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Feature Story - April 2005

General Contractor of the Year:
Sundt Construction

By K. Robert Wendel

Southwest Contractor is proud to name Sundt Construction our "2004 General Contractor of the Year."


The decision was based on the firm's 2003 revenue.

But Sundt Construction isn't an industry leader just because of its revenue.

The firm has long enjoyed a reputation as a progressive and forward- thinking company. The firm was one of the first companies to take advantage of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan in 1974, giving all employees shares in the company and creating one of the first true employee- owned firms in the Southwest.

"Everybody is on the same team," said Eric Hedlund, Sundt Arizona division manager. "I have 1,100 business partners to think about and act in their behalf, as well as my own.

Sundt Construction leads the industry in many fields. The firm stepped up and led the drive at the Arizona Legislature for approval of alternative delivery methods such as design- build for public projects. This has created a progressive atmosphere for the state's construction industry. Sundt's safety program has long been admired by the industry and has been adopted by many other firms.

Sundt Construction is also heavily involved in the community, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to local charities and schools, including $500,000 for an endowment for the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University.

"Sundt is tied to the community and that is one of the things that makes it great," said Gary Aller, executive director of the Alliance for Construction Excellence at the Del E. Webb School. "A lot of other firms just give lip service, but Sundt really does it."

Sundt Construction is one of the few contractors in the nation to specialize in both vertical building and highway heavy civil. High- visibility projects such as the U.S. 60 design- build project, a joint venture with Granite Construction of Watsonville, was another demonstration of the firm's ability to deliver complex project on time and in budget.

Today, Sundt Construction has three units and works in 10 states. A heavy civil division is headed in Arizona by Mike Hoover and heavy civil division California district is headed by Dee Fedrick. The heavy civil division concentrates on roads and streets. The California division specializes in underground utilities and road work.

The Arizona district building division is headed by Eric Hedlund.

There is a federal division, headed by Ron Brown , which handles federal government work. The president and COO of Sundt Construction is Dave Crawford, with Pruitt as CEO and chairman of the board of Sundt Construction Inc.

The company is wholly owned by its 1,100 employees.

Those employees are the keys to the company's success, Hedlund said. He added that , 85 percent of the company's customers are repeat clients.

"What really makes the Sundt engine run is the supply of quality people," he said. "Our roots and our history are from a view of treating the customer and employee right."

Sundt also promotes from within, developing talent, such as Pruitt, who rose from a field engineer position to CEO of the company.

"A lot of people in the company started out as tradesmen or superintendents, and now they are running huge, multi million dollar projects," said Mark Minter, director of the Arizona Builders' Alliance. "Sundt has a tremendous emphasis on management training and education that goes throughout every level of its company."

The firm is also known for its donations from the Sundt Foundation.

Employees can contribute to the foundation through direct payroll deduction, which the company matches dollar for dollar. Where the money is spent is determined by a group of employees in each city in which Sundt operates.

Sundt picks up the administration fees, so 100 percent of the donations go to local charities that are chosen by the employees.

"We are really proud of our employees and our foundation," Pruitt said. "It's a nice way of keeping involved and giving back to the community."

An American Journey

It all started in the small, bucolic farm town of Gjovik, Norway, where Mauritz Martinsen Sundt was born in the fall of 1863. Like many of his fellow countryman, M.M. Sundt was lured to the sea, joining the Norwegian merchant fleet at the age of 12. >>

He spent the next four years cruising the Baltic and Atlantic seas aboard a windjammer. Sundt perfected his skills as the ship's carpenter, until one of his voyages brought him to the United States.

Like many other Scandinavians, Sundt was attracted to the challenges and opportunities to be had in the young country. He worked in Wisconsin, building houses and barns until he moved west to Colorado. But when "mountain fever" claimed his wife's life in 1890, he took his three children and moved to Las Vegas, N.M., a booming cow town with a railway line.

In Las Vegas, Sundt partnered with V.A. Henry, another local carpenter, to form Henry and Sundt Contractors and Builders. Their first contract was to remodel the hospital facilities of Fort Stanton in southern New Mexico. Sundt moved his new wife and family in a covered wagon to personally oversee the work.

Within a few years, Sundt bought his partner out and renamed the company M.M. Sundt, Builder. He landed his first major job in 1910, the construction of the Agua Pura Dam in nearby Peterson Canyon. The 55-ft.- tall structure was built using muscle and mules for $21,843, a large sum in those days.

In 1910, concrete cost $6.85 a cubic yard, while laborers were paid .15 cents an hour and muleskinners on a double team were paid $.40 cents an hour.

