Founded in 1952, J. R. Filanc Construction Company is an award-winning general engineering and design/build contractor. The company specializes in constructing, renovating, and expanding water and wastewater treatment, biosolids management, and waste-to-energy facilities throughout the Western United States.
Construction in Focus spoke at length with Vice President of Marketing and Business Development Norbert J. Schulz about the company’s origins, its innovative projects and where it is heading in the future.
The company was originally founded by Jack Filanc and three other partners as Weardco Construction nearly sixty-five years ago. All four partners were engineers with experience working for municipal water and wastewater agencies. After working with contractors building their projects, they felt that they could do it better and should form their own company.
In California, they say “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting,” and this has never been truer given the mounting drought conditions that state has experienced. In this context, Filanc has built its name by staying true to what it does best: focusing on water and wastewater projects.
“Early on, Weardco became known for waterworks construction. They stuck with it and focused on water related projects as opposed to working on bridges or roads or any other kind of construction. The company has maintained its focus since that time,” notes Schulz.
Jack Filanc eventually bought his partners out, moved the company to San Diego County and Weardco was renamed as J. R. Filanc Construction Company Inc. It continues to be a family run and owned company. In 1990, Jack’s sons Peter and Mark, both licensed engineers, became majority owners of the firm. Mark took over as president in 2007 and is still part of the senior management team of the company as the Chief Executive Officer.
With solid engineering experience represented on the executive team and throughout the enterprise, Filanc has approached its business in a truly inventive way as it thoroughly understands the unique needs of its clients and partners, and is principled about how it approaches its business.
“Our motto is ‘people doing the right thing’ and our vision statement is ‘Building it better together,’ and those two statements really speak to what the company is all about. In the rough and tumble early days of contracting, where contractors got a bad name for being untrustworthy, Filanc earned its good name for being the opposite. Always being willing to solve problems, not create them, and working collaboratively with owners and just being a really standup, high performing, trustworthy and capable engineering contractor. This ethic has been a differentiator that has continued to this day,” Schulz observes.
The innovative approach and problem-solving philosophy are never more apparent than in its focus on developing the company’s design-build capabilities. Filanc believes that design-build in the municipal water market requires a particular skill set which is why it worked closely with the Design Build Institute of America to establish the National Water Committee and to help form regional counterparts in the Rocky Mountains and the Western Pacific.
“We were early adopters of design-build,” notes Schulz. This emphasis was not an easy achievement. Schulz says that advancing a design-build approach for public works contracting was historically stymied by incompatible legislation, regulations, and city charters. It took until the 1990s for design-build contracting to be legal for public works contracts in California. “Filanc jumped in with both feet and have been doing design-build preferentially ever since. We would like to do nothing but design-build if enough owners were willing to try it,” enthuses Schulz.
Having an in-house design engineering team is unique to Filanc. This capability allows the company to market itself as a Master Builder, bringing together all the skills needed under one roof to be able to create a project from start to finish, meeting the needs of its clients, avoiding problems during construction and adding value to the end project.
Self-performing both design and construction, Filanc has completed a wide variety of water, wastewater and renewable energy projects for both the private and public sectors. Its reach now extends across all of California, including the northern region of the state. For the past ten years, it has had an office in Arizona, and five years ago, it extended its operations to Colorado as well. The expansion to Colorado was consciously directed by the fact that that state is increasingly using design-build contract methods – Filanc’s specialty.
The company was also quick to realize that it could fill a client need by performing smaller, add-on construction projects, prompting the creation of its repair and maintenance division (R&M) in 1995. Its clients needed an efficient means to contract for quick-response repair, maintenance, and small construction projects that were often identified in the course of a larger project. “One of the things we found, while working with clients on a larger job, were requests to do work on smaller, unrelated jobs on the site. R&M was created to address smaller project needs quickly.” Since its inception, R&M has completed over nine hundred projects. With two offices in California and one in Arizona and Colorado, the division has grown to be the preferred source for small construction projects and quick-response emergency repairs for federal, municipal, and private industry clients.
