A cornerstone of the construction industry
Photo © Judy Patrick Photography
Most contractors pay attention to the details of impending work and evaluate specifics in advance, but few crawl around a job site on a blustery New Year’s Day to figure out a problem months before the startup date. An exception is C. John Eng, who says projects often occupied his mind long before the work commenced. Eng, a former owner of the Anchorage construction firm Cornerstone General Contractors, remembers an occasion from the mid-1970s when he was with Kiewit in Omaha, Nebraska, working on a retrofit of an existing Kellogg cereal plant.
“On New Year’s Eve I suddenly woke up and realized I had not done a complete comparison to make sure that the openings in the steel roof structure matched the ductwork that penetrated the roof from the rooftop heating and cooling units,” he says.
New Year’s Day saw Eng braving snow, ice, and -20 F weather, sliding beneath the equipment, checking the ductwork, and comparing the drawings. Except for one location everything matched. But, says Eng, “At the time, I beat myself up a bit for not being more thorough, but later an acquaintance put it in perspective and pointed out that I had realized the situation six months before the project start on the 4th of July.”
Early Career Days
Eng, sixty-nine, co-owner of Cornerstone for twenty years before selling his share in the company, grew up in Waco, Nebraska, a small town of less than three hundred about forty miles from Lincoln, the state capital. After high school he studied construction management, a new field of study then, at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1970.
After college, Eng went to work for Omaha-based national contractor Kiewit, then known as Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc. Eng had some prior experience in construction from working for his father, who owned a lumberyard and a small contracting firm.
Kiewit moved Eng to Seattle to serve as a project engineer and an estimator on a highway bridge. Two years later the company sent him to a ballistic missile base in Montana, but that turned out to be a short-lived assignment because President Richard M. Nixon negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the then-USSR. Kiewit transferred Eng back to Omaha and later to Casper, Wyoming, where he worked on a large events center. After a decade with Kiewit, Eng decided it was time to find a new direction. Those years at Kiewit were valuable, Eng says. “I worked at the building group and became experienced in estimating and negotiating. I learned a lot about good management techniques.”
The desire for new experiences led Eng to Alaska in 1980. His fascination with the state began long before that—in third grade—when he had an assignment to put together a book on Alaska, including a short history.
His experience with Kiewit helped him obtain work with Coffman White Engineers, a Washington-based construction management company. He worked later for Howard S. Wright and Strand Inc., two Seattle-based construction companies with operations in Alaska. He stayed with Strand for eight years, leaving in 1993. Once again, Eng was ready for something else.
Mark Palmatier, a former partner at Cornerstone, has known Eng since 1992. He remembers why Eng decided to form a new company. “John likes to think outside the bubble and had a vision of building a high quality construction company. He attracted bright people and succeeded.”
Cornerstone was incorporated in fall 1993 and was submitting bids on jobs by spring 1994. It soon received its first contract, valued at $4 million, from the US Army Corps of Engineers to build an addition to the US Air Force headquarters building at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
That first contract marked the beginning of a long relationship with the Corps and more work on military projects, Eng says. The work included hangars at Elmendorf, barracks at Elmendorf and Fort Richardson, and hangar renovations for the Coast Guard in Kodiak. It helped that Cornerstone was a local company and its owners and personnel were familiar with the state and its special challenges.
Cornerstone’s success can be attributed, at least in part, to Eng’s constant curiosity about many things, including new trends in construction and ways to take advantage of them and to grow the company.
He kept up with developments in business and construction by extensive reading and by attending industry conventions and seminars. Eng says he reads between forty and fifty books a year and his interests involve business, leadership, science, economics, and historical fiction.
In the early 1990s Eng went to the World of Concrete convention in Las Vegas. “It was a big event with about thirty thousand and offered many seminars. One talked about coming trends in construction, noting that demographic shifts indicated new areas where the industry would find good opportunities. He mentioned the need for more medical facilities because of the aging population,” Eng says.
It was a key moment in his career.
“After the seminar I did some research and then I went and talked with Providence Hospital,” Eng says. The seminar speaker’s prediction was correct and the timing was right. Providence Alaska Medical Center was about to embark on an expansion of its campus.
