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Perspective

Building a Legacy: The Vision Continues

in Perspective
Mike Chollet

Washington University in St. Louis has played a unique role my life. Though I was never registered there as a student, I spent a large part of my youth on its storied campus.

Our cover story in this issue features a transformative $280 million project called “Campus Next” which is focused on the east end of the Danforth Campus at Washington University. Growing up in University City, my family home was about five blocks from that area, but back then it was known as the Hilltop Campus. As a kid, I thought the Hilltop Campus moniker made a lot of sense given the elevation of the property and the steep hill which extended from the north side of the athletic complex down towards the old Channel 9 building and Forest Park Parkway. My siblings and I called that stretch of landscape “suicide hill” and it was our favorite destination for sledding. When we needed to thaw out between sledding runs, we found the perfect spot in the lower level laundry rooms of the married resident housing. Every Spring, our entire neighborhood crew looked forward to the annual Thurteen Carnival fundraisers. The rest of the year (assuming the statute of limitations for trespassing has run its course by now) I confess that we pretty much ran wild, exploring campus buildings, galleries, tunnels and engineering facilities. Those were much simpler times.

In my twenties, I found a more legitimate excuse to hang out on campus when I took a job as a manager of the Whittemore House, a wonderful old mansion built in 1912 on Forsyth Boulevard which serves as the faculty club for professors and staff of the University and the medical school. The five years I spent at Whittemore House ultimately laid the groundwork for what turned out to be a rewarding 30-year career in the hospitality industry. During my time there, I was privileged to meet many of the great people who helped make WashU what it is today and whose names now grace buildings across the campus.

In a roundabout way, I could even credit WashU for the existence of my two wonderful children, since the campus is where I met their mother Debbie. In the late 70s, she took a job waitressing at the faculty club to help finance her graduate studies in the engineering department. As she neared the completion of her degree, Debbie began her job search. Always one to aim high, she reached out to William Tao, one of those great people who helped to write the University’s story. Tao was a true giant in the local engineering community, a member of the Washington University governing board and, conveniently enough, a Whittemore House member.

Debbie likes to say that his written response to her resume, in which he thoughtfully provided suggestions for some other companies that she might consider, was the kindest rejection letter

she ever received. Soon after the letter arrived, Debbie was working a club party when she spotted Tao and his wife Anne and approached him to thank him for the letter. After a five-minute conversation, they agreed to meet again later that week to continue their discussion. Charmed by her intelligence and tenacity, Tao hired Debbie as his assistant. She worked for William Tao & Associates for more than eight years and in the process built a lifelong friendship that continues to this day.

Washington University has always been a dynamic part of the St. Louis landscape, and its reputation as one of the premier educational facilities in the world is a diamond in our city’s crown. Over the decades, the University’s visionary leadership has provided the St. Louis building community with a continuous supply of challenging and innovative projects and we look forward to continuing our role as documentarians of the University’s the next chapter. As for me, my sledding days may be over, but the WashU campus will always hold a special place in my heart.

A Good Story Well Told

in Columns/Perspective
Mike Chollet

St. Louis Construction News & Review was launched in 1969 as The Voice for the St. Louis Construction Industry, and the founding Publisher was adamant about his choice of the word “for” rather than “of” in that tagline. Nearly 50 years later, we are mindful of that subtle but very important difference. Our stated purpose is not to speak on your behalf, but rather to provide a voice for the local construction industry. We see our role as story teller – the stories themselves are yours and our goal is to document and share them.

Every year around this time, the St. Louis CNR team comes together to brainstorm and identify topics for the two or three “Industry Features” that will appear in each of the six issues scheduled for the upcoming year. As you can imagine, it’s a tricky assignment to look ahead, sometimes 14 months into the future, and land on a dozen or more stories that will be timely, relevant and interesting to our readers.

