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May 20, 2011

Construction Q&A: Walt Schwartz


Company: Watts Constructors

Title: Senior vice president

Watts Constructors of Honolulu builds brawny projects for the federal government such as runways, infrastructure, waterfront reconstruction and military projects.

The fast-growing company has expanded its reach to the other side of the Pacific Rim, with projects in places like Guam and Singapore.

Walt Schwartz, a senior vice president based in Gig Harbor, joined the company in 1998, when it was a small woman-owned business in the San Francisco Bay area. He was a vice president from the start, he said, but that was a rather lofty title for what his role was in those days, when the company had a $20 million backlog.

“So I estimated, I ran work, took out the trash, whatever it takes,” he said.

Watts merged with The Weitz Co. in 2006 and moved its headquarters to Hawaii the following year. Today the company is employee-owned. Schwartz now estimates the backlog is about half a billion dollars.

AGC honored Watts with its construction grand award for heavy/industrial work at the Elwha water facilities on the Olympic Peninsula. The project was a joint venture with DelHur Industries of Port Angeles.

“It was a good job,” Schwartz said. “It was just one of those jobs where all members of the team — the owner, the designer, the agencies involved — everybody worked together.”

How did you get your start?

My degree is in civil engineering, and during my undergrad years I worked on several survey crews for the California Department of Transportation, so that introduced me firsthand to construction.

What drew you to it?

I’ve always liked to build things. I’ve been a woodworker since I was 10, so building things has always come naturally for me, and this is just building things on a bigger scale.

What do you like about your work?

Our bonding capacity is such that we can be pretty selective about what we bid and how we bid. It takes some of the pressure off. I think everybody in the industry is under a lot of pressure these days, but because of what we do, where we do it and what we’re capable of, we still have a little bit of fun.

Tell me about a frustration.

(A) difficult part about work these days is that it seems like owners are becoming less sophisticated and less savvy about construction.

Why is that?

The federal government has downsized tremendously on the contract side, and in the Northwest I think they’re trying to hire a lot of new people to handle the workload that they have. But a lot of the people that they’re hiring are less experienced than the people that had been there before.

What advice would you give to a young person?

Get out in the field and get your hands dirty. I went out and worked in the trades for seven years, and I learned as much if not more doing that than anything in my education.

What do you do for fun?

I’m still a woodworker, building a new shop at my house.

What do you make?

I like to turn bowls. Most every job requires that a tree be removed for the project, so I try to salvage the butt of the tree and then turn some bowls out of it. But I always just give them away. I’m never satisfied. I always know there’s a flaw in there somewhere. So once I make the perfect bowl maybe I’ll keep that one for myself.

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