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Bilbro Construction celebrates 10 years with reputation built on hard work

It has been said that 90 percent of life is showing up. For Rob Bilbro, president of San Diego-based Bilbro Construction Co., that includes showing up even when the job stinks. As the mid-size general contracting firm celebrates its 10th anniversary, one literal example of this point comes to mind. In 2004, Bilbro Construction was working on a project for a major local hospital. Bilbro got a call one morning reporting that a plumbing problem had resulted in raw sewage leaking into the recovery rooms on the hospital's labor and delivery floor. Nurses and brand-new moms were clearly unhappy with the situation, but that was nothing compared to the fallout from the hospital administrator on the other end of the phone line. Bilbro was personally on-site within 15 minutes to accept responsibility and find a solution to the problem. "You aren't tested as a business owner when things are going well with a job," said Bilbro. "The real test of character and professionalism comes when there's a crisis. How you handle those unpleasant situations is what builds trust and earns respect. Those are the moments that make or break client relationships." In this case, Bilbro turned the challenge into an opportunity. By accepting responsibility and quickly resolving the problem, the company developed a strong relationship with the client that has resulted in several additional projects over the years. How it all began In 1997, Bilbro was co-owner and principal of Bilbro & Giffin, a seven-year-old construction management consulting firm in downtown San Diego. The firm had succeeded in landing some exciting projects over the years, including the 1995 airport terminal renovations at San Diego's Lindbergh Field. But Bilbro was hungry for a new challenge and decided to branch out with a new business venture that would allow him to return to his roots in general contracting. Prior to forming Bilbro & Giffin, he had worked with MH Golden Co. for 10 years, overseeing such projects as the downtown high-rise One America Plaza, MTS Tower and Sunroad Marina on Harbor Island. "At that time, we believed that MH Golden Co. was the gold standard for general contracting in San Diego," said Bilbro. "I remember the 'wow-factor' when you told people you worked there. My personal goal was to run that type of company someday, one that truly earned the respect of the community by doing solid, consistent work and treating people right." In the fall of 1997, Bilbro reached out to an old friend in the industry, David Phillips of FCC Construction, which at the time had operations in San Diego and Colorado. Bilbro and Phillips became partners, with Bilbro heading up the new company, FCC/Bilbro, in San Diego. While Bilbro had been successful in the past with launching and running a startup company, he discovered that turning around a struggling existing business required an entirely different skill set. But he found a way to turn the challenge into an opportunity. He and Phillips decided that an important step was wiping the slate clean, by changing the company name from FCC/Bilbro to Bilbro Construction Co. and working hard to establish a new reputation built on trust. That meant focusing on great work. "We couldn't afford to make any mistakes," said Bilbro. "We had to perform at every job, every day." The first year was mentally and physically trying. Bilbro worked hard to establish new systems within the company and to instill a new discipline among the staff that would help build momentum moving forward. He focused on presenting an unfaltering sense of confidence with staff, clients and colleagues, even when he harbored real fears. At one point, he even put himself on 120-day notice to turn the company around or call it quits. "Eleven months after starting operations, we were at the end of our rope financially, but good fortune shined when two clients paid their invoices in 10 days, which is what we needed to get into the black," said Bilbro. "That was a real turning point for us, and we haven't looked back since. Four years later, Bilbro acquired Phillips' interest in the company, giving him 100 percent ownership. Building momentum, exploring new territory Initially, the company did tenant improvement work almost exclusively, with downtown's Symphony Towers as its biggest client. But Bilbro set sights on expanding the company's scope to include more shell construction as well as specialty work including health care facilities and schools. Bilbro has now undertaken $40 million in private school projects, including St. Augustine High School's Vasey Hall, the Gillispie School, the MAAC Charter School and three projects for La Jolla Country Day School. "My partner, Doug Mellinger, likes to say we're at our best when undertaking complicated projects for sophisticated clients. That really epitomizes our business strategy," Bilbro said. "We look for difficult projects that require a high level of expertise just to be considered." Bilbro's decision in 2004 to focus on health care work has proven to be a smart move. The firm has developed an impressive resume of such work, including expertise with the more specialized requirements of inpatient care facilities. In just three years, the company has worked for most of the region's largest health care organizations, including UCSD Medical Center Hillcrest, Thornton Hospital, UCSD Moore's Cancer Center, Scripps Health, Rady Children's Hospital and, most recently, Sharp Grossmont Hospital and Palomar Pomerado Health. About 25 percent of the company's business now comes from health care work. While the company still does tenant improvement work, it represents a much smaller percentage of the project mix, about 20 percent. Many of these projects are for long-standing clients, such as L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL), with whom Bilbro has worked for nine years. Bilbro recently completed its sixth L-3 job, valued at $2.5 million. What's next Now that the company has established a solid foothold in the health care sector, Bilbro hopes to use this skill set to secure more biomedical and laboratory work. He also sees private schools continuing to be an important source of new work, based on the positive word-of-mouth within this tight-knit community. The balance of the company's work will continue to be a mix of new construction and tenant improvements, much as it is today. Bilbro insists that generating giant revenues is not what keeps him up at night; it's doing great work for and with great people, from staff to clients to subcontractors. "Overnight success stories are rare," concluded Bilbro. "There is no simple formula for success; it is just about doing great work, every day, for a long time. After 10 years, I'd like to think we're on the right track."


Palitz is vice president with The McRae Agency.

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