Jim McShane launched his career right out of college in 1968 as a structural engineer. From there, he cultivated his standing in the industry, eventually founding the widely respected McShane Construction Company in 1984, a company that is constantly expanding its reach and offerings.
It took a year to land his first clients, but McShane eventually inked contracts with Mullins Food Products and the Colonial Bag Corporation in 1985 to construct industrial spaces for them. “Those were very important to me,” he said. “They kind of got me started.”
The company’s scope has widened exponentially since then, all thanks to McShane’s stewardship. It’s because of this long and illustrious career that he will be honored as the Lifetime Achievement Award winner at the 2020 IREJ Real Estate Awards.
Before presenting the award at this year’s virtual event on September 22nd, Illinois Real Estate Journal sat down with McShane to discuss his career.
What was your vision for McShane Construction when you founded the company more than 25 years ago? Has that thesis changed over the years?
My vision at first was to build industrial buildings. As time went on, it appeared that we were going to have a recession in the late ‘80s. I had a consultant talk to us and he said, “You know, if you’re just in the industrial business you’re going to be in trouble. You need to diversify.” To continue to grow the company we were going to have to diversify which we did do—both in product type that we built, and in geography. The original vision wasn’t to grow that quick, but that’s how it turned out with that first recession.
As you point out, both you and your company have weathered previous economic downturns. As we head into another one, what advice would you offer to those who have only enjoyed a bull market?
I’ve been through several recessions, some worse than others. Obviously the one in 2007, ’08 and ‘09 was one of the bad ones. Diversity helps, as being able to build multiple different kinds of buildings is important. The other thing is you’ve got to save your money for a rainy day because there will be rainy days. If you do spend your money, reinvest in the company so that you’re a better company coming out of the recession. We always try to take the time during the recession to reflect on our own skills and abilities and the marketplace and see, when we come out of that recession, how we can be a better company and respond better to the challenges that confront us.
Do you still get your hands dirty on specific projects or have the day-to-day duties of running a national firm pulled you out of the trenches?
We have regular management meetings, so I’m aware of all the projects that we have. But we’ve grown quite a bit. I mean, we currently have nearly 70 projects in the field all over the United States. It’s hard for one person to be involved so we need to delegate well. That’s part of the growth that I talked about earlier. It’s very important for me to hire competent people that are good at what they do and who are up for the challenge.
How has the construction industry changed over the course of your career? What lessons have you learned along the way that inform your fist steps on a new project?
When I started in the industry, back in the late ‘60s, we didn’t have calculators we used slide rules. Things weren’t as precise. Personal computers came in around 1981 and really became a tool for the construction industry shortly after that. When that happened, we were able to process more work in less time. We were able to understand productivity better and adjust in the field if things weren’t going as we wanted to, rather than finding out later in the project.
I think professionally, people have become better. We hire all project managers who are graduate engineers and 25 years ago that wasn’t the case. The level of sophistication in construction has grown enormously. There’s also been a lot of changes in how people work with us. Banks are much more sophisticated in how they deal with lending practices and the whole industry has changed and grown enormously in the last 25 years.
What projects are you the most proud of? Are there any that presented unusual challenges?
There are a lot of them; we’ve done thousands of public building projects and it’s hard to pick out just one. I would say a couple of the big ones that we had a lot of fun with were the Apple campus in Austin, Texas, and a good challenging one was the Digi-Key project up in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Both were very big projects and they took all of our skills to put into the field successfully—and I think they were very successful.
Those two come to mind only because they’re very big and a fairly recent, but I think each project that we work on we have a certain amount of pride when it’s done. We drive by them and we look at them and we’re proud of them. Many of our past projects have presented difficult challenges that we have to be up for. As engineers that’s what we do, we solve problems, and as a contractor we put them in place. It’s not an easy question to answer because there have been so many projects that we’re excited about.
You’ve devoted much of your personal time to industry organizations like AIRE, Builders Association (now Chicagoland AGC) and Chicago Building Congress, as well as humanitarian efforts. What do you enjoy most from your involvement with these organizations?
There are two components to that. One is the professional organizations that relate to our industry; I think we all need to contribute to those. We end up meeting a lot of people, we end up having a lot of friends, we educate each other in some of the professional organizations and I think we all need to give back to the industry. That’s a big part of it.
The other side of it is organizations like BUILD Chicago which works with street gangs; we’re very involved with them. Concern Worldwide is another one and I’m on the board for them. Those are international organizations that try to help people around the world. As a citizen of the world, we need to not just contribute to our own profession, but to contribute to society as a whole. We find that very important and we encourage all of our people to be involved. And I think we do a good job with that.
Do you have any final thoughts about your roots in Chicago and how they’ve helped McShane to grow into a national presence?
The industry here in Chicago is very professional. People are very good at what they do and it’s fun to be part of that industry. Folks in Chicago certainly build projects all over the world. It’s a good group and it’s fairly collegial—we all know each other we get along with each other. Being in Chicago and being in this industry has been a wonderful experience.
Looking to nominate a person, project or company for the 2020 IREJ Real Estate Awards? You’re in luck, as the submission window has been extended. But hurry, the submission deadline ends August 13th!