top 49ers special section
On March 29, Eielson broke ground for the F-35A Lightning II flight simulator facility, which marked the beginning of improvements to the base’s infrastructure in order to house the new aircraft. Bill Watterson, then-president of Watterson Construction, is on the right.

©Airman Eric M. Fisher | US Air Force

top 49ers special section
On March 29, Eielson broke ground for the F-35A Lightning II flight simulator facility, which marked the beginning of improvements to the base’s infrastructure in order to house the new aircraft. Bill Watterson, then-president of Watterson Construction, is on the right.

©Airman Eric M. Fisher | US Air Force

A Family Affair
Watterson Construction: thriving in Alaska since 1981

ill and Helga Watterson founded Watterson Construction in Anchorage in 1981. Sixteen years later in 1997, Watterson Construction debuted as an Alaska Business Top 49er, reporting revenue of nearly $27 million in 1996. With the exception of 1998, Watterson Construction has been a Top 49er every year since. While the company has moved up and down the list, Watterson Construction has consistently found itself in the ranks of Alaska’s top earning, Alaskan-owned businesses.

This year Watterson Construction is once again climbing up, jumping 13 places to the number 35 spot, reporting more than $85 million in 2018 revenue. That’s more than double the revenue the company reported for 2017, much of which can be attributed to federal spending on construction in the Interior. Watterson Construction is one of the many companies that have secured contracts related to the F-35 beddown at Eielson Air Force Base.

In 2017 Watterson Construction was awarded the contract to construct the 30,000-square-foot F-35 Lightning II flight simulator at Eielson. Breaking ground in March 2017 “mark[ed] the beginning of improvements to the base’s infrastructure to house the new aircraft,” according to a release from Eielson. Construction was completed in 2018 on the facility that contains six Lockheed Martin simulator pods and will be the primary pilot training center for the F-35 aircraft on the base.

According to President Jim Watterson, the company has five ongoing projects, including two that were awarded to a joint venture between Watterson Construction and Callahan Construction Company, an 8(a) general contractor operating out of North Pole. Those include a $7.8 million design-bid-build project to construct six earth-covered magazines and a $19.1 million project to build a consolidated munitions administration facility at Eielson.

In Anchorage, Watterson Construction is working on a multi-family housing development located at 9th Avenue and P Street; a project at Southcentral Foundation’s primary care facility; and Span Alaska’s new 54,000-square-foot freight terminal.

Minor and Major Changes

It’s routine for projects to come and go for a general contractor, and Watterson says he and the board are examining projects and options for next year, including potentially looking at new market spaces. But the company already experienced a significant change this year when Bill Watterson stepped down from his position as president in July, though he continues to work at the company; Jim Watterson took over the role, but from his point of view, it’s a relatively minor transition. “I’m taking over more of the administrative stuff that Bill is shedding off, but it’s been Bill and I for a long time, so in terms of everyday things it’s just not very different,” Watterson says.

Their partnership extends back to 1989, when Jim Watterson began working for Watterson Construction while still living in Beaverton, Oregon. For many years he worked long distance and commuted, moving to Alaska thirteen years ago.

Today the company is owned by the Wattersons as well as several employee shareholders, but to Watterson the company is rooted in family. “We like to think we have a family-owned company, and our employees are part of our family—they may not have the same last name, although some of them do,” he says smiling and nodding at Ryan Watterson, the general contractor’s preconstruction and development manager.

But whether there’s a literal family connection or not, Watterson Construction invests in its employees and Watterson considers employee retention to be “one of the keys to our success.” He elaborates, “We have a lot of long-term employees; we have craft workers that haven’t worked for any other employer for more than twenty years.”

In fact, over the last few years—which haven’t been easy on the construction industry as state and privately funded projects have been put on hold or cancelled outright—Watterson Construction has been able to maintain its core group of employees. “It’s a credit to the core staff that they all got in and did whatever was necessary to help us reduce costs or maintain cost and stay viable,” he explains. “If our superintendents aren’t running a project, they will generally go to work on another project as a carpenter,” Watterson says, and that flexibility benefits all parties involved.

“We work based on trust and encourage our employees to be the best that they can be and take on more responsibilities all the time.” To that end, one of Watterson’s upcoming projects is to find and train his replacement in the next ten years or so.

