The Keys to Operational Excellence in Construction

There are three universal tenants to ensure operational excellence on construction projects that must be executed and measured on a consistent basis.

General George S. Patton once said that “By perseverance, and study, and eternal desire, any man can become great.” These principles of perseverance, study, and desire are cornerstones of any individual, group, or organization desiring to obtain and sustain success. While some may argue that General Patton lacked the ability to empathize with people, most can agree that the man knew how to move an army in order to achieve operational excellence.

In the construction industry, a need for this same operational excellence becomes evident when reflecting on the final decades of the twentieth century, a time where stagnancy pervaded the industry. Construction companies were under-performing, the expected turnover left much to be desired, and clients often felt the pains of mismanaged projects. These issues revealed a glaring need for a a new model of operational excellence.

Operational excellence encourages companies to enhance the client experience, minimize cost, and cut wasteful processes in terms of managing resources and materials, allowing value to be restored and delivered to clients. Coming out of the Great Recession of the early twenty-first century, adopting this new practice in our industry became necessary in order to meet the demands of the market. In a time where clients had tighter margins and technological advances were happening at an ever increasing rate, it was imperative that construction companies become experts on this new model, have a great desire to learn its principles, and persevere through the slow, arduous process of applying it within all disciplines throughout their organizations.

There are many facets where operational excellence should be applied, but just as General Patton believed in the three principles of perseverance, study, and eternal desire, there are three universal tenants to ensure operational excellence on construction projects that must be executed and measured on a consistent basis. These universal tenants of operational excellence are:

  • Collaboration. In order to achieve and maintain excellence within any successful organization, there must be collaboration. Clients must know of pending changes and issues. Designers have to seek input from contractors in order to provide an exceptional finished product. Contractors must look beyond what they are doing today so they can positively impact the schedule and efficiencies on a given project.
  • Standardization. Far too often leaders are reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to meeting the needs of those they serve. Processes and procedures found in countless operation manuals are typically the result of a problem that had to be solved, which is why it is critical for attention to be consistently given to improving quality through standardization. When processes/procedures and means/methods of operational excellence are all standard, the improved quality of construction is directly correlated. Standardized tasks become muscle-memory and are easily tracked/measured, saving time and reducing error.
  • Development. There is no doubt that real dollars are tied to the development of team members. However, the importance of investing in staff development cannot be overstated if our industry wants to achieve and maintain operational excellence. Our team members are our most critical resource – the one companies should be continually investing in to grow and retain. The quality of our team members are directly related to the predictable success of our projects. Therefore, providing training and committing to development opportunities quickly produces positive results across the construction spectrum.


More than ever, clients want things done right, and they deserve nothing less. Time has never been more expensive, and we can’t retrace steps. A steady focus on the importance of completing quality projects on time while creating strong, positive relationships with those in which we serve has never been more important.

Companies that are finding success today are the ones that made the decision to embrace their potential and move past the old status quo by collaborating, setting high standards, and developing their people. They embraced operational excellence, realizing how critical it was to their organization. They realized that it is the driving force that produces better results in terms of client experience, cost efficiency, productivity and innovation.

A desire for excellence is what separates the good from the great. My hope is that, just as General Patton did, our industry continues to pursue the principles of perseverance, study, and desire so that we can provide our clients the operational excellence and client experiences they deserve.


Jason Dunnam provides day-to-day leadership to the construction operations team in Dallas. He has nearly 20 years of experience, including as a senior superintendent. Jason lives in Dallas, but returns home to Seneca, Missouri, every chance he gets. He enjoys the outdoors, hunting, serving his church and community, and spending time with his three adult sons.


Let’s create a supply chain of gratitude

“If we magnified blessings as much as we magnify disappointments, we would all be much happier.” —John Wooden

A recent story on LinkedIn talks about a math teacher who wrote the following on her chalkboard:

When she turned to her class, the kids were snickering. She asked, “What’s so funny?” The students quickly noted that her first math fact was incorrect.

