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By Sean Ryan – Reporter, Milwaukee Business Journal

There’s a trio of priorities for every construction project: Was it built on time? Was it built right? Was it built on budget? 

But when Northwestern Mutual planned its downtown Milwaukee Tower and Commons — a project with $404.7 million in contracts — it added a fourth priority: Was it built by Milwaukee? 

It was up to lead contractors Gilbane Building Co. and C.G. Schmidt Inc. to make that happen. The contractors scrutinized every component of the job to encourage inclusion, said Adam Jelen, Gilbane senior vice president who oversaw the project. 

That included breaking down contracts for smaller companies, and offering training opportunities for unemployed Milwaukee workers on every construction trade. Participation was an important factor in selecting contractors. 

“This is the first thing you’re going to address when we review the bid, so don’t come to the table without a very detailed plan around it,” Jelen explained. “Then you go into compliance mode, and if we see anything that is not happening, we immediately stop and say we are not moving forward unless we do this right.” 


A commitment to sacrifice schedule and budget for participation doesn’t happen without the mandate from Northwestern Mutual. The firm created a system to expedite payments to smaller contractors to help with their cash-flow, said Linda Graves, Gilbane vice president and director of diversity. 

By the project’s end in summer 2017, small businesses received $127.1 million in contracts, or 31.4 percent of the total construction and professional services spending. Almost 800 Milwaukee residents who came from low income areas, and were unemployed or underemployed, worked 43.5 percent of the construction hours. 

Almost 800 Milwaukee residents who worked on the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project came from low income areas, and were unemployed or underemployed, worked 43.5 percent of the construction hours.

Northwestern Mutual’s commitment proved that high levels of participation are possible, said Randy Crump, president of Prism Technical Management & Marketing Services in Milwaukee, the project’s coordinator. More projects, such as the BMO Harris office high-rise on North Water Street, are now accepting participation goals voluntarily. 

“Developers and contractors want a successful project, but the problem is people doubting it can be done,” Crump said. “It’s not easy, but it’s getting easier to explain to the naysayers that this is possible, this is doable.” 

The project created years of work for hundreds of workers and, more importantly, an impact that will be felt in years to come. Workers trained on the Northwestern Mutual building moved on to lasting jobs. Small businesses gained more know-how, and proved they can compete for larger contracts. 

“The ultimate goal is you make a lasting difference in a meaningful way,” Jelen said. 

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