As the coronavirus overwhelmed the New York metropolitan area in March and construction sites shut down en masse, Haskell’s construction of a large-scale catering kitchen for United Airlines in Newark, New Jersey, was one of the only industrial projects in the region that remained operational.
Working through the pandemic was a difficult task, requiring Haskell to implement numerous protocols and procedures in accordance with local and state regulations as well as CDC guidelines. Once measures were implemented to allow work to continue, the next step was to convince crews to stay on the job, keep them safe and ensure that they were thinking outside of the box to meet deadlines.
The challenges played to the strengths of project superintendent Shawn Bushong, a strong leader and planning whiz who rallied his workers to complete the project on schedule.
“It’s where Shawn really shines. He’s really personable, and he really tries to build solid relationships with everyone, even the workers swinging a hammer in the field,” said Corey Brown, a project manager with Haskell’s Food & Beverage Division. “With his strong relationships, the workers completely bought in and trusted what we were doing.”
Bushong joined Haskell in September 2019. While he’s a fresh face at the company, he’s a veteran in large-scale construction with 15 years of experience in the food and beverage, healthcare, federal and commercial sectors.
After earning a building science degree at Auburn University, where he played tight end and offensive tackle, Bushong began his career in hospital construction. He moved on to numerous projects in the aerospace industry and, in 2012, found his passion when he began overseeing food and beverage projects, which ultimately led him to Haskell.
Bushong said he thrives in the challenging environment of food and beverage construction. The company designs and builds facilities that meet the highest food safety and energy efficiency standards, which requires detailed planning at every stage of the project. Precise execution is crucial to ensure that certain surfaces and rooms can be washed without harboring water or bacteria, all while working within compressed schedules to sequence the installation of specialized equipment in congested environments.
“It’s essentially a game of inches,” Bushong said. “If you have anything just a bit off, it could be detrimental to you.”
Bushong has a unique leadership philosophy that dates to his days playing sports. He runs his job sites like a democracy, not a dictatorship, and the official currency is respect.
“My philosophy is a bit different than the old school,” he said. “I believe that, as a leader, you have to be subservient to the men in the field. You have to be willing to do what you ask another man to do. Sometimes, I’ll grab a broom and start sweeping the floor. When I show them I don’t think I’m any better than them and I think their jobs are as important as mine, you get much more respect and output from them.”
His leadership skills were put to the ultimate test earlier this year when the pandemic broke out in Newark, where Haskell was working to complete a 150,000-square-foot catering operations kitchen for United Airlines, a $60 million design-build project with a tight deadline.
Brown said there was some initial “waffling” from subcontractors about working through the pandemic, but Bushong convinced most of them to stay on the job.
“With his relationships, the people trusted what we were doing. He brought his family up there in March when it was at its worst, and he made that known to the guys. He told them, ‘We’re all going to take care of each other,’” Brown said.
Brown said Bushong’s construction acumen was just as crucial to the project’s success as his emotional intelligence. For instance, the project had to be entirely re-sequenced after the pandemic broke out, and Bushong was “‘instrumental” in that process.
“That’s unheard of for me at the superintendent level,” Brown said. “We usually only require a brief three-week, look-ahead schedule, but he wanted to take ownership of that schedule, and he lived and breathed it weekly. He understands the total project. He’s not just focused on the field level.”
To maintain social distancing requirements, the team had to keep the project on schedule while limiting the number of people on-site. Bushong maintained work around the clock, bringing in his primary subcontractors during the day and putting the secondary subcontractors to work at night. He said Haskell went above and beyond to promote good hygiene by installing handwashing stations, sanitizing common areas multiple times a day and ordering twice as many portable toilets as usual.
“I can tell you that I’ve never put as much thought into Porta-Johns until that job,” Bushong said before laughing. “I don’t think I had a job where the guys in the field thanked us that often for keeping them safe and looking out for the best interests of everyone.”
Brown said construction on the project is complete, and the client is “incredibly happy” with the work.
Bushong said the fast pace and monumental scale of Haskell’s food and beverage projects suit his personality. He’s also enjoying the mentoring role he’s taken on at the company.
“Building big, massive industrial plants is pretty awesome to do. I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from walking away from something knowing how much work it took from so many guys,” he said. “But the more I think about it, the more I enjoy teaching the guys that are good and capable, because seeing someone succeed because you taught them something and watching their ‘Aha’ moments are just as satisfying to me as building the building.”
Although Bushong has only worked at Haskell for a year, Brown said he believes he’ll have a long and successful career with the company.
“He is a great addition to Haskell’s superintendent force,” he said. “I think his caliber as a superintendent is the future of this company.”