The last time Darren Woody sat down with El Paso Inc. was nearly 10 years ago, when one of El Paso’s largest construction companies, CF Jordan Construction, partnered with businessman Paul Foster to form Jordan Foster Construction.
Since then, a lot has happened.
The company’s highest-profile project underway now is La Nube, the children’s museum under construction in Downtown. What are some of the company’s other recent projects in El Paso?
“You’re looking at them right here,” Woody said from the fourth floor of the curvy steel skeleton that will become La Nube. “The ballpark, the Mills parking garage, the Mills Building, the Centre Building, the Plaza Hotel – you don’t have to look far.
“On WestStar Tower, we did the concrete structure. And we did the finish-out of the WestStar offices. The old city hall that once stood where the ballpark now does, we built that.”
Jordan Foster has built thousands of apartments in El Paso, as well as industrial warehousing and facilities on Fort Bliss and the UTEP campus. Its most visible transportation project in El Paso right now is the transformation of Montana into an expressway on the Eastside.
Woody has led Jordan Foster Construction since 2000, when the company was known as CF Jordan Construction. Before that, he was a partner in the law firm of Krafsur, Gordon, Mott, Davis and Woody.
Since 2004, Woody has served as a director of Helen of Troy, the publicly traded consumer products giant headquartered in El Paso. He has a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Texas Tech University.
Last year, Jordan Foster Construction received national recognition for its safety programs. It received the 2022 Gary E. Bird Horizon Award from the International Risk Management Institute and was recognized by the Associated Builders and Contractor’s STEP Safety Management System. It also was a finalist for the Associated General Contractors of America’s Construction Safety Excellence Awards.
“A big part of our business is our road and bridge heavy highway business,” Woody said. “That is particularly dangerous work, so we’ve been very intentional about our safety efforts.”
Woody and Ash Kamath, vice president of Jordan Foster Construction, sat down with El Paso Inc. in an old red brick building on Franklin that serves as its office for the children’s museum project next door. They spoke about the challenges faced by the construction industry, the outlook for the U.S. economy and what’s next for the company.
Q: What’s new since CF Jordan Construction partnered with Paul Foster to form Jordan Foster Construction in 2013?
Darren Woody: We’re largely in the same geographic markets. I’d say our product mix has shifted a little more toward the heavy civil road and bridge side.
We’ve expanded our operations in Austin and San Antonio, and we’ve really moved up to doing larger TxDOT-type jobs. We have evolved to become good bridge builders. We’ve got some excellent bridge builders, and like jobs that have a bit of complexity to them.
Also, the size of the jobs we are pursuing is a lot bigger today than it used to be. We are doing the Montana expressway project. That’s $150 million-ish. We just started the Purple Heart Memorial Highway. It’s a $137 million project. We’re doing a big section, about $120-plus million, of I-10 between San Antonio and Seguin.
Q: With all the growth and terrible traffic, I’m sure there is plenty of road work in Austin and San Antonio.
There’s a lot. In that area, what I call “Austintonio,” which is basically from Georgetown to San Antonio, it’s like one big infill project. We’re doing a fair amount of work on the big Samsung fabrication facility that’s in Taylor. The scope of that project is just mind-boggling.
Q: How big is the company now? How many do you employ and how much work do you do?
It goes up and down depending on the workload, but right now we’re at about 500 to 600 on our team. Probably 300 of that is in El Paso. Total volume-wise, that goes up and down, too. The last few years have been strange with COVID, but we are in the $500 million a year range.
We’ve managed to stay consistently busy. A lot of that is here in El Paso. There’s probably not a major entity in El Paso that we haven’t done some work for. We’ve got a 50-year-plus history of always delivering products and doing quality work.
Q: How much of the company’s work is now outside of El Paso?
It’s about half and half.
Q: Any unexpected challenges along the way?
COVID. That is one we didn’t see coming. It wasn’t just the closures of the pandemic, but it was really everything that that backed up. The supply chain issues have still not sorted themselves out. To get a transformer for a new project today, it’s probably 12 months. That used to be something you just ordered when you needed it.
Anything related to materials is just making the team’s job difficult. You have to be hyperfocused on the planning. You have to get way ahead of things. Last-minute changes have a much, much greater impact than they used to.
The other challenge has been the estimation. Our poor estimators across the state, they spend their whole day getting yelled at because every time they present a budget the initial response is, “Oh, my God. How can that possibly be that expensive? Last year, we built it for this.”
But we’ve seen 20% or 30% escalations in costs – sometimes more.
Q: Is hiring in the construction industry a challenge?
Staffing is a challenge. We have less of a challenge in El Paso because we have a long-tenured workforce here. But we are always hiring, and we’re getting to the point, too, where we have people retiring.
