GCU’s builder has blueprint for success: teamwork
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the August 2019 issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version, click here.
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
Construction owner Butch Glispie, perched atop any of the four- or five-story concrete giants he has built on the burgeoning Grand Canyon University campus, could declare, “I’m king of the world!”
But that’s not the Butch Glispie anyone knows.
Despite building and renovating more than 60 structures on campus over three-plus decades, despite leaving his footprint on just about every building that has risen on the campus in those 33 years, the unassuming, big-hearted Glispie goes about his business of following through on the University’s vision in his salt-of-the-earth way.
And he does it knowing only one blueprint is the source for his success: teamwork.
What Glispie has done at GCU is unprecedented. Just one contractor constructing almost an entire university?
It’s unheard of.
Not that he could have known what he would build his professional life around.
The Paris, Ill., native was just a teenager when he decided to go into the construction industry. “It just really fascinated me,” Glispie said from his office in a portable building on the dusty maintenance yard across Colter Street from the University’s 27th Avenue complex, where his office walls are dappled with funny sayings: “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss” and “If you are agitated and confused, my job here is done.”
That fascination with construction stemmed in part from working with his stepfather, who owned a janitorial service that cleaned construction sites in Rapid City, S.D., where he spent part of his childhood.
Right out of high school back in Phoenix, Glispie went to work in the maintenance department of a developer and, within six months, was promoted to running the department. He discovered he had a knack for organizing and motivating people.
“Everybody was older than me. I was still in my teens,” Glispie said of that first managerial job. “But we all have gifts. I guess that’s mine.”
Four months later, the company asked him to oversee projects in Tucson, New Mexico and Texas before returning to Phoenix after the company decided to stop building. “It was bad economic times when I came back here,” Glispie said.
He took a job with a property management company, but, still fascinated by construction work, he became a builder in his own right in his late 20s. He was hired to build a family compound in North Scottsdale for Joni Hegel, a longtime benefactor of the University, before he moved to California.
“Of all things, I ended up in Beverly Hills doing custom homes,” Glispie said.
But Hegel remembered him when it came time to constructing student housing in 2003. Hegel Hall (now Cypress Hall) would be the third campus structure he was involved in raising – the first was North Rim Apartments in 1986, followed by the now-demolished Ray Student Services Building in 1987.
“She said, ‘I won’t do it unless you come and at least supervise whoever we have build it,’ ” he remembers. Pono Construction would be founded a year later.
By the time GCU was ready to build Canyon Hall in 2010, Hegel was semiretired and Glispie was needed.
“The University contacted me and said, ‘Listen, would you mind building a dorm for us directly?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t know it at the time, but they had already gotten numbers from several other builders that did dorm work. I think they gave me 10 days, so I put a price together.
“That was it. Off to the races. We haven’t stopped since.”
Lean, mean building machine
It’s a little after 8 a.m. on a Tuesday and the Pono team, including some longtime subcontractors, already is gathered at company headquarters.
An oversized campus map is magnetized to a whiteboard, and the walls are filled with Run to Fight Children’s Cancer posters and medals.
Pono has been a generous sponsor of the pediatric cancer awareness event, which has made GCU its home for nine years.
Although he doesn’t speak about his charitable works much, Glispie also has supported the University’s science camps, the Salvation Army Turkey Drive and Students Inspiring Students scholarships, awarded to students in the neighborhood as part of GCU’s efforts to revitalize the community.
It’s the regular weekly construction update meeting, and the 2019-20 academic year for Pono, as always, will be bustling. The lean-machine, 15-member Pono team is putting the final touches on three apartment buildings debuting this month: the Sonora, Antelope and Palo Verde apartments. Then there’s the Student Advising Services Building, a construction project nestled between the Student Life and College of Humanities and Social Services buildings.
“That’s probably the most difficult (build) because of the site constraints,” said Glispie, noting the challenges of moving large construction vehicles to and from the site and how crews must gingerly lift huge, preconstructed wooden platforms by crane past those two nearby buildings with no room for error.
In all his years building GCU, he said he hasn’t discovered anything unusual. The University was built on cotton fields, so if there were artifacts to dig up, they probably were displaced long ago.