The teacher responded, “Sure, but I got 9 out of 10 problems right.” Her lesson that day was about far more than math. It was a lesson to prepare her students for the world, and that one mistake can outshine 9 successes.

Her message wasn’t that they should work harder and never make a mistake. It was to never let the negative get in the way of the positive and to never get discouraged—to have grit.

So how do we change our perspective and put more emphasis on the positive? One way is to give thanks.

Expressing gratitude for a colleague’s contribution, even the small things, is a great way to emphasize good work and harness strengths.

Studies show that simple acts of gratitude encourage feelings of increased well-being and reduced depression. Affirmations also build confidence and trust and are proven to increase performance and job satisfaction and improve culture as employees pay their gratitude forward.

It’s a good time of year to reflect on all that we are thankful for, but let’s not stop there. Let’s intentionally express our appreciation for those that positively impact our life and work each day.

In his book Thanks a Thousand, author A.J. Jacobs chronicles his effort to thank every single person who made his morning cup of coffee possible, which turns out to be hundreds of people around the world including farmers, chemists, presidents and artists.

Much like the folks behind Jacobs’ cup of coffee, sometimes in a business setting, the steady, consistent performers can get overlooked, simply because they are getting their work done. Stop and consider your supply chain of positive, and express thanks day in and day out for the large and small contributions.

As Coach Wooden said, let’s magnify our blessings today and every day.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Recommended Reading:

This is the Most Underrated Way to Be a Better Leader

The Importance of Saying Thank You in Business and Beyond

Thanks A Thousand by A.J. Jacobs

High Point Shopping Center Opens in Dallas

Last week, the EMJ team and The Ainbinder Company celebrated the opening of Academy Sports + Outdoors and Five Below at the High Point Shopping Center in Dallas.

Spanning more than 14.5 acres, the High Point development includes 9 buildings, totaling 180,000 square feet. EMJ’s work included all site work and new construction, as well as adding a new traffic signal on Northwest Highway.

The opening of Academy and Five Below marks the second construction milestone on the project. Burlington opened in September, and Marshalls is expected to open next week.



Congratulations to the project team!

Bobby Bass, Project Manager
Keith Starkes, Preconstruction Manager
Chris Ross, Preconstruction Manager
Charles Grothe, Project Engineer
Mike Coyne, Lead Superintendent
Marcus McAdams, Superintendent

Related story:

CarMax in Corpus Christi Celebrates Grand Opening

EMJ’s fourth project to date for CarMax opened last week in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Located on five acres, construction of the 7,500-square-foot store included all site work and installing of a below grade 2,000-gallon fuel storage tank.

“The team’s hard work and client support was outstanding,” said George Heath, EMJ Vice President of Construction. “Their diligence led us to the recent award of two new stores in Denton and Lubbock.”

EMJ’s ongoing partnership with CarMax is what EMJ refers to as programmatic work—performing multiple projects for one client of similar scope and size. This type of relationship enables our team to develop a highly tailored, efficient construction process for the client that supports long-term consistency, accountability and trust.

Look for more updates on the team’s work with CarMax, and congrats to the Corpus Christi team on a job well done!

Jon Fair, Project Manager
Daniel Brantley, Superintendent
Conner Kamps, Preconstruction Manager
Will Morris, Project Engineer
Kathy Griffin, Accounting Manager
Suzanna Trent, Administrative Assistant

Visit for additional information about CarMax.

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CarMax in Norman Celebrates Grand Opening


Celebrating 50 Years: Daring to Diversify

A message from Burt Odom, CEO & President, EMJ Corporation

Thirty-five years ago this month, I began my career at EMJ as a preconstruction manager. A month after me, a new project manager named Jay Jolley joined the team. Little did we know that we would both serve as CEO of the company. But that wasn’t the only thing we didn’t know. There were many things about construction, business, clients, leadership, and, quite frankly, life that we had yet to learn, and we continue to learn more each day.

