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A Better Way to Build: A History of the Pankow Companies

Foreword by Arthur J. Fox
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  • Book Info
    A Better Way to Build
    Book Description:

    While architects have been the subject of many scholarly studies, we know very little about the companies that built the structures they designed. This book is a study in business history as well as civil engineering and construction management. It details the contributions that Charles J. Pankow, a 1947 graduate of Purdue University, and his firm have made as builders of large, often concrete, commercial structures since the company’s foundation in 1963. In particular, it uses selected projects as case studies to analyze and explain how the company innovated at the project level. The company has been recognized as a pioneer in “design-build,” a methodology that involves the construction company in the development of structures and substitutes negotiated contracts for the bidding of architects’ plans. The Pankow companies also developed automated construction technologies that helped keep projects on time and within budget. The book includes dozens of photographs of buildings under construction from the company’s archive and other sources. At the same time, the author analyzes and evaluates the strategic decision making of the firm through 2004, the year in which the founder died. While Charles Pankow figures prominently in the narrative, the book also describes how others within the firm adapted the business so that the company could survive a commercial market that changed significantly as a result of the recession of the 1990s. Extending beyond the scope of most business biographies, this book is a study in industry innovation and the power of corporate culture, as well as the story of one particular company and the individuals who created it. Key Features: • There are many books about architects, but very few about twentieth-century “makers.” • Tells the story behind many iconic buildings, especially in the western half of the US. • Charles Pankow was a pioneer in concrete construction and the “design-build” system.

    eISBN: 978-1-61249-230-8
    Subjects: Business, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Arthur Fox

    Here’s how to succeed in business—the Pankow way, with lessons for any innovative entrepreneur. Business historian Michael Adamson tells the Pankow story and spotlights its impact on the construction industry—an impact that lives on through the founder’s generous philanthropy and his outstanding ability to innovate.

    Charles Pankow was a private person, serving mostly private clients. His preference for confidentiality may have come from formative years in the employ of industry legend Peter Kiewit, who said that he “didn’t get to be [a top contractor] by telling people how I do my business.” Record keeping was not a company...

  2. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xxiv-xxvi)
    (pp. 1-30)

    The hallmarks of the Pankow companies have been the deployment of designbuild methodology to deliver singular commercial projects, combined with innovations in job site automation, generally associated with, but not limited to, concrete as a building material. But Charlie Pankow was neither the first contractor to utilize design-build in the twentieth century nor the first to deploy techniques to mass-produce concrete structural elements at the building site. This introduction establishes the context for relating the story of the Pankow companies by emphasizing “the continuity of inventive activity” identified by economist Nathan Rosenberg as a primary feature of technological change.¹


  4. CHAPTER 1 Kiewit Days
    (pp. 31-76)

    In America, the relationship between the engineer and business has been a close one. Said Alexander C. Humphreys, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, a century ago: “Self-evident should be the truth of the proposition that the engineer ought to be a man of business.”¹ Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leaders in the profession urged their colleagues to consider their work in business terms as much as technical ones. As mechanical engineer Henry R. Towne, co-founder of the Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company, put it to engineering students at Purdue University in 1905: “The dollar is the...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Executing Design-Build, 1963–1971
    (pp. 77-114)

    Unlike the founders of Hewlett-Packard, Charlie Pankow did not establish his company in a garage. But one had to walk through the garage of his Altadena, California, home to get to the basement, where he set up shop not more than 10 miles to the west of his former Kiewit office. Here off-site managers, accounting staff, and wife Doris Pankow, the sole administrative assistant, worked until early 1965, when the company leased office space in a building on Walnut Street in downtown Pasadena, a couple of miles to the south. Two years later, Pankow relocated his firm’s corporate offices near...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Pankow in Hawaii, 1965–1984
    (pp. 115-162)

    In May 1967, at the end of Charles Pankow, Inc.’s (CPI’s) first project in Hawaii, an office building for the James Campbell Estate, Charlie Pankow flew to Honolulu to meet with George Hutton for a final briefing on what had been a difficult engagement. So the story goes, Hutton asked Pankow what he wanted him to do next. Pankow suggested to Hutton that he remain in Honolulu to see if he could develop additional business. Hutton asked Pankow how he should proceed. Pankow replied only that he had a plane to catch.¹

