My New Normal: R.D. Olson Construction President Bill Wilhelm
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.
Before California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a shelter-in-place mandate, on a normal business day, R.D. Olson Construction President Bill Wilhelm would arrive to the office, wearing slacks, a dress shirt and a sports coat.
The office in Irvine would be a hub of activity. On any given day, 60 to 75 employees would be working at their desks doing what they needed to do to help the construction and development firm service its clients and continue to grow the company.
These days, since the state's stay-at-home order, the office is mostly deserted. Most of R.D. Olson's employees are now working from home. Since construction is categorized as essential work under the state's mandate, Wilhelm still continues to come into the office and visit construction job sites but at home in Silverado, it's a different scene. The attire is much more relaxed, just jeans and a collared shirt. His dogs are his co-workers. He works outside, where he is growing grapes and making wine.
Things have changed rapidly not just for Wilhelm but for most Americans. It is a new normal.
Bisnow: How are you transitioning your life and business to the homefront? (Or, how are you transitioning your life and business to adapt to the coronavirus?)
Wilhelm: Still in the office every day and work from home on Fridays. We are probably ahead than most contractors as far as technology. One hundred percent of our employees are able to work remote. Today in our corporate office, I'm here for the availability to strategically approach [the coronavirus issue] that continues to change hour by hour.
I implemented a social distancing policy company-wide on our job sites, networking experience and in the corporate office. Today, we have 15 people max at any one point in time. We put our people on a rotation schedule. In other words, project coordinators, project accountants, we have a couple of them at the office on any given day so they can do their work and continue to support the needs of those working remotely should we need to scan documentation or need to get something from the corporate office.
We are extremely impressed with how things are working. However, if there is one area of concern that we have is that we need to get better at communicating because we all get busy in our day to day. We have to get more virtual communication to the table rather than mass emails.
Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?
Wilhelm: There is a sense of concern, which there should be for every business in America. If this shutdown or stay-at-home [order] continues much further, it will put America out of business [and] it will put California out of business.
From a company perspective, in the last week, I have reached out to each and every one of our customers, the CEOs and presidents, and had one-on-one conversations with them, letting them know that we are there for them. I was asking them, "What can we do for you, that we haven't done?" and talking about the future and opportunities. And, I must say, that we are blessed and fortunate to have such a strong customer base of very successful ownerships and groups, and that they were all very bullish.
However, it's going to come down to the stimulus injection into the banking system. And the banking system opening their doors once again to allow developers to continue to go forward.
Bisnow: What is your greatest business concern right now?
Wilhelm: The concern that I have is the blurriness that is out there with the jobs that we haven't started yet. I strongly believe that a good part of those will continue to happen. The blurriness is when it's going to happen and how far will it slide because of the stay-at-home order.
Again, going to back to my point, if we don't find a way to get this economy going, you can pass all the stimulus bills you want but if we're all still locked down, the bills can only do so much for a short period of time. It will put the state of California and America out of business.
Bisnow: What was your lowest low and the highest high these last few weeks?
Wilhelm: I've been in this business for 45 years. I started as a young lad. I've been through a lot. I've seen a lot in this business. But last week was probably one of the most intense weeks in my professional career and surely as president of R.D. Olson these past six years.
It was a sense of helplessness because of the lack of knowing the blind beast that we are at war with. The lack of knowing the direction our government was going to take. The [mixed] signals the government put out. I appreciate and understand what they are going through. I'm not [criticizing] what the government did. They are doing a great job to try to get things going.
But just the confusion with the mandate, the shutdown.
I recall Thursday, I had a heads-up that this was going down so we needed to prepare. I called all my lead superintendents on what was coming down and that I needed them on-site tomorrow to lock down and secure all of our properties for our customers. We had a plan.
Then 11:29 p.m. Thursday night, we got the amendment clarifying [that construction was classified as essential work]. It was a sleepless night. I went back on the phone for a few hours, reaching out to not only our supers but talking to other owners and contractors calling me asking me, "What are we going to do?"
As stressful as that was Thursday and the past week, our subcontractors relationship and community and our R.D. Olson family stepped up to the challenge and we kept every job open. We had one hiccup with one subcontractor who didn't know what to do but aside from that, every job remains open to this day.
Our jobs have risen to the occasion and that was probably the high that I have enjoyed after experiencing such a low of the unpredictability.
Bisnow: What are you doing at home to keep your sanity?
Wilhelm: My wife is a schoolteacher and my daughter is a sixth-grade schoolteacher, so they have commandeered my home office and are using it as their school classroom, as well as areas throughout my home. I have an acre-and-a-half and a winery and they've been doing these [video] chats.
But what I do on normal days is shut down at 8 p.m. I get my rest to recharge. Being as mobile as our company is, I am able to access anything in the corporate office within the cloud and drive system and can respond when needed.
What I do to break the monotony is go mountain biking. Like I said, I have an acre-and-a-half and I'm growing grapes. I have produced my own wine. So I go out into the vineyard and tool around with that and do things to get some Vitamin D and to relieve the stress. I also have a beautiful wife and we've been together close to 40 years.
Bisnow: What have you learned about your business or the industry in the last few weeks?
Wilhelm: Mr. Olson and I just had this discussion ... What I have learned is that I'm proud that our company has stayed focused on a diversification model. I'm proud that our company was selective with the customers that we partner with. I'm proud that our company has stayed focused on the value-added service to our customers in lieu of just chasing volume.
When I reached out to all of our customers in the last week and had one-on-one conversations, each of the conversations closed out with the customer thanking me for everything R.D. Olson had done and what we were doing at our job sites and the reassurance from our customers that we were their go-to company and that they valued our company.
That gave me a valuable lesson about the makeup of our company, that as long as we stay focused on that model, we will continue to succeed.
Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?
Wilhelm: I will tell you this, everyone is looking at their agreements and contracts. Myself and one of my executives spent the last week going through each and every one of our owner agreements. I'm scouring through my lease agreement with our building.
From the real estate perspective, we're all going to understand the terms and conditions a little better to protect ourselves.
Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about today?
Wilhelm: We're all going to get through this. We're going to come out stronger, better, smarter. It's a blip. It's a correction. It's an unfortunate correction the way it's hitting us. But in the long haul, we are Americans. We know how to survive.
I'm always looking at the greater side of a nasty situation. I think Americans are going to come out a lot stronger and smarter at the end of the day. [We've] just got to get back open to business so financially it doesn't take a greater toll on us.