Boston Business Journal: Tools of the trade: Shaun Lover is building Columbia Construction's future

January 3, 2019
Boston Business Journal: Tools of the trade: Shaun Lover is building Columbia Construction's future

Columbia is excitied to share the Boston Buisness Journal, 'Outside the Box' article: Tools of the trade: Shaun Lover is building Columbia Construction's future.

Lover recently spoke with the Boston Business Journal about how he plans to outpace his competitors, keep employees engaged and give his clients what they want.

Title: President, Columbia Construction Co.

Age: 41

Education: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Northeastern University, 2000

Residence: Bow, N.H.

Commercial construction is notoriously competitive and resistant to technological innovation. Shaun Lover is challenging himself and his team to grow and innovate by keeping up with changes in technology to be at the vanguard of innovation in the field. He said his commitment to the company’s nearly century-long focus on employee and client satisfaction combined with experience working on complex projects and enthusiasm for technology will pave the way for the next century of slow, steady, organic growth. Lover recently spoke with correspondent Jim Morrison about his career, Columbia’s history and how he plans to outpace his competitors, keep employees engaged and give his clients what they want.

Last year saw a big shift in leadership: You were made president and three other relatively young guys were promoted to senior positions. How has it been going? The shift has been great. We have a great base of employees. We have a lot of repeat clients. The growth has been natural and organic, not forced. We don’t have a desire to be the biggest commercial construction company. We have a desire to keep good employees and good clients happy. That’s our philosophy. We operate a lot differently than we did when I first got into the business in the mid-'90s. Construction is slow to change, but the way we operate is changing exponentially every year. We actually created a position here called "Director of Innovation and Improvement" just because we need to look at procedures and how we operate and take it to the next level.

Does that person have a strong background in both construction and technology? Yes. We have Siggy Pfendler, who had worked for us for a while. She’s worked in the field and in the office. She’s built big and small projects. She was part of our Virtual Design and Construction group and ran the Building Information Modeling group. She tries to coordinate all the trades before they start onsite on the pre-construction team. We thought she was best suited to run that group because she understands all of our various departments and how they operate. She streamlines our processes. Her background in construction and technology is unique. Honestly, if we didn’t have her, I don’t know if anyone else could do her job.

What are 'lean' construction principles, and how have they impacted your business? It goes hand in hand with what our director of innovation is doing. It’s all about collaboration. As someone in our office said, "If you get a lot of smart people in a room, good things are going to happen." It’s about agreed-upon accountability. Everyone takes ownership for their own things. They’re all invested in the project, and nobody wants to let the team down. The old ways of just being handed a schedule and told, "this is what we’re doing no matter what" just doesn’t happen anymore. We’ve found it very helpful. You have a lot of old-school people doing the same thing for a very long period of time. The philosophy we took with "lean" was to introduce it, train on it, and let it happen organically with our people. We showed them the benefit of the tools. We have superintendents that have been with us for 25 to 30 years who are using lean tools to work with foremen and project managers who have been doing this for 30 years. The goal is to end up with a better result and shake out potential issues much sooner than in the past. It forces you to think the process through. You get more input from everyone. You get a better product, and it’s a more enjoyable process.

What sectors do you focus on? We work in the corporate sector — anything from a ground-up in the suburbs to a corporate fit-out in Boston. We also work in higher ed. We do a lot of life sciences work. We’re in the midst of a sizable project in Walpole for Siemens. We do a lot of health care work. We do some hospitality work. We’re in the process of doing a major renovation of the Taj. We’re also in the energy sector, working with clients to help them be more energy efficient. We install a lot of solar panels these days, and are starting to get into battery backup, trying to stay ahead of the curve with disaster planning and sustainability.

You mentioned a couple of projects. What else are you working on now? We’re renovating the entire lobby at 260 Franklin St. while it’s occupied. We’re doing hundreds of thousands of square feet for Wayfair. At least half of our business is working in occupied space, hotels, commercial spaces, higher ed, hospitals, labs. The logistics of working in Boston and Cambridge is the difficult part — the building is the easy part. It all gets back to the pre-planning, from where the subs are going to park, how they’ll get into the building, where they take their breaks, where they’ll store their materials. There’s just no space. In commercial work, you can work nights and weekends, but in hotels, you can’t, so sometimes they need to block off the floor above and below where we’re working. But you also have to minimize downtime because you have to be done in time for the marathon. In higher ed, you try to get things done in the summer. The challenges are very sector-specific.