“Silly enough, my favorite building that we’ve worked on is a remodel – the old library (the Academic Administration Building at the front of campus). I just love that building. I like the style of it. If you would have seen that building before we got in there …”
Similar means speedy
For the most part, Glispie said, the edifices Pono and his subcontractors have constructed for GCU have been straightforward. Many of them are similar in style and construction – it’s how the team can get these buildings raised so quickly. It’s not unheard of for Pono to complete a structure in eight months, a boon for a university intent on opening new facilities by the first day of class.
“The opening of school doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter what happens with the market or what may happen with subcontractors,” said Pono Construction lawyer Amber Glispie, Butch’s daughter. “You have to be highly adaptable. Our teamwork enables that.”
Team is the overarching theme in Pono’s success story, Amber said.
“To make things work at the pace we do things here, everything is team, team, team, and it takes everybody from both sides of the table,” Glispie added.
“We have been fortunate that when we came back here and started in 2010 – that was kind of the depths of the recession – I was able to cherry pick the best subs, and for the most part, we’ve kept that team together. We have enough history together that they know we can pull off these real tight schedules.”
“It’s a good thing to be a part of,” said Gary Webster of plumbing subcontractor Marlin Mechanical. “Everybody works together, which in the construction industry is something you don’t see. But with Butch, it’s, ‘If you’re not interested in meeting those expectations, you can make your happiness elsewhere.’ ”
An example of how teamwork plays such a big role in Pono’s success is that the company’s office is on campus, once in the College of Fine Arts and Production Building and once in Building 66 before the move to the maintenance lot on Colter Street. It’s hard not to think that Glispie and his team aren’t GCU employees. He and his team sit in on University biweekly planning meetings, generally attended only by academic leaders. It’s something most university contractors just don’t do.
“Butch and his teams are an integral part of the GCU family,” said GCU President Brian Mueller. “Those partnerships have been incredibly valuable for our students, as they have allowed us, in a very short time frame, to expand and build out the academic infrastructure on a beautiful campus” – a campus that has been ranked among the top 20 in the country each of the last three years by niche.com.
And Pono has been able to do what it does cost-efficiently. Mueller estimates construction costs are, at most, 65 cents on the dollar for state-of-the-art classrooms, laboratories, residence halls and other student amenities.
“That has helped us freeze the cost of tuition for 11 straight years and also offer very affordable room and board rates. It also benefits our faculty, who have very modern facilities,” Mueller said. The neighborhood has benefited, too, as property values continue to rise as a result of GCU’s expansion and renovation efforts.
Reading each other’s minds
For architect Caroline Lobo of suoLL (pronounced “soul”) Architects, which has partnered with Pono on its GCU builds, teamwork is something she sees play out every day. Lobo herself isn’t far from the action. The portable building she works in sits adjacent to Pono’s offices.
“I think the model of having the design and construction team next to each other works because we’re able to deliver projects in a very short time frame, and I think the personalities need to jell,” she said. “He (Butch) is a very collaborative person, so all of the ideas that are brought forth to the table – there’s always a discussion on, ‘How can we make it happen?’ ”
Piles upon piles of booklets of drawings and 3D modeling practically fill one room at suoLL, each containing extensive details for the Pono team.
“Every project has a booklet, which has every detail clarified as to how Butch can go ahead and build it,” Lobo said. “Our job as architects is to take the owner’s vision, which is Brian Mueller and his team, and put it into a building design; his (Glispie’s) vision is to take what we design and get it built.
“We take all of our models and sit with him and his team and try to figure out how this can be built efficiently because that’s crucial for this campus.” Lobo said that sense of togetherness defines GCU’s build team.
“There’s a certain amount of camaraderie between the subcontractors, his team and our team. It’s funny, because in one sense we kind of read each other’s minds. It happens once you deal with each other for a long time working together – and that’s the fun.”
Amber, who has been working at Pono for five years, said she remembers always being on job sites with her dad, “running around in the dirt and mud.” So when she left New York, where she received her law degree, she decided to take her own spot at the Pono table.
