Haskell Project Superintendent Steve Clifford was just finishing a challenging job for the United States Coast Guard (USCG) in California when his phone rang.
A different Coast Guard job, this one in Honolulu, Hawaii, facing budget and schedule complexities typical to many projects. Clifford and Senior Project Manager Tom Osborne were asked to provide a fresh perspective.
The project at USCG Base Honolulu was to be undertaken in two phases. First, Haskell would expand and upgrade a maintenance building used for the base’s Fast Response Cutters. When that work was complete and the Coast Guard had signed off, it would move personnel, and Haskell would begin work expanding a facility for the base’s larger National Security Cutters.
“Our team and the owners’ team were just finishing up the first phase of this two-phase project,” said Mike Gwyn, group president of Federal and Healthcare for Haskell. “It was a good time to allow the first team to move on to another project and to put a fresh team on this one for the second phase. It coincided with those two guys finishing up the project in Los Angeles and Long Beach. They made a really good team, so we wanted to keep them together on the job in Honolulu. They had figured out how to work together very effectively.”
Clifford arrived in the South Pacific in October 2018 to find Phase One facing roadblocks and Phase Two not yet underway. He quickly established new expectations and lines of communication that now have the project nearing completion.
Colleagues say that a straightforward approach is a part of what makes Clifford one of the Federal division’s go-to superintendents.
A native of Ardmore, Oklahoma, he began his career and learned all facets of construction working for a smaller company based in Oklahoma City. He struck out on his own for a while, then spent ten years with Habitat for Humanity, leading teams of volunteers in building 315 houses for the organization.
He moved into commercial and then government construction when he joined Benham, an Oklahoma-based architecture, engineering, and design-build firm, in 2005 at the invitation of the company’s CFO. In 2016, Haskell acquired Benham.
Gwyn, the group president, also became a Haskell employee in the acquisition. But he had been with Benham since 2007, and he was well acquainted with Clifford and his work.
“I think what sets him apart in his role as a superintendent is his willingness to really dig into details and, if he doesn’t know it or hasn’t had experience with it, he’ll figure it out,” Gwyn said. “He’s a straightforward communicator, and he does it in a manner that doesn’t come across as threatening. It comes across as being helpful. He has a great balance that allows him to be that firm coach type leader.”
Honolulu allowed him to flex his professional muscles, promoting a positive culture and ensuring compliance with strict requirements.
“It was not a process that happened overnight; it was several months of them monitoring how things were going and what we were doing and how we were explaining it,” Clifford said. “If we’re going to do something, we need to notify them within five to seven days of when we’re going to do it if it has any impact on the base facilities. As long as I stayed within that regimen, they got more and more (trusting that),’ OK, he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.’”
Managing up was one issue. Managing down was another. Large-scale construction projects in the islands require extra planning to ensure that the right materials arrive from the mainland at the right time. Hawaiian subcontractors disdain delays and prefer a collaborative approach to their jobs.
“They have to know a couple of things,” Gwyn said. “They have to know that you have their back – you can be demanding, but you’re going to help them, which fits Steve’s style perfectly. They also have to know that if they show up that the deck is going to be cleared for them to do the work that they showed up to do. He develops such positive relationships with all of our subcontracting partners that they go the extra mile because they don’t want to disappoint him.”
The revised schedule that was hammered out when Clifford and Osborne took over in late 2018 called for completion of the entire project in mid-February 2020, and they’re on track.
That means the two men soon will be off to new projects. Haskell has six new federal jobs in various stages of startup, Gwyn said, and Osborne and Clifford will draw assignments there.
Osborne would like to latch onto Clifford as his permanent superintendent.
“Tom and I were talking about his next assignment the other day, and he said, ‘Can I take Clifford?’’ Gwyn said. “I said, ‘You’re going to have to do it without Clifford someday, Tom.’”
True to his straightforward style, Clifford said simply, “I basically work where they need me.”
Sure, but come on, Steve, tell the truth. What’s it like for a construction guy from Oklahoma to pull off a successful turnaround in beautiful Hawaii?
“I’m not going to lie, it is a beautiful place, and I’ve had a few opportunities to go to a national park,” Clifford said. “But I’m kind of a workaholic, so I spend a lot of the weekend getting ready for the next week. To me, it’s just another job.”