During those first few years at EMJ, I learned the value of deeply understanding your client, their motivations, and their concerns. This not only prepared me for future partnerships, but also laid the foundation for EMJ’s future.

By the early 1990s, EMJ’s reputation for collaboration and client service brought new opportunities, and again the opportunity to learn and grow.

In our fifth excerpt from EMJ Corporation: The First 50 Years, we share how EMJ began to diversify its portfolio and established its presence in Texas.


While EMJ and CBL enjoyed shopping malls’ heyday, change was afoot for the general contractor by the 1990s. The impetus for that change actually began when Jim Sattler [then CEO] and John Foy, chief financial officer of CBL Properties, began collaborating on some smaller neighborhood strip shopping centers in the mid-1980s.

An Opportunity Presents Itself

The decision to consider the neighborhood center opportunities was part of Jim Sattler’s overall vision for EMJ, which involved a desire to diversify. Projects he pursued with John Foy were just the beginning and allowed him, along with Bill McDonald, to develop a direct relationship with Food Lion—one that would take EMJ into an entirely new realm.

For the first time ever, EMJ completed work for a client outside of the CBL relationship; the company built several stores in South Carolina directly for Food Lion, and that firsthand experience opened the door to new opportunities throughout the Southeast. “We were able to establish a relationship because of our professionalism and commitment and ability to complete things on time,” Sattler says. “Food Lion took notice, and they came to us just after those three stores opened and asked us if we’d be interested in doing a warehouse for them in South Carolina. And that led to another 10 million square feet of warehouse space over a period of time.”

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, project manager Ron Jobe, who was promoted to vice president overseeing Food Lion warehouse construction and later became executive vice president of the Chattanooga office, and superintendent Jim Self, who later became vice president of construction, led the completion of at least one major Food Lion distribution center project per year, with each site comprising approximately eight hundred thousand square feet of space. It was a massive undertaking, and EMJ achieved great success with the program. Food Lion was so impressed that it offered the company a chance to tackle an even more complex project based out of Dallas, Texas: the construction of 42 Food Lion stores and a 1-million-square-foot distribution center to serve Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.

Jim Sattler pegged Jay Jolley and Burt Odom to relocate to Dallas to spearhead the program. “When we moved to Dallas, we started with nothing,” Odom reveals. “We did not know the market. We did not have any employees except for Jay and me. We were both twenty-nine, so inexperienced, and going to do a project of that magnitude with no office and no people. It was a giant challenge.”

However, with the Dallas market in a financial free fall at that time, Jolley and Odom were able to find willing employees and subcontractors quickly and got the program under way. They also brought trusted EMJ employees, including assistant superintendent Glenard Ratcliff, who retired in 2016 as director of construction, to Dallas to help manage the program. They set up a system that allowed EMJ to streamline the construction process and build multiple stores simultaneously. As Food Lion continued to grow in the regional market, the chain increased the number of requested stores. “In about a two-and-a-half-year period, we built 102 stores and a million-square-foot distribution center,” Odom continues.

“EMJ had built up an organization that could move in a big way with big projects,” says Spencer Storie, vice president of planning and development for Food Lion at the time. “They had good people throughout the whole organization—really great superintendents, project managers, and subcontractors who could fast-track a project. And they accomplished something that no one in the US had been able to do at that magnitude. We couldn’t have done it without EMJ.”

Related stories:

Celebrating 50 Years: A New Name Heralds New Opportunities

Celebrating 50 years: Above and Beyond

Celebrating 50 years: How it all began


CarMax in Norman Celebrates Grand Opening

Norman, Okla., now has a new CarMax store! EMJ joined CarMax in celebrating the grand opening of its new location on Wednesday.

This marks EMJ’s third project to date for CarMax, and another store is currently under construction in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“This was an outstanding performance by our project team, and they have continued to solidify our relationship with CarMax,” said George Heath, EMJ Vice President – Retail. “They have been a good programmatic client for us and have asked us to pursue three more projects in Texas and Mississippi.”

