Building with Strength and Innovation

Tunista Construction

In the Yup’ik language the word ‘tunista’ can mean “one who sells or gives or trades,” according to Andrew Guy, President of the Calista Corporation. With headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska, the Calista Corporation is the parent company of Tunista Construction, LLC, formed in 2010 as a general contractor working on building and civil projects in Alaska and throughout the lower 48.
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The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was signed in 1971 to resolve issues surrounding Alaska Native land rights. The act created over 230 village and 13 regional corporations, (Alaska Native Corporations or ANCs) including the Calista Corporation, serving the Calista Region for the purpose of receiving monies and managing lands on behalf of their shareholders, Native Alaskans.

Two mighty rivers, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, flow out to the Bering Sea through the Calista Region, which is approximately the size of New York State and encompasses nearly 10 percent of Alaska’s land area. Because there are no roads connecting the region to the rest of the state, everything must be flown in or barged to each community, making the cost of food, fuel, transportation and energy extremely high.

The Calista Region is the traditional home of more than 20,000 Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabaskan people, the majority of whom still practice a traditional lifestyle and speak their own language. As shareholders in the Calista Corporation, it’s only fitting then that ‘tunista’, a Yup’ik word, should be chosen as the name for one of the corporation’s subsidiaries that operates under the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program (DBE), making it possible for Native Alaskans to continue with their cherished way of life while enjoying new economic opportunities.

The accounting, human resources and other office support functions of Tunista Construction are carried out at Calista’s corporate headquarters in Anchorage; however, Tunista’s General Manager J. B. Seeling oversees the work on the ground from an office in Alexandria, Louisiana. Most of this work is done in the lower 48, although some projects have been completed in Alaska as well. The company has two divisions: the building division, which Seeling also manages along with a team of project managers; and the civil division, managed by Chris Parshall out of an office in Seattle, WA.

Tunista’s building division
As Seeling explained, Tunista specializes in capital improvements and infrastructure-related construction, providing turnkey solutions for a range of federal and government building projects, from estimating to close-out. Although Tunista will go anywhere, he says most of the building division’s work is done in “Region 6 — that’s the Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri area, and in that region we are fairly competitive. We have an established workforce and management force and we’re certainly not opposed to going where the work is, but we found we can be more competitive here and therefore more successful where we have an established presence rather than trying to break into a new market area.”

There were a few growing pains when the company was formed in 2010, “but we had a fairly large management shift in 2016,” he continues, speaking to the company’s direction since then which focuses on listening to customer needs. “Our value that we offer is that we deliver, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to deliver what customers want within the constraints they have. Sometimes it’s budget constraints and other times it’s a function of getting the facility customized the way they want it. But we listen, and we try to deliver on those needs and adapt to those as they change,” he explains.

“What we bring to the table is that we have the resources and capacity of a large company, yet we’re small enough to have a small company approach. We’re not so big that you can’t just pick up the phone and call me. Our goal is to grow and remain competitive and viable, but we’re not trying to take over the world because at the end of the day, we want satisfied clients and there is a certain volume where it becomes difficult to manage that.”

In 2019, Tunista will graduate from the 8 (a) Business Development Program, a U.S. program that offers support in two phases over nine years to companies that are owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. “We will continue to work in the Federal prime contracting role for vertical and civil construction, but I see us branching more into commercial work and I see us less focused as government contractors,” says Seeling.

“I see us working as a subcontractor or a prime contractor for any type of commercial or industrial building, utility substation, or any type of plant. It could be a manufacturing or production plant that wants to expand or do renovations, because we’re not focusing exclusively on new buildings. We’d love those projects, but sometimes for the client it could be more cost-effective to renovate an older structure,” he explains.

“But if it’s design-build work or design-bid-build, we can do it and provide a turnkey solution, while other clients want to manage the design themselves and then put it out for bids; we are happy either way.”

