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My New Normal: McHugh Construction President Mike Meagher

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Although Illinois went into a lockdown in mid-March, Gov. J.B. Pritzker deemed construction an essential business, and that has kept firms like James McHugh Construction Co. busy throughout the crisis. The Chicago-based company is one of the nation's largest construction managers and general contractors, and President Mike Meagher now helps keep it running from his dining room as it makes its biggest mark ever on the city's skyline. 

Mike Meagher on a "socially distant" bike ride with McHugh's associate general counsel, Sara Fletcher.

McHugh will soon finish work on the 101-story, nearly $1B Vista Tower in Chicago’s Lakeshore East neighborhood. The Jeanne Gang-designed structure is now the city’s third-tallest skyscraper, one of several notable projects McHugh built near the lake, including the seven-story, 222-room Curio Collection by Hilton hotel on Navy Pier.

But with a recession looming, it's possible projects still on the drawing board will get delayed. In addition to planning for those possibilities, Meagher must ensure workers at ongoing projects adapt to the need for social distancing, an unprecedented set of requirements to maintain proper safety standards. It's a heavy workload and filled with far more uncertainty than the pre-coronavirus era.  

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life.

Meagher: My days have been far more diverse than they are at the office. The other night I looked at my phone and counted 46 phone calls in one day. That day I had also stopped in the office for three to four hours and had an additional five to 10 calls on my landline. All weekdays have been starting with a 7 a.m. COVID-19 call with company leadership to see if we need to adjust how we are doing business. We basically share industry knowledge so that we are best prepared. Following OSHA and CDC guidelines and providing a healthy work environment is the primary theme. The rest of the day just fills up — we have been using Microsoft Teams and Zoom a lot. I’ll start a day with two activities, and by the end of the day I will have added eight team meetings or Zoom calls. I have been struggling to find a window to work out. I am usually working out six to seven days a week and, with the unpredictability of the days, I find myself missing a day or two during the week. Days seem fluid but end up being quite structured because of the coordination required for conference calls and meetings.

Bisnow: How are you transitioning your life and business to the homefront?

Meagher: My and my wife’s lives have changed dramatically as a result of coronavirus. Prior to COVID-19, I was usually out to dinner five to six nights a week, often with my wife. The transition to home-cooked meals every night since about March 13 has been very interesting. My wife does the cooking, and I do the dishes; and when she asks what I would like, I can honestly say it’s always a surprise because we didn’t have dinner at home that often. We have both developed routines that work well; however, I’m working harder than I ever have. My days are ending at 8 p.m. I have found a great place in our dining room where I look out on my backyard with two beautiful old oaks and an old hickory tree.

McHugh Construction President Mike Meagher working from home.

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Meagher: Extremely fluid. A recent industry survey confirmed what we have been observing, which is that a lot of projects are hitting the pause button during this time of uncertainty to see what the future looks like. On job sites, it’s all about creating the healthiest and safest environments. There is an urgency and attention to developing new ways to work in the field that create social distancing and other industry best practices.

Bisnow: What is your greatest business concern right now?

Meagher: The uncertainty of the economy is unsettling. Yesterday I read that the White House developed a committee to help restart the economy. It’s broken down into industry groups, and the real estate sector is represented by bipartisan leaders in our sector such as Stephen Ross of Related Cos. and Blackstone Group’s Jonathan Gray, among others. I am comforted that these “deal-makers” know what it takes to get our industry going again.

Bisnow: What was your lowest low and the highest high these last few weeks?

Meagher: Every project that hit the pause button broke my heart. Today we spoke about one of the projects, and we are gearing up to get it restarted, so that’s a “high” moment. Our entire company, management and field staff, has stepped up in an unbelievable way to find new ways to work within CDC guidelines. Other “highs” include receiving emails from subcontractors thanking us for creating the healthiest and safest-environment sites in the city.

McHugh Construction President Mike Meagher working out at home.

Bisnow: What are you doing at home to keep your sanity?

Meagher: This new “quarantine” lifestyle combined with how busy I have been has made it very challenging to find time to work out. When this all started, the weather for road bicycling was sketchy, so I bought a “Fatboy” fat-tired bike and have hit the local forest preserves with a high degree of intensity.

Bisnow: What have you learned about your business or the industry in the last few weeks?

Meagher: I am proud to serve as president of the Chicagoland Association of General Contractors, the local chapter of the Association of General Contractors. On March 16, CAGC started a twice-weekly COVID-19 phone call with our membership, which became a clearinghouse for industry best practices and ideas. Many of the firms that belong are often everyday competitors, and every single company shared and collaborated on best practices for the industry good. I am in awe of my industry colleagues, who I often compete with, who have demonstrated what great corporate citizens they are. This has truly been inspiring to see our association serve our membership at this critical time.

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Meagher: I think there will likely be new contractual terms as this was previously uncharted waters.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about today?

Meagher: I believe in every fiber of my soul that through any difficult experience in life and business come lessons that will make us better. I have seen this happen through this pandemic with my company and the industry. I am hopeful that everyone in this industry bounces back quickly and better than they were before.