Rochon Corporation is a mid-sized commercial general contractor operating in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin Cities area of Minnesota. It specializes in commercial work including retail buildings and industrial warehouses but has recently secured several contracts for work on educational facilities. It currently has fourteen schools – nine public and four charter – under construction with two new charter school contracts in the pre-construction phase.
Jeff Wellman is the president of Rochon. He got his start with the company as a project manager in 1989 and eventually bought the company in 2006. He is now part owner alongside partners Jerry Braton, Scott Larkin and Nick Reynolds.
Rochon was founded in 1985 by Ron Rochon who left Opus Corporation to form his own company. “Ron’s still around,” says Wellman. “Just had dinner with him two weeks ago. He’s been a great mentor to all of us.” At eighty-two years old, Ron Rochon remains active in the industry as the owner of a general construction company in Des Moines, Iowa.
Today, Rochon Corporation has thirty-five employees and has seen rapid growth. According to Wellman, the company was very productive in its early years and grew consistently until the economic downturn in 2008 when, like everyone else, it became significantly smaller. However, since then things have changed a lot. Annual revenue has typically been forty million to sixty million dollars.
This year, the company expects nearly one hundred million dollars in revenue. This explosive growth Wellman attributes to the ability to secure charter school contracts.
Charter schools are unlike public schools in the way they work with contractors. Public school districts typically hire an architect first and work with a design team to plan the project. Once the planning phase is complete, the job will then be put out for public bids. Charter schools will hire both an architect and a general contractor during the initial phases of the project so that the design and build teams can work together to plan a project that will fit the school’s budget, which is typically much smaller than that of a public school.
Since the charter school does not have access to the resources that a public school district might have, Rochon will collaborate with the design team and the owners to design a building that fits their budget. “That’s our strength,” says Wellman. “We can provide budgeting and conceptual estimating very early on in these projects.”
There are complex and expensive systems that are required in these builds, including building envelope, mechanical, electrical, structural, roofing, and water systems, and Rochon has the experience to suit the project needs. Rochon’s ability to work with charter schools in this way has generated a lot of business and success for the company.
Construction jobs are inherently risky, and there are constant challenges facing general contractors on every project. From labor and material shortages to weather and cost fluctuations, Rochon has learned how to adapt to difficult conditions. When the economy is stable, the price of commodities and raw materials goes up. This is a challenge for contractors because prices are often quoted long ahead of the actual purchasing.
“We’re giving a charter school prices today that we have to stand behind,” says Wellman. “We won’t be purchasing material until fall or winter. Who knows what will happen?” Cost instability is just one of a number of obstacles beyond the company’s control.
Labor shortages are a significant challenge in the Twin Cities because so much work is being done that it is difficult to find subcontractors, and it is difficult for subcontractors to find laborers. Being in Minnesota also means that the company has to contend with cold winters and snow. When a construction company commits to winter work, there is always the risk of weather conditions preventing it from being able to meet deadlines. Finally, when things get busy, many construction companies see turnover with project managers. Rochon is unique in that it has not experienced this problem. “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t lost any project managers, but we know what’s going on out there,” says Wellman. “Our guys are being contacted by recruiters all the time.”
Competing for employees is always a challenge, but Rochon believes that it does a good job of keeping its team satisfied. Chief Executive Officer Jerry Braton has been with the company for thirty years, Jeff Wellman for twenty-eight years and Scott Larken for twenty years. The company has marketing personnel, project managers, and a receptionist who have all been with the company for fifteen years or more, and it is very proud of the loyalty displayed by the team. The owners consider Rochon to be a destination for employees. People who work at Rochon want to make a career there, and this says something about the culture.
The Rochon work environment is one of friendship, respect, and trust. The four partners are close and hunt, fish and golf together. When they disagree, they discuss and come to conclusions that everyone is happy with. According to Wellman, they have very little trouble agreeing. The employees are close as well, and the company takes the time to bring them on charity retreats and to encourage the relationships that keep Rochon’s team tight.
One charter school, the DaVinci Academy, has a golf tournament fundraiser that Rochon sponsors and the company plans to take an afternoon off to play some golf and help raise money for the school. “We have a very relaxed, work hard, play hard atmosphere here,” says Executive Vice President and Co-Owner Nick Reynolds. “We don’t micromanage, but we have high expectations.”
As a mid-sized contracting company, Rochon’s team is relatively small, but the level of experience within the company gives it the capacity to perform at the same level as any general contractor in the area. Match that with the personal attention that only a smaller company can provide, and you have a crucial piece of what makes Rochon the company of choice for many of its clients.
Another thing that separates it from the competition is that all of Rochon’s project managers are also qualified estimators. Larger general contractors have estimating departments. Estimators and pre-construction people will come to the site first to do estimations and then hand their results off to a project manager who will work off of those results.
Rochon believes that a project manager needs to know the building from the ground up, first-hand, and so it requires project managers to perform a detailed cost estimate on every project. The result is that the project manager becomes thoroughly familiar with the building before beginning the project. Rochon believes this to be an important aspect of the job that many competitors, especially larger competitors, miss.
One of the projects on which Rochon is currently working is a 105,000-square-foot charter school for the DaVinci Academy. Rochon built DaVinci’s first facility in Blaine, Minnesota, but this was recently outgrown, and now Rochon is building a new facility in Ham Lake that Wellman believes will be a signature building for his company. It is next to a pond, surrounded by beautiful oak trees and will be three stories high with classrooms, a gymnasium, a lecture hall and a two-story atrium and common room overlooking Bunker Hills Park. This building will be a spectacular showcase, and the company is very proud of the project.
Apart from aesthetics, there are some technical accomplishments to be proud of. Ham Lake is a small country town without city sewer and water, so Rochon had to dig a giant commercial well powered by a hundred horsepower pump. Since the city does not have access to a sanitary sewer, Rochon built the school its own wastewater treatment facility with a septic system large enough to handle one thousand students and staff. Building a school like this in a country town without sewer infrastructure is an immense undertaking, and Rochon is quite proud of what it has accomplished.