Dan Swope, CarMax Location General Manager, shares George’s sentiment, “It was fantastic being in our new home today.  We have been looking forward to this for so long, and we wanted to say thank you for the care and attention you put into our facility.  You have been awesome partners along the way!”

EMJ’s partnership with CarMax is what EMJ refers to as programmatic work—performing multiple projects for one client of similar scope and size. This type of relationship enables our team to develop a highly tailored, efficient construction process for the client that supports long-term consistency, accountability and trust.

Look for more updates on the team’s work with CarMax, and congrats to the Norman team on a job well done!

Jonathan Fair, Project Manager
Drew Halsey, Vice President of Preconstruction
Conner Kamps, Preconstruction Manager
Andrew Lackey, Project Engineer
Will Morris, Project Engineer
Rickey Palmer, Superintendent
Brenda Palmer, Administrative Assistant
Sheila Nazario-Thomas, Administrative Assistant
Mary Gross, Project Accountant

Visit for additional information about CarMax.


Influence v. Authority: Building Teams to Get the Job Done

When tasked with building a school in time for the new academic year, while knowing the project was already behind, what did EMJ Superintendent Nestor Praniuk do? He was honest.

“This is where we are; this is where we need to be. We’re a team. Together, we’re going to do this,” Praniuk said referring to his conversation with the owner. And, together, they did. Through collaboration and Nestor’s leadership, the team delivered a new lower school addition at Chattanooga Christian School (CCS) just in time for the school year.

“As a parent, I know the importance of starting the new year off right,” said Praniuk. “I didn’t want our work to impact the parents and teachers. To me, there was only one option and that was to open on time.”

On paper, getting the school completed by the August 13, 2018, deadline did not look feasible as various setbacks had already placed it 10 days behind. Through diligent efforts and consistent communication, Praniuk and his team, including Senior Preconstruction Manager Kyle Tippens and Project Engineer Devin Munczenski, aligned all trade partners with their goal and empowered them to make it happen.

Praniuk recalls challenging his trade partners and workers on site to understand the progress CCS is trying to make and the experience the school is aiming to deliver its clients. “I told them, ‘Think like a parent and what their needs are. What happens with their day if construction doesn’t come through on time?’”

Communicating an end goal is one thing. Getting all stakeholders to follow through on their commitment is another feat, one that requires thoughtful leadership and influence.

“It’s all about trust,” said Praniuk. “The key is creating healthy relationships with all involved. Get to know the other person and what’s important to them and why. Determine what you need to do to please them and then do it. You do what you say you’ll do, and you solidify that mutual trust.”

“In my many years of organizational leadership, [Nestor] is in a small group of unique leaders who I believe are critical to the ability of an organization to meet its goals and execute its mission,” writes Chad Dirkse, President of CCS, about Praniuk in a letter to EMJ.

“The core values EMJ espouses are embodied well in Nestor’s leadership. I know he cares deeply for CCS and for EMJ,” Dirkse continued. “He is not afraid to tell me no or challenge something he doesn’t agree with but works hard to meet my needs and expectations. He is also extraordinary at building healthy sub relationships.”

Praniuk’s approach to building great relationships with the trade partners, or subcontractors, on his construction jobs is simple: “Be a leader your subs want to follow, and treat them like you would like to be treated. We are only as good as our subs are. If they succeed, we succeed.”

At EMJ, we talk a lot about our project teams and how they extend far beyond our own employees to include the owner, designers, engineers, and all of the subcontractors that deliver a piece of the intricate puzzle that results in a building. Praniuk lives this. He manages each partner on the site as he does members of the EMJ team, with respect and as a valuable contributor.

“I get to know the workers as people and try to tap into their potential. 99% of their life is work. They’re sharing it with you on this project. Show them you care,” said Praniuk. “My goal is for them to take ownership and pride in the project, just like me. It’s much more than a task to be completed that day.”