    Over the next two decades, George Hutton established...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Pankow on the Mainland, 1972–1984
    (pp. 163-214)

    After he joined the firm as a project sponsor in 1972, Dean Stephan rarely saw Charlie Pankow. Indeed, it seemed to him as if the company ran itself: “We were maybe like a platoon in the Marines. We were a very small group, very tight knit, all working for each other and covering each other’s back, and we really didn’t have a colonel around telling us what to do. That’s very much the way it was. . . . Hands off. He let you achieve your maximum. He did not artificially constrain you. And it worked.”¹ To be sure, on...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Reorganization, Growth, and Recession, 1984–1991
    (pp. 215-252)

    As Charles Pankow, Inc. (CPI), neared its twentieth anniversary, Charlie Pankow pondered its corporate structure. Together, he, George Hutton, and Russ Osterman owned some 85 percent of the company’s stock. It was prohibitively expensive to acquire any ownership position, as the book value of the firm had increased appreciably over two decades. The men who had been hired in the 1970s were contributing to the success of the company, but could not share in profits that they were helping to generate. As a corporate entity, CPI had moved away from the employee-owned model that Charlie Pankow had in mind when...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Promoting Design-Build and Funding Concrete Construction Research
    (pp. 253-290)

    This chapter steps aside from the chronological framework of the narrative to consider the diffusion of design-build and the role that Charlie Pankow and his firm played in spreading the practice. As design-build and certain concrete construction techniques were intertwined in Charlie Pankow’s construction program, efforts by the firm to promote the former entailed advocating the use of precasting, slipforming, and related techniques. The Pankow firm stood apart from contractors as an underwriter of primary research, and so this chapter also examines its contribution to the development of a structural framing system that promised to improve the ability of buildings...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Adapting to Market Change, 1991–2004
    (pp. 291-334)

    Well before the construction industry began to recover from the deep recession of the early 1990s, it was unclear whether the business model that had sustained Charlie Pankow’s company for almost three decades would enable it to thrive when the economy rebounded, much less survive the next downturn. The founder had no doubt that it could. Recall that, when a reporter asked him, in May 1988, to predict what work his firm would be doing in the future, Pankow replied: “Design-build in heavy commercial buildings for the private sector. That’s it.”¹ Convinced that a recession “had no bearing whatsoever on...

    (pp. 335-344)

    Free of the contract provisions, minimum fees, and other constraints embedded in the founder’s business model, Charles Pankow Builders was able to compete on equal footing in the commercial segment of the industry during the frenzied boom that peaked in the spring of 2006. Indeed, the favorable market helped the company adjust to life without its founder. “Things took off,” remarks CEO Richard M. Kunnath. Contract volumes topped $500 million and the company enjoyed record profits. Perhaps no project was more symbolic of the excess of the market than the Montage, a five-star luxury hotel in Beverly Hills, which surpassed...

    (pp. 345-352)

    Charlie Pankow assembled a capable group of self-starters in a building division within the Los Angeles District of Peter Kiewit Sons’. Under his leadership, they became experts in concrete construction, and, as contractors, willing and able to assume sole responsibility for project execution under a building team configuration that became known as design-build. Most of these men followed Pankow when he incorporated his eponymous firm. As a stand-alone organization, Charles Pankow, Inc., played an important role in restoring the master builder to the commercial building site. Animating the organization was the Pankow Way: a culture forged within the Kiewit building...

  13. APPENDIX A Major Projects Completed on the Mainland, 1963–2004, and in Hawaii after the Retirement of George Hutton, 1992–2004
    (pp. 353-364)
  14. APPENDIX B Projects Completed in Hawaii under George Hutton
    (pp. 365-370)
  15. APPENDIX C The Pankow Companies: Innovations, Adaptations, and Tweaks
    (pp. 371-374)
    (pp. 375-378)