If we can facilitate the personal growth and professional development of our people, then we’re a success as a leadership team. And, even more importantly, our customers are going to be getting extraordinary service.
Quarterly Interview: Jim Kilpatrick Fortis Construction
Fortis Construction Inc. opened its office in 2003, when a large national general contractor shuttered its Portland, Ore., office. A small group affected by the shutdown banded together to form what has become in the past five years a midsized GC with annual revenues in the $200 million to $250 million range. Fortis is focused on the core markets of higher education, health care, commercial offices and data centers. While headquartered in the Pacific Northwest, it is now delivering projects across the U.S., Europe and Asia.
FMI interviewed Jim Kilpatrick because of the sterling reputation Fortis has gained from its customers and employees. Known for its achievements in the marketplace, Fortis has a fanatical focus on pleasing its clients and striving to maintain a core ideology and culture that has propelled its success. FMI wanted to learn how the Fortis team works together and overcomes challenges, and what it is doing to create a robust leadership pipeline that will lead them successfully into the future.
Alafat: You have managed to form and maintain a unique culture at Fortis. How would you describe it?Kilpatrick: Our culture is the thing we are most proud of, and we are not afraid to talk about it. We like to say that our culture is the magic that unifies us. We have a very open, collegial atmosphere in our office and that translates to the job sites. It is a team of “A” players that holds each other accountable.
Alafat: Fortis Construction’s core ideology is shown in Exhibit 1. How does that influence your culture?
Kilpatrick: The core ideology defines the character and traits of the people who can work here.
Alafat: Can you tell our readers how your leadership team arrived at the core purpose and values, and what you do to reinforce them?
Kilpatrick: It started with our struggles to articulate a strategic direction around where we wanted the company to be in five and 10 years. We were already believers in Jim Collins’ “Built to Last” philosophy on what makes enduring companies. We had developed our core values the first year of our existence and used those as our guiding philosophy. A phone conversation with Ron Magnus led to a discussion that what we needed to complement those was a purpose. With that foundation, we could then work on an envisioned future, but without both those elements, we would continue to struggle. It took the six-person management committee, a larger leadership group and the entire company to brainstorm, vet and ultimately discern what makes us different. We spent 11 months in development and were stuck and bogged down more than once. In the end, I think we were transparent and inclusive with the process.
Alafat: How long has the current leadership team been in existence, how many members are part of the team, and how were they chosen?
Kilpatrick: The team has been in existence for nine years with six members. Members were chosen through natural selection and included the three founders plus the three best project managers who had leadership potential. Although the company was new, our relationship with these managers was not. They were the cream of the crop and handpicked to be the core team we wanted to build around. We had worked with these young managers for the past five years and knew their character and potential.
Our management team actually started with a seventh member — a superintendent who could more closely represent the superintendents and craft personnel in management decisions. During the next three years, we made the difficult decision to excuse him from that role. We found that he did not bring the depth of perspective and leadership we had hoped. That was a very difficult discussion.
It’s important to understand that we are very intentional in avoiding nepotism at all levels in our company. It’s a much healthier organization when everyone knows that there is no potential for that. David Aaroe, executive vice president, and I had both experienced the motivational problems nepotism creates with young superstars.
Alafat: What factors contributed to creating a high-performing leadership team?
Kilpatrick: The fact that we all knew each other for anywhere from five to 10 years before we started Fortis helped. We knew each other well enough to be absolutely sure that we each held similar core values. It also helps to have diverse experiences. We all have a deep respect for the different personal strengths and perspectives we each bring. I think that is crucial. Making sure at least a couple of people on the team are really smart is always good too.
Alafat: Why is that?
Kilpatrick: Being comfortable enough with each other to challenge a direction or strategy openly is important. You need to have people with strong convictions and enough self-confidence to voice and argue their opinions and who are mature enough not to hold on too tightly.
Alafat: How are decisions typically made on this team?
Kilpatrick: First and foremost, we follow our core values. That should be a litmus test for every decision we make. Is it consistent with our core values?
We also contemplate the long-term best interest of the company. I don’t think any of our decisions are based on short-term return. We also very consciously put our own self-interests last.
When we debate a topic, we temper the initial knee-jerk response. We’re all results-driven individuals and we want to jump to the answer. It’s hard work to avoid emotional reactions. We do that by challenging each other with intellectual arguments and respecting the process of talking through decisions. If you can support your position both passionately and intellectually, you will have no problem getting us all in agreement.
We all understand that at times we each need to compromise on the small stuff. And we are grown-up enough to be able to do that. When we leave a room, we are each prepared to support our direction and each other implicitly.
Alafat: On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = low, 10 = high), how would you rate the level of trust among team members, and why? What factors contribute to that score?
Kilpatrick: I would rate it a 10. Shared experiences certainly contribute to that score. Some of that only comes with time working together. When you’ve been in the trenches together, you form a bond. It’s like a band of brothers.
Alafat: On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = low, 10 = high), how would you rate the level of conflict on this team?
Kilpatrick: I’d rate it a 4. It is healthy to have some conflict and not always be perfectly like-minded.
Alafat: How is conflict handled when it occurs?
Kilpatrick: First off, we each know it is not personal, and differing opinions can be a healthy thing. We are respectful of each other’s perspectives. We each respect a persuasive intellectual argument. We know we don’t always have to solve everything immediately. Occasionally, we just allow time to pass as we think about issues and contemplate others perspectives.
Alafat: How would you characterize success for your team?
Kilpatrick: One thing we talk openly about is the joy of shared success. That means focusing on others. We talk about success as having happy employees whose family members will tell us that they work for a great company. If we can facilitate the personal growth and professional development of our people, then we’re a success as a leadership team. And, even more importantly, our customers are going to be getting extraordinary service.
Alafat: What are the long-term goals for this team?
Kilpatrick: We have a goal to transition this company over the next eight to 12 years from the founders to this internal management team.
Alafat: What progress has been made so far?
Kilpatrick: Identifying our successors is the first step. We’ve done that and communicated it. The next step, which we are not nearly as far along with, is identifying their successors. That’s important so we begin to free up their time to work less “in the company” and more “on the company.” We already involve them in strategic planning and are working them into our business relationships with our surety, insurance, banking and other professional relationships.
Alafat: What are your plans to continue developing your current and future leaders on the team and in the organization?
Kilpatrick: We have a group of young leaders that meets on a regular basis and tackles a list of initiatives that it brainstormed and the management committee has endorsed. The younger members of the management committee are coaching this group.
We also use the FMI Leadership Institute as a resource to send one or two future leaders to each year. The alums of the Institute will meet occasionally to revisit their takeaways and share stories of their personal leadership journeys.
Alafat: What final advice can you give our readers as they think about building a strong leadership team?
Kilpatrick: This leadership stuff is the hardest but most satisfying work you will do.
The success of Fortis Construction is the result of a team that has established a solid foundation of trust among the leaders. Having worked alongside each other prior to forming the company, they have confidence in each other’s abilities, work ethic and core values. During the years, they have carefully added team members who are aligned with their core ideology and core values. As they grow, more resources and energy are invested in making sure that everyone is aligned with the core ideology and core values. Like most companies that have experienced success and rapid growth, they are stepping up to meet the challenges of growing their leadership pipeline, without sacrificing those things that have made them successful.
Tom Alafat is a principal with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 303.398.7209 or via email at email@example.com.