Contact Us

An Interview With: Ed Small

Washington, D.C.
An Interview With: Ed Small

An Interview With: Ed Small

By Mary Westbrook for Bisnow on Business.

It took Ed Small, president of Tompkins Builders, about 30 seconds to turn the tables on our interview. We’d barely introduced ourselves when Small, a native of Rockland, Maine, launched into restaurant suggestions for one of his favorite cities—and my temporary location—Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Here’s where you need to go,” he said before listing several steak joints in the city. “Have you been? Did you like it?” Five minutes later I still knew very little about Small, but I did have dinner plans for the next week.

For Small, a take-charge kind of guy and the face of a construction company that’s behind many of DC’s most recognizable buildings, the conversation wasn’t unusual. He joined Tompkins 21 years ago, at a time when the company wasn’t growing and was filled with, as he says, “mostly old guys."

“When I came on-board, we were behind on technology,” he says. “I was a young guy and everyone else was old so I thought, ‘Hey, growth potential!’ Now, I’m the old man.”

That’s debatable, and, regardless, it doesn’t mean Small is slowing down. Founded in 1911, Tompkins specializes in base-building construction, renovations, restorations, additions, and tenant fit-out projects. It currently manages construction projects valued at over $500 million with a team of more than 150 people. Signature Tompkins projects include the World War II Memorial, Gallery Place, the Thurgood Marshal Federal Judiciary Building, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the massive Gaylord Hotel and Convention Center (currently under construction)—and even the presidential inaugural stands.

What’s a snapshot of your day? 60 percent of my time is concentrated on getting new business, 20 percent is spent solving a particular problem on a project. The rest is administrative.

Do you miss being in the field? Yes. That’s where you have the most fun. You get tied down with the rat race and contractors and lawyers when you’re in a position like mine.

How does your job change when you’re building a commercial or residential building, like the Gaylord Hotel, versus a memorial? With a memorial, it’s not just business. Your heart gets into it. The most emotional day of my life was the World War II Memorial dedication. Half a million vets and three presidents were there. Our team worked hard to make that project successful. Everyone wanted to get it done on time and on budget.

Not an easy task?The project had almost 17,000 individual pieces of stone incorporated into it, of which there were approximately 8,000 unique pieces. Some of the pieces of stone were as large as 20 tons, and they came from Brazil, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and California. There really was no time to re-fabricate major pieces if one was improperly cut. There also was some damage to the Reflecting Pool, which Tompkins built in 1922. Because the pool runs up against the memorial, we had to clean that out and re-waterproof it.

Tompkins also built Gallery Place at Chinatown, another high-profile project. What were the challenges there? It had a wide variety of atypical retail tenants, and to accommodate their needs, seven elevators were added to the project—after the building was topped out! There were also numerous changes to the exterior facade, to accommodate the retailers in the building. That added several weeks to the project.

What about the Gaylord Hotel? It’s mixed-use and very big – a 42-acre site, 400,000 SF of convention space and 1500 hotel rooms. It’s also extremely fast track, and the construction schedule is very nearly catching up to the design production. We started the project in 2005, and we hope to finish in 2007.

Is the Chinatown boom over? Yes, it’s almost built out at this point.

Where are the new “hot” areas? The area around the new baseball stadium is going to be a huge development in the next 10 years. Another area that will get bigger is the New York corridor, running all the way to Bladensburg Road. That boom has already started. Outside the city, Fort Belvoir and Fort Meade are going to see a lot of new work due to BRAC and other initiatives. The military will be moving thousands of people in, and they need buildings to work in.

What’s your management philosophy? Ronald Reagan’s – trust, but verify.

How has Tompkins changed in the last 20 years? We’ve expanded into other markets. That’s important because many contractors who do only negotiated, private developer work lose the competitive edge when pricing their projects. By bidding work in the public market on a consistent basis, we know where the subcontractor market is pricing the work on a competitive basis.

And, in the industry at large: What are the major trends or challenges? Price escalations, due to materials costs, are impacting our clients to the point that they’re not proceeding with projects. The tech boom affected our ability to attract people—there’s a huge shortage of qualified people to do the work in both the trade and management ranks.

So, how do you find good people? It’s a constant challenge. I don’t think kids coming out of college are getting enough business experience. We build things, that’s our product, but they need to understand how the business works. Our business has become very litigious, which is disappointing. We used to do a lot of work with a handshake. Those days are over. I think, unfortunately, that’s a trend that will continue, and get worse, until we get tort reform in the United States.

How likely is that, in your opinion? We'll have to see what happens this November. Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, I think it's safe to say that if the Democrats take over either house of Congress, tort reform would be essentially dead. If the Republicans maintain control, then I suspect there is a possibility, but it does not seem to be that high on anybody's priority list right now.

Do you have a favorite building in DC? The Thurgood Marshall Memorial, the Ronald Reagan Building and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. We built them all. I like their sturdiness and their lines.

Which buildings do you like the least? Pass.

Do you have a favorite architect? (Laughs.) We love all architects and will work with all of them.

But does the job change though when you’re working with an internationally known architect like IM Pei versus a regional architect? With an internationally recognized architect, we need to make certain that we are playing our "A Game" and assign people with the design-specific experience to the project team. Ideally, our team has prior experience with the architect. We need to have a strong relationship with the owner so that we understand the goals of the project, aesthetically and financially. We also need to be very detailed in scoping the project with the subcontractor community so that all the details are incorporated into the subs' pricing.

If you could say one thing to executives in construction, what would it be? Don’t bid against me. (Laughs.) Seriously?

Yes, please…Put a commensurate fee in for what you’re doing. Don’t bid too cheap. Get the value for the work you do.

I hear you’re pretty passionate about fly fishing and traveling? My wife and I like to travel and see the world. Istanbul is one of my favorites. It’s very exotic. I’ve been all over the world to fly fish – Patagonia, Ireland, Alaska and Maine, of course. I have a book about the 50 best fly fishing places to visit before you die. I plan on going to 49.

But not all 50? Well, no, of course not! Once I’ve done all 50, I die. : )