The “Building Features” you see in each issue are obviously more time-sensitive, subject to unexpected setbacks, projected completion dates and dependent on our ability to round up the industry contacts we need to help us tell the story accurately. Whether the topic is chosen 12 months or 12 days before we start writing, the truth is, setting up those interviews can be a struggle. The more players connected to a project, the more difficult it is to identify the right spokesperson for each entity and locate a window in their schedules for the interview.

When we can get it, access to a subcontractors list is optimal. Those lists give our writers perspective on the complexity of the project which improves the accuracy of their reporting and often adds dimension to the stories that might have been missed. Subs lists also make it more likely that we will get the attributions right. For the record, publishers hate running corrections. Not because it’s inconvenient, but because it means we didn’t get it right the first time. We are always grateful to the General Contractors who understand the value of a good story well told and support our commitment to getting it right by providing subcontractors lists for their projects.

Occasionally, our efforts to report on what’s happening in a particular segment of the industry are similarly thwarted by communication issues. In fact, we were forced to cancel an “Industry Feature” planned for this issue when significant efforts to arrange interviews with leading providers of the products and services we intended to cover failed. My optimistic evaluation is that everyone doing this particular line of work is swamped right now and too busy to talk to a reporter. Our team was disappointed about losing what we thought was an important story, but we also regret the lost opportunity to support those companies by featuring their work.

On the heels of this loss, our always-sunny editor, Kerry Smith, made what I think is an important observation. Kerry noted that most of the companies she called were not prepared to tell (or to help us tell) their stories. Without a designated media spokesperson or an understanding of the value of editorial coverage in their home market, opportunities were missed. If my hunch is right, and all the companies we called were buried in work, that’s fantastic, but the missed coverage still matters because it might have helped queue up projects for when the pipeline eventually slows down. The next time the phone rings, whether it’s St. Louis CNR or another publication calling, remember that your story is worth telling, and you can help make sure it is a good story well told.

Publisher’s Perspective

in Columns/Perspective
Mike Chollet

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
― Albert Einstein

The library has always been one of my favorite spots. As a lover of history and an avid reader, I believe I’ve probably learned more in the last 15 years than I managed to absorb in the previous 50 combined. Inversely, the older I get the more challenging it becomes to embrace change. Depending on how you interpret Einstein’s statement above, I could be headed for a zero-sum game, intellectually speaking.

History tells us that while mankind’s relationship with change is complicated, great things can happen when a society is willing to embrace new ways of doing things. In this issue of CNR, several feature stories highlight the connection between the construction industry and our city’s need to adapt and change. We hope you enjoy the issue and we invite you to reach out and share your own stories with me or with our editor, Kerry Smith. 

In this issue:

Prefab to Fast-Track Projects – The practice of pre-building large components before delivery to the jobsite is on the rise. Advantages include convenience cost-savings and one partial solution to the challenge of recruiting and retaining a qualified labor force.

Construction Management Programs in Higher Education – Colleges and universities are taking the bull by the horns to address the construction labor shortage, offering degreed and post graduate study programs in construction management, engineering and other programs. It is a forward-thinking trend that promises to be a great boon to our industry in coming years. 

Engineering to Withstand Modern Threats – Engineers are being put to the test as they face down the challenge of designing public buildings and schools that can withstand terrorist threats and the increasingly common occurrence of natural disasters.

Back to School – In the midst of an economic downturn that decimated the construction industry, we were encouraged to see funding continue for construction and expansion of colleges and universities. A successful $85 million bond referendum, passed in 2016, is providing funding for an extensive rework of Ladue High School.

Transforming Olin Library at Washington University – Sometimes, building projects are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. Read about the challenges Alberici Constructors faced in effecting “inverted vertical expansion” as this WU landmark was transformed; literally, from the ground up.