Quality and More Quality

No matter who takes on the president role in the future, Watterson Construction’s commitment to its clients won’t change. “We provide quality, safe construction on time and within budget,” Watterson says. “We also have an excellent safety record. We haven’t had a lost-time accident in more than twelve years,” he adds, which is a value to clients in both peace of mind and in actual dollars, as an impressive safety record reduces the company’s workers’ compensation rates.

Watterson is particularly proud of two of the company’s projects: “Southcentral Foundation is considered by many to be the finest Class A office building in Anchorage, and we’re very proud of the Kendall facility.”

And Watterson Construction is quite hands-on in certain aspects of construction. Watterson explains that general contractors choose which services to provide in-house and which to subcontract out. Watterson Construction performs more work in-house than many other general contractors generally would, such as all carpentry, certain kinds of siding work, installing metal roofs, and a few other select jobs.

That kind of quality work requires quality employees, and one way Watterson Construction helps build and maintain a skilled Alaskan workforce is through its membership in the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) Alaska Chapter. “In fact, my brother [Bill] was the moving force that got ABC Alaska Chapter moving, and we still support them. They have, we think, a very good apprenticeship program that we utilize,” Watterson says.

ABC of Alaska’s Apprenticeship and Craft Training Program offers apprenticeships in carpentry, electrical, HVAC, insulating, laborer, pipe-fitting, plumbing, sheet metal, and sprinkler fitting. Watterson Construction generally has a few apprentices who are in the four- to five-year, 8,000-hour apprenticeship program, which includes academic and hands-on training.

“We like to keep our apprentices,” Watterson says, once they graduate from the program. “We have one gentleman that went through the program who competed at the national [ABC Craft Championships] and did very well. He’s also a certified welder and a certified operator for Alaska Cranes’ big crane, so he’s very talented. He works for us as a foreman on one of our projects in Anchorage now.” Another employee who went through the apprenticeship program has now been with Watterson Construction for more than twelve years.

And the company’s investment in people goes beyond the industry. “Watterson Construction is a pretty big supporter of Special Olympics Alaska because Bill and I have a personal family connection—and I can tell you, in the 1950s when our cousin was growing up who has Down syndrome, it was not the same as it is today—so Special Olympics is a big plus for Alaskans with challenges,” Watterson says. Many of the company’s employees volunteer at the organization, and Watterson Construction is a regular sponsor.

The Big Picture

But corporate giving by any company in any industry depends on a healthy economy. Watterson sees the Port of Alaska as a vital part of the state’s economy, and one that’s in dire need of funding for a modernization project to address failing infrastructure as well as expand port facilities to better accommodate Alaska’s major marine shippers.

He also thinks Alaska needs to think outside its natural-resource shaped box: “To have a viable economy we need to diversify from an extraction-based economy, and one of the things to do that is trying to develop some other industries.”

Alaska has felt the pain of relying too heavily on one industry for several years, now. Many viewed 2019 as a turning point in Alaska’s recession, though some of that optimism was shaken as Alaska’s governing body spent the spring and most of the summer crafting an atmosphere of indecision instead of a budget. It’s a routine discussion about Alaska’s largest industries: the potential is there, people are willing, but uncertainty at the state level gets in the way. “The Legislature has to figure out how to not have a budget fight every year and how they’re going to fund government,” Watterson says. “We haven’t [historically] done a lot of state work, but private industry is reluctant to invest when there’s such uncertainty in the budget or if the Legislature is going to decide to put an unreasonable tax on business.”

After all, there’s enough change going on in the corporate world without added external uncertainty. “It’s been almost forty-nine years since I started working on my first real construction project, and things have changed a lot,” Watterson says. One example of a changing work/life balance is decidedly Alaskan: time off for hunting. “If a carpenter told the superintendent he was going to take a week off to go moose hunting at the end of August, he would have been told to take his tools and don’t come back. But you have to accommodate those things now.” Watterson also uses the example of a female employee working from home—after taking maternity leave—to accommodate both her work obligations and her commitments to her family. “Our employees have changed a lot; their lifestyle has changed and the industry has had to change with it.”