Downing Construction

Downing ConstructionDowning Construction thrives in Iowa’s booming commercial market.

By Chris Kelsch

One might not necessarily think of Iowa as a hotbed for commercial construction, but nevertheless it has quietly taken off in recent years. “We are very excited about the Iowa market,” Downing Construction Partner Justin Brown says. “Because of its gusting winds, Iowa has a lot of low-cost energy, and that has led to companies like Apple, Microsoft and Facebook building large data centers here.” Indeed, all three companies will soon have large data centers in the state, all within 25 miles of each other.

Downing Construction has been an active participant in an exploding commercial market in recent years, but the company didn’t start out in that sector. It actually began in 1966, when founder Robert Downing began building homes in the Indianola, Iowa, community with one employee, two trucks and one 8-by-20-foot trailer.

His company remained focused on the residential market until 2001. That is when Downing brought Denis Frischmeyer on board to help expand business in the commercial market. Frischmeyer was named president in 2010.

Earlier, in 2006, Justin Brown and Joe Butler had been brought on board to expand the commercial market. “We still do a limited number of residential buildings as well, but have really put our emphasis on the commercial market.” Brown explains. Downing box

Downing serves an area within a 150-mile radius of Indianola for the bulk of their projects, which covers a majority of the state of Iowa. And it has expanded its services as well to include design/build, general contracting, construction management, consulting and a specialty in building senior housing facilities, medical office buildings, warehouses and dental clinics.

Although it took some time to build out the commercial business, Downing did receive a nice kick-start. “About six years ago, a senior housing developer hired us for a project, and that has led to a steady stream of 12 to 13 of those projects over the past five years or so,” Brown says. “We have also created a bit of a niche by completing 114 dental projects  in the last 10 years.”

In addition to dental clinics, knowing how to build other types of health clinics has also been a boon for Downing. Since 2013, Downing has completed 17 health clinics ranging from family practice clinics or specialty doctors like dermatology, orthopedics and ENT to imaging centers with CT scan and MRI technology.

Like an Owner

For Brown, the secret to Downing’s growth can be traced back to a core philosophy: Always try and think like an owner. “We really try and serve clients by looking at projects from their perspective,” Brown says. “To that point, we focus on three key items that make our company unique: One, we invest in our core values. Two, we provide a single-source solution. And three, we take an owner’s perspective.  We believe it is imperative to first build a strong relationship with our clients, way before the first shovel ever hits the ground.”

Importantly, Downing does not hard-bid on many of its projects. Instead, most of Downing’s projects are negotiated with project owners. Building relationships is a key component of Downing’s success, as many clients end up being repeat clients. Such is the case with All-State Industries, a family-owned and operated non-metallic manufacturing business headquartered in West Des Moines, Iowa.

“I think they do a really nice job of being a one-stop shop,” All-State COO Scott Pulver says. “They are very good at bringing all of the parties together, and they are very transparent and easy to work with. That’s refreshing.”

In recent years, All-State’s machine plastics division was bursting with growth, so Pulver tapped Downing for a 40,000-square-foot facility. Five years later, All-State’s urethane division was also growing, so the company once again hired Downing, this time for a 60,000-square-foot facility. “I would say on the second project we are about 75 percent complete,” Pulver notes. “Downing continues to be very easy to work with, and we are very happy at this point.”

Downing’s relationships include its subcontractors as well as its clients. This remains a crucial point, as Iowa’s busy construction market means that competition for the best subcontractors remains fierce.

“Our philosophies remain relationship-based,” Brown says. “What we’re actually seeing is an increase of additional layers in the food chain, with sub-subcontractors that are 1099 or self-employed workers.” Because there is significant work to be had, oftentimes subcontractors will hire out groups of five to ten carpenters for jobs such as framing or drywall. “We are seeing more and more subcontractors utilize multiple tiers of sub-subcontractors and this becomes much more challenging to manage appropriately,” Brown notes.  ”Maintaining good, strong relationships with our subcontractors has become even more imperative to ensure the overall success of our projects for our clients.” 

The recent uptick in construction has led Downing to double in size since 2008. It currently has 18 projects under management, and as Brown notes, this is mostly thanks to the way Downing has become a single-source construction firm focusing on its core values and always viewing projects from the owner’s perspective. “Oftentimes, building is the easy part,” Brown says. “It’s the stuff that comes before the construction. That is where we excel.”

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