This article is dedicated to all of those fantastic project superintendents in the construction world. The most hands on, direct commanding voice over 100’s of employees working hard to deliver the projects we live , shop, vacation, work and play in. It’s dedicated to two particular Senior Superintendents who had a major impact on a young project manager (me 20 years ago). Tom Ernest and John Davis….though they wouldn’t want the recognition the definitely deserve it.
There has always some conflict between Superintendents in the field and Project Management. Understandable as the former are fighting it out with the subs in the field and the later are fighting it out with the owners and upper management in the office. Sometimes an experienced superintendent can feel underappreciated and often irritated by a “wet behind the ears” project manager trying to learn the ropes and barking louder than they can bite. Therein lies the “team” mission.
Tom and John were, and still are, some of the best in their craft but one thing I will always remember. They could always call “BS” on me and could bring me back down to earth but in a way that I came away smarter and more prepared. Tom Ernest was like my favorite uncle in the field. He didn’t just look after me, he taught me. I would fly up to the jobsites and bury myself in plans and paperwork sweating out some plan bust and change orders that I had to sell the owner’s on the next day. Tom would let me run down my rabbit hole and then walk into the project office and say “what’s up Red” and give a good laugh. His wife was always working beside him (such great people). He’d put on a pot a coffee and ask me to review the issue with him. Tom would take 2 minutes to clear up what I had spent 2 hours trying to figure out but he knew not to just hand me the answers. He knew I’d be a better project manager for him if I took my responsibility seriously but he also knew that I, as young project manager, could never amass his wealth of jobsite experience. He would never pick on me, he would just say “hey, I know you get this on paper but if you have a minute lets go outside and review it in the field so you really know what you’re talking about”. When the troop of owners from the major REITS would show up Tom would sit beside me in the meeting and turn me loose. He knew when to step into the conversation to give his recommendations ( which was like Moses parting the waters) . I learned SO much from him and though I was his student he treated me with great respect.
Tom and I became fast friends and when he and his wife where moved out of California to another project in South Carolina (Dale Earnhardt Sr’s personal race car facility) I felt I had lost some family. We had become a real team and though I, as the project manager, was in charge of defending him and the work on site it was Tom who gave me all the tools, knowledge and confidence to do it. A funny story. Dale Earnhardt became Tom’s good friend too. Dale didn’t much care for the SVP from our company but he loved Tom. They’d spend the whole day perfecting Dale’s personal race car facility and then, when the work day was done they’d sit on the back of Tom’s truck and have a couple of beers together watching the sun go down over Dale’s property. The SVP at the time kept pressing Dale for an autograph poster. Dale refused time and time again because he just didn’t like the guy. Then as the project wrapped up the SVP walked by Tom’s onsite office and saw a big Dale Earnhardt poster that said “To MY FRIEND TOM….Dale Earnhardt”. Perfect!
John Davis and I spent time in the trenches. Tom had built me up and made me a decent project manager and when John Davis came to California we “clicked”. John , like Tom, had years of experience on me and was always able to break issues down quickly. He had this wit and humor about him that kept everyone on their toes but also let everyone enjoy their job. A great family man as well. Owner’s would always be a little curious about him at first but the next thing you knew they didn’t want anyone else but John on their projects. John and I would sit in the job trailer cracking jokes and working our butts off all night. He’d teach me about the issues and I’d figure out the numbers. We always thought about how our decisions would effect one another so we kept the lines of communication wide open and the sense of urgency to keep things moving. If there was problem on site John not only knew about it, he knew how to solve 2 or 3 different ways and had most of the answers ready to go. He made it look easy, always having this grin on his face like he hid your car keys or something. Subs reacted when John called. They knew he had their interests at heart and they trusted him. John knew how to work with you and you learned a great deal when he did.
In short a great Superintendent is a SUPERMAN. Their position transcends building a project. The good ones build their team better than anyone else. They build up new assistant superintendents and project engineers in the field as well as crews from every trade. Their influence can take a young-cocky-“know nuthin”-wet behind the ears project manager and turn him into a decent business man in the construction and development business. Construction, unlike most industries, shows up in every corner of your life. It’s one thing to know how to price something out and manage it BUT to actually build it is quite another. When you have this you feel comfortable know matter where you are.
The position of Project Superintendent is one of the most critical ones in the industry. It is a position that will never be automated. My hat goes off to those that taught me and to those that are teaching others and building great projects. To those that are going into this career, take it seriously and it will reward you for life.
May your projects be injury and change order free!
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