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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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