Mike Chollet

mike@stlouiscnr.com

The Perspective of History

in Columns/Perspective
Mike Chollet

In this issue, as we celebrate the 50th year of the publication of St. Louis Construction News & review, we also recognize the foresight and good works of those who came before us. When Thomas J. Finan, III set out to create a narrative on the state of the St. Louis area construction industry, he understood the necessity of providing clear, factual and unbiased information. We are proud to have done our part in telling your story of the St. Louis building community over the years and to advance the dialog fairly and with the perspective of all voices. It has been our goal to focus on the positive when reporting on the work of those who build structures and community on both sides of the river.

In addition to looking outward to the enduring symbols of St. Louis progress, we honor the early CNR staff and family who have worked so hard to bring your story to life. I have been at the helm of CNR for just over 10 years and our excellent editor, Kerry Smith has been on board for about 2 years. Her research and the telling of the CNR story has been an interesting process for both of us and we hope it will be for you.

One of the people Kerry interviewed for this story is Eldon Arteaga. Known by many for his high-altitude, breathtaking photography of the construction of the St. Louis Gateway Arch – and also recognized as Teamsters President, Jimmy Hoffa’s official photographer – was one of the St. Louis CNR founder’s dearest friends and closest colleagues. The two met in the 1960s when the young Arteaga was 29 years old. Eldon is now an entertaining chap of a certain age with a truckload of colorful stories. After our editor interviewed him for this feature she remarked on how very helpful he had been and that “he even told me a joke”. Almost too perfect.

When you see Eldon’s photographs of the building of the St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, you get a strong sense of the pride and determination of the men and women who knew that they were building something of great importance that would stand in perpetuity as a testament to imagination and ingenuity, two uniquely human attributes which are the bedrock of our industry.

Fittingly, in this issue, we also feature the rebirth and repurposing of three historic St. Louis buildings from the 1920’s.

The Woodward & Tiernan Printing Company building has been rehabilitated and converted into 164 upscale lofts in St. Louis’ Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. The personality of the original Woodward & Tiernan Printing Company building, we learn, remains in Woodward Lofts in the design which carries with it a feel of offset printing that occurred during the decades of operations there.

Steelcote Lofts represents the first phase of a multi-phase strategy to rehabilitate, renovate and reenergize longstanding industrial buildings in Midtown St. Louis. A five-story, 43,541-square-foot building listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was long known as the Steelcote Manufacturing Company Paint Factory, the building is undergoing a creative and elaborate transformation that began in early 2017. It is a $9 million project.

The Last Hotel is a $54 million historic rehabilitation construction project wrapping up in the former International Shoe Company Building at 1501 Washington Avenue. The 10-story edifice, erected in 1909 by St. Louis Union Station architect Theodore Link, gets its name, rightly so, from a shoemaking tool. The “last” was a hardwood or cast iron, foot-shaped mechanical form used decades ago by cobblers to repair and manufacture shoes.

One cannot help but wonder whether the people involved in the designing and building of these structures had any notion that, nearly 100 years hence, their work would be honored and conserved by future generations.

When you go to work in the morning, think about the future. There’s a very good chance that the population of the twenty-second century will still appreciate your work. Everyone who builds St. Louis can be very proud of this incredible legacy.

Sometimes the Toughest Questions Open Doors to Success

in Columns/Perspective

When my daughter Anna was 13, she came to her mother and I with a heavy ask. She wanted to go to Ecuador with some classmates in a school-related trip where they would work and study in a rain-forest preserve. She was barely a teen and it was the late ‘90s when the “semester abroad” concept was a little less of a thing, so our initial reaction was not what she had hoped.

Eventually, we acquiesced. She had a great time, but she returned with a grand scheme tucked neatly up her sleeve. We would learn much later that our very observant daughter had noticed some of the students working at the preserve were staying longer than her group, and a helpful staff member explained that when she was sixteen she would be eligible for that privilege. Anna tucked that bit of information away, and just prior to her 16th birthday she came to us with her plan fully intact. Airline schedules and fare costs, ground travel plans, information about the established rainforest study facility, and on and on. Armed with facts and determined to go, she convinced her mother and I that this could work. What we didn’t know is that her abundance of planning time had allowed her to build in some less-structured but more anxiety invoking side trips that were (perhaps) intentionally obscured in the itinerary she provided before she left. Ultimately, her trip was a success, as was our subsequent family discussion about her youthful take on permission versus forgiveness.

