Construction Leadership Insights

A “Prodigal Son’s” Non-Traditional Approach to Construction Success

The Prodigal Son Returns
I recently sat down with Mark Bley, the President and CEO of Dome Construction, a leading general contractor in the San Francisco Bay area.

To listen to the full interview, click this link, and check out the Construction Genius podcast episode.

He took an indirect path to that impressive position, however, as something of a reluctant prodigal son.

In his younger years he was ambivalent about joining Dome, the company that his father, Anton, had founded with Bill D’Atri. Mark worked for Dome for a few years after college but wasn’t excited by the kind of construction the company was performing at the time. And following a latent post-college travel bug, he stepped away from Dome for a fantastic and memorable, four-month tour of Europe that took him from Sweden to Greece.

He planned to return to the States and find work in a different field. But Dome called him up; they had a million-dollar tenant improvement project in need of a fulltime project manager. Mark took the job, thinking that he could run the project while looking for another line of work.

Pioneer Work with a Pioneer Client
That little project in 1985 just happened to be for Genentech, a pioneer in biotech pharmaceuticals, known to many from its mention in the book and movie Jurassic Park.  Genentech was building a large-scale manufacturing facility, with Dome slated to complete interior details—walls, ceilings, flooring, and non-process electrical.

As Mark led that project, he observed the other work going on in the facility, and developed an interest in the impressive stainless-steel work going in, the piping, vessels, and equipment. He saw that no one knew exactly how to build it, and that everyone onsite were essentially experimenting. Mark’s college background in science made Genentech’s industry, and the best way to build for it, eminently interesting. He was always observing and thinking about processes, and how Dome could improve the course of construction.

On the Other Side of the Wall
One of the project’s challenges would result in big changes for Mark and for Dome overall. His team had just built a wall and left it for others to hang all of the pipe and equipment. Afterwards, the client wanted Mark’s team to paint the wall, but there were only small gaps left in between the various fixtures. That inefficient order of work prompted Mark to begin consulting with Genentech about the best ways to approach projects, and new and more effective work sequences. Ultimately the company began awarding Dome direct work in more areas.

That project led to more work in the same industry. In 1991, Genentech needed a huge, $20-million upgrade to their pharmaceutical plant. Up to that point, Mark’s biggest project had been for $5 million. The new project would require a whole new level of his dedication.

New Groups Under the Dome
His father Anton had retired by then, so Mark worked with the second founder, Bill D’Atri, to create a group within Dome specializing in pharma work. They needed people with extensive knowledge in mechanical systems, electrical, automation, and piping systems, just to be able to meet the specialized requirements. This group would go on to do work for Genentech, Bayer, and Abgenix.

Dome prospered and saw tremendous growth as known innovators and specialists in pharma work. This inspired Dome to create other industry-focused subgroups within the company, including one for health care, one for seismic work—in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that damaged the Bay Area—as well as the existing tenant improvements group.

In more recent years Dome has created groups focused on an individual client, and the full range of that client’s needs, and that has inspired group members to search out the most desirable clients.

Challenging the Pecking Order
A more traditional, top-down approach, where leaders dictate the actions of those beneath them, can strand a company with team members lacking in leadership skills. By contrast, the group structure has resulted in better engagement from Dome team members, who feel more inspired to work on the projects and with the clients that truly excite them. Because they need to think about a business plan for the year, they are also educating themselves, furthering the company’s overall interests, and paving the road for the next generation of Dome leadership.

The structure has worked so well for Dome that one of only two regrets Mark has, looking back at his years with the company, is that they didn’t give more responsibility to the groups earlier on. The other regret? He wishes they had offered more education and coaching for group leaders and associate directors earlier, as well.

Why don’t more companies take this approach? Why are leaders sometimes reluctant to delegate responsibility? Mark mentions the traditional adherence to the military chain-of-command structure. That might work best for the Marines, but not for a construction company.

Embrace Mistakes
Leaders can also fear the mistakes that inevitably occur after delegation. Mark looks at mistakes as opportunities. He asks, “How did we make this mistake? How do we avoid making that mistake again?” He ensures that learning is going across all the groups. “Hey,” he says, “We tried something. It didn’t work. Here’s what we learned from it.” We’re all human, after all. We all make mistakes. Opportunities can get lost by leaders holding too tight to power, depriving others of the chance to express new ideas and develop new skills, and that can have a more harmful overall effect on the company.


Steps to Success
Mark offers three tips for those looking to grow their construction companies:

  1. Understand your people’s interests and encourage them to pursue their interests. Then make sure you’ve got clear parameters for them.
  2. Metrics are an important tool, so that if you have multiple groups, they’re all working towards the same metrics, and they understand what they need to accomplish. It helps them select their clients.
  3. Make sure you give them praise for their accomplishments. Help them feel that they’re accomplishing something that’s for the greater good of the company, and for the greater good of the client.

By taking an innovative approach to organizational structure, by embracing mistakes and continuing education, by empowering his teams to act on new ideas and inspirations, Mark Bley has built Dome Construction into a formidable labor force. Let his journey and successes inspire you to approach your own company with innovation.

Your next step
Leading a construction company is a tough (and rewarding) challenge. The Construction Leaders Dashboard is one of the simplest and yet most powerful tools for leaders in construction companies of all sizes.

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It will empower you to:

  • Focus on what matters, so that you spend your time doing the things that have the most impact with clients.
  • Make sure that everyone in the organization is aligned, accountable, and contributing equally to the company’s growth and success.
  • Attract, develop, and retain future leaders who can continue to move the organization forward.

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