Charlie Murphy, Shoveling for Success

As senior vice president and general manager of the New York business unit of Turner Construction, Charlie Murphy oversaw approximately

As senior vice president and general manager of the New York business unit of Turner Construction, Charlie Murphy oversaw approximately 800 employees and $1.5 billion in construction last year. Despite a general malaise across the construction industry, this year looks particularly active, with assignments for Silverstein Properties, New York University and Boston Properties (BXP), among other commercial buildings. Mr. Murphy spoke to The Commercial Observer about a promising spurt in construction spending, work on New York University’s Langone Medical Center campus and working with competing firm Tishman on the ground at the World Trade Center site.

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Charlie Murphy.

The Commercial Observer: National construction spending increased by 1.5 percent in December, the most since August. Has that uptick been felt inside Turner Construction?
Mr. Murphy: It has. For instance, one of the trends going on right now is residential again. There’s a market out there, more on the rental side, I think. We’re working with a developer for a site in Greenwich Village, and this developer was able to, without a lot of trouble, get his financing together. For a large project. This is a half-billion dollar project. So I think the money’s out there; they just want to invest in the right projects with the right developers.

Is the money available to all, or only New York City’s most recognizable developers?
It’s probably like anything else: How much do you want to pay for your money? But what else is interesting is, in the Greenwich Village case, it was a consortium of lenders. It wasn’t just one bank participating. You could see that the banks are splitting up their risk. There were a number of banks involved in this particular project, and, of course, they’re making the developers put more of their own money into the project.

Turner has expanded its work with its institutional and government clients over the past several years. What’s the strategy behind that move, and when the economy recovers will Turner recalibrate its focus on commercial clients?
Here in New York we’ve always worked for the [School Construction Authority]—and when I say “always” I mean the past 15 or 20 years—as well as the Economic Development Corporation and the Port Authority. So through good times and bad times, we’ve always made a conscious effort to meet that part of our portfolio so when you have a downturn, and there’s less private money available for things, we’ve established a reputation with those public clients that we continue to work for. They become a repeat customer for us.

Since 2008, has that particular sector been more active?
It had until the past year or two. They seem to have cut back work. With less revenues coming into the municipal government, they had less for capital, so we’ve witnessed that.

Are the commercial clients coming back?
There still isn’t a lot. We’re doing just a few commercial office buildings. We’re doing Boston Properties’ 250 West 55th Street, which is exciting because it was a stalled project that’s now come back to life after they secured an anchor tenant. We’re also building Canon’s Americas headquarters out on Long Island. That was another project that got postponed a year due to the 2008 financial collapse.

So, if the institutional clients are less active, and new construction is still not what it used to be, where’s the work coming from?
We’re seeing more work on the interiors side of that commercial market. We’ve done work for JPMorgan Chase (JPM), American Express, Brookfield Properties (BPYPP), Time Warner, and we just landed a very large project for Nomura Bank at World Financial Center. They retained us to do their tenant fit out, and that came at the very end of last year.

Health care and education are growth sectors. Has that translated to new construction?
I’m in my 34th year with Turner. We’ve been doing health care projects since as long as I’ve been here, so it’s really one of our core competencies. But we’re seeing even more now, and very large. NYU Langone Medical Center, which we’re doing the preconstruction for, actually has two large projects on its campus: it’s the Energy Building and Kimmel Hospital. Though there’s a lot of preparation work—buildings are getting demolished on the site and you have to move people out in their move to other buildings in the area—we should start in earnest in the spring of 2013 with the Kimmel Center.
New York Presbyterian is looking at a large program. We’re working up at Sloan-Kettering. And North Shore Hospital has a really robust facility upgrade happening.

Turner Construction is building 2 World Trade Center, but Tishman Construction won bids for the other buildings on the site. Did you guys make a play for those jobs?
Historically, Tishman was Silverstein’s builder, and we got an opportunity … There was just so much going on there, and we had built the Norman Foster-designed Hearst headquarters, and to Silverstein’s credit, he said, ‘Who makes sense to go do another Norman Foster building: Turner Construction.’

Put yourself in the owner’s shoes: Does it become more complicated juggling construction companies for what, in many ways, is one project?
I don’t think it adds to the complexity. I think what it lets him do as an owner is he can draw on a larger talent pool of builders. As much as you like to think that all 800 of our employees are A pluses, there are some who are better than others. So to be able to draw on a larger pool I think is advantageous to a client like Silverstein, especially when you have that much work going on at one site.

Do you work well with your counterparts at Tishman, which I imagine is among Turner’s biggest competitors?
We have a great deal of respect for Tishman. In fact, we’re joint venture partners because we’re doing the transportation center together. So there’s a collaboration really from the top down that we like. We have a common client in Silverstein, and from my vantage point and theirs, we want to do the best for the customer. So even though we’re on the same campus we’re going to work together for the best results for the client.

Charlie Murphy, Shoveling for Success