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The DNA of a Superintendent: Jim Rubel of Reed Construction

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When you meet Jim Rubel, you immediately sense his enthusiasm and passion for construction.

“I’m fascinated by it. I love it,” says the project superintendent at Chicago-based Reed Construction. “High-rise construction, ballparks, bridges…. I'm on the internet all the time. I’ve got my finger on the pulse. I'm always reading up on projects that are happening and different building materials and different methods of doing things. There's nothing I would rather do than build buildings.”

Construction is in Rubel’s blood. His father was a carpenter and a superintendent. His uncle founded an architecture practice, and other family members work in the industry as well.

Rubel, 44, has a degree in industrial engineering and technology from Western Illinois University and has worked as a superintendent since 1994. He joined Reed Construction, a full-service mid-sized general contracting firm, nearly three years ago where he focuses on corporate interior build-out projects.

He says Reed is the perfect fit for him.  

“When I interviewed, I liked everything they had to say,” he explains. “They talked a lot about the future of the company, rather than their past projects. I liked that. And it’s small enough where I matter. I get all the support I need, and they believe in me.”

The Jobsite recently spoke to Rubel about his construction background, how to become a standout superintendent, and what companies should look for when hiring superintendents.

The Jobsite: What did you do before joining Reed Construction?

Rubel: Before that, I was building (recreation) centers and Park District buildings ground up for myself. My uncle owned his own architecture practice. He retired, sold his practice and asked if I wanted to team up with him. He would do the project management end of it, and I would build the buildings. So, we teamed up and did two Park District out-of-the-ground buildings. Unfortunately, he passed away in the middle of the second one.

So, it left me to make a decision: either start interviewing people to find someone to fill his position, which is a lot to ask of someone that you’ve only just met. It's tough to put that much trust in somebody. Or the other option was to shop and see if I wanted to sign on and work for another company. I liked what Reed had to say, so I came work for them and I love it. It was the right move.

Construction is in my blood. My whole family is in construction in some facet: engineers, architects, superintendents.

When you were growing up, did you always know your career would be in construction?

I grew up on construction sites, building houses for my family—aunts, uncles, everyone. Then, during high school and college, I was a carpenter doing commercial carpentry at my uncle’s architectural practice alongside my father. Then, when I came out of college, I became a full-on superintendent.

Having my uncle and his architecture practice was a good way for me to get my foot in the door. But I've always been on projects. My father was a carpentry subcontractor, and then he went on to be a superintendent. So, we can talk shop for hours.

Construction is in my blood. My whole family is in construction in some facet: engineers, architects, superintendents. We run into each other (on projects). This whole industry is like a tight-knit community. I’ve never not wanted to do in construction. I love it. You’ve got to have it in your DNA—it’s not just a job.

What do you love most about being a superintendent?

I love the challenges. Each project is different. I'm never doing the same thing twice. Each project comes with its own set of challenges, and it's up to me to identify them and make the best use of my time and constantly tighten up my schedule to try to achieve my goal at the end. You can look at any a project and see the flow of it. Just to identify and overcome (the challenges) is a challenge in itself.

And I can turn around and look back at what I’ve built. You get the satisfaction to see the building that you’ve built.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on a medical facility, and that has challenges. Because of ICRA (Infection Control Risk Assessment) standards, you have to maintain negative air pressure, so you're not leaking any dust or anything that may contaminate the other areas of the medical facility.  Everything has to be really contained. I get inspections by ICRA who comes to make sure that I’m maintaining all these requirements in order to work in a medical facility.

Also, the facility is still open during construction. So, we have to leave areas accessible for foot traffic. Construction traffic and foot traffic have to always remain separate. I always put a barrier between them. I can't cross those two paths so that’s a challenge.

But, that's my job. You know you can’t lose focus of it.

How can someone to learn to be a successful superintendent?

I never realized how much I do until I went to train another person to do my job. For me, it's like walking. I just do it.

To learn, you really have to do it. You can't learn it from a book. There are so many different issues that can present themselves as you go and different things you are responsible for.

It's something that they have to learn by understanding what we're doing. And you have to have someone that's patient enough to take you through the steps and show you what you're doing. Not only saying “We're doing this,” but explaining why you're doing this.

What do newcomers to construction not always understand about a superintendent’s role?

That it’s not just a job. You've got to be all in. Sometimes you've got to come in at night or on the weekends, or do whatever you have to do to get the job done. Sometimes, there’s rain or snow. Weather is the enemy you’re always fighting.

If I'm at home trying to go to sleep, I'm thinking about what I'm going to do the next day. Things are constantly running through your head. I'm sure that’s the case in a lot of jobs, though. You're always thinking about it. You don't get to just punch out and forget about it because you’re the one that's responsible.

What qualities or characteristics make a great superintendent?

You have to be assertive. You have to be forward. You don't soften the blow. You have to hit these guys right between the eyes. Nobody wants surprises. They want a straight shooter, and they'll respect you for it. You've got to be respectful, down to the guy pushing the broom, to the architect, the owner, everyone. You've got to have respect for people across the board. Every job is about one thing—it's about people. You need good people skills.

You have to think about how what you're doing or what you're saying is going to make others feel. I want my team to push for me. They're not going to push for me if I'm a jerk. You have to treat people as professionals.

You have to have humility. You have to know that you don't know everything and not walk around like a big shot, like you know everything. You can't be afraid to ask for help. Small problems can turn into big problems if you're too proud to say “I could use some help.”

You've got to be confident, but it will come with the territory, as you're successful with projects. People will understand that you know what you're doing. And, if you speak to people with confidence, they'll believe in you.

You should always give credit to the people around you. I always give credit to my team. It's all my project manager, my project engineer, everyone on my team across the board. I can't do my job without them, and they always do a great job.

And, most of all, you have to be organized, really organized.

Why is organization such an important quality?

I'm constantly working on my schedule trying to shave off some time here and some money there, whatever I can do. Each project is unique. You may need to change things or stack activities on top of each other to save time.

I can look at my schedule and see what's supposed to be happening. You really have to be organized, and you have to be willing to give your best. You can't be lazy. You've got to give it 100 percent all the time. You can't show up and just be there, and watch the clock. It's not a punch-in, punch-out job.

When hiring a superintendent, what should construction companies ask potential candidates?

I start talking to them about what they’ve built and just read them by the way they talk about it. I can tell if someone would be a good fit or not.

Are they enthusiastic? Are they knowledgeable? Do they know what they're talking about? I know what I'm talking about, but I want to hear it from them and how they say it.

I’m really good at reading people. I can tell if I can mold them. Maybe I can put this guy with a senior superintendent for a few months, and he can pick it up. It's really difficult because it costs the company money to hire someone just to find out that they’re not the person.

It's hard to base whether someone can do it or not on an interview. You don't know what you're going to get until they're out there and they're starting to do it. Sometimes, you don't know if they are sinking or swimming until it's too late. Then, you’ve got to go fish again.

What about someone who’s fresh out of school with no experience?

I would look for someone who's organized, driven, and ambitious. Someone that wants to be there, someone that interested in it—not just looking for a job. You can't just be looking for a paycheck. You have to really be a part of it; you can tell that from talking to someone. That's a key characteristic—they have to really be involved. But, they’ll know after doing this for a year if it’s for them or not, because it’s not for everybody.


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