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June 3, 2010

Construction Q&A: Jim Karambelas


Company: GLY Construction

Position: President

As a civil engineering grad in the mid-1970s, Jim Karambelas was looking for work in Chicago, where he grew up. The federal government was pouring money into infrastructure projects, and a number of them required engineering know-how. After signing up with a general contractor, Karambelas was hooked.

His company brought him to Seattle in 1982 to build the Interstate 90 floating bridge, and later, the Washington State Trade and Convention Center. You can still hear a trace of Chicago when Karambelas speaks, but the Northwest was where he decided to stay.

Karambelas joined GLY Construction in 1995 and stepped into the president’s role in 2008. His top challenge in his new position has been learning how to deal with a very difficult economy, he said, but he also sees this as a time to retool, train, make key acquisitions and invest in employees.

GLY was awarded the AGC-Moss Adams Service to the Community honor for demonstrating a companywide commitment to philanthropy.

What role does community service play at GLY?

Community outreach and philanthropy is really one of the core missions of the company.

What does that mean on a practical level?

We support a number of different organizations. Some are organizations that are brought up to us by employees of the company. We contribute somewhere in the neighborhood of about 2 to 3 percent of our profits to these organizations every year in sponsorship dollars as well as another probably 2 to 3 percent of in-kind donations through equipment, materials and labor.

How did that culture come about?

It’s always been something that has been at the heart of this organization, starting with one of the original founders.

What do you like most about your work?

People interaction and solving problems.

And which part is drudgery?

Negativity creates drudgery for me because that’s an obstacle that is hard to overcome and is very foreign to my way of thinking.

Is there a tension between being optimistic and realistic?

I think we need to constantly be innovative and creative, but I think you also have to realistic at the same time. So it’s great to have big ideas and to think strategically about the future and position yourself, but you also have to rein in some of those thoughts and put them into daily actionable and more near-term actionable plans.

What makes people successful in construction?

I think they need to be pragmatic. They need to act quickly. They need to be good problem solvers. They need to have technical expertise and they need to have a passion to be a great builder. In our business you have to want to deliver great client service. That’s one of the components of all of those other things that in our marketplace creates opportunities.

Do you ever see a structure you wish you’d built?

For sure. I look at some of these world’s tallest buildings overseas. That would be very interesting because those projects are not just building projects, they’re definitely engineering-slash-building projects.

How handy are you with a box of tools?

Good. I’ve got a workshop at home and I’ve built some cabinets and have done a number of millwork projects in my home as well as building some cabinets.

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