Turner on a dime

If there’s one mantra that has stood out for Turner Construction Co. over the past century, it can be summed up in a simple equation: Diversity = Survival.

From a $9,800 concrete company in 1902 to a $6 billion multinational publicly traded corporation, Turner’s leaders have always had a gift for finding new markets and new methods for earning a buck.

“Historically, Turner has always adapted to changing conditions,” says Karen Sweeney, Turner Construction vice president and general manager of its Cleveland office. “That’s because we’ve never been reliant on one market segment.”

Today, Turner builds offices and facilities for more than 10 industries, among them health care, commercial/retail, education/science, apartments/hotel and public/justice, including Cleveland’s new Justice Center downtown.

Turner values diversity in its people, too. In a traditionally male-dominated industry, Sweeney was the first woman to be named vice president and general manager of a Turner regional office. Other women followed in top executive positions.

Under Sweeney’s watch, Turner’s Cleveland office has grown from 70 employees to more than 90.

Early days: Concrete

The company wasn’t always diverse. Back in 1902, Turner Construction founder Henry Chandlee Turner’s focus was reinforced concrete, which he discovered was less expensive and faster to use than traditional construction methods.

With a virtual monopoly on concrete construction, Turner started to aggressively advertise “Turner for Concrete” in New York City. His business boomed.

But by 1907, competition entered the market and the number of concrete construction jobs started to dwindle. Company President W.W. Turner realized he needed to diversify to stay afloat and launched Turner’s general contracting service.

Pre-war: Diversification

After World War I, W.W. Turner pushed the general contracting focus and dropped the “Turner for Concrete” slogan. During this time, Turner was one of the first of his era to recognize the importance of good employees. He honored them by offering them company stock and held staff recognition events.

“Turner knew that our employees are our strength and our asset,” Sweeney says. “We have to make sure they’re motivated and enthused.”

Post war: Office boom

The Great Depression affected Turner Construction as it did the rest of the country. The company went from $44 million in revenue in 1929 to $2 million by 1933. To maintain its financial integrity, Turner President Joseph Archer Turner changed directions, used new building materials and accepting work building storage containers and other smaller revenue-generating projects.

By 1937, revenue had risen to $12 million.

Thanks to several large military contracts during World War II, Turner was positioned to take advantage of the office high-rise building boom that followed. The war also established the government as Turner’s biggest repeat customer.

Today: Core strengths

By the late 1960s, Turner had surpassed $1 billion in revenue and went public. But in 1975, office building construction was slowing. Once again, the company adapted, with Turner president Walter Shaw steering it in a new direction, building hospitals and health care facilities. Eventually, health care projects made up one-third of Turner’s business.

But diversification got out of hand in the 1980s. Turner was involved in development projects, managing power generation plants, financial services and health care, as well as its traditional construction work.

“We needed to focus on our core strength,” Sweeney says, “which was taking on complex and unusual challenges, but always building buildings.”

The 1990s saw Ellis “Bud” Gravette Jr. point Turner back to profitability. He also managed the merger with the German construction company Hochtief AG, in which Turner remained an autonomous subsidiary.

“Today our focus is diversification within our core business,” Sweeney says. “That way we will always be able to adapt to a changing market.” How to reach: Turner Construction, (216) 521-1180 or www.tcco.com. Hear Karen Sweeney speak on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the SBN Live Luncheon Series at the Watermark. For more information contact, SBN at (216) 228-6397.


Turner Timeline

Turner Construction has a history of stability surviving in a rapidly evolving economic climate over the last 100 years — in 1902, less than 10 percent of American families had electricity in their homes.

Here are some key dates in the first Turner’s century.

May 6, 1902: Turner Construction Co. founded by Henry Chandlee Turner.

1904: Turner builds Robert Gair Building, an eight-story concrete factory and the largest of its kind in the United States.

1907: First Cleveland project, Murphy Varnish Co., completed.

1908: Opens first branch office in Buffalo, N.Y.

1911: First “Turner City” complete: a fictional city made up entirely of buildings created by Turner Construction Co.

1922: Concrete era ends; push to diversify to general contract work.

1929: Volume peaks at $43 million, sinks to $2.25 million during Depression.

1939-1943: Builds Pacific Naval air bases; establishes U.S. military as biggest repeat customer.

1946: Office construction boom.

1951: Headquarters for U.S. Steel Co. built.

1962: Cleveland office opens

1969: Turner Construction Co. goes public; achieves $1 billion in volume.

1975: Office construction dwindles; Turner focuses on health care facilities.

1987: Turner slashes unprofitable nonconstruction divisions; construction division remains profitable.

1998: First woman vice president elected, Karen Sweeney, general manager of Cleveland office.

1999: Merges with construction giant Hochtief AG of Essen, Germany.

2002: Celebrates 100th anniversary.