CEO Q&A: Stan Pepper takes the long view

If J. Stanley Pepper hasn’t technically seen it all in the AEC industry, he has certainly seen more than most. And he has gone out of his way — including 12 years outside of his family-owned firm — to broaden his big picture view our evolving business from multiple perspectives, all to the benefit of the 90-year-old, Chicago-based general contractor, Pepper Construction.

  • Got tix? Come to the BuiltWorlds Summit, May 3-5. Click here.

Now 63, Stan Pepper is back at the helm of The Pepper Companies, which he rejoined full-time in 2015 after nearly four years as CEO of StratusVue, a tech firm started in 2001 that offers a collaboration and communications platform for project management. Prior to that, he had worked “in a variety of strategic leadership positions in construction, from private equity and consulting to software development and sustainable products.” All of that followed 26 years in the family business, working his way up from the field, to marketing, management, and then becoming the third-generation CEO, following his father, Richard Pepper, who had started out sweeping floors for his own dad in the 1940s.

In 1985, Stan joked to the Chicago Tribune, “I pumped mud, which was worse than sweeping up. I worked the pumps all summer when I was 15.”

Today, Stan is chairman and CEO of the parent firm, and younger brother David is chairman of Pepper Construction Group, which operates in Indiana and Ohio, as well as Illinois. Next week, Stan will be the opening keynote at BuiltWorlds Summit 2017. We caught up with him here for a bit of preview…

Stan, thanks for your time. Can you speak for a moment about what it’s like trying to innovate at a 90-year-old business in a very traditional industry? How does Pepper keep its culture ‘fresh’?

Thank you, as well. So, yes, a lot has changed in the last 90 years from a tech perspective, but at the end of the day, construction is still a people business. We put our people first, of course, but their needs change generationally. So we focus on giving our teams opportunities that play to their strengths. That includes newer generations, which always introduce us to new ideas and push us technologically.

Now, you were Pepper’s CEO through the ’80s and ’90s, but you stepped out of that role for 12 years before becoming CEO again in 2015. Can you describe the contrast between the Pepper you left in 2003 and the Pepper you came back to in 2015? 

Pepper bought our first computer (CPMs) in the early 1980s, and I remember running bids on them. Then we moved to PCs that you had to check out from a cart. That same decade, we installed our first LAN. I remember going on the road with an architect, showing industry associations what you could do with a computer. Back then, we were trying to get people to see the potential. The common opinion was that computers would be cost prohibitive, but I found myself consumed with the impact it could have on the business. Today, well, we’re surrounded by technology in a way we’ve never experienced before. It’s very much part of how we do business. We are focused on what can help us do more, do it better, and to do new things we’ve never done before. As a result, there’s a lot of data being created. So, today, we’re very intentional about how we harvest, manage and focus that data.

“We’re surrounded by technology in a way we’ve never experienced before… As a result, there’s a lot of data being created. So, today, we’re very intentional about how we harvest, manage and focus that data.

— Stan Pepper, Chairman, The Pepper Companies

Why did you come back? What do you hope to accomplish in this, your second term atop the firm? 

Growing up in construction gave me a specific skill set and a defined perspective. During my time away from the company, I was exposed to other parts of the business world: technology, sustainable materials, insurance, bonding, private equity — all of which impact our company in very different ways. So, now I feel I can approach all of our businesses with an enhanced skill set.

On May 3, your opening keynote at our Summit will specifically address the ‘next generation’. With that in mind, what are you most excited about now for this industry, and what are you most optimistic about for the next 5 to 10 years?

What gets me most excited right now is that incoming generations are more technologically prepared than they’ve ever been before. And just wait until post-Millennials, “Generation Z”, are fully immersed into the workforce! Today, younger generations are introducing technological techniques to previous generations, and in turn our seasoned experts are able to integrate their expertise into the process in a very real way that helps our younger people see how everything fits together.

I’m most optimistic about the cumulative impact that construction has on the places we live, work and play in. We now have four generations in the workforce. That creates an inherent sense of caring for each other, caring about the people you’re building for, and caring about the impact we all have on the community. In the end, that’s what really matters.

Multi-generational growth: Even some Pepper marketing materials take care to highlight the passing of the torch. 

Lastly, what technology tools are you most enthused about today? 

Hands down, it has to be ubiquitous internet access. We are no longer tethered to anything. I can access robust data from anywhere. That’s enabling robots to lay bricks, and many other applications. As a result, I think we could have a lot less silos. And in the end, we’ll have higher performing structures and an even more productive workforce.

Stan, thanks again for your time here. I think we all are looking forward to your talk next week.

Thank you. I know I am looking forward to it, too. This certainly is an exciting time.