Posted: September 01, 2011
Saunders Construction builds on its legacy with high-profile projects like the new IKEA CentennialBy David Lewis
John Beeble, CEO and chairman of Centennial-based Saunders Construction Inc., hurries from his car a few minutes late to an appointment in J. Alexander's restaurant, across from the new IKEA Centennial building at I-25 and County Line Road.
Behind him gleams the bold yellow and blue of the IKEA building. From certain angles the 415,000-square-foot IKEA Centennial seems to loom over the highway like a Swedish spaceship; it might be the most amazing architectural advertisement ever built in Colorado.
Of course, it is brand new. Beeble's company just finished the on-schedule construction of the building, but that's not why he's a bit rushed: He has just returned from a day with his surety company, the people who bond his company, Saunders Construction Inc.
His interviewer imagines all the construction companies in the past few years that would have dreaded a visit from their surety companies.
But, says Beeble, "It's only drama if your business is severely distressed."
Beeble's day was relatively stress-free.
"It is refreshing in the midst of this economy we're in, the times we're in, to be able to meet with our surety (company) and have that be upbeat and pleasant," he says. "Probably it is a little unique these days for a company in our industry."
Probably it is.
And why not? Among the company's many accomplishments are these currently under construction or recently completed:
IKEA Centennial, already a Colorado icon. DaVita Inc.'s, $101 million downtown Denver headquarters, a 270,000-square-foot building that has already attained celebrity status hereabouts as a rare (unique?) example of a New York Stock Exchange-traded company moving its headquarters and expanding here.
Also, there's the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne, due in 2012 to house one of the world's swiftest supercomputers and also to seek "gold" certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Next we have Saunders Construction's Metro State Student Success Building, designed and built with LEED Platinum certification in mind, the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, and the University of Colorado Denver Health & Wellness Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus - to name some of the more distinguished of the company's contemporary projects.
Just to jolt your memory, Saunders also has made its mark with high-profile Front Range construction such as the Arvada Center and 1stBank Center (formerly the Broomfield Event Center); the University of Colorado Boulder Wolf Law building and the University of Colorado Boulder Center for Community; Kaiser Skyline Medical Office Building and Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center. The company is branching out regionally, with gigs in nearby states for Target and Whole Foods.
And so on.
But it's a building's insides that count. Take IKEA Centennial, which has no natural gas service. Instead it has sustainable technologies galore.
What does that mean? It means Colorado's largest commercial geothermal system, and that means Saunders Construction made 130 holes 5.5 inches wide and 500 feet deep "for pipes holding heat-transferring liquid circulating through underground loops to either warm up or cool down the temperature inside the store," IKEA USA helpfully explained.
Neither Saunders nor IKEA has to prove its green cred. Saunders President Greg Schmidt is asked to tote up the building's sustainable features, and he says, "Geothermal is one of them. An energy management system - keeping the lights off in a room where they're not required, and on where they are. Lighting systems. More than half the structure - its walls, columns, beams, paneling and so forth - is made out of recycled materials."
"Did you mention ice storage?" says Beeble. The building "makes ice during the night and uses it for cooling during the day," he adds.
IKEA aside, a couple of recent events have set Saunders apart.
One, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce in June ratified Saunders' central place in the business world hereabouts by naming Beeble its chair-elect. This is recognition of sterling business achievement and leadership; for Beeble and Schmidt, 42, it meant even more. The appointment recognized their long-term plan to formalize their management duumvirate into one in which Schmidt is Mr. Inside and Beeble more and more Mr. Outside, and the long-range plan to bring Saunders into what they term its "third generation."
Schmidt clarifies the Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside business as Saunders moves toward its Generation Three business model:
"John is chair and CEO; Dick had been chairman till the first part of this year. The CEO role obviously has oversight over the entire enterprise and organization, but CEO to us right now is a largely externally focused role. John is taking over a leadership role at the Denver chamber, for example. My role - while there's an external component to it, especially on the work procurement side - it's more internal, focused on our operations."
Saunders' first generation began when Dick Saunders and three partners began the business on Groundhog Day, 1972. "The company has a very strong culture around succeeding for its customers, being customer-centric and never failing," Beeble says. The big difference between the company he started with in 1994 and Saunders today "is that the organization I came to was very conservative - which you have a need to be when you're building a company - but progressive in its thinking."
The company's second generation began as new hires such as Beeble, now 53, who began as an estimator, and Schmidt, an engineer, rose in the organization.
"That first generation built an amazing core, with its values in place, and with this great capacity," Beeble says. "We had some great people."
And except for Dick Saunders, the first generation of partners was retiring. (Today Saunders remains a private company, an "S" corporation with 60 employee-shareholders including Saunders, Beeble and Schmidt.)
"We were doing $60 million (annual revenue) a year and we said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what would happen if we took the governor off?'" Beeble said. "We did $180 million by 1999 and by 2000 it was $230 million. Today we're about $350 million to $400 million, the economy allowing," about level with the company's 2008 revenue.
Saunders was poised for the commercial construction boom of 2006 and 2007, and Beeble says, "At least up till now, we have been able to maintain our work program, and therefore gain market share."
When will their industry recover? "I see it recovering when we start adding jobs," Schmidt says.
Saunders is still hiring, but Schmidt and Beeble agree hiring is getting tougher as people flee the construction trades. A reporter mentions a local futurist who predicted that vacant inventory would bring the death of commercial construction.
"Your futurist is wacky," Beeble says. "That's the most ludicrous concept because it's flawed in so many ways. There's pent-up demand, there's need for keeping improvement and pace with changes. It's part of our mission statement: We build places for a rapidly changing world. Our world is changing - that's what futurists should talk about. The places that we work in, live in, play in, learn in - they change all the time. That creates business for us."
David Lewis is a freelance writer based in Denver.