In the following years Cornerstone secured several projects and developed expertise in medical facilities. That competency acquired in that field helped the company when it joint-ventured with Kiewit on the construction of the new VA Hospital, a $75 million job, according to Rick Boots, the controller at Cornerstone.
The expansion at Providence coincided with construction of new facilities at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The area around the two institutions came to be known as the U-Med District. In the following years Cornerstone’s name appeared on the signboards of many big projects in the area, including the Alaska Native Medical Center.
By the time Eng sold his share of Cornerstone in 2013, the company had completed approximately $400 million in projects in the U-Med district. “I was fortunate to be part of the leadership of Cornerstone when we worked on projects for the University of Alaska, Providence Alaska Medical, Alaska Pacific University, and the Alaska Native Health Consortium,” Eng says.
Another factor that shaped Cornerstone’s success was its ability to complete projects without cost overruns. “I have never known us to have a project that did not come in within the budget,” Palmatier notes. It is also unusual that the company did “hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of work around Anchorage and never had to go for litigation in a court on any project,” Palmatier says.
Eng’s personality and his attention to the needs of his customers helped cement the company’s relationships with clients, says Mike Quirk, a vice president at Cornerstone and one of its two current shareholders. “John is a congenial person. He is well informed and able to talk with anyone on any subject. He was in the pulse of things and was able to find out about projects well in advance,” Quirk says.
Quirk praises Eng for being “a good leader” who “had a knack for figuring where to head with the company, and how to get there.” And, says Quirk, Eng was “integral” in getting work for Cornerstone, noting how Providence, for one, does not “seek proposals from just any company. You have to be on their list of approved contractors.”
The facilities built by Cornerstone that define the current U-Med district include the Alaska Airlines Sports Arena, Consortium Library, ConocoPhillips Science Building, the Health Sciences Building, dormitories, and food services facilities. At Providence the company built the North Tower with emergency facilities, the Children’s Hospital, and the power plant, as well as numerous other projects. “It seemed like it was our part of town at the time,” Eng says of those years.
Sometime the jobs came with special challenges, but Cornerstone was able to overcome those. The construction of any building involves levels of difficulties. However, erecting one from the ground up is comparatively straightforward compared to creating a new facility within an existing building, especially a fully operating hospital. That is especially demanding. But Cornerstone became adept at hospital work and Eng is proud the work was done without any disruption to patients, who continued to use the hospital.
“Except for the north tower and power plant at Providence, which were additions outside the main building, all our work was done inside. The hospital functioned normally and never closed for any of our projects and to my knowledge no one got sick because of any construction related problems,” Eng says.
The reason for the success in the hospital work lay in Eng’s ability to listen to his customer and to figure out techniques that minimized potential health problems, especially those created from dust in the work area. “We maintained a negative air pressure in all of our work areas to prevent any air from infiltrating the hospital. We also kept a close watch on stagnant water.”
One Cornerstone project that Eng is most proud of, and one of the most challenging, was the Children’s Hospital at Providence, which opened in 1998.
That pride is justified, says Collin Szymanski, president and owner of Mantech Mechanical Inc., an Anchorage plumbing and heating company that worked with Cornerstone. “The Children’s Hospital was a big, complicated project and it took a lot of coordination.”
The Children’s Hospital was created on an existing floor of the hospital. “We had to gut and remake a floor between two floors. Below us was a fully functioning operating area, and above us were patients’ room with medical equipment, but we managed to get work done without causing any disruption. It was one of the toughest projects in my career,” Szymanski says.
In a difficult job such as the Children’s Hospital friction can result between different parties. When that happened people turned to Eng, according Szymanski. “John was the ‘go-to guy.’ He was above his superintendent and we could call him and voice our concerns. John understood, and he might not sympathize every time, but he could rationalize and made necessary adjustments needed to resolve a problem. He was accommodating to our needs within the extent possible,” Szymanski says.
On complicated projects there is always a chance of something going bad or someone getting hurt. But Cornerstone avoided that, says Eng. “We had a very good safety record. I was always happy that all our workers went home safe and no one got killed, we had a very low incidence of reportables and lost time accidents during all those years of major construction.”
