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Making a Mark

Daniel O’Connell’s Sons Fills More Than Shovels

Jeff Bardell

Jeff Bardell holds up a blueprint of the recently awarded Union Station redevelopment project in Springfield.

“Fill your shovel,” Daniel O’Connell was fond of saying, “or fill your coat.”

Anyone who has worked in the O’Connell Companies for any amount of time has heard that line, and the story that goes with it.

In the late 1870s, the tale goes, O’Connell was fired by the mayor of Holyoke from his public-works job, after refusing to fire his crew and replace them with patronage hires. So he began his own company, determined from the start to employ people with good work ethics.

The company found success as a heavy-construction contractor in Western Mass., and a century later, O’Connell’s grandson began expanding into other areas, which eventually included real-estate development, property management, environmental remediation, and security.

Meanwhile, the construction component, long known as Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC), moved well beyond its original niche of roads and bridges; today, that original goal of filling shovels has turned into filling Massachusetts and surrounding states with noteworthy projects, from academic facilities and courthouses to wastewater-treatment plants and dams.

The federal courthouse on State Street

The federal courthouse on State Street is one of DOC’s signature projects in Springfield.

“We’re doing almost any type of business we can,” said Jeff Bardell, DOC’s new president, who took the reins of the construction division this summer from Dennis Fitzpatrick, who remains president of the O’Connell Companies. “Obviously, we’ve done a lot of institutional work, like at Amherst College and UMass; we’ve also done a lot of work for DCAM [the Division of Capital Asset Management, the state’s public-construction arm], and we just finished two courthouses, in Taunton and Salem.”

Those, of course, come on the heels of what certainly ranks as a signature project for DOC in Springfield, the federal courthouse on State Street that was completed in 2008.

Most recently, DOC has been named construction manager at risk (CMR) for the redevelopment of Union Station in Springfield into a regional intermodal transportation center.

“We’ll build parking and renovate the existing station. The tracks are elevated throughout, so there will be some platform work associated with the project,” Bardell said. “We have a contract, and we have a team of guys ready to get started with some selective demolition by mid- to late October or early November.”

For this issue, Bardell sits down with BusinessWest to talk about that and other projects — including an impressive array of college buildings and public works — and why the future, even amid a still-sluggish economy, holds plenty of promise for a firm that has witnessed more than 130 years of highs and lows.

 

Train Not in Vain

Union Station consists of two vacant buildings on Frank B. Murray Street: a three-story, 120,000-square-foot terminal building and a two-story baggage building. Constructed in 1926, both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

When the renovation project is completed, city officials hope, the station will be transformed into the region’s main transportation hub, providing connections for local, regional, and intercity buses; Amtrak, commuter, and high-speed passenger rail; and other ground-transportation services. The terminal will also include office, conference, administrative, and day-care space, with about 30,000 square feet left for future development.

Meanwhile, the baggage building will be replaced by a 139,000-square-foot bus terminal with 23 bays, and the project also features a parking garage, passenger walkways, and platform upgrades meeting Americans with Disability Act codes.

“Union Station’s redevelopment is crucial to the continued revitalization of the City of Springfield, and our goal is to transform this long-vacant property into a sustainable transportation facility bolstering downtown redevelopment efforts,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said recently.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal praised the choice of O’Connell’s to tackle the project. “They have a reputation as one of the region’s most accomplished builders, and their work on the new U.S. Courthouse on State Street speaks for itself. Under their leadership, I am certain that the city of Springfield will have another award-winning building downtown very soon.”

Design for the $45 million project is underway, and completion is expected by mid-2014. The CMR method entails a commitment by the contractor to deliver the project within a guaranteed maximum price. The Springfield Redevelopment Authority received seven submissions for the Union Station project and interviewed four short-listed firms, including Daniel O’Connell’s Sons.

The Union Station project will incorporate elements of sustainable design, and project organizers are aiming for a Silver rating from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council to recognize and encourage environmentally friendly, energy-efficient development.

That’s not an uncommon goal in today’s construction landscape; in fact, DOC has added numerous engineers to its team in recent years trained in LEED work and ‘green’ design in general.

“Almost all the colleges we work for want it,” Bardell said. “Everybody has to have some kind of LEED certification; it really depends on what the administration of the college wants to do. Most of those projects are at least certified LEED Silver, and now a lot of them are LEED Gold.” The program, which awards points for each green element included in the design, construction, or operation of a building, also offers a Platinum status, but those projects are rare.

“We have a bunch of people on staff — LEED-certified professionals — who know how to do that work. From our end, there are certain things we have to do. For example, we have to buy products from within 500 miles, and we’ve got to recycle construction waste. Most of the LEED points actually come in the design phase; we have a small portion of it, and the designer and owner have a big portion of it. But we end up managing the process to get there. It’s important now, especially because the cost of energy really kills everyone these days.”