The renovations and repairs at The Brooke Army Medical Centre in San Antonio, TX represent an outstanding example of the types of projects Tunista can take on. Led by Project Manager Julie Parker Tyler, the work was completed in two phases, with repairs to roof drains, curtain walls and skylights completed in 2015, and roofing, medical mall and clinic repairs completed in 2018, for a total project value of $7.3M. According to Tyler, it was an honor to have been awarded these projects as this center is one of the nation’s premier medical facilities and all work had to be carried out while the hospital was in full operation without impacting patient access or making excessive noise – primary considerations while planning the project.

Another outstanding project, completed in 2017 with construction costs of $7,250,148, for which Tunista was the prime contractor, involved extensive repairs and upgrades to the Fort Leonard Wood, MO dining facility. The scope of work here included renovation of an existing 12,000 square foot building and site work, including selective demolition, replacement and reuse of existing facilities. Tunista self-performed the demolition of the facility’s interior, while the adjoining facility remained operational; extensive civil work also brought new utilities to the site, removing and restoring several roadways.

Seeling is especially proud that while this was supposed to be a LEED Silver Project, “we were able to bump it up and get a Gold.” In addition, Tunista was named USACE Kansas City District Fiscal Year (2016) “Safety Saves” Award Winner for Large Contracts.

Seeling enjoys talking about the work he does, “but,” he says, “I feel strongly you should talk to Chris Parshall, Civil Division Manager, because his division is growing rapidly and doing very well.”

Tunista’s civil division
We reached Parshall at his office in Seattle, and he was happy to explain the scope of his division. “We do earth work and utilities in government contract areas. We do roads, highways and utility work — storm water, sewer, piping — for federal, state and municipal governments and we do earth work for building preparation for new construction.” He’s also recently opened a trucking division to transport aggregate, “so I guess you could say we move a lot of dirt around and try to sell it when we can,” he jokes.

Unlike the building division which is looking to move into the commercial area, Parshall says his division will continue to perform Washington Department of Transportation and Sound Transit (Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority) work, “so we’ll stay mostly on the government side. We’re one of the larger DBE companies in the state, operating with a great safety record and amount of bonding, and that’s why we’re chasing the DOT projects,” he explains.

“Recently we completed a pretty challenging sewer installation project (on the King County Sewer Conveyance Project for King County, working under KIEWIT Infrastructure West) that involved 13,000 feet of sewer pipe with diameters up to 36 inches at challenging locations, and had to excavate 12 to 22 feet deep. We paralleled existing pipes next to the ones to be abandoned.” This, he says, is of great benefit to the environment, as the old dilapidated system had leaks going into the water table and the new system, going through an urban area, is 100 percent watertight. This was an 11-month project, completed with a crew of eight, and won Tunista’s Civil Division a Build Washington Award for Safety in 2017.

“We have a strong safety culture,” Parshall says. “We try to reward the positive and that helps us avoid having to discipline on the negative. We let everyone know upfront that we’re not going to spare any cost for safety and safety is always first and foremost, over profit or anything else. To me, it’s knowing that everyone is going to go home at the end of the day; they’re not going to be hurt, and we’ll never put anyone in a position where they could likely be hurt. We also invest a lot of money in training and if there’s a class an individual wants to take, we pay for them. With the labor shortage you need to invest in your employees and keep working to retain them.”

Something that attracts young employees to Tunista is the leading edge technology the company uses. “Kids are now looking at construction as almost a technology job,” he says. “We run a lot of GPS equipment and do GPS surveying and bring in drones for documentation and checks, and young people like that. So when we explain to high school students that we have a lot of robotic assistance for survey equipment and software programs for managing work, they get interested.” With the skilled labor shortage continuing industry- and continent-wide, this shift is crucial.

Parshall says what he most enjoys about working for Tunista, “is growing this company. It’s made up of young people who have a similar vision. Plus, our parent company (Calista) gives us free rein to grow it to how we know it can become, so we have full support from them. We go to Alaska four times a year and they (Calista representatives) visit us and we report monthly what’s going on operationally and financially and if there are problems they give us the tools to fix them. They are very supportive.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 18, 2019, 2:23 PM EST