When Eng created Cornerstone with Jaysen Mathiesen he set himself a goal of moving on in twenty years. And he did. After selling his shares in the company he stayed on for another two years, until December 2015.
The departure from Cornerstone does not mean that Eng has moved away from construction. “I continue to enjoy business, and remain active in the construction industry, as well as devoting time and other resources to a variety of other business investments,” he says.
More recently Eng and his wife, Lynn Ann, began a new endeavor—they founded High Point Construction, a company licensed in South Dakota and Alaska. Eng says he “still has a desire and motivation to help customers with construction and organization needs.”
The new corporation’s formation follows the start of a new project on a subdivision in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The scale is smaller than his past work, however. “It’s a new subdivision called Mount Gypsum, and it is only six acres on which I will plan to build seven homes for professionals in the area.”
Eng says he chose to begin his next work in South Dakota because of his deep connections with the state. He speaks fondly of his younger days when he spent summers on his grandfather’s ranch near Hot Springs.
From his grandfather, who immigrated from Norway at age seventeen in 1910, Eng learned not only values that have guided him but also how to count, a critical skill in business. “When I was three or four, my grandfather drove me around his hay fields in his jeep and made me add up all the haystacks on his ranch.” That exercise must have “been worthwhile, because today I seem to have a cost accountant’s mentality,” Eng says.
Along with honing mathematical skills on the ranch, Eng learned how to take “risks without being reckless, recognize that some endeavors can be fruitless and need to be abandoned; and be tolerant of others points of view whether it involves money, religion, or politics.”
Retirement, if it could be called that, has been busy for Eng. He divides his time between Anchorage and Hot Springs. While in Anchorage he maintains his involvement with the Downtown Rotary Club, and to a lesser degree, with the Alaska World Affairs Council. He and Lynn Ann travel extensively, throughout the United States and abroad. They travel both for pleasure and to attend shareholder meetings of the corporations in which the Engs have investments.
Philanthropic work, including the Alaska Sudan Medical Project, also keeps Eng busy. He holds fundraisers for it and donates to that and other charities. The urge to help goes back to childhood. “My parents expected us to help others, if not with money then with actions.”
He fondly recalls one unique experience in helping people that came when he worked for Kiewit in Omaha in the 1970s. “I donated my time to read newspapers and business magazines on the Radio Talking Books program for blind people.” He did that for a year, until his transfer to Casper, Wyoming. He still remembers how a sign on the studio wall reminded volunteers not to forget to read Ann Landers, the advice columnist. “If we forgot to read her column we would get phone calls from people complaining.”
Eng believes in education and says it is important to encourage young people and give them a chance to attend school. “Each of us can probably recall being encouraged by a sibling, parent, relative, teacher, neighbor, or others that were the catalyst to helping us make a decision to take our life in a positive direction. When each person decides to encourage another person, lives can be changed for the better,” he says.
A few years ago the Engs gave $25,000 to UAA to endow a scholarship fund—the C. John and Lynn Ann Eng Construction Management Scholarship. Eng also extended his charity work to his hometown of Waco, where he helped plan the Waco Community Scholarship and in 2014 made a donation of seed money.
While Eng is busy with his new subdivision in South Dakota and enjoying traveling, Alaska is still his home and he is concerned about the state’s economy. He supports measures such as sales and income taxes to solve the state’s fiscal problem and would gladly pay both. He favored the governor’s decision to cut the Permanent Fund Dividend, which he says has become “a kind of welfare” for Alaskans. He has always donated his dividends and did not even apply for one last year.
Unlike most, Eng sees an upside to the state’s fiscal woes. “I think this could be a big benefit to the state,” he says. He uses a business analogy to explain his reasoning. “Sometime when you have a big challenge in business, and finances are challenged, then people get creative. They face up to it and make the right decisions to achieve a sustainable turnaround.” That is what he hopes will happen in Alaska.
Freelance writer Shehla Anjum is based in Anchorage.
This article first appeared in the March 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.