Sai Chaleunphonh

Partnership mindset paves way for success

SAI CHALEUNPHONH - Marpac Construction

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Sai Chaleunphonh is a first-generation refugee from Laos, co-owner of Marpac Construction and an ABC of Western Washington member (ABCWW). Sai first came to the United States with his family in 1979 and has been living in Seattle since 1980. His earliest memories of construction were formed at the local Boys and Girls club. At the club, there was a game where the kids could win snacks or candy bars if they “ hammered the most nails into this block of wood,” as Sai recalls. Later on, he spent all four years in woodshop class throughout high school and then went on to study at the University of Washington after receiving the WAVE scholarship.

After studying architecture, Sai stayed in school to get a building and construction management degree. Following stints as a laborer, an office work gig led him into project management. Sai eventually joined Marpac, working with Don and Doug Mar, the founders. As Don and Doug formed their succession plan, they passed the baton to Sai in 2006, along with three other new co-owners.

We recently caught up with Sai to see how he’s been doing and how good partnerships have paved the way for Marpac’s success.

Why does the merit philosophy make Marpac’s culture unique?

It is what pushes us to work harder to win people’s business. That’s always been how we run things and the core of our company culture. You have to take that extra step at the end of the day and we work to make sure that the customer is happy and our end product is good. We take the opportunity to develop relationships and actually do a good job so that people actually call us back because of that, not only because we're Asian American. The merit approach keeps us on our toes and makes sure we put our best foot forward.

That's also our perspective when look for partners out there, with our subcontractors and our vendors – even with ABCWW. We've always been an open shop, but it doesn’t matter whether our partner is union or non-union, we’ll work with everyone if their work is good. That’s always been the merit approach.

How have you been involved with ABCWW over the years?

The more I participate, the more I see the value of ABCWW and appreciate it more. When I started out, I paid my dues and just kept going. But as you get into trouble or into tight spots as a business, you start thinking who you can turn to. In those situations, ABCWW was there for me. They have so many resources, locally and nationally, to help you out. You have to lean on somebody and ABCWW has been that for us.

ABCWW has always been a partner with us for any sort of safety training or issues that we run into – they have been ahead of the curve there. We’ve sent a number of our carpenters who have potential to become foremen and superintendents into leadership training with ABCWW. For myself, I've been jumping into the Diversity Committee. It’s a very grassroots approach. Ultimately, it comes down to one on one interaction, bringing in new subcontractors, specialty trades and general contractors. It's really about listening to where these small businesses are at. The participants come from a very wide range businesses and backgrounds because the ABCWW organization is committed to helping everybody be successful in the construction industry.

Is there a project that you would call your favorite?

Maybe I should start by mentioning what a perfect project is, what makes it better than other projects: I would say that just the right relationship between team and owner has got to be there. It’s like a three-legged stool, everyone needs to work just right together – it is a team effort – or otherwise it falls apart. There's a lot of trust between those partners, and just the right mix makes a project very successful.

So, I would say one of our projects, the Wing Luke Museum here in Seattle, would be one of those highlights. We did an adaptive reuse of a historic building. It was a three-story structure originally designed as a single-room occupancy. There are these little 150 square foot cells in this building and that was what was handed to us. The end product is a museum that is open and tall with a lot of gallery space. We had to control the lighting, control the humidity – this museum is certified with the Smithsonian – so, it took a lot of partnership. We brought in guys who have been with us for 10 or 15 years to help with the design, and see what we could actually do or what we couldn’t do. All this partnership came into play with this project and it came out looking nice. It’s a cornerstone of the community and it’s known nationally. We’re very proud of that.

How has that approach to partnership been reflected in your relationship with ABCWW?

ABCWW is there for all sorts of stuff – whether you need something on safety or you need to talk to an attorney, they can help you. The longer that I'm running a company, the more appreciative I am of having partners within a company. If you're the only one at the top at your company, I feel for you – you need more than 24 hours in a day! The thing about partners is you totally trust them. One is in charge of field crew, and you don’t even think about it anymore. There’s no judgement or animosity if it’s a good partnership – you're going after the same goal. That’s how it is with ABCWW. They are like your partner in construction – as a trade organization, that's what ABCWW does for you. Whenever I get in touch with Wendy or anyone else at the organization, it would never be ‘Sai, why are you asking that?’ It’s always ‘What can we do to help.’

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