Building On… Wendy Cohen talks with Comstock’s about construction in Sacramento

This article originally appeared in Comstock’s Magazine.

While economic activity in California has slowed down over the last two months with the coronavirus pandemic grinding society to a halt, construction is one industry that has continued through shelter-in-place orders, as government officials deemed it an essential business.

The construction industry accounts for 3.8 percent of California’s gross domestic product, according to the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. Some of the major construction projects planned in the local region, according to GSEC, include the $4 billion Upper Westside master-planned development near Sacramento International Airport, $1 billion Riverpark subdivision in West Sacramento, $750 million Kaiser Permanente Hospital at The Railyards infill development in Sacramento and $499 million Judicial Council of California courthouse in Sacramento.

Comstock’s recently spoke with Wendy Cohen, vice president of operations for Kitchell, a construction firm with several projects underway in Sacramento’s central core. Those projects include the renovation of the Community Center Theater, the Sacramento Commons housing project and the Department of General Services Clifford L. Allenby Project.

You said 95 percent of your clients are in the public sector?

Yeah. We’ve been very fortunate, candidly, that all — or most, we’ve had a few projects slow down — have been deemed essential across the state. Most of our work is moving forward or actively in construction.

When Comstock’s toured the Community Center Theater last September, the theater was all dirt on the inside and it had been pretty much gutted. What kind of progress has Kitchell made since then?

The project’s scheduled to be complete at the end of the year. We’re in the process of … doing all the extensions. If you know the building well, that front entry area, that is all being expanded significantly. If you swing by or drive by, you’ll notice that the old part of the building that (led) into the building has kind of been expanded outward, that main lobby and the entrance area. You’ll start to see that expansion for sure.

A lot of the underground utility work that took place is complete. We did a ton of work under the stage area where the orchestra is, as well as under the seating area. All of that area has been redone. And then we had to do a bunch of utility work on the outside.

So now we’re starting to, frankly, put all of the pieces back together. Over the summer, we’ll move to start closing up the building and then start doing the interior part, the finishes … and then wrapping up the exterior part of the building, and last but not least will be all of the landscape and the sidewalks and all of those items.

Aside from current projects, are requests for proposals at normal levels from public agencies?

They’ve definitely slowed down. We’re still seeing them come out, but they’ve slowed a little bit, as you would expect.

I think a lot of our clients — state agencies are our clients, community colleges, K-12 (schools), municipalities — a lot of them are really busy themselves dealing with the reality of COVID and how to run their own businesses and prepare for students to come back or to run a city. I think in some cases, it’s just been a distraction, and so things haven’t moved as quickly as we would expect.

What we’re really looking at right now is what does this look like long-term? What does this look like for the state budget and the capital projects that are funded through the state budget? What does this look like at (the) county level and budgets?

It’s likely they’re going to run a really big revenue deficit when they start looking at the income, or the revenues that (dropped) the first quarter of this year because of COVID.

What does it mean for Kitchell if we start to see California jurisdictions cutting capital expenditure budgets?

Initially, not a lot. It would really start to play out (in) 12-18 months. … Our lessons learned from 2008-2009 tell us that likely projects get put on the shelf if (agencies are) trying to figure out (how) to provide regular services for their citizens or build a project. …

At the same time, (as) we also saw (in) 2008-2009, the outcome of that was some stimulus packages that were passed for public agencies to prepare for shovel-ready projects. So I also think, on the flip side, because construction for the most part has been deemed essential in the state, there may be a push to continue construction to have construction help lead us out of this.

We’re looking at a serious economic situation. How does construction help us get out of it?

It’s a good question. I think that, as I mentioned earlier, (Gov. Gavin Newsom) really (understands) how critical the construction industry is for California. … That was a first step in the right direction.

One of the things to remember is that most of the people that work in the trades and construction are hourly employees. If they don’t work, they don’t feed their families. I think being really mindful of that (is) important. Like many other people in the state, they all have that same challenge.

