Future In Focus
Whether you're a potential job candidate or a client looking for a builder, most people want to know, "Who is Pepper - really? Are they going to take care of me?"
To answer these questions, nothing is more insightful than how leaders manage through a crisis. And the pandemic has been one for the history books.
Since 1927, Pepper has been led by visionary leaders who truly care about the individuals who power their business. We were founded on the principles of dignity, respect, loyalty and service to the community. Pepper remains a family-led organization, with the fourth generation stepping into leadership roles. With each generation, adoption of leading ideas is accelerating, and we are creating a place where seasoned traditionalists, mold-breaking disruptors and everyone in between feels like they belong and that their contributions matter.
Jake Pepper represents the 4th generation of Pepper leadership and oversees our Barrington, Illinois, operations as Executive Vice President. He also keeps a keen eye on the road ahead. His vision for the future is exciting and broad-minded. So to wrap up our Future in Focus series, I interviewed Jake Pepper to get his thoughts about what the future holds for Pepper and our industry.
Q & A with Jake Pepper
Q: In hindsight, how prepared do you think we were as a company for the impact of COVID-19?
A: We were as prepared as we could be for a contraction in the economy. During the last recession, we rode the wave of the downturn along with everyone else, relying on the leadership of our people and our financial strength. Afterward, we took a hard look internally at our team and processes to build a platform for growth. We knew that at some point and for some reason there would be another contraction, and we wanted to be agile to adjust and come out of it ahead. We just didn't predict the pandemic.
Operationally, we were also prepared to be flexible. One of the significant strategies we implemented over the past several years was business resiliency planning, where we've addressed every aspect of our business from infrastructure and redundancy, to our people, messaging and communication, and to our software and systems. Unique to Pepper is our in-house IT team who work hard to keep our team productive every day. As part of resiliency planning, they've helped to shore up our systems and processes, which also allowed our office staff to transition seamlessly to working remotely from home.
Q: How well do you think we have weathered the downturn?
A: Based on conversations I've had in the industry, I think we've weathered the downturn better than any other contractor. We haven't shut down a market, laid off a team or been nervous about moving forward. Because of our planning, we have fantastic people and a fantastic pipeline of work that is diversified in markets that are more stable and less cyclical. We're also looking at creating new core markets where we have a strong portfolio of niche projects. Sure, we've had projects placed on hold or even canceled, but we've also had other projects proceed ahead of plan.
Our team took reassurance knowing we weren't planning layoffs. In fact, we needed everyone because we've remained busy. It was important that we were transparent and optimistic to keep their confidence in the company.
Q: How has Pepper approached business decisions?
A: Every decision we make puts the health of our people and their families first. We carefully follow the CDC guidelines to the highest level. Since we're a family-owned business, we have more flexibility to play the long-game and keep our team in-tact.
Responsiveness has also been really important. We established internal leadership processes, at first meeting twice a week, to discuss the ever-evolving situation and associated decisions and communications. We joined industry conference calls, like the national AGC meetings, and we started weekly internal town hall meetings where we always reiterate the importance of keeping family first. Our teams are learning to balance work and family in new ways, like with e-learning, and it's important that we support them through this.
Finally, we've had the same level of commitment and responsibility with our clients and projects. These are unprecedented times, and we've tried to understand their situation — to help them analyze the situation and guide them through important decisions.
Q: What have we learned about managing people through COVID-19?
A: I've learned that back-to-back Zoom calls are exhausting! Joking aside, we already knew the importance of communication, but the situation exaggerated that need. In April and May my teams were communicating more than when we saw each other every day. I learned I had to pick up the phone and be deliberate about keeping everyone informed, and eventually we figured out a good balance.
As an organization, Pepper is historically a traditional organization, and like many other companies, I think we experienced a culture shift, accepting that people can do their jobs without being tied to their desks. It's been an adjustment to be more flexible and empathetic — both trusting our people to be productive at home and also learning how to manage remotely.
