Published on April 18th, 2015 | by UC&D Magazine0
Doing Things the ‘Whitaker Way’
Rick Whitaker has seen a lot of interesting projects over a career spanning five plus decades.
Richard (Rick) Whitaker was one year old When his father, James, started Brigham City-based Whitaker Construction in 1953, and he remember his father telling him long ago about his very first job.
“It was installing a new waterline from the mountains across the swamp to Corrine City,” said Whitaker, adding that James had a hand shovel, a pickup truck, and a 1928 Badger backhoe (which sits in front of the firm’s office). “He bid the job at 10 cents per foot, with Corrine City providing the materials. He got cold feet and talked the mayor into letting him do it per hour. After completing the job, he figured he would have made twice as much money if he had done it at 10 cents per foot.
Whitaker has seen a lot of projects come through his firm’s door during a career that started as a pre-teen and has crossed through six decades. He is the youngest of James’ three sons (Dennis retired in 2000; Bob in 2004), and on January 1 Rick passed the mantel of President/CEO to nephew Mike (Bob’s youngest son) while assuming the title of Chairman.
Whitaker Construction ranked as the No. 3 non-general building general contractor in Utah (and No. 15 overall out of 20 firms) in UC&D’s 2014 Top General Contractors rankings at $53 million (2013 revenues), which was up from $40 million in 2012.
Whitaker says he started in 1964 sweeping floors in the shop and moving tools and materials for different projects. He realized early on the dedication and work ethic required to be successful in construction and worked full-time during summers while in high school and college, ultimately graduating with a business degree from Utah State University in 1975. He said the company’s success is attributed to its many long-time, loyal employees, and the ability to adapt to and embrace the latest in technology. In addition, the firm has thrived – even during difficult economic times – because of strong relationships forged over decades with cities, municipalities and utility companies. He calls it, simply, the “Whitaker Way”.
“It’s based on honesty, integrity and hard work,” said Whitaker. “My father was an intense, intelligent man, like a LeGrande Johnson or Jack B. Parson. He had a saying, ”a square deal for a fair price”, and that has stayed with the Whitaker family to this day.” James died unexpectedly in 1982 at age 65 from an aneurysm, shortly after he had passed along the leadership reigns to his sons. Rick remembers his father maintaining a strong intensity as he tried to ease away from a business that often times can be consuming.
“He had recently retired and turned it over to us kids. He’d come into the office, walk around for a minute, shake his head and leave, saying ‘you guys are crazy’,” Whitaker laughed. “He was hard-nosed.”
Whitaker said virtually every employee works his/her way through the trenches before moving up the company ladder. They usually start out as a bank man, then a pipe layer, before moving on to equipment operator. From there it progresses to foreman and then supervisor.
“It’s an excellent process where they eventually know what everybody else should be doing,” he says. The firm has many long-time employees, with one
worker having retired a few years ago after 57 years with the company. In 2007, the company became an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) company, which he believes makes it even more attractive to potential new employees.
“If we can keep an employee for one year, they tend to stay with us long-term,” said Whitaker. “Being an ESOP, every employee is an owner. The more time they spend here, the larger that number gets on the annual statement, and they really start seeing the value.”
“I’ve really enjoyed working with Rick and his brothers over the years – they’re fair to us and they give you an opportunity to use your skills on projects,” said Mike Nebeker, a Project Superintendent who has been with the firm 19 years. “They give you the tools you need to succeed.”
“They’re a fantastic family to work for,” added Quinn Hamson, an Estimator whose father Brian has been at Whitaker for 43 years, and whose brother Judd is a Project Manager. “I like how empowering they are. We’ve pushed through a lot of challenging projects and they’ve always said to go for it. We’ve got a really good group of guys who have done some amazing projects.”
Whitaker said safety has always been priority one for the company, adding that it was the first company in Utah to use trench boxes in 1970. The firm also trains crews extensively on effectively dealing with communities and the general public, given the disruption caused by major underground utility projects. It’s a big reason, he says, why Whitaker Construction enjoys a strong reputation with its clients.
“Repeat work has carried us through; we never really slowed down during the recession,” he says. “Everybody we work for begs us to come back and bid their jobs. Cities and municipalities are bound by low bid but we’ve done several CM/GC projects – they’re awesome.”
At age 62, Whitaker remains intent on sticking around for several more years as the firm transitions into this next phase of leadership. He even graduated from Harvard’s MBA program in 2009 through an Owner/President Management course, which runs for three weeks a year over three years.
“It was classes from Monday through Saturday from dusk ‘till dawn – it’s insane,” he laughed. “It’s almost identical to their MBA program, they just cram it into nine weeks. These days you need (that education).”
He also enjoys the satisfaction that comes with a successful project. He mentioned the recently completed East Layton Water Line project for Layton City as an example of a project that was a home run in all facets, particularly with the public.
“When it rained, people along the path, they’d open up garages for our guys to stand inside,” he said. “They’d set out water for them. One family, we went right through their yard and tore their whole yard up. When it was all said and done, they invited the whole crew into their house for a lunch. We want to satisfy our customers, and by so doing we get asked back. It’s good for down times to have those kinds of relationships.