Neeser Construction's Winning team, quality, and recent projects.

News Source: Alaska Business Monthly
Publish Date: December 03, 2002

In nearly 30 years of operations, Neeser Construction Inc. has never gone over budget nor has it ever been late on a project, according to President Jerry Neeser. The company has never been taken to court for poor quality nor has a lien ever been taken out on the group.

It is a boast few contractors in the nation can proclaim. It is what has made Neeser Construction one of the most preeminent contractors around, whether it’s for putting up a 40,000-square-foot school in the remote, cold village of Stebbins or building a 330,000-square-foot shopping complex on an Air Force base. Neeser can work on up to eight major projects at any one time, in just about any combination of urban and rural sites.

“I’ve worked very hard to stay focused on the company and what can get it in trouble,” Neeser said. “The economy in Alaska has gone up and down, but we haven’t; we’ve been in a steady growth spiral. I think because of our excellent standing, we’re sought out.”

Jerry Neeser entered the industry in the early 1960s, working with his father on projects throughout the Pacific Northwest. In 1969, the young Neeser moved to California to put up high-rises and parking garages. Five years later, he moved to Alaska and began to build the quality team that has put Neeser Construction on the contractor A-list.
Gary Donnelly was among the first to team up with Jerry Neeser, joining the company in 1977.

“Jerry has kept people who have worked well for him,” Donnelly said. “Everything he’s done, he’s done a quality job so that people come back. And he’s been wise at forecasting what would sustain the business, not necessarily growth, but staying alive through the leaner times.”
Neeser knew when it was time to switch from residential to commercial building. In the early 1980s, he foresaw the economic downturn, suspecting it would hit urban construction especially hard. He turned the company to building schools in the Bush, Donnelly said.

“That carried us through those years,” he said. “Over the past 20 years, I could tick off 20 contractors that started business with a bang, out of the gate, and then they’re gone. He’s taken his, and our, adult lives to grow the company to where it is.”

Another essential element in the company is working closely with everyone involved in the project-owners, architects and engineers-to ensure the building’s quality meets expectations.

“That’s something I’ve noticed with Neeser,” said George Tuckness, a project manager who has been with Neeser for 11 years, “there is a level of service that you don’t normally get from other contractors. Anyone can satisfy an RFP (request for proposal), but can you make the person using the room happy?”

Neeser Construction and its crews have some hefty challenges on the list for the coming years. They are about to start work on a 70,000-square-foot, K-12 school in the village of Togiak, near Dillingham, and will start next spring on an assisted living facility in east Anchorage, called Cornerstone Senior Campus. This facility will have a notable dementia care unit.

The company was recently awarded part of a $400 million contract-it is shared among four contractors-with the Army Corps of Engineers. Work includes primarily upgrades and new construction on the state’s Army bases.

Neeser was recently awarded a $35 million contract to design and build the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and is working with the city of Juneau discussing additions to the Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Wherever they work, Neeser crews put up their trademark NCI signs-signs that have become nearly as prominent in number as those of political candidates at election time. During the construction season, around 450 people are on the payroll, but the company hasn’t gone below 200 employees in the past five years, Neeser said.

Their determination for quality is what brings customers back, and is what keeps them bragging on their buildings.

Bob Dickens, the maintenance and facilities director for the Bering Straits School District, first worked with Neeser crews in the early 1990s, when the company was hired to design and build the K-12 school in Stebbins. He has since coordinated with the company in building schools in Wales and in Grimbell.

“They certainly made an impression on me,” he said. “We found Neeser to be an excellent contractor for rural conditions and for having a good understanding of what it takes to work here. Like the Wales school; that was working in extreme conditions and was a basic challenge where some have no idea to go about it.”

Wales is located on the tip of the Seward Peninsula, about 100 miles north of Nome. The school burned just after Thanksgiving in 1995. The community lost its main gathering point and the kids lost their classrooms, as well as their favorite place to shower (most homes in the region don’t have running water).

