Brett Earnest Has Built a Flourishing Seattle Office for Clark Construction

The company has landed a variety of high-profile projects in the area since Earnest launched the office in 2012
CONTRACTOR CONNECTION. Brett Earnest, Clark Construction Group vice president and leader of the company's Seattle office, says thE construction business is "really about relationships."

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Brett Earnest never planned a career in construction.
Earnest joined Clark Construction Group LLC as an office/project engineer in the firm’s Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters after graduating from Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University with degrees in economics and business administration in 2003.

After serving stints in the firm’s Los Angeles and San Francisco offices in Clark’s operations department, Earnest was tapped to open a Seattle office in 2012. He is vice president and leader of the office, where he is responsible for overseeing more than 100 employees.

Clark has performed a variety of high-profile projects since opening the office, including work on Sea-Tac Airport’s new International Arrivals Facility slated to open in the fall of 2020. In a joint venture with Lease Crutcher Lewis, it is currently constructing the Summit building, a $1.8 billion, 1.5 million-square-foot addition to the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle scheduled for completion in 2022.

Earnest met a Seattle resident, Meg, at the Washington Athletic Club after moving here. They are now married and the parents of a young daughter.

If you had told me I was going to be leading a construction office in Seattle when I was sitting in Pennsylvania 20 years ago, wow, [I would have thought] you’re on some really good drugs. That’s not going to happen. To be able to go from there to here, it’s just really cool how life takes you.

I grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania. It’s close to Penn State University. It was a great place to grow up, but there’s not a lot there to go back to. When I was growing up, anything west of the Mississippi quite honestly was fictional.

Pittsburgh was a big trip for me, and most people don’t see Pittsburgh as the epitome of culture in the world.

I never had Thai food until I was an intern in Washington, D.C., when I was 20 years old. I loved going from the middle of nowhere, literally, to downtown D.C.

I was Clark employee No. 1 in Seattle. I was 30 years old and had the opportunity to try and start something from scratch.

Construction is really about the relationships with clients, designers and trade partners. A lot of the things that we do, you can learn. I fell in love with the building side of things.

On Oct. 1, 2014, we won our first project, which was the VA mental health and research building up on Beacon Hill. This was our opportunity to get our foot in the door in the Pacific Northwest.

You need to be able to communicate with the person digging the ditch and pouring the concrete or the person that’s cutting the billion-dollar check. Every one of those people has an amazingly important role.

If you think that you’re above the person that’s working the graveyard shift swinging iron on a Sunday morning because you wear a suit rather than a hard hat, you’re really wrong. No one’s better than anyone else.

You need to understand what drives people. Some people are there for a paycheck and because they love to hike on the weekend and that needs to be OK. Not everyone wants to be the CEO.

You can have an amazingly forward-thinking public client and a very backward-thinking private client. But public entities have more red tape.

Our business is a lot about being able to make informed decisions in a timely manner.

I go back to D.C. and see buildings that I worked on, like my first set of projects at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and it kind of gives me goosebumps.

I had an opportunity to work on a set of projects called L.A. Live [an entertainment complex]. LA Live is the ESPN West Coast broadcasting studio and the Microsoft Theater. The theater was cool because you see it all the time on TV.

The cool thing about what we do is there’s wonder and discovery in every new project. Every project is always going to be different.

If your job’s going well, typically your people are fairly happy. Do they know where they’re going next? Do you have the right opportunities for them? That’s really the evaluation more than the money side of things. We like money, but it’s really about the people.

If there is a good opportunity in Portland or elsewhere, then we take a look at it, but it’s got to be right for our people, not just because we want to be down in Portland.

The potential labor shortage worries me more than an economic downturn. One, getting skilled labor on the projects to do a quality job, and even more than that a safe job. I worry about the stability of our subcontractor market. I worry about the actual humans on the job site from a labor perspective.

The downturn will be market-segment specific. I feel like you might start to see some segments ebb and flow, but I think generally if you have a diversified portfolio of the work that you do, that you’ll be fine.

I’m a big Penn State football fan. My wife and I have season tickets at UW. I root for the Huskies, but I’m wearing my Penn State T-shirt underneath.

I love to ski. We try to get up to Mount Baker every other weekend. During the summer we do a boat share out of Lake Union. We’re out there almost every weekend.

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