May 22, 2008

Dave Zemek


Dave Zemek

Company: Kiewit Pacific Co.

Position: vice president, Seattle-area manager

Dave Zemek, who leads Kiewit’s Seattle-area operations, joined the Omaha, Neb.-based company in 1984.

Kiewit, which shares an AGC grand award with Bechtel Construction Co. for the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, is the nation’s largest highway contractor.

‘When I get all done with my career, I won’t have pictures of the projects that I worked on hanging on my walls, but I’ll have pictures of the people I got to work with.’

The joint partnership with Bechtel, called Tacoma Narrows Constructors, was “very integrated,” Zemek said, with Bechtel taking the lead on engineering and Kiewit leading construction.

The project posed plenty of challenges, especially installing the bridge foundations in 80 feet of water and being buffeted by a 6.5-knot current.

Zemek said the real motivation for him is the chance to work with people he respects.

Zemek is a Lakewood native and a member of the AGC Board of Trustees.

Any advice for breaking our transportation gridlock?

We have a tendency in our community to try to please everyone and that leads to what I call “paralysis by analysis,” where we study things to death and spend a lot of money doing it. Sometimes the best plan is initiated by a small, educated group.

I think at the end of the day we’re better off if our elected leaders — that we obviously trust because we’ve elected them — make those decisions as an elected group as opposed to trying to put everything out to the voters.

How about the Alaskan Way Viaduct?

I personally don’t have a favorite solution. Ideally, if we were starting all over again, we probably wouldn’t have a major thoroughfare right on the shoreline. We’d maybe move that inland or below grade. It really becomes a toss-up between an expensive cut-and-cover-type thing that accomplishes Seattle’s desire to have a big park area, or an elevated structure that remains unsightly to some, but beautiful to a bridge contractor like Kiewit.

How did you end up in construction?

As soon as I figured out there was such a thing as a (college) construction management or building construction program, I entered that program right away. I am the son of a carpenter, and Dad taught me a little bit about how to build things. The carpenters union and the AGC each gave me scholarships to help with my education as I entered the University of Washington.

What’s the most challenging part about your job?

We’re called contractors for a reason: We work with contracts. It’s fun to build stuff, but sometimes you don’t get to build things because you’re spending all your time working through contract terms.

What’s a misconception people have about construction?

I think that people are surprised to find out how engineering-intensive our industry is. There’s not a supervisor or employee in our company who doesn’t have a computer and work every day in a very businesslike environment where very exacting standards have to be met in order for the projects we construct to perform as anticipated by our clients.

I think there’s a perception that it’s an uneducated, blue collar-type industry, and while there’s no doubt some hard physical work goes into constructing our projects, there’s probably one hour of engineering for every two hours of craft labor.

Is there anything about you that would surprise people?

Most people would be surprised to find out I can keep up with most of our craftspeople in terms of getting out in the field, pounding nails or operating equipment or topping trees.

I’ve got a collection of excavators and backhoes and screens that I play with on the weekend. I usually try to turn that toward some charitable project.

Do you keep all that equipment in the garage?

Well, I’ve got a big backyard. The wife would just as soon see it hidden in the garage.

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