Filanc has expanded to provide complementary technologies, especially in the area of renewable energy. For example, it installs methane capturing technologies in conjunction with wastewater projects. It recently served as the primary sub-contractor on a design-build project in La Salle, Colorado that processes cow manure to generate natural gas using a digestion method used for wastewater processing.
The company stays on top of industry trends and client needs in the context of the ever-changing and evolving requirements posed by environmental regulations. “What was clean water in the seventies is no longer clean water, and that change happens constantly,” Schulz notes. “There are always new criteria that need to be met with new treatment technologies that then require you to make fundamental changes to plants. So it is a constant process. That’s what we do. We’ve been doing it for sixty-five years. We stay on top of it.”
Schulz mentions that eighty percent of the capital improvement needs of the country’s aging water infrastructure market are related to the conveyance of water (pipelines). “[Filanc] has consciously expanded our scope to include underground construction, pipelines and pumping systems. We are now a pipeliner. It’s an enormous market, and we have added this to our portfolio and have been quite successful at it, particularly as a design-builder.”
One example of a recent design-build project in this area is its potable water conveyance design-build project at Camp Pendleton, where twenty-four miles of pipe were installed as part of a water reliability project to link the north and south service areas and provide a means for emergency water supply.
However, in the midst of the many successes and innovative projects, it is facing some of the same challenges that nearly every construction firm is facing – an aging workforce. “We do have some of the most experienced, talented, incredibly knowledgeable people who have been doing this for forty years, and they just aren’t making them anymore. We are doing our best to train people and get them through apprenticeship programs. We are doing everything we can to recruit, attract, and train tradespeople, superintendents and project engineers.”
One program that is helping it stay competitive in recruitment is the J.R. Filanc Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) Program at San Diego State University. This program was conceived by a group of industry leaders led by the Filanc family in 2000. The group believed that San Diego needed a more tailored construction engineering and management program for the construction industry to provide the project engineers and project managers who are so critical to the success of firms in the industry.
“There are construction management programs at other institutions, but they weren’t producing the kinds of graduates that we need in the municipal general engineering construction world, where they need to know more about technical aspects as opposed to solely paperwork. So that’s why it’s called the ‘School of Construction Engineering and Management,’ not ‘Construction Management.’ It’s a subtle but important difference where we are training people to be able to be on a construction site and meaningfully manage the construction of the work, not watch other people do the work and report back,” observes Schulz.
“This school was approved and accredited at a record pace, and it’s been a booming success for San Diego State University. Every person that goes through that program has at least one job offer well before they finish their final year. It’s been such a success that it’s hard to get the graduates to come work for us because everyone else wants them!”
Filanc makes great efforts to manage the talent it has already hired. Its ‘Leadership Edge’ program is intended to foster leadership skills in staff who demonstrate leadership potential. “We challenge them with real issues within the organization – things that need to be addressed, problems in the field, improvements in operations… we get together and try to identify things we can do better. You have to start at the ground level, you can’t do it from the top down; it has to be bottom up,” says Schulz. The Leadership Edge program is successful at engaging staff at all levels and pays off for the company, not only in terms of staff development and retention but in helping the company improve itself.
In the future, it is clear that the company will not waver from its focus on water and wastewater projects. Schulz does see room for further geographic expansion and a fleshing out its existing services in Arizona and Colorado. “We want to grow our services in these areas to be on par with those we offer in California.” Schulz also anticipates more need for its services in Central California, which is an area that the company sees as being underserved.
Another main focus Schulz identifies for long-term growth is a further expansion of its master builder capabilities – further solidifying its already award-winning reputation for design-build projects. “Our two main commitments are to the environmental and water industry and to this collaborative project approach to avoid the unnecessary conflicts that traditional ‘design-bid-build’ can create.”
Whatever the future may hold, it is clear that Filanc has the skills and the vision to continue to grow its brand and reputation as a company whose in-house design-build capabilities represent one of the best of its kind in the country.