King Husein is chairman and CEO of Span Construction and Engineering Inc., in Madera, California. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Bombay in India and a master’s degree in civil engineering from BYU. Span Construction has built large structures from big box stores to automotive and athletic facilities.
SALT LAKE CITY, UT (BYU)
Written by: King Husein
As one who owns and directs an international construction company, I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief background concerning the ethical battles I face every day in business and then outline some of the lessons and principles we try to follow in my company concerning appropriate business practices.
Costco, the giant merchandiser headquartered in Issaquah, Washington, constitutes a little more than half of our annual construction business. We also do work for Staples and several industrial manufacturing plants, but to date we have built approximately forty-eight million square feet of Costco warehouses. Consider their demanding schedule: 110 days from groundbreaking to completion of the facility. And each project includes a twenty-five-year warranty. That kind of schedule and quality of workmanship creates ethical challenges that often confront us in fulfilling our contracts. Constructing a commercial facility for them is always a challenging project for us because it amounts to over 1.2 million square feet for one distribution center.
We are also building the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center on the northwest corner of the Brigham Young University campus. The groundbreaking for that magnificent structure took place in June of 2006, on President Hinckley’s ninety-sixth birthday.
One of the major challenges in our business is to complete any project we do on time, within budget. It requires high morale and high productivity from our work crews. In today’s market, it always seems that companies want the job done better, faster, and with better materials, but at less cost. Projects challenge our ingenuity as they become more complex, larger, and higher. We operate in a global economy, and laws we follow in the United States do not always apply in foreign countries. Bribes, for example, and other unethical and illegal behavior are more common and acceptable in many places than in the United States.
The issue comes down to, how can we be successful in today’s demanding construction business? We all want to succeed. We all want to make a living. We all want to please those with whom we make contracts. The economic question we continually face is, do we adapt our policies and principles to the level of honesty and integrity in the country in which we are operating? Or do we stand firm on principle and disregard the consequences? I have found that success in my business requires me to use what I learned from my educational background together with lessons gleaned by practical experience, all the time espousing principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This formula works for me and my company, so far, in a miraculous way. Obviously, in construction projects, we deal with people who hold different values and different standards.
Let me list five principles I find crucial to our success in today’s business climate. Most of these sound pretty basic, and they are logical and sensible. Carrying them out without compromise is a constant challenge that we are determined to meet.
1. Keep commitments. Contracts keep both parties honest, and each project has its own contract provisions that require a keen awareness of the project’s demands. But that is insufficient. To be ethical in keeping commitments means that our company had to develop the reputation in the past that we kept our word. A promise made must be a promise kept, though an old cliché, is essential in succeeding in business.
I noticed one day that the Brigham Young University Administration Building has a quote from Brigham Young hanging on one of the walls that says, “Fulfill your contracts and sacredly keep your word.” To me, making and keeping the provisions of the agreed-upon contract is a sacred commitment on my part.
2. Be honest in business dealings. In this conference, integrity is being addressed. Honesty is an essential part of integrity. Let me share something I have used to guide me over the years. It originates with Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader who helped India gain its independence from England through nonviolent means. He said, “There is one honest man for every hundred that claim to be honest.” The point of this maxim is that most of us know what is right, but few of us actually put it into practice. In being honest, we should not only avoid the sins of commission but also sins of omission. I have to remind myself that not telling the client everything is not being totally honest. I know that I have some work to do in that area, but we need to avoid sins of omission as well as sins of commission.
3. Honor the Sabbath. It is customary in the construction business to work twenty-four hours, seven days a week. Sundays are now workdays in many places. Sometimes it is very challenging for my firm not to work on Sundays. In my own mind, I have substituted 24–7 with 35–6. I have found the Lord’s promise to be true. By working six days and honoring the Sabbath, somehow our productivity and outcome are multiplied. I have often joked that when I was baptized, I received two gifts: the gift of the Holy Ghost, and a new wristwatch with thirty-five hours in a day! Fortunately or unfortunately it functions like a Liahona. When I do the right things, my watch gives me thirty-five hours. When I goof off, I don’t even get twenty-four hours. But the gift of time, as I call it, is real to me when I keep the Sabbath day holy.
Let me share a real-life example of how I was challenged on this very issue. As I indicated earlier, Costco Corporation is our largest client. A 110-day schedule, from pad to completion, is a very formidable task. After Costco announces the date for its store opening, there is no turning back; it is cast in concrete. And I certainly don’t want my firm to be the reason they don’t meet their opening commitment.
