course of 43 years,” Jason says. “A critical part of a construction company is maintaining your books, so she carries a heavy load.” The Simisons are supported by a 23-member team of superintendents, engineers, project managers and assistant project managers.
The company’s decades of success in public and private construction projects includes industrial parks, office buildings, transit centers, self-storage facilities, institutional structures and scientific research centers. Depending on the project’s scope, Sea West may be the developer, design-build manager, general contractor, subcontractor or all of those. As a developer, the company purchases and entitles properties, then manages their design and construction. Once construction is complete, the developed property is turned over to a separate management company.
This leadership team has always put relationships first and encourages everyone to think creatively, to “start with the end in mind.” “Our foremen and superintendents meet with their crews to gain insight and possible ideas to better execute the work. This approach carries through to our project managers, estimators, administrators and clerical staff. We have an abundance of intelligence at our disposal and a great breadth of experience at Sea West,” Eric says. “It would be a great waste of knowledge to not allow everyone the opportunity to provide input. In any business you have unforeseen events or situations. When these occur, our team members don’t just tell us what happened, they provide solutions.”
Jason feels that proper construction management hinges on this type of communication and problem-solving. “We work on a variety of different projects, which keeps things exciting and dynamic. This ability to be diverse is directly related to our skill at problem-solving. We keep communication flowing between the field, designers and owners so everyone is aligned with the common goal,” he says. “Construction is difficult and challenging, so we are proud of our continuing relationships with both clients and architects, many of whom continue to invite us to bid on projects.”
Going for the Exceptional
Sea West’s expertise and innovative approach have brought the company many opportunities, some well beyond typical construction. “In the 1990s we began working on astronomical projects when we were chosen as the contractor for the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) on Mount Wilson, California. The client, Georgia State University, held a competition for the project and we met all the requirements and were awarded the contract,” Eric says. “The observatory has been very successful and since that time Sea West has participated in several observatories as both a design-build and general contractor.
“Our work on the CHARA is an example of upfront innovation. First, you have to understand all the nuances of compliance so you know how far you can go and still come up with a superior result. We designed a remotely accessible telescope enclosure to fill our client’s request to address operational and environmental issues,” Eric says. His team’s innovative design earned a U.S. patent for a unique astronomical telescope enclosure.
Sea West’s innovation goes beyond meeting the client’s needs by introducing intelligent technologies into standard construction projects. “We have in-house IT specialists who have created security and smart systems for us and for our clients that save time and money while creating more user-friendly, secure buildings,” Eric says. “We install audio visual systems on our job sites that allow us to communicate with our crews and observe job site activity. These systems, which provide added security and reduce job site interruption, are often integrated into our finished product and turned over to the client as an added value.”
A current project application of this audio visual technology is in an exhibit hall that Sea West is remodeling, where remote access cameras show activities and the level of visitor traffic inside the halls. It also works as part of security, management and operating systems in other businesses, such as restaurants or storage facilities. “Teaming up with a select few operators, we also provide automation in both the commercial and scientific arenas. The advancement of automation in the scientific field of astronomy has allowed convenient access to remote telescopes by students and amateur astronomers—vastly expanding the research data in the field of astronomy. Automation in the workplace saves money, simplifies access and tracking issues, and increases environmental conditions benefiting employees and increasing production,” Jason notes.
“Our team stays focused on schedule, quality and budget—the three things that govern the success of a project.” Eric Simison, President and CEO, Sea West Enterprises, Inc.
Meeting the Challenge
Being creative has also helped Sea West meet some business challenges that other companies have not. “We’ve never walked away from a job and still operate on the same license we’ve had since we started. We stayed alive through the recession. A lot of companies walked away, but my parents persevered,” Travis says. “In 2008 when the recession hit, instead of laying off people, everyone agreed to a 10% pay cut in order to keep going. But we didn’t cut salaries, we reduced work hours, which included leaving work on Fridays at 3 p.m. We’ve been out of the recession for several years now, but we kept the 3 p.m. closing on Fridays because everyone liked it.”
Sea West encourages a quality-of-life approach with its staff. “Parents can go see their kids’ games or empty nesters can take off to visit families out of state. If we find ourselves falling into a constricted corporate circle, we check each other on it and refocus on keeping a good quality of life,” Travis says. “People who agree with that are the ones we hire. The relationships we create with clients are only possible by fostering that same culture within our company.” Some employees have been with Sea West for up to 22 years and others have stayed with the company until they retired.
Eric considers the company a family. “We share the joys and sorrows in each other’s lives and understand that this is only a piece of life’s puzzle, which is in a constant state of change,” he says. “Yes, there are bonuses and vacation times and personal time off and holiday gifts and awards. But the real reward is coming to work and beginning each day with people who trust one another and who really do enjoy working together.”
More Than Just Business
Sea West’s approach to client needs often goes beyond just the structures, such as its work on a community center and urban farm in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. “Our client, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, had a vision that bid out at 200% of budget. We collaborated with Claremont Environmental Design Group (CEDG) from Pomona and worked for three months on value engineering to create a viable design that could be executed for half the available budget,” Jason says. “We also utilized a guaranteed maximum price (GMP) contract where we agreed to a fixed markup for our work. The owner is part of all matters of construction, including cost, so they can make educated decisions based on what they need versus what they want. By identifying those needs we made it all work.”
Sea West’s respect for people’s needs also extends into its community. It is currently helping fund materials for a new charity for cancer survivors called A Day To Play. The company also supports local fire department programs by collecting toys at Christmas and donating turkeys for Thanksgiving.
The American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA), whose mission is to “champion the art, history, creation, and technology of ceramics through exhibitions, collections, outreach and studio programming,” is especially close to the owners’ hearts—and Jennifer is a member. “My wife is the heart and soul of our business and also is extremely artistic,” Eric says. “She is featured as the museum’s artist of the month this June. In the city of La Verne where we live, she’s helping the police force get a canine unit by creating unique mugs in a variety of designs that are sold as donations at local stores with all proceeds going to the La Verne K-9 & Police Foundation.” Sea West also hosts art shows at its facility to raise money for AMOCA.
Beyond the Horizon
As the company moves forward, the family is looking at transitions. “My mom wears many hats,” Jason says. “We started a five-year plan to transition some of her day-to-day work so she can just do oversight. She currently takes Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays off to spend time on her artistic side. Dad will stay as long as we do. When the work is your passion, whether it’s just tenant improvement or the big projects, the rush you get from solving problems is fantastic. For him, being able to do that with his sons is immensely satisfying.”
This type of teamwork is also paramount to the company’s success. “We have had the good fortune to work on many landmark projects, from remote mountaintop buildings to public works, custom commercial development and industrial-manufacturing facilities,” Eric says. “One thing that all our most successful projects have had in common is teamwork. From our client-contractor relationship to the design team and through to vendors and subcontractors, when the players are all in the game together, the results have always been remarkable.”
To those who suggest he retire, Eric responds: “I like what I’m doing, why would I retire? I can be with my family every day and use my experience and input. It’s a good team; we share ideas and debate a bit too. Life is something you should enjoy and play at with those around you. In the end we’re all here for such a short time, so it’s important to feel good about being here. It’s about having a good attitude. In this game you will certainly get knocked down, but the secret to a successful business is in how you get back up.”