Powered by the People. Swinerton builds on more than 80 years in Colorado.
The year is 1942. World War II is in full swing, Glenn Miller’s “(I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo” drifts from radios everywhere and a team of builders from San Francisco’s Swinerton & Walberg has just arrived at a dusty job site outside of Boulder. The team is here with a fresh government contract in hand to assist Rockwell International in the construction of what would become Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.
Managing all of the construction on a job of this size is a huge break for Swinerton & Walberg and it represents its first foray beyond the California border. How long the project will last is anybody’s guess, but it is thrilled to be in Colorado.
That Rocky Flats project lasted four decades and now, just over 80 years later, Swinerton’s impact on the Denver metro area is undeniable. Projects like the Denver Coliseum, Avaya’s research and development facility, the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences, and the RTD Wadsworth Parking Structure are daily reminders of its sizable impact on our landscape.
Swinerton (the name was shortened in 2018) was founded in 1888 when a Swedish immigrant formed a brick masonry and contracting business to serve the Gold Rush building boom in and around San Francisco. A commitment to innovation and flexibility has been key to its ability to prosper and grow despite two world wars, multiple earthquakes, the Great Depression, the Great Recessions and, not one but two, global pandemics. It has now grown in size to 4,400 employees in 20 locations around the country with a diverse portfolio that includes health care, science and technology, hospitality, office, aerospace and education.
ESOP and ‘A Culture of Raising the Bar’
Swinerton CEO Eric Foster, who has been with the company since 1982, is only the 12th CEO in the company’s 135 years. And in a recent video chat he expressed humility to be in the company of so many legends who came before him and he points to the Employee Stock Ownership Plan as a vital part of acquiring and retaining talented employees.
“We’re one of the largest ESOPs in the country,” says Foster. “When the ESOP started (in 1984), we had just two offices, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles with maybe 250 employees. We were doing probably $200 million a year. Since that time, we’ve grown to 4,400 employees and are doing $4.3 billion in 20 locations. So, it has helped us grow really well.”
John Spight, a Swinerton vice president and manager of the Colorado division, agrees and says the ESOP is a huge reason Swinerton has flourished in the state.
“The number one reason is employee ownership. When everybody has a personal stake in the company, I think it creates a culture of people who are highly competitive, but also, want each other to succeed because the better our partners do there’s a direct impact on our own personal bottom line. And so it’s really a culture of raising the bar.”
Diversity as a Strength
This culture of ownership and collaboration is the fuel that keeps Swinerton thriving and diversifying. Both Foster and Spight, a Fort Collins native and Colorado State University graduate, are big on fostering diversity and promoting inclusion. In fact, 19% of Swinerton’s 200 Colorado employees are women, nearly double the national average.
“First and foremost, [inclusivity] is the right thing to do and it goes back to our commitment to the people,” says Spight. “We don’t care who you are or where you come from. We want the most talented people to be a part of this and we want them to grow with us and have opportunities to succeed. We welcome diverse ideas and opinions that not only challenge ourselves, but push us to the next level.”
Even though we’ve been in Colorado for 80 years, we’re not going to rest on our laurels. We’re thinking ‘What’s gonna take us to the next 80 years?’ And we believe that what gets us there is challenging ourselves with that diversity of thought.”
According to Foster, it’s that kind of thinking that has driven Swinerton to back new business ventures spawned by Swinerton employees, like Timberlab. With facilities in Portland, Oregon, and Greenville, South Car-olina, Timberlab provides sustainable, low-carbon mass timber building materials.
“Timberlab is so exciting for me for a number of reasons,” says Foster. “Number one is the environmental impact. Most people don’t know that the largest carbon emitters are steel fabrication and cement plants. So eliminating those two from building greatly helps the environment. And mass timber is a huge solution to that. And number two, they’re just really beautiful buildings when completed.”
Spight said that despite Swinerton’s size, it’s very entrepreneurial. “If you come up with an idea that you’re passionate about, and make a business case for it, Swinerton will get behind you.”
Complete Trust and Support
At many businesses, support for employees can some-times be lacking, or even nonexistent. But, Spight ex-plains that new employees enjoy incredible support from the first day they walk in the door. “When you come here, we’re gonna do everything we can to help you be successful in whatever it is you want to do in your long-term career,” says Spight. “We’re not gonna pigeonhole you as a project manager. We’re not gonna pigeonhole you as a superintendent. We’re going to look for what you want to do, and if you have a pas-sion for something within our industry, we’ll find a way to get behind that. Because at the end of the day, if you’re doing something that you’re passionate about, you’re go-ing to be that much more committed, and that’s going to make Swinerton that much better.”
The Future of Swinerton
Some 80 years on, it’s safe to say that Swinerton isn’t leaving Colorado anytime soon. So, what does the future hold for the company? Spight is excited for the possibilities.
“As we have grown over the last decade, we’ve had a deliberate pursuit of a diverse portfolio of work,” Spight says. “We’ve entered a number of different markets and now we’re in health care, we’re in aviation, aerospace education, science and technology. We have an incredibly robust special projects group. We have a facility services group. … So, for the future we’re going to stay committed to our values while being nimble enough to change course when it’s needed in order to stay successful. We’re also looking to grow geographically as we move into Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and beyond.”
Foster says the strategy is similar nationwide, with expansion into new markets in Nashville and the Washington, D.C., area while continuing to diversify its project base. And, of course, continue to focus on the people who make it all happen.
“To me, you’re not just an employee … you’re an employee owner and we want to know how you want to improve this company,” says Foster. “Tell us what we’re doing wrong and what you think we can do better. That’s so important to me personally that I really emphasize it to all 4,400 people. I want them all to be fully engaged, do their best job and strive for excellence.”