Bob Papineau, senior project manager for construction with Des Plaines, Illinois-based general contractor The Missner Group, has steadily built his career in commercial real estate, becoming a leader at one of the Chicago area’s busiest construction firms. Along the way, he’s held a range of positions, everything from assistant superintendent and estimator to project manager. Papineau recently spoke with Midwest Real Estate News about the steps he took to succeed in this competitive business.
What led you to a career in commercial construction?
Bob Papineau: In college, I earned a dual degree in architecture and civil engineering, so I was always geared toward construction. I ended up getting my master’s degree in architecture. I did that for a little while, but I discovered that I enjoyed putting buildings together more than I did designing them.
Eventually, I switched from the architecture side of the business to the construction management side. I went out in the field as an assistant superintendent and project manager. I always liked putting buildings together. I liked being on the site. That’s an exciting place to be. Being in construction is an exciting profession. Even if you are doing what others might think are cookie-cutter projects, restaurants or retail projects, the sites always change. There are always challenges. The municipalities you work with change. The codes change. There is never a dull moment.
What do you enjoy most about this career?
Papineau: I really do like the variety of projects you get to work on. And then, after you work hard on a project for six months or maybe even a couple of years, when you are done, you can drive by that building. You can say, ‘Hey, that’s mine.’ Everyone from the electricians to the architects to the owners and project managers, they all say, ‘That’s my building.’ You do leave a little of yourself with every building you work on. By the time the project is done, you know every inch of that building.
Did you always suspect that you might one day end up in commercial construction?
Papineau: When I was a kid, I did like to build models. I liked to play with Legos. Basically, that is what you are doing for a living when you are in commercial construction. You aren’t designing the building, but you are putting the pieces together. Today, I think my architecture background does help. It gives me a better insight on certain things. But my heart is still with the putting-it-together part. There are times when I’ll take my kids to see some of the buildings that I’ve worked on. I’ll tell them I helped build it and their eyes will light up. That’s a nice reward of being in this business.
How do you feel when a project does come to its end?
Papineau: We do take pride in bringing the job in on time and under budget. That can be tricky. Sometimes things happen that aren’t in your control. Navigating those choppy waters can be tough. But I do enjoy facing those challenges and working out solutions to them. Here is what we are up against and here is what we are going to do to bring this in under budget and in the right time frame. It takes a team to build a building. There is no one person who buildings a building. It might be partly because of these challenges, and because there are so many people working together, that there is such a rewarding feeling when the project is done.
Speaking of challenges, what are some of the more common ones you face on a typical project?
Papineau: It’s always about the schedule and the budget. Everyone wants it faster and less expensive. So we are always trying to find ways to build in the most efficient way. No one ever says they have an endless amount of time and an endless amount of money. Time and money are always challenging. Then there is price escalation. The pricing of everything keeps going up. Keeping jobs under budget, then, can be a tough challenge.
People often want value engineering from us, too. They might have designed something that is over budget. They want us to figure out how to make the project work in their budget. We have to find more efficient ways to do something. We have to be more economical while still maintaining the integrity of the project. That can be challenging. At the end of the day, if the numbers don’t work, you don’t have a project.
What steps have you taken to succeed in this business?
Papineau: The path I took with my architecture background gave me a good foundation. I also spent quite a bit of time in the field as an assistant superintendent and superintendent. Gaining that field experience and taking it into the office has been very beneficial. I’ve worked as everything from a superintendent to an estimator to project manager. All that experience has helped. In the role of project manager, you need an array of skill sets. You have to be well-rounded. Gaining the right experience in the field is a huge plus.
Working with good people has been a big help, too. I have had a lot of good mentors along the way at various companies. It’s important to keep your eyes and ears open and ask a lot of questions.
Like any business, commercial construction is a relationship business. If you are a good, solid, fair person with your clients, your subcontractors and your team, you will gain respect from them. Nothing is going to go perfectly. When times are great and everything’s going well, that is great. But what happens when you run into issues? Are you a person who can stay level-headed, be cool and work through the issues and find a fair solution? That’s what people respect. You have to take responsibility for your work and actions. If you screw something up, take the responsibility for it. That will gain you respect.
I think that’s a part of my personality that has helped me in this business. When I used to play sports as a kid, I’d always get the coach’s award. If the coach asked me to run through a wall, I’d do it. I’d do the dirty jobs and be a team player. I’d stay positive. That’s what I still try to do. No one wants to work with someone who is difficult to work with. Being willing to do the hard work and maintaining a positive attitude goes a long way.
How does a company like Missner Group keep the repeat business coming in?
Papineau: Maybe you are working with a customer who has never been through a major remodel before. Your job is to explain the process. You have to be as transparent as possible with the clients, taking the time to explain everything. This process can be daunting to people who’ve never been through it. If you can guide them the process, that is key.
We meet with clients on a weekly basis, giving them updated schedules and keeping them in the loop if there is an issue we see coming. That’s the importance of our expertise. You want to be proactive with the clients as you go through the process. You want to keep them up to speed, tell them how they might have to update their budgets. No one likes surprises. If you can eliminate them, that will gain you respect from your clients.
Like I’ve said, if you are transparent with people, are good to work with and are looking out for their best interests, you will be successful. Maybe you tell a client that there is a less expensive product they can use, but in two years they might be kicking themselves for selecting the cheaper product. Give your clients options. That goes a long way.
When not working, what do you enjoy doing?
Papineau: Well, I have three boys, so between their sports and activities I am very busy. I try to coach each one in some activity. My kids are also in Cub Scouts, and I am the den leader. One thing I’ve realized as I get older, the more you give, the more you get in return. I donate my time to the Cub Scouts and it results in so many good friendships. You meet so many good people. At the same time, when you coach your kid or serve as their den leaders, they get excited, too. It really is rewarding.