From that trip, many others have followed: A mission trip to a Haitian clinic. Two months in Costa Rico to brush up on her medical Spanish, a solo medical research trip to a remote fishing village in Malaysia. A trip to Uganda where she upped the ante by taking her younger brother, Peter, with her. Like any younger brother worth his salt, he has taken full advantage of the parental skids greased by his sister. To date, his adventures include spending most of a summer backpacking in Europe, a trip to Vietnam and regular trips to feed his growing passion for rock climbing.

Observing Anna’s love of travel, her mother regularly expressed her fear that one or both of her children would end up living in some remote backwater, out of reach and visiting St. Louis far less than a potential future grandmother might like, but at least for now that is not the case.

Peter is a Lead Consultant in his ninth year with Cerner Corporation in Kansas City and, as you may have guessed by now, my daughter became a physician. Anna is married to a wonderful gentleman she met in med school in New Orleans, and they both practice Family Medicine at a teaching hospital in Memphis. The perfect American success story, with roots that extend well beyond the US.

My son-in-law was born and raised in Houston, Texas. He is a die-hard Cowboys and Texans fan. (Maybe next year, dude). His parents, lovely people both, were born in Bangladesh and came to the US for college. They remained and became citizens. His father worked for NASA and his mother became a college professor and real estate investor.

My daughter and her family are the living example of the new face of America. And while I can admit to being biased by the arrival of my first granddaughter, Sarabi Louise, I would say things are looking pretty rosy.

In this issue, one of our features explores the issue of diversity in the construction industry. As it turns out, St. Louis is in the odd position of lagging in the building rebound from the ’08 economic downturn relative to other major US cities, and at the same time we are struggling to field enough skilled workers to fill current and future construction needs.

Clearly our outreach needs to be expanded. A lot.

The St. Louis – Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council is one organization with a laser focus on creating opportunities for minorities and women in the construction industry. Director of Training and Workforce Development, John Gaal, EdD, says the Carpenters are launching a new initiative in 2019 that should fulfill the diversity objective and provide a second chance at work and life for many, including prisoners who have served their sentences. In 2019, the union will begin a carpentry program within the Missouri prison system. He and his organization are not alone in the quest to reach out to people of all gender, ethnic and other diverse backgrounds to consider the benefits of a career in the construction industry. Others include:

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • The IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Local 1
  • The St. Louis Chapter of NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association)
  • The Construction Career Development Initiative (CCDI) founded by Clayco in 2015
  • MOKAN CCAC (Missouri-Kansas/St. Louis Construction Contractors Assistance Center)
  • The Associated General Contractors of Missouri

These fine associations and many, many others are looking into the future and seeing that change is essential to maintaining America’s status as the greatest country on earth.

Sadly, at this writing, the US government is shut down in an impasse concerning the future of immigration in America. One argument is that immigration has literally built our country. An equally robust point of view says that changing world conditions require a new look at the rules and regulations. Fair enough.

Our country will somehow bump its way through this quagmire and come out better for it. Just remember, sometimes future successes start with a heavy ask.

It’s a Long Story

in Columns/Perspective
Mike Chollet

Of all the human attributes that contribute to one’s success in life, it seems to me that curiosity is one of the most powerful. Curiosity is how we learn, though parents may sometimes lose sight of its importance under daily siege by a three-year-old armed with hundreds of questions. I was that child and while I’m sure I drove my parents crazy, I can attest to the fact that intellectual curiosity makes for a rich and interesting life.

I’m much taller now, but extreme curiosity still drives me on a daily basis. I am a voracious reader with a special affinity for history, particularly American history from the 1800’s forward. Stories of the industrial titans of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s—Ford, Astor, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan—illustrate the American connection and struggle between industrialists and the rise of the labor movement in our country. The two forces are inextricably connected, and each could not have existed without the other. It’s an ongoing story of the need to counteract unchecked power with moral imperative.

