Sr. Superintendent Nate Larsen on Brotherhood, Barbecues, and How People Grow

 |  Building, Education, Self-perform, Sundt People

Fall move-in may have marked the end of summer break for students, but for employee-owner Nate Larsen it was the finish line for a new $106 million student housing project at CSU Fullerton. The Suites project spanned two of the toughest years the industry has ever seen, and its successful completion is a testament to the grit of our project team. True to character, their Sr. Project Superintendent was not one to shy away from a challenge.

Over Nate’s past 23 years in construction, this trait has led to taking on bigger leadership responsibilities; other times, it’s meant handing major tasks to younger colleagues and giving them room to rise to the occasion. Sometimes it’s having hard conversations, even with his own brothers (three of Nate’s four brothers also work for Sundt as superintendents, as did their dad Pete before retiring in 2020). Sometimes it’s barbecuing for 100+ craft and not overcooking the meat, a delicate process—as is managing a 185,000-square-foot project through a pandemic and insane market conditions. These things require a steady hand.

Clearly, Nate’s family and “Sundt family” have taught him valuable lessons about perseverance and leadership. We caught up with him this week to discuss his team’s recent success at CSU Fullerton, his family’s history with construction, and what the future holds for Nate and fellow employee-owners in Sundt’s Building Group, California District.

Nate, next month marks your 18th year with Sundt. What work are you most proud of thus far?

I’ve done everything from healthcare to K-12, to higher ed, and airport work—so it’s hard to pick one project. A few stand out, including our Terminal 2 Landside expansion at San Diego International Airport. It was a $230 million joint-venture with Kiewit that added a 1,300-foot-long elevated departure-way, right on the front step of the airport. There were so many different elements and phases, and I learned so much.

At Cal Poly Pomona, Nate led the project team that built the Sicomoro and Secoya Residence Halls, two 125,000-square-foot, eight-story towers that house up to 980 students, as well as the 35,000-square-foot Centerpointe Dining Commons.

Others would be our recent student housing projects at Cal Poly Pomona and CSU Fullerton, at $160 million and $106 million respectively. Both were large, successful projects in terms of budget and schedule. But beyond that, we had amazing teams, owners, and partners. I walked away from those projects with deep pride and some solid friendships.

After more than 2,500 inspections in the past 18 months on the CSUF Suites project (600+ with the State Fire Marshal), Nate and his team maintained a 99% passing rate with ZERO non-compliance/conformance items.

What factors have led to your growth in becoming a Senior Project Superintendent?

With Sundt, I’ve had chances to stretch myself, and I’ve taken the opportunities available. For example, I chose to lead the CSU Channel Islands Sierra Hall project instead of taking a support role elsewhere. More recently, I’ve had opportunities to learn all aspects of the business. For these past two student housing projects, I was present from the interview stage all the way through project completion.

Collaborating and having that project knowledge from ground-zero is huge. I was working alongside our preconstruction team, subcontractors, and the owner and designer, and there wasn’t really a “transition” to construction. It made sense that both projects went phenomenally well.

As a leader, how are you working to develop the people around you?

Once I started running larger-scale projects, I moved from a boots-on-the-ground role to planning the job and leading a big team—which I love. The key is making sure each team member plays a significant part and giving them ownership over that. I love seeing people come in, especially the ones who are shy and hesitant to do things, and just throwing them in the middle of it. Nearly all of them find a way to succeed and grow.

From the time people come in to when they leave the project, there’s this transformation. I’ve seen that with Nick Aguilar—when he was on the CSU Channel Islands project, he was still learning a lot. On Cal Poly Pomona, he grew from essentially an entry-level project engineer to a senior project engineer. And then on this recent project at CSU Fullerton, he began as an assistant PM and then grew into the Project Manager and was running the whole project.

The CSU Channel Islands, Sierra Hall project included a $32 million 66,500-square-foot building that replaced West Hall, constructed in 1940 as part of Camarillo State Hospital.

Your brothers Matt, Andy and Ryan also work for Sundt, and so did your dad, Pete. What is it like having construction as the “family business”?

It’s always been a big part of my life. I remember being 12 years old and writing, “When I grow up, I want to be a superintendent for Ninteman Construction”—without really even knowing what a superintendent did. My dad was with Ninteman (which Sundt acquired in 1988) and branched off to run his own concrete firm before returning to Sundt later in his career. My brothers and I spent our summers working at his yard, cleaning and stacking plywood, straightening stakes, earning like $5 a day. My mom was happy to just get us all out of the house.

So, my brothers and I grew up around the industry, and it’s great to work alongside them now—especially for a company like Sundt. Obviously, at times we have our disagreements, and we’ll step outside and hash those out. But we’re really close. It could be months and one of them will come back from a different project, and we can pick up right where we left off.

“The Larsen Boys” together at San Diego Intl. Airport. From left to right: Ryan, Nate, Pete (ret. 2020), Matt and Andy Larsen.

As a family and individually, construction has been good to us. We’re able to make a great living doing what we enjoy with people we enjoy. A lot of people still see this as a low-growth, manual-labor-only career. They don’t realize the breadth of opportunities and advancement this industry can offer, both for operations and non-operations roles.

Seeing my dad retire recently with his ESOP, and now being 18 years into it myself, it would be crazy not to stick around.

I’ve heard the Larsens can barbecue with the best of them. What’s your favorite cut?

I mean, we put out a good spread! My go-to is prime rib, which I made on our Fullerton job for some of our monthly safety barbecues. I used to use my old smoker, but I’ve graduated to a Traeger. If I have time or I’m hosting a party, I’ll do pulled pork or brisket. And I love tri-tip.

The grill master at work: Nate cooks up prime rib and mixed veggies for trade partners during a safety barbecue event at the CSU Fullerton Suites project.

What are you looking forward to in the next year, either personally or professionally?

So, on the personal side, I have three daughters, aged 17, 13, and 10, and my wife is due to have a baby boy next month. With CSU Fullerton wrapped up, I’m really excited for that and looking forward to a bit of downtime to be present for the birth. When I come back, I’ll continue to be involved in pursuits, and I will also be running the $360 million Rancho Los Amigos South Campus project in L.A. County. I’m really excited to manage a job that size.  From the time I started when we were doing $700 million in revenue a year, to now being a nearly $2 billion company it’s great to see how Sundt has expanded and how our projects have grown in size.

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