While COVID-19 has forced contractors across the country to lay off or furlough workers, Cincinnati-based Messer Construction has been able to keep its teams employed.
The company, which operates in 10 cities across the Midwest and Southeast, works in diverse market segments including federal/military, industrial, healthcare, higher education and aviation. It has been able to keep most projects moving along during the pandemic, including a five-story, 77,200-square-foot student housing project at Northern Kentucky University that broke ground late last month.
Here, Construction Dive talks with Mark Luegering, the company's senior vice president and COO, about opportunities and challenges on the horizon.
How has the coronavirus affected your firm so far?
Messer has been very fortunate to be able to continue working safely during this pandemic, and we don’t take that for granted. Some projects have been suspended and will slide into future months or fiscal years, but we’re fortunate that very few projects have been canceled to date.
Maintaining continuity of employment for our staff and our craftforce is crucial and thus far, we’ve been able to avoid layoffs or furloughs. Tradesworker availability has been somewhat of a challenge, but the strong relationships we forge with our subcontractor partners have helped. There was a spike of increased absenteeism in certain trades, but almost all subcontractors are reporting absentee rates similar to where they were pre-COVID-19.
Our offices have reopened under the prescribed guidelines, though we’re certainly still leaning on technology to assist with collaboration and e-learning. It has been incredible to see our strong employee-owner culture continue to come across the phone or computer screen when we can’t be together in person.
Adapting to this new normal on the fly has been challenging, but it is doable. In the 10 cities where we work, our employees and project teams have worked together to implement new processes.
What about materials shortages?
We are assessing potential supply chain shortages that could impact our projects and we are investigating alternative solutions to keep everything on schedule. Specialty items such as lighting and HVAC equipment are becoming more of a concern, but a general materials shortage has not yet surfaced in the regions where we do work. We’re keeping a close eye on the supply chain, as speed to market remains a priority for owners amid the pandemic.
Small specialty manufacturing suppliers are a potential concern if their factories get an outbreak of positive cases. We have had one instance of a supplier shutting down for almost a week. It does reveal pretty quickly some fragility to our supply chain that we need to be aware of, and to be sure we have multiple options in those events.
What measures have you put in place to be ready to get back to work once the crisis is over?
As an essential business, we have been continuously working throughout this crisis. Projects under construction are mostly proceeding per their original schedules, with CDC-recommended safety guidelines for social distancing in place onsite.
Several companywide policies are in place as we stay on top of various government requirements for PPE, worker screening, site/tool sanitation and other measures. It has taken flexibility, patience and significant effort to implement evolving regulations related to COVID-19, but it’s our duty to protect our employees, our projects and the public.
How will you keep workers safe going forward?
We are adhering to coronavirus-related requirements for face coverings and other PPE in each state where we operate (Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina), as well as any requirements set forth by our project owners. It was already our policy to have 100% glove usage onsite.
We have daily protocols for screening anyone, including employees, before coming onto a Messer jobsite or into a Messer office such as health-related requirements that must be met to commence work. We have a COVID-19 Exposure Prevention, Preparedness and Response Plan that follows OSHA and CDC guidance. And our employees have all the facts on how to practice good hygiene, sanitize tools and equipment and execute work while practicing social distancing.
We have always been a people-focused company, and COVID-19 doesn’t change our approach. We regularly offer wellness resources, including our Employee Assistance Program, which provides professional counseling to employees and their families. We have additional resources on our Intranet to help employees and their families cope with the current pandemic. It’s crucial to remain vigilant in looking out for our fellow employees and provide help when needed.
What are your biggest concerns as construction begins to reboot?
The biggest concern is how long it will take to actually reboot. Economic uncertainty is a big factor considering the construction industry always lags the overall economy due to the long-term nature of our contracts. With that in mind, COVID-19 will certainly impact everyone’s pipeline of opportunities, perhaps most notably in the higher education, commercial office building, hospitality, aviation and senior living sectors, as well as projects internal to hospital operations.
We’re positioned to leverage the diverse market segments we specialize in and where we see growth opportunities — federal/military, industrial, health care and science and technology — and deliver the projects that will keep building owners and communities moving forward through these challenging times. We also perform a lot of work in the aviation and higher education sectors, and remain poised to pursue those projects when they come to market.
Another concern is that any second wave of positive COVID-19 cases will likely raise fears in the marketplace and among the craft workforce and have a negative impact on the construction market.
Finally, most contractors have a pretty good backlog of work, but as that work starts to burn off, competition will increase and will put pressure on prices and margins. That will likely be a good thing for reducing the cost of construction projects, but will also put pressure on contractors that may not have the financial wherewithal to weather the storm.
Anything else we should know about your company or your market?
This is a time of extreme ambiguity for construction firms and other businesses. At Messer, we always seek clarity through our values and our purpose statement: to build better lives for our customers, communities and each other.