Cornerstone General Contractors
Cornerstone completed renovations of three floors, 143,000 square feet, of the Boney Courthouse in Anchorage in 2013.
© Chris Arend Photography
The Top 49ers are ranked by revenue, which is one indicator of success, but in the Alaska business community, it’s rarely the only one. What else makes the list? Joe Jolley, president of Cornerstone General Contractors, says, “That’s easy: repeat business, staff retention, and safety excellence.”
A Little History
Cornerstone was formed in 1993 “to offer an all-Alaskan general contracting option to the state’s leading organizations,” Jolley says. Its original founders were C. John Eng and Jaysen E. Mathiesen. The company is currently owned by three partners—Jolley; Mark Palmatier, VP of Construction; and Mike Quirk, VP of Estimating. Jolley continues, “During the last two decades, Cornerstone has become an industry leader and trusted general contractor specializing in collaborative project delivery methods for new commercial construction and precision renovation of existing facilities.”
Cornerstone has contributed to a number of significant projects, building education, government, healthcare, industrial, and residential infrastructure. Some of their notable projects are “school renovations and additions for the Anchorage School District at East, Service, and West High Schools; several major facilities for the University of Alaska Anchorage [UAA] such as the UAA/APU [Alaska Pacific University] Consortium Library, ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building, Health Sciences Building, and the Alaska Airlines Center; the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Muldoon; numerous precision renovations inside Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Native Medical Center; and rural community assignments across the state including the South Peninsula Hospital Expansion in Homer, Kodiak Public Library, and AVTEC [Alaska Vocational Technical Center] Alaska Culinary Academy and Dormitory Replacement in Seward,” Jolley says.
Leadership at Work
Leadership is a key word at Cornerstone as it’s a leader externally in the industry and leadership is found at every level internally, from the president down. “To me, an effective leader takes charge, sees an objective through from start to finish, builds up others along the way and encourages them to own the outcome, and then gives credit where credit is due,” Jolley says. “Leadership is absolutely vital to the success of our company, and you’ll find it at every level, but it’s teamwork that gets the work done.”
A culture of collaboration isn’t just promoted in the company, but is a significant part of Cornerstone’s approach with project partners and clients. Cornerstone practices collaborative delivery methods, often referred to by various terms such as Design Assist, CM/GC (Construction Manager/General Contractor), CM@R (Construction Manager at Risk), or IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) in the construction industry. The benefits of this approach are far reaching, including reducing project uncertainty, risk mitigation, and providing insight on constructability and potential cost savings.
Looking internally, Jolley says, “Cornerstone IS a company of leaders,” employing both experienced professionals as well as bright new talent in the upcoming generations. All of Cornerstone’s forty employees are located in Alaska, allowing them to have an Alaskan’s insight as they are out in the field leading projects for Cornerstone’s clients. “They are doers and achievers, and they absolutely love the work they do, who they do it with, and who they do it for,” Jolley says. He continues that employees at Cornerstone may be serving in a clear leadership role, such as a Project Manager or Superintendent, on one jobsite and then be called to perform a support role in another. “Leadership often means service to others, and in this sense I’m very proud of our people. Every single one of our construction professionals is capable of stepping up or stepping in to get the job done right regardless of the level of difficulty or whether or not they get the credit.”
Jolley witnessed this sort of leadership from his parents, who he says were a significant influence in his life. Jolley was born and raised in Anchorage, living Outside only to attend Arizona State University and get his Bachelor of Science in Construction Management in 1999. His parents moved separately to Alaska in the 1960s, meeting each other in the 1970s and getting married, building a home, and starting a family. They took the significant risk of starting their own company, also in construction. “Their sense of adventure, entrepreneurial spirit, and their legacy of hard work, doing things right, and volunteering in the community provided me with a core set of values that continue to serve me today,” Jolley says.
Alaskan Owned in Alaska Community
Cornerstone is certainly a company grounded in the Alaska economy and community. “Being Alaskan owned makes the difference across the board, whether we’re talking about construction or banking or shopping for a truck or buying local produce or coffee,” Jolley says. In his experience in the construction industry, “not one Alaskan professional has ever been outshined by a Lower 48 counterpart,” he adds.
In fact, being a local company is an advantage in many ways, as all personnel at Cornerstone know the state and what makes it work. “We care about the people who will use the building we construct,” Jolley says. Plus, living here means that employees and leadership alike are deeply invested in the health of rural, city, and statewide economies. “We hire locally, spend locally, invest locally, and support locally-owned businesses through service and material procurement on projects whenever possible.”
