Tough as nails

Mark Corna isn’t the type of man who shrinks in the face of adversity.

Corna, president of Columbus-based commercial construction firm Corna/Kokosing Construction Co., instead takes a proactive approach to the sluggish market, saying it keeps him on his toes.

“In the boom years, it was easier to win jobs,” he says. “Now, it’s a lot of work. We have to plan very hard.”

Corna says the company strives to achieve high-quality results in its projects while making the most efficient use of its resources: labor, equipment and time.

“We look at ways to schedule the work so that we can reduce the time and costs involved,” Corna says. “We try to find different ways to do the same task that will take less time and money — it takes a lot of thought and planning.”

The commercial construction industry has gone through significant changes since Corna stepped onto the scene in 1978.

“When I first joined the Associated General Contractors association in Columbus, there were 17 members [representing 17 companies],” he says. “Of those original 17, only three are still in business today.”

Why so much attrition? Corna chalks it up to companies that weren’t willing or able to change with the times.

“You have to be flexible, competitive and maintain a good reputation,” he says.

In the 1970s, projects were awarded exclusively to union contractors. Today, projects are awarded based solely on the merit of the bid — whether the contractor uses union workers or not.

And, Corna says, about half of all the work available is open for negotiation and not necessarily awarded to the lowest bidder. So marketing your company is an important part of landing any project deal.

“Those contractors [the ones no longer in business] didn’t want or know how to do business development,” Corna says.

The role of construction managers has also changed.

“Construction managers influence how business is done,” says Corna. “Previously, owners hired architects to prepare the contract, bids, and basically coordinate the project. Now, construction managers are expected to perform these duties.”

Corna says the former system — called design-bid-build — has been replaced by one that has completely changed the roles of both the architect and the builder.

“Now the builder has become much more of a broker,” Corna says. “Instead of doing a lot of the work himself, he hires subcontractors and becomes much more involved in the pre-construction and planning process. A lot of contractors didn’t want to change.”

A rep to protect

The 1990s were the boom years, when commercial projects were abundant. That time, however, is gone.

“The market in the Columbus area for the past three years can best be described as slow and steady,” says Richard Hobbs, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Central Ohio. “The construction boom for the previous 10-year period is over.”

Hobbs says The Ohio State University and the state’s public school system will provide the lion’s share of building projects in the next 10 years.

“The only market area of growth is in the public school construction market,” Hobbs says. “The Ohio State University continues to grow and construct. It will continue to fuel the local construction economy. Over the next 10 years, the Columbus Public School system will spend millions upon millions of dollars on new build and some renovation.”

Retail and office space construction will not be in demand. Corna/Kokosing is reacting to the changing market by targeting two specific areas in its marketing efforts: education and continuing care.

“The kindergarten through 12th grade building program is booming throughout the state,” says Corna, “because there’s been no serious building there for 20 years, and many of the school systems have growing student populations.”

And because the baby boom generation is getting older, Corna sees opportunity in continuing care facilities.

Targeting two market segments reduces the company’s risk because public school projects are open bid — the lowest bid wins the project in all instances — and the market is very competitive.

“We’ve gotten our share of those projects,” Corna says. “But no one is dominating the field. Private projects [like continuing care projects] are open for negotiation, and our experience and reputation help us there.”

Corna says the company’s reputation is responsible for its success and helps it maintain a competitive edge. In business since 1956, Corna/Kokosing got its reputation by doing the “right thing,” says Corna.

“We live up to our commitments as far as budget and schedule,” he says. “We treat people fairly, honestly and with respect.”

He says the company instills these values in its 600 employees through constant communication.

“We have signage throughout the office with our core values and mission statement, and we reinforce them in newsletters and meetings,” he says. “You have to walk the talk and lead by example.”

Doing what it takes

Despite its successes, the company has felt the financial pinch of the slow market and reacted by drastically cutting expenses, as well as expanding its services offerings.

“For the first time in our 47-year history, we had to lay off employees and reorganize the company,” Corna says. “And we drastically reduced our costs. Anything that didn’t add value to the operation or service to the customer, we cut loose.”

Upper management teams met bi-weekly for three months to identify ways to save money, including reduced cleaning services and receptionist hours.

“No stone was left unturned,” he says.

And about two years ago, it launched its site development division, which has already positively impacted sales.

“Site development has picked up the slack,” Corna says, accounting for $30 million of the company’s $130 million annual revenue. “Our site development division puts in sewers, streets, utilities, curbs and sidewalks so the site can be sold to apartment, condominium or housing developers. It is definitely a growing market.”

But despite these changes in some areas of the company, Corna says the one thing that will remain the same is its self-perform capabilities.

Corna/Kokosing proclaims itself to be the largest self-performing general contractor in Central Ohio, with more than 350 field associates and $7 million in equipment resources dedicated self-perform functions, including concrete, masonry, steel erection, carpentry, mill work and pre-engineered metal building erection.

Corna says the company is sold on the benefits of offering these services, even though it requires a huge investment to maintain a staff of skilled personnel and the latest equipment.

“It puts us in an ideal situation,” he says. “We can guarantee the safety, quality of work and scheduling of the project. And it enhances our competitiveness because we can control productivity.”

Slow market and extensive cost-cutting measures aside, Corna is optimistic. He believes his business, along with the economy, is improving.

“I think everyone is still waiting to see what happens on a national level with the economy and politically,” he says. “Investors are still cautious, but I hope the worst is behind us.”

Hobbs, of Associated General Contractors, says the most successful builders have always been able to identify their market niches and plan accordingly, no matter what the economic conditions.

“If you’re a retail construction firm and you try to become an industrial firm, the dynamics are very different and complicated,” he says. “Likewise if you’re a company that specializes in churches versus some other construction market. Know what you can do and do it.

“A successful firm will identify trends and market swings. Having a ready, trained work force is extremely important in today’s construction economy.”

Corna is confident that the company’s flexibility, creativity and determination to do whatever it takes to succeed will keep it successful.

“It’s a tough business,” he says. “I don’t know any way to get around the hard work it requires. It takes a lot of creativity and energy to stay competitive. There will always be some building going on; there has been ever since man crawled out of caves.

“And as long as there is, we’ll be here.” How to reach: Corna/Kokosing Construction Co., (614) 901-8844 or; Associated General Contractors of Central Ohio, (614) 486-6446 or