The district rented space in a local church and in the National Guard Armory for classes while Neeser crews scrambled to barge equipment and materials to the site before the water froze. The entire project-which included a gym, locker rooms and shops-was put on a fast track.

Construction began before the final design was completed, said Donnelly, a project administrator at Neeser.

“Rather than sit and wait for plans to develop, we worked with the architect and structural engineer from the beginning,” he said. “We basically know what we need, and if we can get some information, we can order the materials and get started.

“Like in Wales, as miserable as the weather is, sometimes the piling system has to be put in in the winter. And it’s beastly.” Temperatures are well below zero, and often are accompanied by a fierce wind.

“Exactly 11 months from the day it burned, the new school was ready to occupy,” Dickens said. “They did it in record time and in adverse conditions.” And the $5 million project was completed ahead of schedule.

Despite the years of harsh conditions-both from the weather and being full of active children all day-Dickens said the Neeser-built schools at Wales, Stebbins and Gambell are still holding together well, almost new.

“We’ve got a good maintenance crew, but that also really says a lot about the quality of the construction,” he said.

An added bonus: the cost of heating the facilities has decreased by about 30 percent in each new school, Dickens said.

Neeser has a range of repeat customers, including Southcentral Foundation, the Alaska Regional Hospital and several school districts around the state.

“They have really done an excellent job in all cases,” said Larry Mathis, of Pan American Consulting Engineers and the owner-representative for Southcentral Foundation’s clinics that operate in conjunction with the Alaska Native Medical Center.

In 1997, Neeser worked with Mathis-representing Cook Inlet Tribal Council-on the medical office building at ANMC. Neeser also worked with Mathis and Southcentral Foundation in building the primary care center, which was completed in February, and on the upcoming clinic that will house dental, optometry and behavioral health facilities, due to be completed in May 2003. (Cook Inlet Tribal and Southcentral are both nonprofit organizations that operate under the umbrella of the Alaska regional corporation Cook Inlet Region Inc.)

During the original design, the architect firm NBBJ, based in Seattle, told Southcentral representatives that some features desired for the clinic must be omitted because they didn’t have the budget to do it all. Neeser worked closely with the firm to simplify the structural design and adjust a few other features, saving enough money to allow designers to reincorporate many of those thrown-out-ideas-about $2 million worth, Donnelly said.

“We gave them the same project, maybe even a better one, and we saved them money,” he said. The final cost came in about $500,000 under budget of roughly $15 million.

Neeser has completely reformed the Alaska Regional Hospital over the last decade, starting with the building of the Veteran’s Affairs regional offices and the health care clinic. The contractor company was hired to design and build the two new medical office buildings and an operating room used exclusively for heart surgery, as well as complete a major renovation throughout the facility.

The work has been a real learning experience for Project Manager Tuckness. “We’re merging medicine with construction,” he said. “The facility is based on patient care, and the challenge has been keeping them operating on 100 percent status through the entire operation. Then there’s learning to deal with people used to dealing with things microscopic and not thinking that a quarter-inch is good enough; it’s getting to a level of perfection that the doctors here expect.”

While Tuckness’ work at Alaska Regional is nearly complete, his next challenge may be just as staggering. Neeser was recently awarded the contract for the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, a $35 million design/build project.

“The trick here is to make it secure but not look secure,” he said, “and to have impact-resistant walls but not put up something that will hurt patients.”

Work also will be done in a relatively tight space, squeezed between the old facility and several acres of old-growth forest that must be preserved. And it all must be done in a way that least disturbs the patients housed in the current building.

For so many tough projects built in so many unyielding sites, always being on time and on budget is pretty impressive, Donnelly said.

“When Jerry started, it was almost like being on a football team and wanting to be on the winning team,” he said. “We developed that attitude, then it became the pride of the organization. And it’s a fun challenge to get it right.”