The dam, still in use today, would be the first of many heavy civil jobs the firm would do in the next 115 years.

Many of the buildings M.M. Sundt constructed in Las Vegas are still in use today. Sundt's first retail center, the Romero Building, was completed in 1919, along with the YMCA (1905), El Fidel Hotel (1926) and the Ilfeld Auditorium (1930) on the campus of New Mexico Highlands University.

His company expanded as his reputation as a fair and honest man led to new work.

Arizona Bound

The great depression was just starting when M.M. Sundt Construction expanded into Arizona, landing its first contract in Tucson to build a Methodist church. Sundt's son, John, came to Arizona to build the project.

The Arizona and New Mexico offices operated autonomously for the next several years. When things were slow in Las Vegas, Mauritz would go to Tucson to help his son.

With the country in the middle of the great depression, the University of Arizona began an expansion project to add new facilities while stimulating the local economy.

Sundt picked up several large jobs, including the physical education building, the original physics and chemistry building and the Centennial Hall.

During the 1930s, John Sundt bought out his father's interest and Tucson became the new headquarters for M.M. Sundt Construction Co. Mauritz continued to work well into his 70s until he passed away in 1942 at age 79.

The Big Break

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the entire country geared up for a long, hard fight. Sundt Construction was quickly pressed into service to build a battalion camp in Clovis, N.M., the Consolidated Aircraft Modification Center at Tucson's new airport and the new Naval Air Station at El Centro, Calif.

But it was at a secret meeting iIn December 1942, that Sundt would be given its biggest challenge to date: The construction of the Los Alamos nuclear research facilities in New Mexico.

Sundt's original contract was for $300,000, but over the next 14 months and after the contract was modified 70 times for additional work, including dams, sewers and streets, the final tab rose to $7.1 million. More than 2,000 workers were on site.

"There are certain milestones in every company's history and Los Alamos was a major undertaking," said J. Doug Pruitt, chairman, CEO and president of Sundt Construction Inc. "If you look at it in today's dollars, that's about $150 million. That was a major milestone."

It wasn't until Aug. 6, 1945 when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Japan, that the workers at Los Alamos would learn what their project meant to the nation and world.

The Post War Boom

Immediately after the war, construction was soft as the country moved from a wartime footing back to a peacetime economy. In 1946, the Sundts recognized the need to move from a sole proprietorship to a corporation, and
Sundt Construction Inc.. was activated. The firm sold off its New Mexico office, but opened a sand and gravel venture that operated for many years until it was sold to CalMat Co. in 1988.

The company's first officers were long time employees. In 1946, Thoralf Sundt became president; Duane Anderson assumed the role of treasurer, with William Naumann as vice president and Edna Carson as secretary.

A new generation of Sundts came on board after the war, with M.M.'s grandson Robert Sundt joining the firm in 1948 and his brother, H. Wilson Sundt, coming on board in 1957.

As pent- up demand was unleashed, the firm prospered as it built schools, churches, retail stores and hospitals. The company also installed sewer and waterlines, along with other utilities for the rapidly growing city of Tucson.

Sundt's military experience came into play, with the firm building the prototype for the first underground ballistic launching facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Sundt would also build missile silos in California and Kansas, as well as launch pad 39 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., which would eventually send men to the moon.

In addition to playing a key role in Southern Arizona's mining industry, Sundt went international in 1962, with the construction of a sewage treatment plant in Trinidad, West Indies. The firm Sundt would later also do a lot of work in Saudi Arabia.

A Crisis

The sudden death of John Sundt in 1965 during an African safari stunned the company, but a new management team was established in weeks.

Naumann was named chairman of the board, Anderson became president and chief executive and Robert Sundt became a vice president and in charge of the building unit. Carson continued as the secretary.

The company continued to expand and developed a national reputation for its expertise on concrete and slip forming. As Arizona grew, so did Sundt Construction.

The 1970s and 80s were a time of expansion, with Sundt Construction building many high- profile projects such as U of A's McKale Center; Tempe City Hall; the west wing of the Arizona State Capitol; sections of U.S. Highway 60, the Superstition Freeway; and the Reunion Tower in Dallas. The firm also disassembled the London Bridge and brought to Lake Havasu, Ariz., where it was reassembled exactly as it was built.

The firm continues to grow, and recently signed a litter of intent to purchase J.R. Rogers Corp. a prominent Northern California building contractor..

As the company marks its first 115 years this year, M.M. Sundt's slogan of
"Building integrity since 1890" had become the company's watchword.

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