Where Traditional Craftsmanship Meets Innovative Construction
Founded in 1959 by Hans Roebbelen and reorganized in 1997, Roebbelen Contracting Inc. based in El Dorado Hills, CA specializes in the construction of institutional, commercial, industrial and public works projects. The firm’s recipe for success: combining old-world workmanship with modern cutting-edge technology and ingenuity while going the extra mile for clients.
How does a company choose its logo? More often than not, it’s the work of a graphic design team based on such considerations as association, recognizability and message conveyance, and may go through multiple variations before the CEO is satisfied.
Not so with Roebbelen. Years ago company founder Hans Roebbelen was one of two distinguished student graduates of Staatsbauschule Buxtehude School of Architecture and Structural Engineering in Germany granted the privilege of displaying the school’s symbol, created in 1870, as his own, which is how it came to be Roebbelen’s logo. The symbol, which combines the mastery, knowledge and craftsmanship of the building trades – the compass, the trowel and the broadaxe – upholds a 700-year European tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, a time when trade guilds thrived and the structures they built lasted.
“In North America today, there’s more emphasis on cheaper and faster, and craftsmanship gets lost in the shuffle, so we like to combine the mastery of craft with modern technology to produce the best product we can for our client,” says Ken Wenham, who brings 28 years of industry experience to his position as company president and CEO.
The modern technology to which he refers includes software capabilities which can have a significant impact on a project’s outcome. By utilizing Building Information Modeling (BIM) for example, various software applications including Navisworks, Revit and Sketchup can be leveraged to supplement construction technology and help clients thrive. These tools enable Roebbelen to combine complex building systems (e.g. structural or mechanical) into a singular three-dimensional model where interference conditions can be tested. Detecting potential interferences between building systems prior to construction significantly minimizes conflicts that can influence the project schedule and increase construction costs. Likewise, the company’s 3D laser scanning program can reduce errors that result in change orders or schedules due to inaccurate or missing information.
Wenham admits that all construction companies can build structures, but what differentiates Roebbelen is its in-depth pre-construction planning. “Many companies say they do pre-construction – they look at the plans and try to ferret out the incongruities so construction can move forward – but we’ve heard complaints from owners that they still encounter problems once construction happens. We like to take that process very seriously and scrub the drawings as if we were actually building them. We look not only for constructability issues, but we really look at the building. What is it going to be used for? Is this the correct layout? Could offices be located in different areas that would help with energy costs? And we look at the cost from the owner’s perspective.”
And the owners appreciate it. As Debbie Bettencourt, Superintendent of the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District writes, “Roebbelen has successfully completed and/or is working in various stages of 27 projects worth over $320 M over the past 10 years. Their pre-construction staff has been aggressive and supportive in evaluating constructability items and proper phasing of our projects. Their self-performed crews are also an added value to our District. Not only do they allow for Roebbelen to set the pace on the project, but they have provided savings of $4.7 M on 22 projects.”
“Sometimes clients will come with drawings that are fully developed,” Wenham says, “and they’ll say, ‘take a look and see if there’s anything you can improve upon.’ But other times the drawings are conceptual and because we do design-build services that’s where we can provide the best value for a client. The earlier they bring us in, the better. We can come in and work side by side with a designer; whether that designer’s working for us or for the owner, it really doesn’t matter, as long as we can get in early and give real-time estimating and a real-time constructability review.”
During the design development phase, the company’s preconstruction LEED professionals will also work with the entire design team so they can create a site which meets the client’s needs, whether it’s meeting LEED criteria, saving energy, creating a healthy indoor environment or other specific requirements.
Also by getting in early, the company can offer value engineering ideas, “which I like to call value options,” he says. “If we get in too late, then value engineering is just scope and we might have to cut something to get down to budget, but if we’re in there early enough, we can come up with creative solutions that follow the intent of the building and that make it more economical without compromising amenities.
“We’ve learned that enlightened owners are not looking to hire a contractor, they’re looking to hire a delivery partner,” and by the same token he says the company is not looking for customers, it’s looking for clients. “We work hard at vetting people we work with just as they vet us and we only work with clients who we have an alignment of values with and who want to enter into a relationship of mutual respect and professionalism. Those are our ideal clients. They’re out there and it’s so refreshing when you find them and build a relationship and become not only their trusted delivery partner, but develop some pretty deep relationships as well.”
What’s personally rewarding, he says, is going back to visit a project and seeing it functioning. “We recently renovated two floors of a high rise in San Francisco that was decades old and just to see the employees come in and be so excited and see how much more efficiently they were going to be working and how much more pleasant their day is, that was a good feeling. And to hear someone say ‘Wow – I didn’t dread coming to work today,’ and knowing it’s because of the work environment that was created for them. It’s a rewarding business when you can see the tangible results of your efforts. My son plays baseball and almost every baseball field where we (my wife and I) go to see him play, we participated in.
Still, Wenham is reluctant to take too much credit, paying tribute instead to the employees, including the executive management trio of Robert Kjome, chief business development officer; Robert McLean, chief operating officer; and Frank Lindsay, vice president. “I have three partners who are the best guys anyone could hope to be in business with and who are three of my best friends. We challenge and argue until we come up with a consensus, but when we walk out the door we’re united and I think that alignment gives us a competitive edge.”
“We’re blessed to have people who’ve worked with us for over 30 years and that’s rare in the building trade to have people stay with one company for so long but we’ve also hired some amazing young people. Some have 10 years or so with another company, but others are brand new fresh faces and they’re just so hungry and eager to contribute,” he says.
“We mix the employees who’ve been here for 10 to 20 years with people fresh out of college, ready to take on the world, and it creates dynamic teams. It’s extremely effective and fun to watch the energy in the room. We say, ‘here’s a project we need to tackle and here are the goals for it,’ and we just watch them dice it up, break it down, come up with creative solutions and present options to the client and once they choose, go out and execute.
“I think Millennials get a bad rep these days. We hear jokes about the generation that feels entitled and doesn’t want to work, but we don’t see it. Our group of folks in the millennial category are really setting the world on fire. Our only challenge is to keep exciting work in front of them and keep them moving.”
They don’t want to be told by senior staff that things are done a certain way because that’s the way it used to be done; they want to know why, he says. “So, I ask them ‘How would you do it?’ And they’re happy to tell me, and you know what? They have some pretty darn good ideas. I’ve always known that the most dangerous thing in the world is having only one idea and that not one of us is as smart as all of us together,” says Wenham.
“I like to say we’re a ’60-year old startup company’ because every day we’re looking for a better, faster, more efficient way of servicing our clients and it’s all about teamwork and having a good time.”
It’s a philosophy that’s working well all around for client satisfaction, employee morale, and for the company itself, as awards and recognition attest. Roebbelen has received the A+ Employers / Employees Choice Award for “Best Place to Work”; it’s been a 12-time winner for Distinguished Projects awarded by the Western Council of Construction Consumers; and consistently ranked on ENR’s Top 400 Contractor’s List as well as on ENR’s Top 25 Telecommunications Contractors List. The company has also been proactive in dealing with sustainability issues as a founding member of the Green Cabinet and by engaging with industry leaders of the U.S. Green Building Council, with its own new three-story office building designed to meet or exceed LEED Platinum standards.
While most of Roebbelen’s work is done in California and other western states, “There’s no geographic barrier for the right client,” Wenham says. “It’s true we’re a mid-size company but we have the same resources, sophistication and technology as the big nationals, combined with the flexibility, passion and fire of a small company, where a client can pick up the phone and talk directly to the CEO.”