Philanthropically speaking, Jolley says the company’s work with Habitat for Humanity Anchorage tops the list. Jolley has served on the organization’s board for several years and currently serves as Board Chair. Aside from that contribution, Cornerstone “regularly provides construction assistance to Habitat for Humanity projects, particularly for work tasks that require special skills or equipment, like placing roof trusses.”
The company also participates as a group in the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce’s annual Citywide Cleanup, providing crews that collect bagged refuse along the Glenn Highway and deliver it to the dump.
Jolley says, “A couple years ago we asked all employees which local organizations they support through financial, in-kind, and volunteer giving.” The resulting list has almost as many organizations as the company has employees and includes organizations such as the Alaska Aviation Museum, Alaska World Affairs Council, Big Brothers Big Sisters, NAWIC Alaska, and the Alaska Veterans Museum, among more than thirty other charitable organizations.
Two Cornerstone workers at the Service High School Renewal, slated for completion in 2016.
© Hook LLC
Cornerstone is able to have such a positive effect on Alaska because it provides quality services, growing through the years to join the Top 49ers in 2014. “Cornerstone is extremely proud of the fact that most of our customers are repeat customers. Some have called on us to fulfill their construction needs repeatedly for more than twenty years,” Jolley says. “Every time we’re called upon to serve a customer again, whether it’s the second time or the twentieth, it’s a very satisfying moment that tells us our people have done a lot of things right.”
One contribution to “doing things right” is finding and keeping quality employees. Jolley says the staff retention at Cornerstone is excellent, with very low turnover over the last five years or so; leadership in the company and most management staff have been with Cornerstone for more than ten years. “We hire top quality people and do our best to keep them with us for the long haul,” he says.
Any company that understands the value of quality employees also understands the necessity of workplace safety, especially in an industry such as construction. “Construction is physically demanding, sometimes dangerous work, but with the right processes in place we have been able to create a culture of safety that minimizes risk and makes all team members responsible for looking out for one another.
“Safety is number one at Cornerstone since there’s nothing more important than keeping everyone on our jobsites free from injury,” Jolley says. Cornerstone has an award winning safety program, led by a full-time Safety Manager: it has earned “five consecutive Alaska Governor’s Safety Awards, multiple AGC of Alaska Safety Awards, and enrollment in the State of Alaska’s CHASE Program, which monitors contractors to learn safety best practices that are then used to set industry-wide standards within the Alaska Department of Labor,” Jolley reports.
More than Infrastructure
Buildings are a long-term, tangible artifact of Cornerstone’s work, but the effect such structures can have on a community are far-reaching, and the collaborations that lead to the completion of a successful project build a sense of community in industry. “We’re proud of all our projects,” Jolley says. “Each one was unique and involved a mix of great people. We’re fortunate to interact with impressive project owners, architects, engineers, subcontractors, vendors, and others every day.”
Cornerstone has worked on several high profile projects; for example, the Alaska Airlines Center at UAA, which celebrated its grand opening in September. That being said, Jolley says that many smaller projects are highlights in terms of success and relationship building, such as the new Alaska Culinary Academy and dorm project in Seward. “Every project teaches new things and leads to the formation of new relationships, and those are the most important takeaways.”
Seawolves practicing at the Alaska Airlines Center on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.
© Ken Graham Photography.com
It’s no secret that Alaska is currently tightening its financial belt. “Like others in our industry, we’ve seen a downturn in activity due to uncertainties in the market and reduced state spending on public projects,” Jolley says; however, Cornerstone is hopeful for the future. One of the company’s upcoming projects is with the State of Alaska Department of Education and Early Development: the design and construction of the Mount Edgecumbe Aquatic Center in Sitka, a thirty-four-thousand-square-foot facility that will serve the Mount Edgecumbe High School, Alaska State Troopers Academy, US Coast Guard, and community of Sitka. The $18.5 million project will include at twenty-five-yard by twenty-five-meter primary pool plus a fifteen-foot by twenty-five-yard therapeutic pool.
Jolley says that it is actually an opportune time for those interested in working with Cornerstone on a new building or renovation. “Having recently completed several important projects in the last few months, we currently have the energy and the capacity to lead organizations through any sized construction project.”
Tasha Anderson is an Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.
This article first appeared in the October 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.