As the promise of 2021 looms on the horizon, most people are anxious to close the books on what is likely the most unsettling year — from the pandemic to politics to PPP loans — we will ever experience. Strong leadership has never been more essential than it is today. To share their best leadership practices, Az Business magazine sat down with Arizona business leaders to watch in 2021, including Casey Cartier, president and CEO of Jokake Construction Services.

Casey Cartier joined Jokake Construction services in 2012 and has more than 25 years of construction industry experience. In August, the Global CEO Excellence Awards honored Cartier as the Best Commercial Real Estate & Construction CEO in the Southwest.

Here is the full transcript of the interview with Casey Cartier

Az Business: Can you talk a little bit about the impact COVID has had on Jokake?

Casey Cartier: Ultimately, I was fortunate to have a lot of relationships in Europe. And so in January and February, we were able to kind of hear what was happening in Spain, hear what was happening in Italy and start preparing ourselves a little bit better for what may or may not happen. In Arizona, we have the ability for all of our employees to work remotely. So the infrastructure of being able to have people work from home was not hard to do.

Ultimately the struggle, which has been interesting, is the culture. How do you manage a culture in which we were a very tight-knit group when everyone now works out of their homes. So from an internal side, trying to connect people, Zoom only works so far. Project teams working together and trying to create a dialogue about COVID where people feel comfortable sharing what their personal fears are, what space they need, and really trying to group people into where those are all set. The external side has been much tougher.

From a general contracting standpoint, managing labor forces on-site with masks, cleaning stations, with the thought of maybe an exposure. What happens is the whole crew gets quarantined. And so our people are having to manage projects in which, 10 or 15 people are missing one day. And so how do you keep all those things moving has been a huge, huge challenge for our field staff. But by a large, we were fortunate being an essential service in construction. So we stayed busy, but it’s day to day. We really have to manage the details day-to-day right now.

Az Business: What is it about your leadership style that helped Jokake get over some of these obstacles and challenges that you had to face?

Casey Cartier: I wouldn’t say it was me. We have a culture that has a lot of autonomy at Jokake. Our teams are empowered, so to have 30 or 40 projects going on at the time that COVID hit, really the teams are empowered to figure out how they work forward. So I really just have to work with our internal team, management team to figure out what are the guidelines that we’re going to follow and how do we roll that out. So if my style is anything, it’s I empowered people to make decisions. And as long as I just create kind of a road map, they’re usually successful.

Az Business: Are there lessons you might’ve learned from COVID that might help Jokake as a company down the road?

Casey Cartier:  We were working so hard and fast in the construction services through 2017, 2018. And really the first half of 2019, the volume was fast. We were seeing projects in the Southwest moving quickly. The pandemic, you really had to pump the brakes. And so what we ended up doing is we really started pushing a lot of our additional services out to clients. Nobody really knew what was going to happen, what the next option was going to be. And so our ability to provide design solutions, development services, financial services in a time with a lot of questions really became something that connected us to our clients. And what I think we realized more than anything is we can really be so much more to our clients than we were expecting then.

Before, it was just build as fast as we can build. And the interesting thing that I did find, not that it surprises me, but I was somewhat ashamed not to have noticed it before, is our people really want the opportunity to spread their career in learning across different disciplines. So we’ve had people in the field that have interest in running Revit models and in BIM aspects and really getting into the virtual side of things. The old thought was, “maybe they just want to come into the office and be a project manager.” So being able to offer these options to our people has been something that will make us much stronger moving forward and maybe not so reliant on how fast and how much we can build. And so I’d much rather be better than bigger. And I think the pandemic has proved out to that for us anyway.

Az Business: What are some of the trends or issues that we should be watching for moving forward?

Casey Cartier: Well, there’s a $64,000 question. What is the new way of doing business? Obviously in Phoenix, we’re very fortunate to been somewhat in front of the e-commerce side, in industrial data centers. These marketplaces actually are benefiting Phoenix as a whole, but it’s a new way of doing business. And I think the pandemic pushing individuals to work from home now creates a bigger strain on the infrastructure of data centers. So that seems to be driving that, but the new way of doing business in Phoenix, whether it’s legal, financial, I’ll caveat this into the office space. Nobody really knows how they’re going to move forward yet. Are they going to have everyone work from home or are they going to have everyone in the office, but spaced apart? And so square-footage on existing buildingsis going to be a challenge for a few years.

So we really have to see how can we re-purpose some of these assets that used to be just office into maybe more of a retail space or a co-working space or something along the lines of this with COVID and the safety issues. The other one is we really are going to have to build virtually everything. Ultimately, we communicate via electronic now. So teams with the ability to model projects, three-dimensionally, communicate with their clients three-dimensionally without face-to-face meetings, will be, I think, the new normal forever. It cuts down on travel, it cuts down really on that interaction. COVID is going to be around whether we have a vaccine or not. So we’re going to have to be prepared to work with a little more space than we used to. And I think that’s going to happen from a virtual platform.

Az Business: What are the benefits and challenges of having to do more of that virtual work upfront?

Casey Cartier: The benefits are certainly thinking through the project much deeper earlier. And what that ends up doing for the client is, they can trust the information that they ended up getting. They can trust the estimate a little bit more because you’ve vetted a lot of those issues. And quite frankly, you’re communicating. One of the struggles we’ve always had on the general contracting side is, by and large, we communicate in spreadsheets. Not a fun thing to hear, right? Nobody likes to open the photo album of spreadsheets except us and accountants. So being able to communicate in pictures, images, and really pull from the design community here in Phoenix to get the creativity built into this space and into our town, I think it’s going to be an amazing rocket ship of growth. And there’s going to be some really cool things built in the Southwest coming forward.

Disadvantage. It’s a new way of thinking. We ultimately are staffing people on projects for one, two or three years. So how do you protect your income statement, your bottom line, when the first two years of a project may not be billable time at all, but it’s valuable time. And so how are you actually being able to do this and how are you able to communicate to your clients that it is valuable time? So I think where we used to have 10 people on a project team, we’ll now have six people on a project team for longer. And so there’s going to be a new dynamic. The labor force has to become much, much more technically proficient. And it’s our responsibility to train those proficiencies into them.

Az Business: Can you talk a little bit about your outlook for 2021 and beyond in the Valley and the construction industry?

Casey Cartier: I will be very excited to get through the election. Ultimately, our industry is all about stability and it’s about predictability and we’ve now gone, starting from tariffs through COVID, we’ve gone 18 months of no predictability and no stability. So we are hoping in really projecting for a stable 2021. Obviously, we are attracting, I think the stat I saw was 150,000 people a month are migrating to Arizona. And we certainly know that the home building side of construction is going to pick up.

And so, although we’re projecting ’22 being much better than ’21 for the commercial side, we do see an uptick certainly. The other piece of COVID that unfortunately happened to us was projects were put on hold, not canceled. So we’ve been sitting with backlog on our books all 2020 that will break loose. So we have that amount of work to do, and then obviously what’s going to come forward. So our projections are fairly flat for ’21 growing into ’22. And then I start really getting into the crystal ball and economists that started looking at the end of the decade, being a real tough span. But for the next four or five years, we see stable growth.