Early Friendship Leads to 30 Years of Success for Meyer Najem
From the beginning of their careers, Karl Meyer and Anthony Najem wanted to build great things. Najem began in the power industry, working for a large company with a corporate perspective. Meyer had a more organic experience with a local construction company. Najem says, "We had opposite experiences in terms of proficiencies and projects but we were fearless and entrepreneurial."
Where It All Began
The story of their relationship goes back to college, where they were fraternity brothers at Purdue University. It also includes longtime Meyer Najem President Tim Russell. The three lived in the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity house along with 80 other men. Their initial careers took them in very different directions upon graduation from Purdue.
Meyer and Najem both graduated from Purdue in 1981. Meyer headed to California on a motorcycle, while Najem moved to Houston for a position in project management with a large power cogeneration company. After a 38-state tour of the western United States, Meyer returned to Indiana a year later. He was asked to help start a local construction firm in 1983, which afforded him the opportunity, with wonderful mentors, to build a construction firm from the ground up. Najem remained in regular contact with Meyer, with dreams of partnering to create their own construction company always a part of the conversation.
As a member of Meyer's fraternity pledge class, Russell remained a close friend. Meyer later hired him as an estimator at the first construction firm. Upon the founding of Meyer Najem, Russell became employee number three in the business, with Meyer and Russell on the operations side and Najem handling business development and working as a field superintendent.
Meyer Najem became reality in June 1987, when Barbara, Karl's then girlfriend and now wife, ran their first bid for a public project, which was a bit scary. The plan was that Najem would move from Houston with the family - wife Liza and their four children - in order to kick off their second project. Liza hit the ground running assisting with many of the corporate and business events. Without exception, Barb and Liza were always supportive of their endeavors even when things appeared a bit crazy. In addition, Karl and Anthony's parents actively supported their dreams from the very beginning.
Najem emphasizes, "From the beginning, we wanted to approach the market collaboratively rather than combatively. Competitive bidding is often set up to create conflict and we thought there could be a better way. So, to build trust we began by sitting down with owners and showing them our fees up front. Our objective was to minimize change and save money."
"When we started, I had relationships with a few development groups in Indianapolis," Najem says. In recalling their start, Meyer says, "When we set up the company, we capitalized it to chase public and private work and build our resume. Our first projects were Ellenberger Park and a Family Dollar Store at 38th and Kenwood." From the beginning, Meyer's focus was on business systems and operations, while Najem fostered business development and the private side of their portfolio.
The Founders and the Early Years
Najem recalls conversations when they told their first customers, "Get us involved early with your designers so that we can hit the ground running and be on the same page from the beginning." Project owners soon realized Meyer Najem changed contract terms as needed and collaborated with as many experts as possible, including subcontractors, architects and engineers. The point was to get everyone working together earlier to deliver the desired results.
"It's about relationships," Meyer emphasizes. "We felt the market was missing a holistic approach to construction where everyone could be successful." Meyer Najem has long standing relationships with many trade partners. Najem says trade partners and architects are key to completing successful construction projects that serve the communities with distinction. "We are an open shop group and are open to free enterprise and are looking for the best value for our clients, whether union or non-union."
"Karl and I have always had a shared vision for our people, through the evolution of developing the company's philosophy into what it is today," notes Najem. "To elevate people, work toward success and give back to the community." Russell agrees, "We continue to enhance our employee engagement through work programs, on boarding activities, group meetings, wellness programs and workouts, summer cookouts and family-oriented activities. "We strive to make it fun - it can't be all work all the time. A work and life balance is important for all of us," Najem adds.
A Strong Team Equals Success
Russell thinks what sets Meyer Najem apart from their competition is they are still a small company that competes against large national contractors. "We've grown significantly and we can compete with bigger firms," he says. "We have an entrepreneurial atmosphere. Our family culture and work hard and play hard philosophy has helped us attract young talent. What we offer for our employees-Friday morning breakfasts, happy hours, picnics, baseball games-is a very attractive environment."
