Stop, hammer time: Q&A with NYC construction boss Bill Gilbane

Gilbane talks nonunion labor, mosquito magnets

New York /
Aug.August 17, 2017 07:00 AM

Nearly 150 years ago, William Gilbane founded what would eventually become Gilbane Building Company in Providence, Rhode Island. Since then, the company has grown from a carpentry and general contracting shop to a multibillion-dollar operation, with more than 50 offices across the world and a separate development arm.

The fifth generation of the Gilbane family is running the company’s New York office, which has been operating in the state since the late 1940s but has grown significantly in the city in the last decade. The office now has 69 projects underway in the city, including Related Companies’ 55 Hudson Yards, Boston Properties’ Dock 72 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Extell Development’s Upper East Side condominium the Kent.

Bill Gilbane III, 39, senior vice president of the New York office, started working for Gilbane in 2001, first joining the company’s Washington, D.C., office. He moved to the company’s New York location in 2005 to work on the Kings County Hospital Center. He grew up in Barrington, Rhode Island, the oldest of five children. His younger sister, Brennan Gilbane Koch, and two of his cousins, Alex Cole and John Anderson, also work in the company’s city office.

In the past two years, Gilbane’s gotten some flak for its use of nonunion labor, especially on its larger projects like 55 Hudson Yards and One Wall Street, though the company is no longer working on the latter. The company was also reportedly targeted as part of a sweep of contractors with potentially unsafe work conditions after a crowbar fell from Macklowe Properties’ 200 East 59th Street and crashed onto the roof of a taxi driving by. Gilbane said that the company complies fully with site inspections and welcomes discussion about best practices on job sites.

“The unfortunate reality these days is that when normal inspections happen, sometimes there are groups that will want to play it up in misleading ways and spin it against us,” Gilbane said. “But we don’t really think about the politics. We’re busy keeping our sites safe and getting work done.”

As part of a new questions-and-answers series with construction bosses in New York City, The Real Deal sat down with Gilbane at the company’s office at 88 Pine Street.

Did you always want to work for the family business?
We have a rule here at Gilbane that family members must work somewhere else for three to four years after college before rejoining the company. Working outside the family business, I always felt like my heart was here with the people in this industry, particularly at Gilbane. It just didn’t feel like a real passion career for me to be in another place.

Why does the company have that rule?
For anyone’s first job, it might be good to work for a business that you are not a shareholder in. It teaches you how to work for somebody else and allows the company to see how you performed in another environment.

Where did you work before joining Gilbane?
I was working for a manufacturing company out of Rhode Island. They were manufacturing mosquito magnets, and I was helping them with some very specific problems they were having getting their product to market.

How’d you help sell the magnets?
We’d set up barbecues at Home Depots all over various states, with these elaborate displays, and we’d all wear these safari things and give away burgers and hot dogs, and we’d sell 300 units a Saturday. We got these big white Land Rovers, and we stacked the boxes on the top in those cages like you see in Africa, and it was a spectacle. It was wildly successful, and honestly, one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done. But I don’t want to do it again.

One of the earliest projects you helped work on at Gilbane was the Prudential Center in Newark N.J. It’s also one of your favorites. Why is that?
We took it over for another contractor. It had a really, really expedited schedule. We got it done about three or four months early. It was just kind of thrilling. I played hockey as a child, and it was just fun to work for a hockey team building two ice rinks there. We opened, and Bon Jovi played 10 shows in a row. It was a requirement that we be present for the first 10 events or whatever, so I got to see Bon Jovi 10 times.

That’s very New Jersey to have Bon Jovi play.
It totally was. And he was super proud, and he was a wonderful guy. They would rehearse during construction. So, the guys and girls were basically getting a live concert every day. They offered to do a special safety celebration with us, and they took a picture with a whole group of us. As you can imagine, the trades people in New Jersey, who really love Bon Jovi, were really proud that he was watching them work. Most bands wouldn’t do that, they’d require the workers to leave.

What are the biggest challenges you face while working in New York?
New York Has Been A Really Parochial Place to do business with construction. It’s kind of a lot of the same methodologies have been in play for a long time. And we’ve been able to bring in and recruit people who have worked all over the world, doing construction in big, tight cities, and they’ve been able to bring new ideas and thoughts to a traditional industry.

Such as?
One of the things I’m very proud is, with our clients, Related, at Hudson Yards, we’re doing a post-tension concrete office building there. That’s really innovative in New York.

Why use that technology?
[The project’s] right over the 7 line subway. So, at the time, there was a concern over the weight of the building on the subway without having to reinforce too much of the foundations that were already in place. Related bought that site from another developer, so it had a different building designed on it. One of the things we were able to do with post-tension was we were able to free up some weight of the building, but it also allows for some more column- free space on the floors of the office building. It allows for a little more flexibility and speed.

Gilbane is often pointed to as an example of an open-shop company, frequently in an unfavorable light. You guys are hit pretty hard by the unions. What are your thoughts on all that?
We prefer it to be called merit shop. What we mean by merit shop is that we welcome all bidders, who are qualified to bid our work. We believe through that approach we’re creating more opportunities for more contractors and more trades people. Unfortunately, in the industry right now, there’s a lot of misinformation being flung at folks. Construction is probably the best way to create job growth in an underserved area. And I think construction trade jobs with adequate training can be a great way for people to grow into the middle class.

There’s been a lot of discussion about union versus nonunion construction, especially in light of a pending construction safety bill. What should the city do to address the issue of construction safety?

To me, this isn’t a discussion about union or nonunion. This is really just a discussion around worker safety. There are some smaller firms that just aren’t as sophisticated or can’t afford to provide that training. I think the city, it would be great to look to those of us that have these rigorous programs that are nationally recognized programs, and say, “OK, why don’t you guys help us create a training program that makes sense for the group that is maybe a minority, women, small disabled-veteran business? Why don’t you develop a program that could develop this training?” You could use a CUNY facility, for example.

What’s it like working with so many family members?
It’s great. I’m sort of the older one. I think the younger ones have more fun than I do with each other. I tend to go to bed earlier. No, it’s really fun. It gives you an extra sense of camaraderie.

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