Q&A: Will we see a post-pandemic construction tsunami?


Will we see a wave of construction activity later this year?

No one knows for sure what the next few months have in store for the construction market or the world’s economy in general, but some have theories and are making predictions. We talked with DeWayne Ables, founder and president of Pioneer IQ, a leadership development firm that specializes in the construction and design industries, and he sees a wave of activity coming in the second half of this year.

Listen here for his comment.

Following is an excerpt from the longer discussion:

International Construction: What is Pioneer IQ all about?
DeWayne Ables, founder and president, Pioneer IQ: I started the firm in 1999 serving architects, engineers, construction contractors and trade companies, mostly in the US. Our purpose is to help leaders in those fields to uncover, understand, and live out their company’s purpose. In short, we do leadership development in the construction and design industries.

I’m a fourth-generation contractor so construction is in my blood. As I started to learn more about other companies, I realised how much they need help differentiating themselves. Leaders typically are so busy focusing on projects and profit that they don’t take the time to understand and articulate what they genuinely believe is the greater need they serve and how they can impact their community.

Who are your target clients?
What’s most important about the types of companies we work with is how hungry their leaders are to develop an organisation that pulls the greatest potential out of itself and its teams. They want to build a business that does something greater and really serves their market or their community. We work with some of the largest construction and design firms on the planet and we also work with startups.

What do industry leaders need to do to serve the needs of their clients in the age of the coronavirus pandemic?
So many of us are glued to our national media sources that we stop focusing on what’s happening locally, and that’s not a great way to make decisions for your company. We try to help leaders consider how the coronavirus is affecting their specific markets and their geographic area and make specific decisions accordingly.

We have companies right now, especially in Texas and in Oklahoma, that say they’re more frustrated by the weather and how it has negatively affected their project timelines then they are about the coronavirus. And on the other hand, we’ve worked with some companies in Washington that have been so impacted by the pandemic that they’ve had to figure out how to do all their estimating from home. You’ve got to make sure that you’re making decisions for your company within the context of the specific markets you serve.

You advocate a very individual approach?
It’s critical that companies wrap their head around what they actually believe about the coronavirus and start to make decisions on how that’s going to affect their markets. That’s going to have a direct correlation to how they respond.

We’re encouraging people to go out and do an aggressive needs assessment with their clients. If they follow those needs, they will start to uncover the answers for how to change the solution, how to change the timeline, how to change the customers’ experience, and how to better prepare their team. 

How are these needs accessed?
When you’re on the phone with a contact that you have a longstanding relationship with, the first objective is to find out how they’re doing personally, how current challenges are affecting them. Is their family okay? Are they making the necessary adjustments?

The second objective is to dig into how this crisis is affecting their customers and their use of their current facilities. Thirdly, you need to get into how the crisis is affecting current projects or plans. The last overall objective is specifically stating how we can serve and help over the next several weeks with the decisions and questions they’re having a hard time answering.

We’re finding many in architecture engineering construction (AEC) have a hard time getting past some of the surface level conversation because they don’t want to interfere or disrupt or push too much. We’ve done somewhere between 150 and 200 interviews with owners over the last eight weeks and we’re constantly hearing that owners are struggling, they’re trying to find answers, they’re looking at situations that they’ve never seen before, and they need guidance. Still, it’s taken some AEC professionals a little bit more effort to break through the surface level conversation and get down into those specific needs.

Anytime you can help your clients understand specific needs that you’re seeing with other clients, then it allows the person you’re interviewing to be able to relate to that need. And if they don’t have it, maybe they have a need that’s very similar. To find out, you have to get past that surface level.

Why is this so important?
If all you’re after is finding projects and profit, it’s probably going to feel pretty awkward to call customers and prospects and try to figure out how their projects are going. But if you’re a purposeful person and genuinely understand that you’re there to serve the needs of your customers, then you should feel some level of conviction, obligation and passion toward realising the mindset that that owner has and be able to communicate with them empathetically. If you don’t have that conviction, you might want to ask what your real intention is.

Besides some of the obvious things, what has changed for your clients as a result of the current crisis?
Every disruption provides potential and opportunity. The hardest part is helping leaders get past fear and concern and out of survival mode. We want them to get a little bit above the clouds to be able to see how some of their clients’ needs are changing and be able to provide something better or different. These are the types of disruptions that innovative companies are looking for to be able to push something new into the marketplace. Most people don’t change when everything’s bright and sunny, they change when they’re forced to. This is an opportunity for a lot of innovative thinkers to provide something new and for people to be able to accept it.

We hear people talking about “going back to normal,” after the pandemic, but is that something we should want?
I think the answer is going to be different for a lot of companies. What owners expect to be the new normal is going to be directly related to how people view you as the leader going forward. Collectively, we’ve realised that we can actually lead and manage people even if we’re not around them all day, every day. We’re now seeing, especially in the design community, that we can have more efficient and productive teams even though we’re not in the same office all day, every day, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

We’re also seeing a lot of leaders who have been hesitant to jump on a video call becoming more comfortable with that. We believe that over a 25 to 30% of our entire industry is going to want to shift their lifestyle and their work environment.

What do you see in your crystal ball for construction over the next few months?
In most markets we’re very concerned about the number of projects currently in progress that have been delayed but not canceled. And secondly, we’re concerned about the number of project starts that have been delayed but not canceled. And thirdly, with the amount of capital that’s being pumped into the marketplace. With interest rates so low right now, capital is pretty inexpensive.

Most of our customers are looking at how their backlog is going to be affected, and what we’re realizing is that in the July, August, September timeframe, there’s going to be a big head-on collision of stuff that has to get done and stuff that needs to start. And so that’s making it really difficult for our clients to decide how to handle their overhead because over the next three or four weeks, there’s a waiting period. We think a “construction tsunami” is very likely in a lot of markets over the next six months.

Beyond that, the onshoring trend in the US has been ongoing for the last couple of years and we’ve been introducing a lot of our clients to the manufacturing and industrial spaces that have previously not been there. We’ve helped them understand how much better it is to bring manufacturing back to North America.

When that happens, which we think will be much more aggressive than it’s been so far, ports, rail, all transportation-type industry sectors are going to see a pretty significant demand. Even though a lot of us are in survival mode right now, we as leaders need to get a little bit above the clouds and realise this crisis is going to provide a lot of opportunity. There’s potential that’s pent up that we think is going to significantly help grow our industry and maintain this phenomenal strength that we’ve seen since 2012.

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