Russell says he has enjoyed watching people grow as the company has grown. "We've become friends with many of our clients," he says. "And, there was a time when we asked ourselves, "˜Wow, will we ever get to $100 million?' Then we started working out of state during the recession." For example, Meyer Najem handles the construction of several continuing care facilities out of state. Two years ago, they hit the $200 million mark. "Watching everyone grow while keeping our culture has been gratifying," he says.
Executive Vice President Kevin McGovern has been with the company since 1990, and oversees the company's assisted living projects. "Meyer Najem is excited to grow with our clients as they grow in the health care and assisted living markets," he says. "As more Americans need transitional and post-acute care, the properties we build will play a critical role in their care."
This is just one area where the company has experience substantial growth. In the future, Russell sees Meyer Najem getting into more development, citing public private-partnerships such as developments in downtown Fishers near the company's headquarters. "Incentives were good for this. Just like our own building - we designed it and built it on land donated by the City of Fishers. Meyer Najem occupies the 22,000-square-foot first floor of the building with their new offices at 11787 Lantern Road, completed in December 2014, while technology firms occupy the entire second floor through a collaboration with the City of Fishers.
Managing Risk Brings Great Rewards
Vice President of Safety and Compliance Traci Hardin has been with the company 25 years. Her background in estimating, project management and accounting support was a good fit for Meyer Najem. In her initial role, she helped with bids and contracts. By 1994, she began work with safety for the company and in 1996, helped implement a substance abuse program.
She had leadership's support of the safety program from the beginning. "They let me run with it," she recalls. "Safety is a form of risk management and we've seen a reduction in our years worked with zero injury numbers and Experience Modification Risk (EMR). When the economy was bad, our EMR was 0.94, but following 2008-09, we were able to reduce that down to 0.65. while we increased staff and man hours worked. We clearly can demonstrate the capabilities of our safety program through our record keeping and the improvements in how we measure safety to building owners," Hardin says.
In 2008, Hardin moved to a full-time safety function after completing the required training and in 2010, Meyer Najem developed a partnership with the Department of Labor, IOSHA and INSafe on the Ortho Indy South project. Hardin says this was a turning point for how they measured safety. The reporting was developed internally to demonstrate how the goals established in the partnership were met. This included a percent safe which is a view of the overall job with subcontractors working on site. "When we go out, we look at everyone and everything with a goal of at least 90 percent," she says. "As a result, we are now more sophisticated in the process of how we manage safety."
In her current role, Hardin works with insurance companies, workers comp and safety plans. On behalf of Meyer Najem, she is a member of the Coalition for Construction Safety (CCS), the only safety association in Indiana.
Meyer Najem works in partnership with their insurance company to randomly audit the job site, in addition to a weekly superintendent's safety program. "We want the insurance company to see how we are doing safety," Hardin notes. "It's all about how we manage risk. At the end of the day, the care and well-being of our workers brings the greatest reward."
The safety department now works closely with the technology department for safety audits with a web based project management tool known as PROCORE. "We moved from a 1-inch binder to 600 pages," she states. "I have free reign to demonstrate results and participate in many industry committees and boards. Our leadership team has helped me get to where I am today."
Meyer Najem has received several safety awards, including the Commissioner's Award in Excellence for Workplace Safety and Health. A crowning moment in the company's history came in 2010 when the company received the Crystal Eagle Award, the highest award given by CCS.
"Watching the development of our key advisory and leadership staff and seeing their success has been rewarding," Hardin says. "We are a team and we do a great deal operationally to work together to achieve project success. Meyer Najem is a family and everyone is included in helping make every project a success."
Attracting High Achievers and Innovators
Executive Vice President of Business Development and Marketing Nate Lelle worked in architectural drafting and with a small construction company for about six years while completing a degree at IUPUI. He came to Meyer Najem in 2000 as an Assistant Project Manager. "I quickly learned how to do things the right way and had the flexibility to get it done. What I've always liked about Meyer Najem - you're allowed to think outside the box and get a job done." He says everyone has a voice and change has been permitted as innovation has evolved.
While much of Meyer Najem's work is in the healthcare arena, Lelle has focused on the commercial side of the portfolio and built it to one-fourth of the overall business. "As our business has grown, we have expanded outside of the state for many projects," he shares. "We have figured out how to go into different markets as the contractor, so if our clients take us out of state, we go find the best local trades to partner with us."
