Mike Bontrager is a builder, through and through. During his career, he has been part of companies that have completed projects large and small, but where the construction expert distinguishes himself is in his innate ability to build successful teams.
“I do a couple things really well,” Bontrager says. “I’m hyper-focused on the culture of the company, and I’m very good at growing businesses and executing on the strategy.”
When Alston Construction, which operates in 20 markets across the country, wanted to expand into Arizona, it was looking for a leader who had a solid reputation among his or her peers as well as a track record of transforming struggling offices into successful ones. Bontrager checks both boxes.
“Paul Little, the CEO of Alston, called me up out of the blue and said, ‘I hear you’re sitting on the bench,’” recalls Bontrager, who had just retired from Adolfson & Peterson Construction (A&P). “I didn’t know what Alston was, so I did some research on the company. Then Paul flew out from Atlanta, and we went to lunch and talked. We hit it off right away.”
Little offered Bontrager the job of vice president and general manager of Alston’s new Phoenix office, an opportunity that the recent retiree jumped at. It all became official in early March 2020.
“Two weeks after that, the whole country locked down,” Bontrager notes. “I called up Little and asked, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ He said he did.”
What Bontrager brings to the table for Alston is a nearly 40-year track record of success in the industry. Locally, he led operations for two different firms during his time in Arizona. He is very active in industry groups. He’s on the Greater Phoenix Chamber executive committee and is chair of the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation; he is one of the co-founders of the Build Your Future Arizona campaign and is the steering committee chairman; and he’s also on the Beatitudes Campus board and will be board chair in 2022.
For Alston, Bontrager is well on his way to cementing his reputation as a man who can build not only structures but also companies. His prior relationships in the market helped the company quickly secure project contracts, the biggest of which is the 685,000-square-foot Brooklyn Bedding factory and corporate office facility in Glendale, which broke ground in February 2021.
While at A&P, Bontrager had established a solid relationship with Brydant Real Estate, the developer that was working with Brooklyn Bedding on its new facility. After he left A&P to lead the Alston office, Bontrager approached Brydant and asked for a chance to build the project.
“Brooklyn Bedding told us that we were going to have to compete for it,” Bontrager remembers. “They put out a request for proposals, and we just outworked everybody. We worked long days and weekends, putting the budgets and schedules together. We just over-responded to everything.
“To have that project as an anchor is huge,” he adds. “I couldn’t ask for a better way to start Alston’s work in Arizona.”
Bontrager traces his ability to pull struggling operations out of trouble to his time with Weitz Construction, the firm that hired him straight out of Iowa State University, where the future executive earned a degree in Construction Engineering. Bontrager arrived in Arizona in 1983 while employeed at Weitz and, in 2003, was running the office in Phoenix. He guided the firm through the Great Recession in the late 2000s, and when Weitz acquired Watts Constructors, Bontrager was asked to go to Hawaii to turn around that firm’s operations in Honolulu.
“I told them I’d give them three years in Hawaii,” Bontrager says. “I went over there and got it done in a year.”
Weitz then sent him to Iowa to work his magic on the company’s industrial group in its Des Moines office, a task he completed in a little more than a year.
“That’s when I really got into the process of turning things around,” Bontrager said. “When I went to Iowa and worked with the industrial group, I had some general guidelines, but I created my own little processes for how to turn these things around.”
Following his stint in Iowa, Bontrager returned to Arizona and put the Weitz Phoenix office back on track. A few years later, he got a call from the CEO of A&P.
“He said, ‘I hear you’re really good at turning offices around,’” Bontrager says. “I told him that I was OK at it, but it’s painful.”
Bontrager guided A&P’s Phoenix operations into smoother waters before retiring in late 2019. Then Alston pulled him off of the sidelines.
“When you do this for 38 years — and I wouldn’t say I was on autopilot — there has to be a draw, something that motivates you,” Bontrager notes. “I looked at this new position as a challenge to get the Arizona operations going, and I knew that there was a chance that it wouldn’t work. But it was a challenge I was willing to accept.”