Portzen Construction, Inc.

Portzen picPortzen Construction prides itself on its ability to self-perform most aspects of a project.

By Tim O’Connor

Mike Portzen’s first job was at a supermarket, where he learned two facts about running a business that have stuck with him throughout his life: The client is always right and always greet the customer with a smile on your face. Portzen has instilled those lessons in his general contractor business, Dubuque, Iowa-based Portzen Construction Inc. “We always get comments about how our employees treat the customer and affiliates,” Portzen says, adding that respect drives respect. “I think if you treat your employees that way they will treat their people that way.”

Portzen founded the construction firm in 1983 with a few employees and incorporated six years later. The company began its life doing housing rehabilitation projects, but has since morphed into a general contractor capable of a wide range of jobs, from high school football stadiums to swimming pools, streetscapes and waste-water treatment facilities.

It may seem like a large leap from home rehabs to government contracts, but from how Portzen tells it the evolution was a straightforward process: Try different things, keep doing what makes money and stop doing what doesn’t.

That simple strategy has turned Portzen Construction into a $50 million firm serving the eastern half of Iowa and a third of Wisconsin. About 80 percent of the company’s activity is public bid work and the remaining 20 percent is in the private sector. “Our philosophy is we bid every project we see,” Portzen says. “Sometimes we’re low bidder, sometimes we’re not.” portzen box

In many cases, Portzen Construction develops relationships with its clients and is invited back to bid on future projects. “A lot of people look at the quality of work,” Portzen says. “I like to think we’re in the highest range of quality of work for most contractors.”

Current projects include the Upper Bee Branch Creek Restoration project for the City of Dubuque. The $28-million project involves the replacement of a one/half mile long storm sewer to route flash flood waters through the area without harming nearby homes and properties. Portzen Construction is adding amenities such as permeable green alleys, amphitheater and concrete trails and lighting for the project. The company is also working on a streetscape improvements project for City of Iowa City.

Self-Performers

The creek restoration and streetscape are just two of the nearly 50 projects Portzen Construction has underway. Coordinating that workload requires self-management among Portzen Construction’s leaders. The company holds weekly meetings to check in on all its jobs, but puts its trust in its staff to see each project through. “We have project managers and superintendents on all the projects,” Controller Jayme Kluesner says. “They kind of run their own projects.”

Although most general contractors subcontract out the majority of their work to local trades, Portzen Construction takes pride in self-performing a large portion of each job. The company’s in-house services include demolition; site clearing; excavation; site utilities; concrete (walls, paving and flatwork), precast and tilt-up construction; carpentry; PVC roofing and drywall.

Additionally, Dubuque Plumbing & Heating, a division of Portzen Construction, installs plumbing, boilers and piping. Portzen Construction is a union contractor for all of those trades, helping it to secure jobs and ensure a high quality of life for its workers. “Since we can self-perform most of that work it helps us get jobs and make money on jobs,” Kluesner says.

For those trades Portzen Construction doesn’t cover, the company builds and maintains relationships with reliable subcontractors. Although cost is a primary consideration, Portzen knows there are times when putting quality first requires using a more expensive subcontractor to ensure the job is done on time and up to specifications. “That is part of how you build your reputation,” Portzen explains.

“We’re dependable, we have high-quality work and we feel we do things on-time,” Kluesner adds.

Finding Employees

After more than 30 years of building a reputation, Portzen Construction is now putting its efforts toward building a workforce to support its growth. The company’s biggest challenge today is finding good employees, according to Portzen.

Parents and guidance counselors tend to push students toward college, even though the construction industry can provide well-paying jobs without the need to go into debt. Portzen is getting that message out by working with high schools and the Dubuque Area Labor-Management Council, an educational organization committed to cultivating relationships between labor and management to drive the local business market.

The company is also developing an in-house program that will reach out to students. The details of that program are still in the early stages, but it will likely be geared toward showing students, their parents and school officials about the value of a career in construction. “We’re trying to do a little bit more because that [the job pool] will be the biggest hindrance toward growing our company,” Kluesner says.

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