Experience may be the best teacher, but what happens when you want to learn more than experience can teach you? That mantra is the motivation behind Clark Construction Group’s Strategic Partnership Program (SPP). Aimed at addressing the lack of training and development programs for small businesses in the construction industry, the program is an interactive, MBA-style course that provides core project management and business skills to its participants. Courses are taught by Clark professionals and local industry experts. The program includes a mix of classroom and extended learning sessions, team projects and student presentations; it is designed to bolster the capabilities of local, small and/or disadvantaged businesses, and is offered at no cost to those who apply and are accepted. Applicants don’t have to be in the trades to participate in the program, but the courses are geared toward those types of firms in hopes of increasing the pipeline of qualified and capable small business partners.
The impact of the program has been obvious: since 2006, over 700 companies have graduated from the program. In Southern California alone, Clark has awarded over $2.5 million in contracts to program graduates. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) selected Clark Construction Group as the national winner of the 2013 Dwight D. Eisenhower Award for Excellence, Construction Category. This award, which is the highest recognition of its kind given by the SBA, recognizes large prime contractors that have excelled in their utilization of small businesses as suppliers and subcontractors.
The Strategic Partnership Program offers a level of empowerment often out of reach to women-owned, and minority-owned businesses. “The industry as a whole can benefit from a program like this,” says Bluebeam Technical Account Manager Lillian Magallanes, who recently presented at an SPP class. “Seeing the engagement of the students during a recent tutorial is a testament to the quality of curriculum and learning environment Clark provides through the program.” To guarantee an engaging classroom experience for participants, course instructors attend a “train the trainer” class to ensure they have the public speaking, organizational and educational training necessary to successfully facilitate a class.
Molly Huddleston, Clark Construction’s preconstruction coordinator for Southern California, has been the region’s program administrator since the program was launched in California in 2010. “Having worked closely our subcontractors, I had insight to their struggles,” explains Huddleston.
Huddleston sat down with the Bluebeam Blog to talk about this groundbreaking program.
Bluebeam Blog: Could you tell me a little bit about when the Clark Strategic Partnership Program started and how it was initially developed?
Huddleston: The program was founded in our Bethesda, Maryland, office in 2006 and grew out of a large project we were doing for the federal government with small business requirements. Clark realized we were going to have to train small businesses to perform on a project of this size and that sparked the idea for a program that would help build capacity and the pipeline of qualified small businesses to do this type of work. It resulted in a successful project for the owner, Clark and the newly trained small businesses. We launched the program in our Southern California office in 2010.
Bluebeam Blog: What has been your role in the Clark Strategic Partnership Program?
Huddleston: I have been the administrator of our Southern California program since 2011.
Bluebeam Blog: How many areas host the program now?
Huddleston: In addition to Southern California, the program is now offered in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Bethesda and, most recently, in Kansas City.
Huddleston: [In Kansas City] Clark knew the program would benefit the city and proposed launching it as a means of providing support for area small businesses, building their capacity and expanding the pool of qualified subcontractors during the construction of a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport. The small business and local hire requirements are very important to city officials and leaders, and to the community.
Bluebeam Blog: How has this program helped Clark with their regional relationships with owners and communities?
Huddleston: The Strategic Partnership Program has been very powerful tool and its success can be evidenced in number of SPP graduates who are achieving smart growth and taking their businesses to new heights. It speaks volumes to our clients when they have project requirements and they’ve seen the success that Clark has had on our projects. We just finished our seventh year of the program in Southern California. More than 100 business owners and leaders have graduated from the program and Clark has awarded over $2 million worth of construction contracts to past graduates. Going into the program, they are not guaranteed contracts—some of them may never end up working for Clark, just by the nature and size of their company. That said, the students win no matter what. They come out of the program having learned an enormous amount about the construction industry and business strategy.
Bluebeam Blog: How is the program structured and what types of curriculum has Clark integrated into the sessions?
Huddleston: We start with financial statements and accounting. The accounting for construction is unique in areas like “over and under billings,” and “backlog.” They need to understand these concepts and how they affect their financial statements. Next, we cover insurance, bonding and understanding contracts, important aspects for any construction company. Blueprint reading, estimating, project management, purchasing and presentation skills account for the other 80% of the program. There is a final capstone project where the students are separated into teams of four or five. They compete as a company in a live bid situation. Everything they’ve learned is used to present a written and verbal presentation. They are judged by Clark’s senior management and a winning team is selected. It is nerve-racking for the students, but often one of their favorite experiences throughout the program.
Bluebeam Blog: Is there a technology component to the curriculum?
Huddleston: A Bluebeam session has been added to our curriculum. In the past, it was presented in a lunch and learn session, but I didn’t feel it was enough time to wrap their head around the power of this estimating/takeoff platform. We present a virtual design and construction piece as well, and a class on Excel is always a part of the program.
Bluebeam Blog: What’s the time commitment for someone interested in the course?
Huddleston: In Southern California, the program is a nine-month, MBA-style program. We meet every Thursday night from 6:00 – 9:00 pm. There is an absence policy of no more than four. They also participate once a month in lunch and learn sessions that can be attended remotely via video conferencing.
Bluebeam Blog: Who typically leads the classes?
Huddleston: Clark employees teach a large majority of the courses. We utilize outside instructors for the financial statements and accounting, and insurance and bonding. Those are outside consultants that I’ve been working with since the beginning of the program.
Bluebeam Blog: As you have seen the program grow, what are some of the successes you are seeing?
Huddleston: I will let Jackie Rivera, Alliance Building and Construction Services, tell you her success story…
“I’d like to give you some updates since completing your Strategic Partnership Program in 2016. Alliance has:
- Increased capacity and had performed painting work of about $750K in 2017
- Increased bonding capacity from non-bondable to $1.5MM aggregate in 1 year
- Completed our first painting project at LAWA
I had so much to gain from Clark’s program and it still remains to be my best experience of all construction classes and boot camps that I have been in – and I’ve been to a lot. Some of my peers from our cohort continue to run into each other and do keep in touch, like Gregory Grabowski, Eddie Torres, Jay Richardson and Eugene Solomon.”
The graduates are on a special list of subcontractors for projects that meet their capabilities. They are a part of the Clark family… we are doing what we can for them.
Bluebeam Blog: Given the talent shortage that we’ve been in since 2008, the program seems to also be helping Clark to nurture younger talent and help upgrade the regional talent pool. Is that true?
Huddleston: Absolutely. Like I said, we are focused on enabling companies to grow and expand—to successfully tackle that next big opportunity. We are awarding contracts to past graduates—companies that weren’t previously on our radar—and they are proving themselves.
Bluebeam Blog: How does being the administrator for the SoCal Clark Strategic Partnership affect you in your role?
Huddleston: I have been in the estimating/preconstruction department since I started with Clark 14 years ago. I have always worked with the subcontractors; I see their trials and tribulations and what they go through, especially if they’re first timers on a project. I just think it’s such a wonderful program for these companies. It has been amazing and very rewarding for me.