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Gilbane Builds On Its Family Culture

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When the Gilbanes established a construction firm in 1873, their aim was to provide a good living for family members immigrating from Ireland. Through the years, Gilbane Inc. hasn't strayed far from that goal and, in fact, attributes much of its success to the fact that there's usually a Gilbane available to take calls or tackle issues as they arise. While that type of hands-on approach to operations has become less common for contractors with nearly a billion dollars in regional revenue, Gilbane executives say it's their linchpin for future growth.

Image Courtesy of HOK
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"There is a real thirst for family-owned businesses that are less rigid and able to understand and adapt to [clients] in rapid time," says Bill Gilbane III, senior vice president. Many family members are involved in the firm and "there's not a lot of layers of bureaucracy, so you can always get a decision-maker on the phone," he says. "The decision loop is short, and customers feel confident that we can get to the heart of the problem."

He points to the example of the firm's involvement in New York City's post-Superstorm Sandy Rapid Repairs Program that aimed to quickly restore basic services to New York homeowners displaced by the storm. Gilbane was one of a handful of contractors able to move quickly to sign a program agreement with the city. Other firms had to contend with "layers and layers" of internal red tape so they could not respond fast, if at all, he says.

The family's hands-on approach appears to be serving the firm well as Gilbane has placed among the top 10 regional contractors for the last four years in ENR New York's annual ranking of firms by regional revenue. Number six in the latest ranking, Gilbane racked up 2013 regional revenue of $946 million, an 11% year-over-year increase.

That is one of several factors—including its focus on community outreach, diversity programs, safety and growth in new markets—that caught the attention of Engineering News-Record's regional editors, who named the firm the tristate region's 2014 Contractor of the Year.

With the fourth generation of Gilbanes now at the helm, Thomas F. Gilbane Jr. is chairman and CEO of Gilbane Inc., a holding company that includes two principal subsidiaries. William J. Gilbane Jr., president and COO, leads Gilbane Building Co., which provides construction management as well as facilities-related services. Robert V. Gilbane, chairman and CEO, runs Gilbane Development Co., which focuses on development and strategic planning.

However, the firm recently named its first non-family-related COO, Michael McKelvy, whose previous job was chief delivery officer at Denver-based CH2M Hill. McKelvy has a construction background and experience in international markets. These skills will come in handy as Gilbane seeks to expand in the food and beverage markets abroad, Bill Gilbane says. McKelvy is a good "culture-fit," he adds.

Bill Gilbane uses the "culture fit" term a lot and says it also applies to the firm's volunteer efforts through such programs as the New York Cares Coat Drive and Rebuilding Together and its minority and women-owned enterprises (MWBE) program participation.

Regardless of funding requirements on a particular project, the firm "maintains its own internal requirements on MWBE participation," he says. Gilbane's corporate goal is to have 10% MWBE participation on all of its projects, although it went beyond that—to 12.01%—in 2013.

"Back when the firm was established, it was difficult for Irish-Americans to get work," Gilbane says. The firm strives to relate that experience to the MWBEs that face such challenges today through programs including mentorships, he says.

Over the years, the firm has been recognized for its overall MWBE commitment with awards from groups such as the National Association for Minority Contractors in Washington, D.C. Last year, it won an NAMC award for its overall commitment, including its work with joint venture partner McKissack & McKissack on the $299-million Henry J. Carter Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility project. Part of New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., the project had 10% MWBE, totaling $17.2 million.

Bill Gilbane says he expects record-breaking participation in the planned $110-million New York Proton Therapy project in Harlem. The firm is working with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on the project, which is expected to offer about $35 million in diverse business awards and some 40% trade contracts.

A longtime participant in the industry's Safety Week initiative, Gilbane joined Skanska and Weeks Marine this year for the first time in the program's Incident and Injury-Free CEO Forum. The team visited each other's jobsites, discussed programs and spoke to subcontractors on site about safety. Since the forum's 2008 conception, Gilbane says its own injury rate has dropped by more than 50%.

William Gilbane Jr. says his firm will continue this practice and hopes to improve on it next year. He says he is interested in inviting CEOs from national firms to New York City to visit the area's various types of construction sites under the program. Projects in the city are diverse and "only a subway ride away from each other," he says. The main goal, he adds, is to get other firms to adopt this safety practice as well. "We want it to be inclusive, not exclusive."

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