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How The CEO Of A Top 20 Construction Firm Is Handling Coronavirus

Rendering of Oceanwide Center

With job sites shutting down in some of the nation’s largest markets, but forging ahead almost everywhere else, the coronavirus has tossed the construction industry into disarray.

Eric Foster wasn’t expecting to face the largest economic crisis in a decade when he took over as CEO at Swinerton, one of the largest contractors in the country, in January. But after 38 years working for one company, Foster’s outlook was remarkably serene.

“Crisis management is a science,” Foster said. “You put together your team, you designate spokespeople, you evaluate decisions constantly and keep improving.”

Bisnow spoke with Foster to discuss Swinerton’s crisis response, where he sees opportunities in the construction market, and what an average day looks like for a CEO managing multiple markets from home.

Bisnow: How are you navigating the various shutdowns and work limitations across different markets?

Foster: We operate 17 offices in eight states, but our only market that has been heavily affected is the Bay Area. The only construction that’s being allowed in those six counties is affordable housing, selected public works and healthcare. 

We have had two tech clients in Seattle and two in Austin who have requested to suspend construction, but that was their corporate preference. On active sites, we’re working more slowly, with every precaution to prevent viral transmission, but our work is proceeding well.

Bisnow: Have you reallocated any personnel or resources?

Foster: We actually have been able to move some employees from suspended jobs to active ones, but we are working to keep people within the same cities, because we don’t want to contribute to any geographic spread. There’s been no reallocation on a national basis.

Bisnow: What are some of the most visible changes to Swinerton’s job sites?

Foster: Job site safety is our first priority. We’re now bringing cleaning crews every day on our job sites, and you’ll see hand sanitizer stations at every entrance and exit. We’ve implemented mandatory face covering policies and purchased more tools so there’s less of a need to pass them hand to hand.

At entrances and exits, we took some inspiration from grocery stores and spray-painted lines 6 feet apart, so workers aren’t crowding each other. 

Bisnow: You’re working on some massive sites right now. Is it easier to enforce social distancing over a physically larger job site?

Foster: One of the biggest challenges has been vertical transportation on our high-rises. Some of the projects we’re working on, like the Oceanwide Center in San Francisco, are 75 stories tall. Normally, to reduce the number of trips up all those floors, you would have one elevator operator and pack in as many people as you could at the beginning and end of the day.

Social distancing means we can only put two workers in there along with the operator. So we’ve been staggering shifts by 15 to 20 minutes to make sure no one has to wait for a ride up.

Many of the trades just naturally work far apart. We might have no problems spacing out a team putting in a concrete perimeter or removing internal bracing, but interiors are a different beast. Once you have drywallers, painters and floor setters, you need individual schedules and staggered shifts to keep everyone at a safe distance.

Swinerton CEO Eric Foster and his dog Lucy in Foster's home office.

Bisnow: Have you seen a slowdown in terms of new work coming in?

Foster: There’s a definite slowdown across construction. It’s mild in some sectors and devastating in others. Aviation and hospitality are two areas where I don’t see a lot of product in the near future. Fortunately, we’re not overweighted in those sectors, and we’re diversified across many others.

Bisnow: What construction sectors do you see opportunities in? 

Foster: We’re renewing our focus on healthcare, affordable housing and education. Many of those projects were funded with public bonds, so they need to move forward because that’s what voters approved. Our renewable energy group is also booming right now.

We’ve been touting our public-private partnership arm for a few years now, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of that work for police stations, libraries and other civic buildings. For cities, coronavirus means lost tax revenue. A PPP where Swinerton handles design, build and finance and the local government makes lease payments could be an attractive solution for many cities that would otherwise have to halt development.

Bisnow: Are you planning any strategic expansions for when the economy turns around?

Foster: We have to wait and see, but Swinerton has always been interested in geographic diversity, and the coronavirus has reinforced the importance of that approach. New England is an interesting market to me, as is Washington, D.C. 

Bisnow: How have you adapted your life and business in response to the coronavirus? 

Foster: My kids are grown, so working from home has been relatively easy. I converted our daughter’s old bedroom into an office. I really feel for all the working parents with young children. When we first started video meetings, some of the parents were embarrassed when their kids would be around, but we found that it is charming to see kids pop up. We’ve been encouraging our employees not to stress about that.

Three times a week, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., I’m on a video call with the COVID-19 task force that we assembled internally. We talk about any issues that have come up, and evaluate how the changes we’ve made are working and how they could work better.

Bisnow: Are there any changes that you think will survive this era?

Foster: We’ve always had an employee assistance program called Concern, which connected workers with therapists to discuss their mental health, or really whatever they wanted to talk about. Now with coronavirus, we’ve begun to offer those conversations over FaceTime, like teletherapy, and it’s really taken off. It’s been a huge help for employees who are working full time and caring for children at home and who otherwise couldn’t make time for mental health. I’m really pleased about that and I can see that going forward.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Swinerton. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.