What’s the key to business success? According to Stuart Mason, president and CEO of the CSM Group, a design-build company based in Kalamazoo, Michigan and licensed to work in 32 states, it comes down to core values that recognize that everything the company achieves is by people and for people.
Strong core values have underpinned CSM’s operations since its inception, and to mark its 40th anniversary, these have been formalized more comprehensively and directly.
“We wanted to go deep and dive into those core values which put our people first,” Mason tells us. “Quite frankly, I don’t see a lot of this going on in our industry when I talk to my peer groups, but we truly believe if we care about and support our people and help them grow and develop, that’s the secret to success. Everything else will fall into place.”
Four decades of CSM
The CSM Group evolved out of a joint venture formed in 1983 in Kalamazoo, initially designed to manage health care projects for Bronson Health Care Group, which remains a client to this day.
Seven years later, in 1990, current Chairman Steve East, armed with an engineering degree from Western Michigan University, purchased the firm and led it as President and CEO until 2021. Under East’s leadership, the company thrived, winning numerous health care-related construction projects and diversifying its portfolio.
Throughout the 1990s, CSM used its focus on construction management to expand its blue-chip list of clients, working with clients such as Western Michigan University, Stryker Corporation, and Meijer, Inc.
CSM Group’s staff has also grown substantially, from a small team of around 12 in the early days to 160 in 2023. Its portfolio now includes the global pharmaceutical, biotechnology, packaged and consumer goods, oil and gas, and food manufacturing sectors, an impressive array of clients who have come to rely on CSM’s extensive technical capabilities, customized services, and most of all, people.
It was our pleasure to speak with Stuart Mason, who assumed the position of President and CEO in 2021, and with Katrina Reed, CIT, LEED Green Associate, and Director of Marketing, to learn more about CSM’s emphasis on core values.
Core value #1: PEOPLE FIRST
Mason tells us that over a year ago the executive leadership team (ELT) began asking, “How can we break the barrier between the executive leadership team and the rest of the organization?”
That question led to CSM bringing in Kim Carr as Chief People Officer, whose extensive knowledge and experience “has lifted us to the next level in our ability to look after our people.”
The first initiative launched in 2022 was the “Reach Out” program in which each member of the ELT committed to reaching out to a certain number of employees, via telephone, once every quarter. These, Mason says, are not mere courtesy calls, but can last from 45 minutes to an hour, with the ELT member listening to employees about their wide-ranging experiences and how the company can better support them in their roles.
Feedback from the surveys conducted at the end of the first quarter indicated that employees appreciate being heard. As a result of the positive comments, a committed CSM has now completed the fourth quarter of calls and is looking forward to the next round.
“We saw a trend among our people wanting advice with career planning—what core competencies they could develop or what their next step might be,” Reed says.
This led to a Career Path Planning Program using GROW, a technology platform that tailors individual programs to every employee to help them plan their career.
Another issue that the Reach Out program revealed was a communication and mentoring gap between the leadership team and the construction field operation. Mason explains that a bridging role was created to provide two-way communication to support and fine-tune communications between site operations and the ELT, allowing them to make critical decisions based on what is being seen and experienced on the job site.
Two months ago, in September, CSM Group celebrated the People First initiative in grand style, at a Company Summit at Comerica Park, home to the Detroit Tigers.
“We brought in employees from throughout the country,” Reed says, “and celebrated them and their hard work, along with their projects and partnerships, our trades, and our clients over the past year. It was a fantastic day that focused on our first core value.”
Core value #2: LEAD WITH SAFETY
“We have an audacious goal: we want to be the safest construction company on the planet,” Mason told us.
Construction is a complex business and not focusing on safety issues, or taking an eye off them even briefly, can lead to disaster. “We have a strong safety management program that we’re proud of, which has been in place for the past 15 years, and like any safety program anywhere, it needs constant focused attention and engagement to maintain,” he shares. “But we also recognized there was so much more that can be achieved, so, in a similar way to how we developed our first goal, ‘People First,’ we launched new initiatives to support ‘Lead with Safety.’”
Reed tells us that CSM’s focus and commitment to developing a strong safety culture includes not only physical safety but emotional safety, which has resulted in the company partnering with Dr. John Austen, a psychologist and internationally recognized coach of safety and human performance.
With 15 years as a professor of psychology at Western Michigan University behind him, he founded his own company, Reaching Results, in 2008, to help companies improve safety, leadership, and management. Austen helped CSM develop a behavioral safety leadership program, and now each quarter, a cohort of employees will go through the program, learning the skills needed to establish a robust safety culture, both in the office and on the job site.