"This is a work hard, play hard environment," Lelle notes. "At the end of the day, we laugh and have fun. We can't grow without failure and trial and error is part of it." Lelle says they attract high achievers - people who want to succeed. It's a certain type of person who wants to not only succeed personally but also wants the company to succeed. These are people who want to be accountable to themselves and their project.
Sam Mishelow joined Meyer Najem in December 1999. The company experienced significant growth in its first 10 years, and in January 2000, it became a management-owned organization. Mishelow became one of the company's partners. There are now nine partners and only one of the original group has retired. "We've spent a lot of time sustaining this organization," he says. "And, we've taken five new partners over the last three years so that we can plan for sustaining the future."
As Chief Strategy Officer, Mishelow has seen a number of changes in his 18 years with the company. Among the biggest change is the emergence of technology, which he says drives efficiency, quality control, and overall project management, especially over last decade. "We have an extremely strong employee engagement model and have spent a lot of time with consultants," he shares. "Additionally we invest in research and surveying our employees to make sure we are providing the tools, resources and environment they require."
The Right Work Space for the Company Culture
Mishelow cites the example of the importance of company culture in the building of Meyer Najem's current headquarters. "Previously, we had a great building, but it wasn't what we wanted for our employees," he notes. When Meyer Najem started the mission to design their own building, they spent two days in a visioning exercise with their entire workforce. They were divided into large groups and showed various types of building environments and interior finishes. They were then asked what would be their five primary priorities for the new office. "There was a lot of consistency in the responses," recalls Mishelow. "It came down to these priorities across the board: natural light, a break room where staff could congregate, outdoor space, comfortable work space and being on one level in close proximity to one another."
"We have incredibly talented employees who are enthusiastic and create a positive culture at Meyer Najem," Mishelow comments, "and we work hard to retain our employees. In warm weather, we do a company-wide cookout the third Thursday of the month. We close down a little early, bring out the grill, start the music and it's a chance for our employees to have fun and spend time together. They look forward to it." Meyer Najem also hosts several other employee events each year, including monthly birthdays, a chili cook off and breakfast every Friday. "This is a great way to engage our field staff members, who are vital to our success," he says.
The company recently conducted its annual review process where performance, goals, training and career pathing are discussed. The process is done offsite for the field staff and at the office for corporate staff. "We award staff with an extra check for a job well done and always tie it to March Madness. It's an exciting time," Mishelow says.
He points out that employees want to perform at a high level not only for themselves, but also for each other and for the clients. "The great thing about review time is seeing how excited our people are about where they are and where the organization they work for is. It's good to know we are doing the right thing for our employees, our community and our clients," he says. "We feel this momentum and the spirit of our employees will sustain us for years to come."
Technology Aids Steady Growth
After working in structural steel fabrication as a subcontractor that supplied to general contractors,Meyer Najem Senior Estimator Jim Molenda came to Meyer Najem in 1997. "I was fortunate to join Meyer Najem in the early years," recalls Molenda. "I was looking for a change and it was time to apply my building construction technology degree to its fullest extent. They were a quality contractor in the Indianapolis area. They did good work and were respected by the subcontractors."
During his career at Meyer Najem, Molenda's contacts and relationships with owners, architects and sub-contractors have broadened a great deal. "Coming from steel fabrication, I worked mostly with structural engineers," says Molenda. "Learning and meeting new people, especially architects, has helped me learn to look at things differently."
Molenda thinks projects take on a life of their own and has learned to appreciate a building owner's desire to get what they want in a building while following a budget. "The result is the most important thing," he notes. "Giving the client a quality facility while making them a part of the team is critical. Owners need to know they are a part of the project from the very beginning - keeping them involved is important."
Molenda says watching the company's growth has been impressive. "It wasn't a grow fast situation but a steady, calculated growth. Meyer Najem is great about providing the necessary training for technology. While physical drawings and spec books are still around, everything is on the computer now and we utilize these programs to be more efficient."
Current software available for calculations and drawings are right on screen. "What used to take a week can be done in a day," notes Molenda. Some of the online efficiencies Molenda points to include online planning rooms with drawings for anyone to see. "We can blast out addendums to projects as needed," he says. "We are also using cloud-based software that we can share for the bidding process. These advances have made life easier."
