How Hensel Phelps’ diversity efforts help small businesses prepare for the future of construction

How Hensel Phelps’ diversity efforts help small businesses prepare for the future of construction

Recently, Lauren Lake, Bridgit COO and Co-Founder, had the opportunity to talk with Brad Lewis, Corporate Director of Supplier Diversity at Hensel Phelps. Hensel Phelps has had tremendous success in its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, often referred to as DEI or IDE. They’ve won the award for Excellence in Diversity from AGC and the Associated Builders and Contractors National Diversity Award for general contractors nine out of the last ten years. Brad has been an exemplary leader in the quest for the construction industry to enhance its DEI efforts. He’s the Chair of the ABC Diversity Committee, helping develop initiatives and forums to spread his knowledge to contractors throughout the country. 

You can watch the full recording of our conversation with Joffrey Wilson below. We’ve also included a full transcript. Interested in checking out the rest of our Behind the Builders series? Find the full episode lineup.

Lauren Lake: Thanks so much for joining us Brad, very excited to have you here to talk about your role at Hensel Phelps as the Director of Supplier Diversity and all of the amazing things that Hensel Phelps is doing to drive that forward. I want to start by asking, how have you seen supplier diversity evolve over the 20+ year period you’ve been in this space?

Brad Lewis: It’s evolved quite a bit. I’ve been with Hensel Phelps for 22 years. I’ll say that because it sets the stage for how we’ve been successful. Then I’ll share how supplier diversity has changed since I’ve been in the role.

I started out in operations. That’s important because I learned a lot of the industry skills that have been applicable in assisting some of our smaller, diverse, and women-owned businesses. It’s helped them be successful on not only Hensel Phelps projects but in the industry as a whole. I started at Hensel Phelps straight out of college, learned the ropes, got a good foundation for the industry, and worked my way up to superintendent. Leadership recognized my ability to relate to business owners, as well as being good at my role as a superintendent. That role entailed managing multiple contractors, working with the clients, pushing the work out in the field, and getting the job built.

I’ve always had a great relationship with our trade partners, so when the opportunity presented itself, I filled the supplier diversity role, which I’ve been doing for 10 years now. At the time we didn’t have a title for what we did in supplier diversity. One thing that’s changed with time is the recognition of the need for supplier diversity professionals. We spend our time assisting small and diverse businesses and preparing them for opportunities with us.

I work with older and younger members of our team to stress the importance of working with smaller, diverse businesses. It’s not about filling a quota or affirmative action, even though I’ve heard that. It’s about helping prepare for the future of the construction industry. At one time Hensel Phelps was a small business, and someone assisted us along the way to help us get to where we are now. I believe supplier diversity is an opportunity to do that for other businesses now. 

We have clients, whether they’re in the federal space or local municipalities, that require supplier diversity. That’s one of the things that I didn’t see in the beginning. Clients are demanding that their contractors actually engage with the community and give back to it. We help underserved communities by providing job opportunities and supporting local contractors to help them scale and grow. 

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Lauren Lake: Do you find that the progress made over the past number of years is encouraging? Is it enough? What are your thoughts on just the change that you’ve seen, let’s say 10 years ago to now?

Brad Lewis: I think it’s been great but it’s been slow. There are a lot of individuals in the industry that still don’t understand the importance of it, but what I have really enjoyed and am proud of, is how well companies like Hensel Phelps truly do. I think it’s a competitive advantage because some of our competitors don’t really invest in individuals like myself or my team for the betterment of the industry. When trying to impress a client you can show them that by choosing us, you’re going to get more than just a job built. You’re going to get someone that’s going to represent you in the community. It’s not just from a workforce perspective, but from a small business, women-owned, diverse business perspective in the community. I’m really happy with where it is now.

I think we have a bright future because more clients, both from the public and private sectors, are starting to require local business and community engagement. I can’t wait to see where it goes in another 10 years. I’m pretty sure that Hensel Phelps will still be at the top because that’s what I strive for every day, for us to be the best at it.

Lauren Lake: Speaking of being the best at it, Hensel Phelps won the ABC National Diversity Award for general contractors. And I believe, you’ve now won nine in the past 10 years, is that correct?

Brad Lewis: Yes, we’ve won nine times. I believe they should name it after Hensel Phelps, but that’s another story. About three weeks ago we were awarded the Excellence in Diversity award for the second time. A week and a half after that, AGC awarded us the Diversity and Excellence award. That’s the first time we won both awards in one year. The reason it’s so special is because that specific award is bestowed upon us by our peers.

I’m waiting to hear about the federal award. We’ve pursued the Dwight D. Eisenhower Award that’s given to contractors and large businesses that do well with utilizing small businesses and subcontractors on federal projects. We’ve applied for that twice and we’ve won it both times. This will be the third time. If we win this year, you’ll have to deflate me, because I’ll be so excited. My head will be so big, I’ll probably float away.

Lauren Lake: And I just need to poke fun because it is nine out of 10. I think it was 2019 when you lost the winning streak, unfortunately. Was that a bittersweet moment?

Brad Lewis: It was because you get complacent a little bit and think no one can touch you. Losing was an awakening and since then we’ve implemented some amazing programs that I’m very proud of. 

Let me say, accomplishing this is not just a reflection of me, I could not do any of the things that we’ve done from an engagement standpoint, without all of our people. They play a vital role in our success. I just get to walk up there and accept the award but the effort comes from our whole company.

Lauren Lake: That is so exciting. How does it feel to know that you and the Hensel Phelps team are setting the stage for what excellence looks like in this space and continuing to push it forward?