“It’s been a little more rewarding than strict legal work. It’s not case file after case file. It’s, ‘Oh! There’s a building we built!’ ” she said. Rather, there are 40 buildings, not including renovations and athletic fields plus structures no longer standing. It’s quite a legacy.
Just one of the guys
The fun for Glispie after all these years, he said, is, “You can be a kid, still, in the construction industry,” and you can be a kid alongside your friends. “As much as he loves the company and running it,” Amber said, “he really still loves being in the field and talking to the guys.”
And the guys love him, too: “He’s very down-to-earth. He doesn’t lose his temper,” said Webster, though if something’s not done quite right, you know it. “… Then it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re not here to clobber you. We want to help.’ ”
Hilton Efune, owner of Hilty’s Electric, has worked with Pono since its early days at GCU.
“I’ve never seen a success story like the one that Pono Construction has created. Nobody has the ability to build quicker, faster and more accurately,” he said. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”
While Glispie runs a tight ship, Efune said, there’s always a sense of respect among the team: “I look at Butch, Amber and the whole team and I mirror my organization after what they’re doing.”
Amber said of her dad, “It’s funny. Although he’s laid back in conversations and relationships, he’s also Type A. So he’s kind of a contradiction. He’s detail-oriented, fast paced and doesn’t like to sit still.”
He’s often in the office by 6 a.m. and out by 6 p.m., six days a week.
“It’s just the constant go-go-go-go,” Glispie said of why he loves construction. Ultimately, what he and his team do for GCU is deadline and budget-crunching, problem solving, stressful work.
“It’s like a giant puzzle,” he added. “The interesting thing about construction is, let’s say you get a job that hasn’t gone well and it’s not a good experience. At some point that ends, and you start another building.
“You constantly have a fresh start, if you will, in life, to make a difference.”
And he wouldn’t want to make a difference anywhere else than in west Phoenix.
Although he has taken on a few non-GCU projects – “I’m very picky about who I work for” – in the end, he said, “My loyalty is here. It’s a given.”
“It’s clear Butch has a heart for GCU and the values and servant leadership that the University and its students represent,” Mueller said.
King of the world? Maybe not.
But he is GCU’s builder, the one who has chiseled and shaped this little part of the world.
That’s a given.
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at email@example.com or at 602-639-7901.
● More on campus construction: The story behind the architecture
What Butch has built
· North Rim Apartments
· Ray Student Services Building
· Student Union
· Hegel Hall (now called Cypress Hall)
· College of Education Building
· Canyon Hall
· Prescott Hall
· Camelback Hall
· Sedona Hall
· College of Arts and Sciences Building (now the
Natural Sciences Building)
· Camelback Road Parking Garage
· Chaparral Hall
· Saguaro Hall
· 27th Avenue complex remodel of Building 66
· Student Union renovation (four stories added)
· Fleming executive offices renovation
· Prescott flex space renovation
· Camelback flex space renovation
· College of Humanities and Social Sciences
· Halo Parking Garage
· Papago Apartments
· Ocotillo Hall
· Colter South Building renovation
· Q’doba renovation
· Mojo Bowl renovation
· Subway renovation
· The Grove
· Acacia Hall
· Willow Hall
· Juniper Hall
· Ironwood Hall
· The Grove Garage
· Technology Building
· GCU Golf Course clubhouse
· GCU Hotel pool, lobby and restaurant
· Beach Volleyball Stadium and courts
between Canyon and Cypress halls
· Lopes Way renovation
· Habit Burger and Slices
· Intramural Complex
· Student Life Building
· GCU Stadium
· Agave Apartments
· Encanto Apartments
· Roadrunner Apartments
· College of Science, Engineering and
· Lopes Performance Center expansion
· Softball Stadium
· Basketball Practice Facility
· 29th Avenue and Camelback Road
· 27th Avenue Office Building (Building 71)
· 27th Avenue Parking Garage
· Diamondback Apartments
· Cactus Apartments
· Jerome Apartments
· New Lope Shop (renovation of old
· Missouri Avenue Parking Garage
· GCU Ballpark
· Colangelo College of Business
· Canyon Activity Center
· Student Advising Services Center
· Sonora Apartments
· Antelope Apartments
· Palo Verde Apartments
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