Pictured are Director of Construction Gabe Thompson, EVP Chas Torrence, Nestor Praniuk, Kyle Tippens, Devin Munczenski, and VP of Construction Howard Smith.


The team’s hard work and strength of character shone brightly on the site.

The lower school at CCS was phase III of ongoing work the EMJ Construction Special Projects team is completing for the school. Praniuk and his team are now constructing an outdoor pavilion on the campus.

“The most rewarding part of our team’s work is meeting the client’s expectations and needs and creating great impact on the life of subs and our clients,” said Praniuk. “It’s more than a project. It’s personal.”

Nestor Praniuk joined the EMJ team in 2015. He has more than 18 years of construction experience, working at all levels from trade partner to site supervision. Earlier this year, he was honored with the Edgar M. Jolley Award for Outstanding Performance.


Related stories:

Sen. Corker visits Chattanooga Christian School expansion

EMJ celebrates 23-year partnership with Walmart

Last week, EMJ celebrated the grand opening of its 30th Walmart store, marking an important milestone in our 23-year partnership with the retailer.

The 200,000-square-foot store in El Paso, Texas, is a new prototype with a larger footprint and grocery home pick-up center.

“I am extremely proud of the project team,” said George Heath, Vice President – Retail, EMJ Construction Dallas. “They demonstrated selflessness, trustworthiness and grit and did an excellent job of executing this project and continuing our long tradition of success with the Walmart program.”

The EMJ, Walmart relationship began in 1995, but picked up steam in 2010 when the retailer ramped up their new store construction program. EMJ pursued their work throughout the West Coast and Texas markets and developed a programmatic team to handle the growth.

“We constantly trained new team members, created a rigid compliance and stormwater program to respond to the increasing demands of the Walmart Realty Department,” said Heath. “Our predictable execution yielded six negotiated projects and over $250 million of work in the past eight years.”

This partnership is what EMJ refers to as programmatic work—performing multiple projects for one client of similar scope and size. This type of relationship enables our team to develop a highly tailored, efficient construction process for the client that supports long-term consistency, accountability and trust.

We are thankful for our strong relationship with Walmart and for the many trade partners who support us in our work. We look forward to many more years of partnership.

Congrats to the Walmart El Paso team:

Conner Kamps, Preconstruction Manager
Cody Shulze, Project Manager
Andrew Lackey, Project Engineer
Aaron Scott, Level II Superintendent
Denver Moody, Superintendent
Ashley Turner, Operations Accountant I
Suzanna Trent, Administrative Assistant

Related story:

El Paso Times: New 24-hour West El Paso Walmart to open Wednesday, offer online grocery pickup


Improving the client experience during school renovation

Students at Graysville Elementary School will return to school next week to an active construction site. Work began in 2017 on the multi-phase school renovation and expansion and will continue through the 2018-2019 school year.

Renovations to the cafeteria, gymnasium and various other areas are complete and will welcome students next week. The renovated section connects the original school to a large, two-story addition that is well underway and expected to open in early 2019. After teachers and students move to the new space, additional demo and renovation will then be completed on the older portions of the facility.

Renovation to active, open facilities requires precision planning and execution to maximize efficiency and minimize disruption to the location. The EMJ team and its trade partners have taken large measures to remove pain points and ensure the safety of the teachers and administrators as they prepare for the school year.

In an effort to engage the teachers and students in the construction process and make the active construction site an exciting part of the new school year, EMJ Project Manager Adam Graves developed a plan to make the experience more enjoyable.

Graves and the EMJ team arranged balloons, brought a cake, requested site signage tailored to the students, and provided the staff with custom hard hats to wear as they were given a private tour by EMJ’s team to answer questions and offer a glimpse of what the updated school and classrooms will look like.

Graysville Principal Kerry Sholl addresses the group.


A possible inconvenience for the client was quickly transformed into a fun and enlightening experience thanks to the dedication of Graves and the EMJ team. This commitment to creating an exceptional client experience is the epitome of EMJ’s purpose—to be people serving people.