You can imagine that in the construction business there are always challenges that come along beyond your control: weather, city building departments, building permits, strikes, delayed shipments, weekend deliveries. There are many things that can cause delays in the construction process. I remember attending a construction site board meeting where the executive vice president in charge of store construction pulled all team members together in the construction trailer and announced that the schedule for the project was running behind and that he wanted all of us, in addition to adding manpower, to agree to work overtime, including Saturday and Sunday, and they were willing to pay us more money. As he went around the room to obtain commitments from the various contractors—electricians, plumbers, mechanics—everyone willingly contributed suggestions on how they could reach the goal and what additional expenses would be required.
Without trying to make it a big issue of it, I said, “We will work six days a week. I understand the requirements.” The company official thought I had misunderstood his request. He said, “On this project I would like you to work your crews on Sundays.”
I knew in my heart that if I walked away from that meeting without saying anything, the meaning to him would have been clear. I was agreeing to his demands. Again I reiterated, “I do not work my crews on Sunday, but we will come up with a plan to meet your time schedule.”
Suddenly, the tension grew thick. It was obvious that he was not happy with my response. He said something I will never forget, although it was disappointing to me at the time. He said directly to me, “You mean to tell me that you will not work your guys on this one project to make up the time?”
I said, “Well, you know, we just don’t work on Sunday, but I’ll see what I can do to meet your commitment.”
He then shocked me with this comment: “You would not work your men on Sunday even if it means you could lose this entire account?”
Well, to me this was one of those defining moments in life. I said, as humbly as I could, “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, I’m sorry; I will not work my guys Sundays.”
There was a brief silence as everyone took in what we both had said. I’ll never forget what happened next. He walked over to me and, inches from my chest, said, “You’d better meet that commitment.”
With that, he walked out of the trailer. Later, the architect told me that the man had said, as he walked out of the trailer, “That guy is one stubborn Indian.”
What that experience did for me turned out to be amazing even though my intent was different at the time. Since that day, his respect and trust in what I have done for them and what my company has accomplished increased substantially. Now, for nineteen straight years, we have received exclusive agreements to build all Costco projects because he knows we will not compromise principle in meeting our commitments. I should tell you that we did meet our commitment on that project. And within the next two or three months, we will celebrate a major milestone with Costco by completing fifty million square feet of their projects.
4. Practice Safety. How does this principle apply to being ethical? There are significant costs to running a business, especially construction. For example, the new Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center requires a great deal of iron in its construction. At its tallest point, the building is 122 feet high. I have iron workers working at different heights on that project. We must work safely to avoid injuries as well as lost time. Dave Anthony, one of my project engineers, and I were in California visiting some of our sites, and I was concerned about the safety of my crews who work at various heights off the ground. So we developed and patented a safety net we use on every project to protect workers. As an incentive for them to be careful, we announced that each employee would receive one dollar an hour more at the end of every project if that project ran without any safety infractions or major injuries. Can you appreciate the fact that constructing a project without injury to workers amounts to millions of dollars saved in most cases? I feel a moral and ethical responsibility to protect the lives of my workers and to construct a project safely.
5. Implement a drug and alcohol testing program. Every week, on every project no matter where it is across the country or across the world, 10 percent of our employees are randomly tested for drug and alcohol use. Every worker on the project that day (we try to keep the testing on the same day), puts their names in a hat and a worker pulls the names of those to be tested out of the hat. They are immediately taken to a portable unit where they are tested for drug and alcohol use. They give a blood sample right then and there. And guess what happened on one occasion! I was at a construction site on the day when every employee at that location had to be included. I was not exempt from the process, and my name went into the hat. Yes, you guessed it, my name was pulled out of the hat. Sheepishly my superintendent came to inform me, “Your name was pulled out of the hat, and we have to test you.” And you know what? I was pleased to do it. You do not have to guess whether I passed or failed. There is a cost of running a building project safely. We cannot have workers who are using alcohol or drugs working in precarious places. Other workers depend on those with whom they work. Obviously, productivity is better when everyone functions at their best.
Everything I have shared with you, including not working on Sunday and our safety program, is all written in a company manual. We honor the Word of Wisdom, even in a construction and engineering business. These principles are our company policies. We do not duplicate section 89, but we do practice the Word of Wisdom. Anybody caught violating that principle has been terminated. Clean language is also written into company policies. I feel that to run an honest, ethical company with construction workers from various backgrounds, clean, uplifting language is needed.
Let me conclude by basically summarizing what I have said. Knowing what is right, what is expected of us, and what to do is not the difficult question. The challenge is always to put into practice what we know. I ascribe to the counsel given by the Apostle James: “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22).