Meyer Najem's Executive Vice President of Information Technology, Matt Weaver, has been with the company for more than 16 years and has been instrumental in the company's technological advancement. Not only is Weaver highly trained and experienced in technology, but he also has experience in construction management and architecture with a construction management degree from Purdue. This unique combination of skills is what has made the company an industry leader in technology.
"By understanding and keeping up to date with technology, Meyer Najem is committed to delivering a total construction management experience," he says. As a testament to this commitment, Weaver was an Indianapolis Business Journal Chief Technology Officer of the Year Honoree last year, a unique distinction for the IT leader of a construction management company.
Building in Today's Environment
In today's construction environment, the Meyer Najem approach to challenges and opportunities is to pre-qualify work and be selective about who they work for and with. "Being engaged before we even break ground is key. We're looking for clients, trade partners and vendors who have similar goals to ours," says Najem. "We constantly work to raise the bar in terms of the diversity of projects but try to keep the same ingredients, which is a collaborative delivery to make it both gratifying and satisfying."
In terms of workforce challenges, Meyer and Najem agree they currently are staffed for growth and have continued to invest in maintaining a qualified labor pool that can both develop and elevate within the current marketplace. Meyer speaks to the challenges of limited available resources since the 2009 recession, which caused a 25 to 30 percent reduction in workforce on the trade side. It's probable that our industry is at full employment due to the attrition of craftsmen the last 10 years, so it is extremely important to have the trade partners to fulfill job commitments. Having the work is one thing, but getting it completed on time and within budget is still a challenge because of available workforce," he says.
Interestingly, both agree on a favorite project: The Beltway for Methodist Hospital, which included locations throughout Indianapolis. "Since Methodist allowed a collaboration partnering concept," recalls Meyer, "It included the developer, outside designers and staff from Methodist. With a $100 million budget, the team tackled the five projects within three years. We solved problems quickly, efficiently and had a high level of trust, which made it enjoyable. Plus, we had fun and executed great work with great people working from concept to completion. This project is a testament to our earlier success," he comments.
Meyer also points out that technology has been one of the biggest drivers of change. "Construction has been one of the slowest industries to change in the last 30 years," he says, "but we work hard to stay in front of it. We look for things that bring value - like lean construction. Thanks to technology, so much more is being done from an information perspective. The young talent and their adaptability is phenomenal."
A Future of Ongoing Collaboration
Even with a changing future for Meyer Najem, one thing will remain - understanding and meeting client expectations. "How we package our services has evolved into a collaborative effort on the front end - with the entire team on board earlier in the project," says Najem. "Beyond the design-bid-build model, our successes will be achieved in a team approach. Design-build has grown and total turnkey has grown; projects demand a higher level of partnership, with trades, architects and contractors working together. We will seek partners that share our philosophy of transparency," he continues. Many projects are going this way even in the public market, with education, healthcare and others following the same approach, Meyer says. "Meyer Najem will continue to be a leader."
Besides adapting to change, they also stress the importance of adding value for the future of the business with services like financing, design-build, pre-design and pre-construction services so jobs may be done more efficiently with less labor. "Labor shortages are here to stay," comments Meyer, "and we are collaborating with universities and trade schools to continually find new talent."
Najem offers some key questions as he ponders the future of the business they've built: "What impact did we make for the company to be successful in the future? Do our people have the necessary tools and training? We have consciously invested in career development and advancement for our people. Happy employees and a level of engagement are the keys to success today. It takes generations to make a successful company," he notes.
Meyer agrees. "You must be flexible with all age ranges. As business owners, we must be aware that what works for one group may not work for another. Thus, we have a lot of leaders."
When asked about how friends could work together for so many years, they point out that relationships are a process and not an event. "Just like a marriage," claims Najem. "This philosophy has kept us together. We are committed as a family and a company. These are somewhat synonymous." And as they reflect on 30 years in business, Meyer recalls, "Over the years, we've tried to do the right thing. It seems simple, but it's tough. I think we've done what's right to ensure the success of this company."