Currently our offices are back up to about 60% occupancy, and I expect that to continue until we have a vaccine. We've encouraged our people to return to the office while also suggesting that the office is no longer the place to get work done. Rather, it should be a resource to them. I find the office a nice change of scenery and refreshing alternative to video chats. And I also enjoy the productivity I have working from home without a commute.
It's also been a really good thing for intracompany relationships. Our offices have come together more and learned from each other, as each location went through the situation in slightly different ways.
Q: How well positioned are we to come out of this?
A: From a leadership position, we had all of the pieces we needed in place before the pandemic. In Illinois, we made key management transitions in the Fall of 2019. We also have the right management teams in place in Ohio and Indiana. Though this year's business plan looks to remain relatively flat to last year, we have a healthy pipeline of work that is proceeding and will keep us busy and competitive until the overall market picks back up.
In January, we launched a new brand tagline and revised mission and values that reflect the direction we want our company to go: to see tomorrow transformed through high performance and sustainability. COVID-19 has created a new demand for healthier buildings, and it strengthened our resolve to improve people's quality of life through the buildings we construct.
I tend to be optimistic, but I believe we are well positioned for the future. Over the past three years, we have entered a different league, being recognized among international construction management companies. Our brand has been featured in various industry and non-industry publications and has received international award recognition. And, we maintain a strong base of highly regarded clients and partners.
Q: How do you see the future of Pepper and the construction industry?
A: Like other industries, the construction industry was forced to do things differently within new constraints. COVID-19 facilitated progress that would have otherwise taken years to adopt industrywide. Solutions resulted in new technology and more efficient processes, and there's no going back.
At the company level, we're also looking at how we do business differently. When our offices were originally established in each location, we intentionally set them up as their own companies so they could grow organically and entrepreneurially. But we're all Pepper, and we're starting to shift how we approach the market. Even before the pandemic, we were collaborating more across state lines. For our clients, we are able to service them locally with very strong teams, while also putting together a Midwest platform and expanding our footprint and ability to travel.
We're also looking at the entire continuum of the business deal and finding ways to help facilitate the process, where it makes sense and fits within our expertise, whether bringing parties to the table, providing early systems analysis and pricing options or working through local organizations to align our resources with the right initiatives.
Finally, we're investing in the future of our industry through venture capital funds. These firms are better equipped to vet the right platforms — the best tools to achieve the best results, which will also advance the whole industry and not just Pepper. We see it as lending our expertise to advance the cause.
The value of authenticity
In my 18-year career here, I have seen each generation of the Pepper family take their own unique path as a leader while living out those values. Whether it's making sure they know the names of our kids, quietly supporting hundreds of organizations throughout our community, stepping up to help a client long after the project is over or stepping in to help a team member who's struggling personally - these are leaders who practice what they say.
As a corporate communicator, my role is part scientist and part advocate. My profession champions the value of frequent, transparent communications and an authentic brand position. This moment in time has validated the true value of both. But it takes strong leadership to pull it off.
When the pandemic hit, our CEO Stan Pepper launched a weekly Town Hall phone call to address what was happening on our jobsites, the challenges we were all facing and any questions that employees asked. He took the questions live, answering what he could and acknowledging what he could not. He made us laugh. He articulated the big questions that were weighing on our minds. And along the way, he gave everyone a reason to believe we could make it through this as a team.
COVID-19 also validated another core communications strategy for our company - our brand.
Last January, we launched a new tagline: Pepper Construction — Tomorrow Transformed. We believe that we can improve quality of life for our families and future generations through the built world.
A brand position only works if it's authentic, so we built our strategy to reflect the best of who we are and our hopes for the future. The pandemic has proven the efficacy of Pepper's brand strategy like no other measure, underscoring the importance of healthy buildings, the value technology can deliver and most importantly that, as humans, we must expect more from our collective future.
Predicting the future is impossible. But if we are intentional about focusing on what matters most we can shape it for the better. We invite you to join us on this journey. If you'd like to learn more about your specific market, check out the Future in Focus series, and if you'd like to hear more from Jake on what our industry can expect, take a moment to listen to the panel discussion, COVID-19: Thinking Constructively About the Future, which originally aired on May 21, 2020.