But I think if we can keep capital projects moving forward and the industry moving forward, it will at least provide that forward momentum for the market and for the economy. And then as the state starts to open up incrementally — whatever that looks like, because it changes on a daily basis — then you would just start to add on top of that.

I think the worst thing that could happen is that we stop construction, frankly, because I think it’s, as I said, it’s one of the industries that has been pushing forward. I think it really just creates the momentum for the economy to open back up, because you already have those folks working and collecting a paycheck, and they do have the ability to provide for their families and ultimately spend their money at the grocery store and other places to keep the economy moving forward.

Phoenix Business Journal Executive Profile: Justin Newman


This article originally appeared in The Phoenix Business Journal.

Justin Newman is a rarity, someone whose family has been in Arizona for six generations.

His ancestors moved to the White Mountains in northeastern Arizona. He grew up in Pinetop and played baseball and football at Blue Ridge High School. He started working in construction while still in school, which led him to major in construction management at Northern Arizona University.

Newman, president of Phoenix-based hardison/downey construction inc., a subsidiary of Kitchell Corp., grew up fascinated by the industry. When he learned he could major in construction management, he was sold.

He worked his way up with general contractors, spending 17 years at McCarthy before joining hardison/downey.

When he’s not working, he likes to spend time with his children, going to all their activities and incorporating faith into his life. He is a Mormon and his wife is Catholic, so they incorporate pieces of their faiths into their family life as much as they can.

How did you end up in Phoenix? I graduated from NAU with a degree in construction management, a minor in business administration, and took a crash course in parenting as I had two small children and one on the way when I graduated. I worked for a small general contractor headquartered in Sedona, but the constant travel took its toll on my young family and I took a position with McCarthy Building Cos. It was one of the best decisions I ever made, transitioning from what I would call the minor leagues of construction to the majors. At McCarthy, I was given many opportunities to grow and develop, and was involved in a wide range of projects, from luxury condos, to prisons to class A office to advanced water treatment and utility-scale solar.

I was working in McCarthy’s Renewable Energy group as operations director when I was approached by Kitchell CEO Jim Swanson with the opportunity to join hardison/downey construction and transition into the role of president, as co-founder Pat Downey looked toward retirement. Because of the friendships and respect that I have for McCarthy, it was the most difficult professional decision I have ever made, but it was also the best one I could have made. After a year-long transition, Pat handed over the reins and we are moving [the company] toward the future. Bob Hardison and Pat established a strong company with a distinctive personality and lasting legacy — further strengthened by being part of the Kitchell family of companies – and it is now my responsibility is growing the company from here.

What makes an effective business leader? Hiring and promoting employees who are more talented than you are and then empowering them to be entrepreneurial.

What motivates you? I am motivated by the fear of failure. I know that probably sounds cliché, but it is the truth. And it’s not only me, but that motivation extends to whom I have stewardship over. I love seeing my people succeed.

What was your first job? My first job was for Mrs. Hatch, and I could not have been much more than 10 years old. I would walk about a mile to her house and mow her lawn for $5. I think about these days, and what kids do now at 9 or 10 years old. I got the job myself and I knew how to start and run and do minor repairs to a gas mower. I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to grow up and learn the value of working hard and just trying. Show up and try.

What did you want to be when you grew up? I always wanted to be a professional athlete. I was very good at baseball and football, but decided to play football in college, because I fell in love with the physical nature of the sport. As an undersized linebacker, a couple years of running into 300 pounders took its toll and the professional aspirations were gone. Catch me on a Sunday afternoon, I have an Uncle Rico moment and still think I can play.

What is something people misunderstand about you? I think what is most often misunderstood or misinterpreted is my passion and intensity. When I am between the lines, I have a burning inside to succeed, to help my team succeed. For some, this can be construed as being mean or rude. I feel bad for that, I don’t want anyone to think I’m mean, but I will not lose my intense desire to succeed.