St. Louis is a town that offers its own, unique, perspective on history. It is, literally, the jumping off point for the Americanization of the bulk of our country. Proximity to the confluence of four great rivers systems made St. Louis the center of north American civilization for a good part of our country’s history. I think it’s important to always remember where we came from and who we are.

Though ownership has changed for some large businesses and others have left over the years, there are many companies, large and small, who remain rooted here, proudly serving the St. Louis community. Each plays a role in envisioning and building a future for the city we call home and each, whether fledgling or giant, will leave their stamp on the history of St. Louis in some way.

Thomas J. Finan, Jr., the founder of St. Louis Construction News and Review magazine, wasn’t an architect or an engineer or a contractor. He wasn’t even particularly handy, but he was curious about the untapped potential in a city he loved. He took great pride in honoring the contributions so many of you have made to progress in St. Louis. He was passionate about documenting that important work and he believed in the immense power of community and collaboration. Next year will mark the 50th year of this magazine’s existence—a milestone our founder likely never imagined possible. All of us, team members past and present, who work together to bring each issue of St. Louis CNR to life, are immensely proud to be a part of his noble endeavor.

St. Louis CNR was established in 1969 to serve as “The Voice for the St. Louis Construction Industry” and our goal is to continue bringing you stories that inform and inspire. In our March-April 2019 issue, we will celebrate our half-century mark by featuring the people and companies who have contributed to the history and growth of St. Louis through their roles in the construction industry. CNR Editor Kerry Smith, the newest member of our team, is excited to get started telling your stories.

Putting a Face to a Name

in Columns/Perspective
Mike Chollet

If my face looks familiar to you, you can count yourself a member of a very small club in the St. Louis construction industry. If we haven’t met yet, you may be surprised to know that I took the reins of St. Louis Construction News and Review magazine in 2009, when long-time publisher Tom Finan set out to pursue other endeavors.

Over the last nine years, I’ve been working behind the scenes, managing the print publication, the weekly e-newsletter and our website. My intent was not to be mysterious, but rather to let the publications speak for themselves. It’s just my nature. When our new Editor, Kerry Smith, joined our team last year, she launched a relentless campaign to bring me out of the shadows, and here we are. I am Mike Chollet, owner and publisher of St. Louis CNR.

In the interest of full disclosure, the magazine was founded in 1969 by my late father-in-law Thomas Finan Jr. I met his youngest daughter, Teri Finan, when she was editor of another trade publication held under the Finan Publishing banner. I became an official member of the Finan family when Teri and I got married in 2003. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting her father (he passed away long before we met) it has been an honor to carry on his vision for this magazine – to serve as “The Voice for the St. Louis Construction Industry.”

I am a lifelong St. Louisan who grew up in U-City, but it’s important to note that I came into my role as publisher with absolutely no background in the construction industry. The bulk of my working career was in hospitality management, including 30 years as General Manager of the Noonday Club, a private dining club on the 40th floor of the Metropolitan Square Building. In that role, I learned a great deal about the personal connections that are such an important part of this city’s DNA.

This second act has been a learning experience on many fronts. While I’ve managed to stay out of the spotlight, I have been in the background observing, and what has impressed me most is the remarkable generosity of the St. Louis construction community, even through the recession when times were tough. The word “hero” is tossed around a lot in the news these days, enough so that the definition is sometimes diminished, but it rings true when used in reference the St. Louis building community.

Next year, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of St. Louis Construction News and Review magazine. It is humbling to be a part of such a long history and I am proud to continue the tradition of serving this great community. To mark the occasion, we’ve designated 2019 as “The Year of Giving Back.” Every issue of the print magazine will feature stories focused on the charitable efforts of local companies and associations and we hope you will help us tell your stories.

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