McHugh Construction, based in Chicago, does an estimated $500 million annually in markets that include hospitality, sports and entertainment, multi-family and high-rise residential projects. Senior Vice President Steve Wiley oversees pre-construction and estimating projects for the company, mostly negotiating private development deals.
Wiley has worked on numerous types of projects, but he still talks about the railroad business. He worked in McHugh’s National Railroad Group for about eight years before the company exited that business unit in 2018. “I really enjoyed that time,” he recalled.
Built spoke with Wiley about his serendipitous entry into the industry and what he would advise others thinking of following in his path.
Built: How did you choose the construction industry?
Wiley: It was purely by chance. After high school I worked as a mechanic. A man I met through a high school classmate asked me if I would be interested in getting into construction. It was 1979. He said he’d pay me $7 an hour, and in winter when it was cold, I didn’t have to work. That sold me. I said, “Sign me up.”
Built: So no one person inspired you?
Wiley: Right. My father was a doctor and wanted me to go to college, but I don’t think I had the discipline to make it through college and med school at that point in my life. Once I started in construction, I learned so much at every company I worked for and from every person I worked with. I had always been keenly observant and I tried to take something from the playbook of the people who excelled at what they do. I started as a laborer, and then moved on to bricklayer work with block and stone and eventually became a journeyman mason. I started a masonry business, which I owned for several years, but I wanted to learn general contracting.
So, I closed my business and started my next phase with a small general contractor. That was a fantastic opportunity because I learned the inner workings of the operation as well as estimating and project management. After that I went to a larger company, Ragnar Benson, and learned even more. In 2005, I joined McHugh as a project executive.
Built: What’s the best advice you ever got about this industry?
Wiley: Two things I heard early in my career stick with me to this day. First, in construction we only get paid to build things once. What that means is that planning, preparation and execution are extremely important because this advice is true. We don’t get paid to build a wall, tear it down and then rebuild it because it wasn’t properly constructed the first time.
The other piece of advice is to treat the boss’s money either like it’s your own or it’s the company’s money. Just like with personal money, we all have budgets and only a certain amount of income. We have things we need to do, and must make our budgets work and make every dollar count.
Built: What advice do you have for people looking to follow in your career footsteps?
Wiley: I would tell them to be a little more purpose driven than I was because there was no assured outcome of any of the steps I took along the way.
Built: What’s your favorite part of the job?
Wiley: Every day we deal with a high level of complexity, disorganization and time constraints. I like taking things apart and separating and reorganizing them in a way that makes sense not only for me, but for others too. It’s trying to create a greater level of logic and organization out of the things we need to do.
Built: What keeps you up at night as an executive?
Wiley: Two things. One, managing the various forms of risk that confront us as a construction company. In the end, risk in any form has financial consequences if not effectively managed. Two, the diligence required to consistently deliver on the expectations that our clients have of us. We strive to set a higher bar than our competitors and we need to deliver on that.
Built: How do you structure your time to fix the most important issues you face in your role?
Wiley: It’s a struggle. We have certain strategic goals, and I should spend 80% of my time on those higher priority items. However, I live in an inverse world right now. I find it difficult to peel myself away from daily issues and spend more time on big picture initiatives.