Brad Lewis: It feels really good. To get recognized by your clients and peers is great. It also feels good to mentor some of our younger employees who see our success, but may not understand what it took to get there. I sit down and explain the effort that it took and what vital role they play in it.

The first interaction a lot of these small diverse businesses have with Hensel Phelps is usually with some of the younger people on our projects. I always encourage them to treat these trade partners as if they were family members who decided to start a business. I find that resonates and prepares them for the growth of their roles and responsibilities in Hensel Phelps. 

Lauren Lake: All of this resonates so well with me. Our company, Bridgit, was founded by myself and my business partner, Mallorie. We were two young females entering the construction tech landscape, which is very predominantly male-dominated. We like to share our story because we don’t necessarily fit the typical mould. The power of that has allowed us to attract such an incredibly diverse team from different backgrounds and experiences. It seems like Hensel Phelps has a storytelling component as well. You have the “Building Together” campaign and I’m curious to hear a little bit more about what that is and what the impact has been.

Brad Lewis: Hensel Phelps has eight business units across the United States and each business unit has a diversity, equity, inclusion and community forum. The Building Together campaign is an opportunity for each one of those business units to come up with creative ideas and share what Hensel Phelps is all about. For instance, we celebrate our different cultures and backgrounds. Most recently our DEIC forum in the Mid Atlantic district held a safe place happy hour. That happy hour was centered around Pride month.

For me, it was a great opportunity to learn more about that community and what it meant to be an ally to them. I learned so much, and that’s just one example of the kind of things that are coming from our Building Together campaign and DEIC forums. I think that’s one of the differentiators we’re able to bring forth in our award submissions. It shows some of the reviewers what we are doing differently at Hensel Phelps.

Lauren Lake: Stepping away from Hensel Phelps for a minute I know you’re also the Chair of the ABC Diversity Committee. Can you share some of the initiatives or projects that you’re working on with ABC?

Brad Lewis: ABC is so progressive and I really enjoy working with the leadership over there, Mike Bellman and Tia Perry. Tia is our liaison for our Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Committee. Some of the initiatives that we’re working on are our Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Summit. We usually have an amazing guest speaker come out and there are trade partner forums. We have tough conversations like unconscious bias training. 

Last year we started our Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Academy and the framework is being developed now. It’s going to be an academy that touches on IDE that will be available for all ABC members and chapters. The academy’s goal is to meet the chapters where they are in terms of their progressiveness. Some places and demographics are on top of IDE and there are some who want to get a general understanding of its purpose and why it makes sense to implement in their business. 

Another program we have is the Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity grant.  If there’s a chapter within ABC that wants to implement an IDE committee, we have a matching grant of up to $10,000. Along with the money we would also provide best practices so they can successfully implement their IDE committee. 

We have one great success story with our Houston chapter. After being awarded the grant they brought in over 60 new members to the chapter, most of them being diverse. It’s a wonderful example of how the grant has been a success for ABC. 

Lauren Lake: What do you suggest for companies that aspire to be like Hensel Phelps but just aren’t there yet? What are some of the steps they can take?

Brad Lewis: Firstly, you have to have buy-in from leadership. The reason we’re so successful is that our CEO, Mike Choutka, understands the business case and the human case for IDE. There needs to be a commitment at the top, which trickles down.

Secondly, you need to set goals for your organization and start identifying ways to achieve them. It might be something like attending the IDE Academy or something else within the industry that will help your organization achieve its IDE aspirations. 

At Hensel Phelps, we’ve had unconscious bias training and subtle acts of exclusion training. We have materials that we’re offering to everyone in the organization. Being able to identify the areas of focus to help grow your organization from an IDE perspective, having leadership support, and someone there to implement and execute would be the place I would say you should start. 

Lauren Lake: You mentioned buy-in from the top but how important is buy-in from the project teams when it comes to supplier diversity initiatives? Is that something that you focused on early on, or is that something that evolved over time?

Brad Lewis: When leadership is bought in, it’s easy to get the project teams bought in. It has become a part of our culture. They also have me as a resource to help them get there, so no one’s going at it alone. If there are any struggles, they have me come in and support them and get the project where it needs to be. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a project team or a leader of a project team not sure of what to do. It’s ingrained in our culture now, but it took a while for us to get there.

Lauren Lake: What does success look like to you in supplier diversity at Hensel Phelps? What is that ultimate goal post?

Brad Lewis: Success for me is when I’m no longer needed. When IDE is ingrained in the industry and it isn’t something to talk about or strive for. When everyone has an equitable stake, where working with small and diverse businesses is understood. Once you understand that, you’ll go into the relationship knowing there’s going to be some times when you’ll need to shore this business up. You might need to have a little bit more communication with this business to truly make this job successful.

Success is when we don’t have to have goals on projects classified as “women-owned” businesses, “veteran-owned” businesses, or “minority-owned” businesses. Success is when you don’t have to worry about any forms of exclusion in your industry. 

Brad Lewis, Corporate Director of Supplier Diversity at Hensel Phelps

Lauren Lake: I like that goal.

Brad Lewis: I’ll be out of a job though.

Interviewer: I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and share all of these amazing insights about supplier diversity and all your work with Hensel Phelps. I also want to thank you because we are a woman-owned business and we’ve loved working and solving problems in the construction industry. We’ve been doing this for 10 years now and there’s still room to improve. I know that Hensel Phelps is leading the charge on that, so thank you because it does impact us as well.

Brad Lewis: I applaud you for being sustainable and growing your business. You’re obviously a role model, so if there’s anything that I can do to support you, I will. Thank you for the opportunity today.