“An unfortunate aspect of our industry is that not everyone takes the emotional well-being of employees seriously, but we are focusing on both physical and emotional well-being through this program, which allows employees to voice their concerns to management without fear of retribution. We want them to feel happy, safe, and respected.”
Mason describes one of the ‘Lead with Safety’ initiatives, which involves a Site Safety Walk, with the organization’s directors and VPs conducting an on-site walk with project managers every quarter. “We must lead from the top, and this allows for mentoring and support between our senior staff and our project managers. We can identify safety issues, celebrate examples of safety excellence we see, and eliminate barriers between us.”
This past March, the Associated Builders & Contractors honored CSM with its National Pinnacle Safety Award for the company’s focus on total human health amongst its employees, and also its 2022 Diamond Step Award for the safety management system at the CSM annual convention in Orlando, Florida. CSM is one of only ten General Contractors in the U.S. to receive this honor.
In August, the company also received the ABC Western Michigan Chapter’s 2023 Safety Award of Excellence. “We do get recognition for our outcomes, but we are only scratching the surface of what we want to do,” Mason says. “We want to be safety leaders as an organization, but we also want to be industry leaders in safety and set the standards high for everyone.”
Core value #3: BE CREATIVE & CURIOUS
Too often employees work in silos, not fully knowing or understanding what others are doing. To overcome this deficit in communication, as well as to foster creativity and innovation, CSM leaders wanted to develop an organizational culture where it is good to be creative and curious, and they scrutinized all potential obstacles that might prevent this.
As a consequence of this investigation, they launched the Toolbox, an intranet platform designed to remove obstacles and enable colleagues to collaborate, to be a source of guidance and communication, and to be curious about what their colleagues are doing. At the same time, this initiative will assist by profiling projects, individual employees, and clients.
“We are a solutions-driven industry,” Mason says, “and this will be a platform that will provide all the means, methods, and tools for our colleagues to share and develop creative solutions for the clients we serve and increase the success of what we bring to the market.”
Reed was excited to share with us that the Toolbox hit 100 percent user adoption in its first seven days, and that means every employee—all 160—logged in and engaged with one another, the first new program that has ever been adopted so wholeheartedly.
Core value #4: BETTER TOGETHER
“At CSM, we know that our greatest victories are only achieved because of our combined efforts, so ‘Better Together’ epitomizes that collective effort,” Reed says. “We believe in transparency, and we hold each other and ourselves accountable. When one of us has challenges on a team or project site, we leverage each other’s experiences and expertise to help solve those challenges, which has led to another new initiative launched this year that we call ‘Field of Our Dreams.’”
The summer months are typically the busiest for the industry, especially for companies involved with school renovations with their tight two-month deadlines, and in recognition of how hard the execution team was working, the ELT decided to give them special recognition.
The initial goal was to give out a minimum of 1,000 high-fives to the team—anything from a hand-written note, a shout-out on the Toolbox, a brief phone call or a text, or any sort of one-on-one engagement.
“In the end, we upped our goal, and the feedback we received was that our project execution teams felt incredibly supported, valued, appreciated, and more connected. To us it was a shining example of how we truly are better together,” Reed says.
Adds Mason, “The cool thing was when we went to Comerica Park in September for the summit, these employees had already been brought together, so it was as if we had already done a virtual summit before the physical one. It was very impactful.”
40 years of community impact
“We strive to do things differently,” Mason says. “Historically the industry has been viewed somewhat negatively, as a place where people yell at each other. Our goal is to shift that mindset, place the focus on the whole person and total human health, and create a nurturing environment.”
Doing that also involves supporting the broader community. In March of this year—the official anniversary date—CSM donated $40,000 to six community partners. “We did a road show with members of our leadership team to hand-deliver checks to those organizations and thank them for being on our side,” Reed says.
The recipients included CSM’s first client, the Bronson Health Centre; the Family Health Centre of Kalamazoo; Grace Health; the United Way of South Central Michigan; KC Ready 4s, an organization devoted to ensuring that every child in the county has the chance to succeed in school, through support to early-childhood classrooms; and the LIFT Foundation, which supports affordable housing.
CSM has long been a supporter of many of these organizations, with members sitting on the boards of various non-profits, including the United Way. And even though CSM hasn’t in the past been involved in affordable housing projects as its portfolio does not include residential properties, it did work with the LIFT Foundation to repurpose a Knights Inn motel into 60 affordable units, which Reed describes as a “heartwarming experience.”
It’s also encouraging to know that the grim statistics we researched for a feature on wellness in the construction industry (see Construction in Focus, May 2023) are being addressed by the concerned people at CSM in such a comprehensive and compassionate manner. There is no doubt that this will benefit not only the employees at CSM, but in the long run set higher industry standards and have a positive impact on the quality of the built environment in which we all work and live.