Congrats to the Graysville Elementary team on a job well done:

Adam Graves, Project Manager
James Williams, Director of Construction
Brad Folsom, Senior Preconstruction Manager
Kevin Fix, Project Engineer
Shane Hurley, Lead Superintendent
Chase Hirth, Level II Superintendent
Neil Forell, Level II Superintendent
Jake Mammen, Project Accountant
Melinda Ogle, Staff Accountant
Tina Brogdon, Senior Administrative Assistant

Keep up the great work!

Check back for future updates on the progress at Graysville Elementary.

EMJ ranks #59 among Top Contractors in Southeast

Houston is nearing completion and has signed on a handful of national anchor tenants. A nearly 500,000-square-foot retail development in west Houston is nearing completion and has signed on a handful of national anchor tenants.

ENR Southeast Top Contractors

EMJ Corporation ranks #59 among the Top Contractors in the Southeast, according to recent rankings published in Engineering News-Record (ENR).

ENR annually ranks the Top 400 Contractors in the country according to their revenue in a calendar year. The Southeast rankings recognize work in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Puerto Rico and come a month after ENR’s overall rankings for the nation, in which EMJ ranks #86 in the U.S.

Building the Southeast

Founded in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1968, EMJ has continually had a strong presence across the southeast, from hometown projects like Hamilton Place Mall and the Hunter Museum to repeat work for Shaw Industries Group, Inc., in Georgia and Alabama.

Our ranking this year is due to projects completed during fiscal year 2017, including stand-out projects such as Shaw Create Centre, Market City Center, Signal Mill, Lee Vista Promenade, FedEx Ground and programmatic work for Lidl, 7-Eleven, and more. Additionally, EMJ’s work on several hotels in Florida played a large part in the ranking.

With the recent completion of a Publix grocery and Ruby Falls in Chattanooga and other notable projects underway in Decatur, Ga., Wilmington, N.C., Andalusia, Ala., and Hobe Sound, Fla., the outlook for 2018 is bright as EMJ continues to build relationships in the Southeast and gain knowledge of the unique needs of the region.

Congratulations to our EMJ team on this ranking. Thanks for your continual hard work and dedication to service, and many thanks also to the clients and partners who helped us achieve this ranking!

EMJ’s Top Southeast Projects 2017

The Shaw Create Centre is a 67,000-square-foot office building in Cartersville, Ga., built to serve as home to Shaw Industries Group’s commercial marketing, design and innovation teams. Designed by architecture firm, Gensler, the EMJ team constructed the unique facility and performed all site work.

Market City Center is the highest structure built in Chattanooga since 1972 and is located between three downtown buildings on bustling Market Street. Designed by Stevens & Wilkinson and developed by The Simpson Organization with support from River City Company, Market City Center is playing a key role in the revitalization of downtown Chattanooga. The LEED® Certified™ Silver 10-story building offers 125 apartments with parking along with 21,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space and 21,000 square feet of office space on the second floor.

Originally constructed in 1916 as a textile manufacturing facility, Signal Mill is a two-and-a-half-story, 34,560-square-foot structure in Chattanooga’s sought-after North Shore District. EMJ Construction Special Projects partnered with North Shore Project, LLC, the Woodbery Group and Hefferlin & Kronenberg Architects to renovate the building in 2016. In 2017, the high-end, mixed-use development opened to the public, featuring space for boutiques, specialty food shops and offices.

The 237,000-square-foot FedEx Ground distribution center in Chattanooga was built in partnership with Saad Development Corporation. EMJ’s team completed the project in just eight months, handing the facility to the developer more than two months early.


A leading publication in the construction industry, ENR provides engineering and construction news, analysis, commentary and data to nearly 48,000 paid subscribers and more than 196,000 unique visitors to its website each month.

Related articles:

EMJ ranks No. 86 among ENR’s 2018 Top 400 Contractors