By: Brian Johnson, Finance & Commerce, June 15, 2019
Don Kohlenberger may not always have the honor of cutting the ceremonial ribbon, but the construction industry veteran has been a leader behind the scenes of some of the most high-profile projects to come along in recent years.
As an owner representative and consultant, Kohlenberger has quietly contributed to the success of complex projects such as the Baker Center renovation, the Latitude 45 apartment tower and Mayo Clinic Square, all in downtown Minneapolis.
He’s currently a project manager and owner rep for The Dayton’s Project, an ambitious $362 million renovation of the historic 1.3 million-square-foot building that used to house the Dayton’s and Macy’s department stores in downtown Minneapolis.
After earning a construction management degree at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Kohlenberger went on to work as a senior project manager for Adolfson & Peterson Construction and vice president of construction for Egan Cos., among other positions.
In 2009, he established Hightower Initiatives, a provider of consulting and management services for the construction and real estate industries. Kohlenberger’s services range from owner representation and constructability analysis to contract negotiation and development oversight.
A strong advocate for the industry, Kohlenberger is a mentor to Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) construction companies in the Twin Cities, and an entrepreneurial adviser for the Metropolitan Economic Development Association. He’s also the chair emeritus of the construction program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, among other leadership roles.
In the following interview, Kohlenberger talks about his construction roots and how his consulting business evolved, among other topics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you get into the construction business?
A: I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. My father was a bricklayer and became a project superintendent. Over the years, he worked around the nation on construction sites. So my experience with construction was a lifelong love of buildings and the built environment. It was a natural progression for me to get an education in construction management and apply it in the industry.
Q: How long have you been in the industry?
A: For over 30 years. My first job in construction was cleaning brick. I worked my way through college as a bricklayer. After college I worked on large-size development projects. My first project out of college was the Horton Plaza Mall urban renovation project in San Diego, which is now being entirely renovated. You know you are getting advanced in age when your own projects are the subject of historical renovation.
Q: You founded Hightower Initiatives in 2009. That was a difficult time for the construction industry.
A: During that time, we were going through the recession/depression. … There was 50 percent [construction] unemployment during that time. My original intent at that time was to try to help the industry, help at the state Legislature to pass beneficial bonding bills to bring about immediate work activity in this marketplace.
Because I was speaking about what we needed to do in the industry, consulting assignments organically popped up. I would help different businesses and minority firms with business plans, cash management, and things along that line. Eventually there were opportunities to do actual project delivery services. I was asked to be the owner representative for the Hawkins Chemical Plant in Rosemount. That gave birth to other assignments, which eventually led to being the owner representative for the Block E conversion to Mayo Clinic Square.
Q: How do you see your role as an owner rep?
A: Being an owner representative has a lot of different connotations. In my case, I navigate. I don’t own the project, I don’t build it, I don’t design it. I do get my arms around all the elements of it.
It really comes down to the core purpose of why my client wants to pursue building. If a client is trying to build a new facility because their business is growing, we do a lot of analysis and look at real estate alternatives. Sometimes the answer is that now is not the right time to build.
Q: What about getting down to the nitty-gritty technical challenges on a project?
A: I never recoil back from going deep into a detail, because that is where the truth is, that is where the money is, that is where the opportunity is, that is where schedule advances are. If you don’t want to get, or are not able to get into the granular level, that is a deficit of services to your client.
Q: Talk about your role with The Dayton’s Project.
A: I am the project director and owner representative for 601W on The Dayton’s Project. My responsibilities are to convert the building into an office and retail environment, get it leased, and present to the client a beautiful building that works as a profitable venture.
In doing that, there is kind of this sacred duty to honor the building and the folks in Minnesota’s remembrance of what Dayton’s was; and look at what we have done to it in a positive light — that it is refreshed, renewed and ready for the next millennium.
Q: What is the status of the project?
A: We are over 55 percent complete. We are executing about $9 million of construction activity every month. We have over 300 people on the jobsite. … It’s going to be complete the first quarter of 2020.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the industry as a whole?
A: Minnesota is not going to have a lack of growth opportunity, but the growth is going to be capped by lack of capacity. And we’re finding that it is not just labor. Labor is very important, but those things are getting worked out. The other part is support labor: the admin people, project managers, detailers, CAD operators. Those folks that help organize the delivery of labor and materials. That is a real problem that we’ve got right now and that is also very difficult to address. But we are working on it.
Q: Any other thoughts?
A: If there is a theme in our industry and in what I get involved with doing, it’s to keep finding optimism. I always tell folks that optimism is the gasoline in the engine of perseverance. Keep optimistic and good things will happen.