 

The Next Phase

LEED isn’t the only construction trend that O’Connell’s has embraced. Take, for example, building information modeling, or BIM, which uses three-dimensional intelligent-design information, to construct projects ‘virtually’ before building them in the field.

It’s the sort of high-tech development that appeals to the younger generation, and DOC has made a point of cultivating new talent.

“We’ve been really fortunate in that we’ve been able to provide opportunities for a bunch of young people to come into the business,” Bardell said, recognizing that hiring has been down throughout the construction trades throughout the Great Recession, and those entry-level jobs are critical for young workers.

“They’re going to school, working their butts off to get their degrees, become civil engineers, and they can’t get a job. It’s very, very sad,” he continued. “But over the past year, maybe 16 months, we’ve hired about 15 engineers — young people right out of college — which is a real positive for the community. And for us, they bring energy and a lot of great ideas.”

Of course, DOC isn’t only cultivating talent from the region’s universities; it has long been a key player in building infrastructure across many campuses.

In fact, a long-time commitment to this institutional market gives DOC an impressive fingerprint at schools across the Northeast; recent examples include a psychology building and a basketball practice facility at UConn, a student center at Marist College, a science center at Vassar College, and dorms, a football fieldhouse, and several other jobs at Amherst College,

But that market slowed somewhat when the economy shattered in 2008. Fortunately for DOC, it also specializes in many forms of civil engineering, an area that saw some growth — and an influx of state and federal funding — around the same time.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate,” Bardell said. “In 2008, when the stock market went down, so did the institutional college market. People stopped jobs; they literally called and said, ‘we know we have a contract with you guys, but catch you later.’ But we were fortunate enough to pick up some heavy utilities, water-treatment-plant facilities, that kind of thing. That took us from late 2008 through 2009 and 2010 and into 2011.

Metropolitan District Commission in Hartford, Conn.

DOC furnished and installed new aeration tanks and settling tanks for the Metropolitan District Commission in Hartford, Conn.

“That kind of work spanned the time gap when everyone in the institutional market stopped spending,” he told BusinessWest. “While all that was occurring, we didn’t have to let anyone go. All the people who worked here continued to be employed here. We’re just lucky we booked some jobs before the economy came up to the edge and jumped off the cliff. Now, we’ve managed to make it through the recession, and continued to add some young people to the mix — from WPI, UMass, Wentworth Institute. We’ve been fortunate in that regard.”

Better still, the institutional market began to perk up again in 2011, just as the surge in public work which took its place for a few years started to ebb.

“Late last year and early this year, a lot of colleges have decided that they would start building again,” Bardell said. “And now, at least in New England, there’s not a of heavy civil work coming up to bid. It’s a slow time for Clean Water Act projects to come out to bid.”

Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, like any large construction company with a long history that has navigated multiple recessions over the decades, understands, then, the value of a diverse range of services. The company began doing water-treatment jobs in the 1970s and then focused largely on other niches in the succeeding years, but having that expertise served it well when the market began to shift five years ago.

“We’ve got some people on board who are fairly knowledgeable in that line of business, and we were able to book our fair share of that work,” he said. “If you count on just one thing, and things go poorly or there’s a bust in that one product line, it’s not good for your business.”

 

Not Out of the Woods

Working from four main offices — its headquarters in Holyoke and satellites in Franklin; New Haven, Conn.; and Nashua, N.H., the latter housing its utilities division — the administrative reach of O’Connell’s reflects a project footprint that extends across New England and into New York. But Bardell, who joined DOC six years ago as a vice president, is just as impressed with the legacy left by the firm’s employees.

“It’s probably one of the few companies I’ve seen where people stay and work their entire careers; that’s very unusual in this work,” he said. “We have people who started working here 43 years ago, who are still here. We just have a lot of good people.”

And they’ve managed to navigate some difficult years for the construction industry — not that the dark cloud has passed, by any means.

“I think it’s going to be tough the next couple of years,” Bardell said. “Government funding of the wastewater plants is down, and there’s not as much money for roads and bridges as there used to be, making that a hugely competitive market to be in. I certainly hope that the colleges and universities continue to build, but they’re up against the same thing from a funding standpoint.”

He noted that O’Connell’s does benefit from its reputation and relationships with past clients, but in full bid situations, everyone is in the same boat, dealing with implausible profit margins. “The margins are very, very tight for the amount of risk in some of these projects — I would say too tight.”

Still, he said, “we try to look out over a year or so, and there is some work. The volume isn’t quite there yet; that’s why we’re in so many different things. But we’ve been very lucky. We’re still looking for people, and we have enough jobs to keep people busy, so we’re hoping that trend continues.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com


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