One thing that was interesting about our El Paso office is we counted at one point 16 or 17 father-son teams.
Q: What are some ways you are addressing the supply chain, cost and staffing challenges?
We are doing a lot of things to try to address the staffing challenge, and it is particularly severe right now in our Central Texas offices. There is a lot of construction work going on out there. That Samsung plant is a $17 billion project. You can imagine the manpower that sucks up.
We’ve made a conscious effort to be the employer of choice. That means a lot of things. What we’re finding with younger workers is they really appreciate somebody taking an interest in their development and their opportunity for advancement.
We have a whole leadership program and are intentional about identifying people that can be future leaders and teaching them. We have our job-done-right programs. If you’re, say, a young project engineer and you come on board, here’s a list of things you need to know to get to the next level.
We have a program called Safety Scouts that’s, among the trades, to basically identify leaders and give them specialized training. We’ve got a young man in Austin in our safety group who started working with us when he was 18 doing unskilled labor and now he’s a director.
We also have a women-in-construction initiative. Trisha Kagerer, our risk management VP, speaks on this often. She is leading a session in March with the local contractors association. We have a lot more female project engineers and project managers than we did 10 years ago.
Q: Fewer young people are going into the trades. Are skilled jobs in construction a good career?
Ash Kamath: It’s a tremendous opportunity. I’ve spoken to local Region 19 outreach events from time to time. Unfortunately, some educators and parents believe that a great career can only be achieved through a college education. Some of the people over here who you interfaced with (on the children’s museum construction site) are probably making six figures on the job as skilled tradesmen. A journeyman electrician or plumber can make a great salary.
Woody: It’s truly a craft. We went through a period of time in our country where we really discouraged trades and made it seem like it was somehow inferior. Our country desperately needs skilled workers.
Q: What is the outlook for the construction industry as we enter 2023?
It’s pretty good. El Paso continues to grow. It’s good steady growth. One of the things we are seeing that’s driving growth in this market is the nearshoring that’s going on – companies shifting away from China and wanting to distribute from here closer to their markets. That’s a huge growth opportunity for El Paso.
We’re getting to a size of city where we are hitting a critical mass, and we need more infrastructure to support that growth.
Kamath: Thanks to COVID, there’s been a significant reconsideration of the supply chain. A lot of companies have not wanted to have their production held hostage by a container ship delayed somewhere or a foreign government that chooses to close down. There’s a lot of that.
The trade realignment that happened about three years ago that changed some of the operational criteria in Mexico and Canada brought back a lot of heavier manufacturing intensity and density back into Mexico. We’re seeing that in El Paso as well.
There has been more distribution and supply chain consolidation that is happening over here. You’ve got manufacturing companies like Schneider Electric that have decided to make El Paso one of their largest North American hubs for manufacturing.
Woody: We are building their new facility on the Westside right now.
Q: In El Paso, what construction segments do you expect to be strongest going forward?
The industrial work and then infrastructure-related work. Across the state, I think multifamily will continue to be strong. It is one of our core businesses. We build a lot of multifamily.
Q: But probably not as much in El Paso where single-family homes are popular?
We do build some here. Much of our activity is in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio where there’s just so much in-migration. Now with interest rates up, houses are just becoming even more expensive. We are seeing some products that we call single family for rent, where you basically build a whole community of homes for rent with amenities like an apartment complex.
Everything slowed down a little at the beginning of this year. We had several multifamily projects that have been kind of put on hold because of price increases and interest rates. But as it all normalizes, there’s so much demand that people are going to move forward with these projects.
Q: What’s your sense of where the U.S. economy is headed this year?
Things are definitely going to slow down. They just have to slow down a bit to let everything catch up. I don’t see a problem like the crash in 2008 when Lehman Brothers failed. It seems like the underlying economy is still pretty good. We are still creating jobs. I mean, the Fed is being intentional about slowing things down, and those interest rates are going to kill some deals for a while. But I have confidence in the American consumer. They will spend again.
I think 2023 is going to be a flat year, and we’ll start to see things get better in the first or second quarter of 2024.
Q: What are the major projects on Jordan Foster Construction’s radar in El Paso? What’s next?
There are several big ones coming up.
Kamath: There are certainly projects at UTEP we are targeting. The city of El Paso has started some advanced manufacturing facilities by the airport. That’s something on our radar. They also have several projects on the books with regard to the public safety bond.
On the private side of things, there’s a little bit of a wait-and-see approach. But there are a lot of shovel-ready projects ready to go. Some of the clients we are working with in El Paso are hungrily looking for land. We’ve got clients coming in from all the way up in Kansas looking to develop in El Paso.
Email El Paso Inc. editor Robert Gray at email@example.com or call 915-534-4422.