Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo
Chris Thorkelson’s first experience in construction came at age 11, when his aunt and uncle dropped him off at one of their company’s jobsites, handed him a broom and told him to keep the site clean.
Today, Thorkelson is the president and CEO of his family’s construction business, Lloyd Companies. And while he’s no longer sweeping jobsites, Thorkelson said he maintains a similar in-the-trenches perspective now that he’s running the South Dakota-based company.
The Built Blog interviewed Thorkelson to learn more about his construction leadership style. Edited excerpts follow.
Built Blog: How did you choose a construction industry career path?
Thorkelson: My aunt and uncle owned the company. The semester before I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they asked me if I wanted to visit Sioux Falls to learn more about their business and see if it would be a good fit. I had never considered it; I majored in industrial engineering and planned to enter technical sales, but I ended up joining their team.
We’re a close-knit family, and we get together a lot. I realized that corporate America would never understand my desire to spend quality time with my family if I took that kind of position. That sealed it for me. It also gave me a quicker path to management.
Built Blog: So your uncle was the person who inspired you to work in this field?
Thorkelson: Yes. When I was 11, he dropped me off at a construction site, introduced me to the superintendent and told me to keep the place clean. I experienced firsthand what a construction site was like through a broom. That semester before I joined, I spent more time there learning about the company and what opportunities might exist in the future.
When I started work, my uncle took me to Home Depot and bought me a tool belt and the tools to go with it, which was nice because I was a broke college student. He had the foresight to realize I needed to know the trades and forge relationships that would give me a newfound respect for craftspeople dedicated to their work. I started as a framer and worked in concrete followed by finished carpentry. After that I worked my way through the construction division as estimator, superintendent and then project manager. I ran that division, moved on to other divisions and then became COO. When my uncle retired in 2015, I took over his dual role as president and CEO.
Built Blog: What advice do you have for people looking to follow in your career footsteps?
Thorkelson: You have to get in there and work among those responsible for building and delivering construction projects. It’s important to go into the job with an open mind and not be afraid to ask questions. It’s also helpful to observe different types of delivery methods and approaches that various trades and vendors use. You really need to appreciate the art and skill involved in each trade’s work.
Built Blog: What’s your favorite part of the job?
Thorkelson: It has given me a platform to do a lot of work with local nonprofit organizations. We help them achieve their goals and objectives in a cost-effective way. With our knowledge of the industry, we can represent them and protect them from unnecessary expenses or fees.
Built Blog: What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the construction industry and why?
Thorkelson: The lack of knowledge transfer regarding the art and craft that goes into the work some of the trades do. It also boils down to labor shortages. There are not enough tradespeople who want to learn about the art or who have the willingness to do the more labor-intensive tasks.
Built Blog: What keeps you up at night as an executive and construction leader?
Thorkelson: I’m a dreamer. We’re a development company at heart, and we do our own fundraising, construction and property management, so we are responsible to our investors and partners. The dreaming or thinking about how I’m going to approach or maintain certain relationships, come up with a new design concept, or execute on delivery of construction details, keeps me up. Often, the more excitement around the subject or the more unique it is, the more sleep I lose.
Built Blog: How do you structure your time to fix the most important issues you face in your role?
Thorkelson: I manage my own calendar; I don’t have an executive assistant. It’s important for me to leave enough time in each day to overcome any obstacle or challenge that may arise. In order to create that time, you have to say no to certain things. You can’t be everything to everyone.