Jewel of the Midwest

Chief human resources officer Michelle Lieb shows why people are the cornerstone to the foundation that makes Chicago’s Pepper Construction a billion-dollar success

Chicagoans may not recognize Pepper Construction by name, but they might be familiar with its most prominent projects that define the aesthetic of the Windy City. The construction firm’s infrastructural influence reaches nearly every corner of the Midwest metropolis, and driving down the city’s streets is like flipping open the pages of a life-size portfolio with building work completed at The Ocenarium at the Shedd Aquarium; the Regenstein Macaque Forest at the Lincoln Park Zoo; the Under Armour Brand Store on Michigan Avenue; the IKEA in nearby Bolingbrook; and the historic home of the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field.

Pepper Construction specializes in pre-construction, general contracting, and self-performed construction services in a multitude of areas including healthcare, industrial, waterworks, data centers, retail, education, interiors, hospitality, and more. With so many landmarks under its belt, it’s no surprise that the privately held Pepper Construction has garnered success across the region and beyond, becoming one the largest and most well-respected construction companies in the United States.

Michelle Lieb, Pepper Construction
Michelle Lieb, Pepper Construction

While part of its leverage stems from its wide range of expertise, the foundation of the company’s success rests less on molding steel and plaster into beautiful, sustainable, and functional buildings—and more on the shoulders of its people. That’s a differentiator that starts in human resources. As Pepper Construction’s chief human resources officer, Michelle Lieb recognized early on that the key to achieving the company’s goals begins with an engaged and empowered team. “The construction business extends beyond the job site,” Lieb says. “It’s my role to understand the needs of the business as an integrated member of our executive team, and then to create a culture that engages people in that vision and equip them with the resources they need to grow their careers and, at the same time, deliver the highest quality product and service for our clients.”

Lieb got her start in human resources in the hospitality industry, where she first worked for the Renaissance Hotel, a job that ultimately brought her to Chicago. A few years later, she learned about Pepper Construction through a friend. Impressed by the company’s family-oriented culture and strong values, she accepted a position as HR manager. With an undergraduate degree in business and psychology, and a master’s degree in human resources and organizational development under her arm, she saw Pepper Construction as a fantastic fit. “HR is so ingrained in the broad spectrum of our business in that it’s a very diverse career—you’re not doing the same thing two days in a row, or even year to year,” says Lieb, who has now worked at Pepper Construction for seventeen years.

When Lieb was hired, Pepper Construction was a $690 million company on the verge of expansion. It was Lieb’s responsibility to manage hiring, training, and employee relations in support of the day-to-day needs of the business. But the growth of the company warranted greater integration. “What I found was that as I continued to gain a better understanding of the business, I was able to see how HR could bring value to our operations,” Lieb says. “In doing so, I was able to evolve the role from an administrative support position to an integrated partner that could help move our business strategies forward. While traditional HR functions remain vital, when you can connect the HR discipline to the business—you become a strategic player.”

That line of thinking positioned Lieb to support the company through the coming economic downturn so that Pepper Construction would emerge stronger than ever. “Pepper is fortunate to enjoy a very stable fiscal position,” Lieb says. “This enabled us to strategically focus on developing our people and our systems during the recession so we could be positioned for prudent growth once the economy recovered.”

With the support of Pepper Construction’s executive team, Lieb launched a competency training program. Together they met with subject-matter experts to identify the abilities needed to be effective at each level of project management. For example, when it came to project managers, the company discovered that employees often had the technical knowledge necessary to perform their jobs, but were less adept at some of the soft skills, like negotiation. “Most of our project managers are trained as engineers,” Lieb says. “This technical perspective is essential for construction. But what makes you effective in senior roles is behavioral competencies in soft skills.”

To help understand the extent of training and education needed, Lieb says Pepper Construction went to the source and had a conversation with employees. So, they hired a director of training who interviewed more than 20 percent of the staff—more than 120 interviews. At the top of list? Employees wanted to map out their career paths, acquire stronger leadership skills, and receive advanced technological training. Lieb says employees also wanted to build their financial intelligence. “We see this as a strong indicator that our employees are engaged in the business, and we saw this as a priority for training,” Lieb says.

Pepper Construction obliged. In addition to creating a more robust training program, the company began a financial acumen series. “When you’ve been in the business for a while you start to take the complexity of our industry for granted,” Lieb says. “Helping people understand equipment costs and labor costs, for example, can empower them to perform at a higher level and understand how those dollars translate into profits for the business.”

The information gathered throughout the initiative also shed light on the need to streamline performance reviews. Previously, performance reviews were documented only sporadically. By utilizing the SuccessFactors software program, Pepper Construction could gauge 360-degree performance reviews, with specific goals (such as connecting with ten new contacts), learning management, safety best practices, and more, in an easy-to-use online platform.

Today, the implementation of the program has resulted in a 100 percent performance review completion rate. Lieb also spearheaded similar initiatives related to succession planning, training, benefits, and compensation. “Goals are critical to progress within any company, and we wanted a more effective way to outline those goals and encourage goal completion,” Lieb says. “This initiative embodies the HR strategy we’ve implemented at Pepper. We are focused on listening, and building a bridge between the needs of Pepper people and the business.”

Since Lieb joined the company, paying keen attention to the needs of present and future employees has helped Pepper Construction to double in size to over a billion dollars in revenue, and it is projecting to double again by 2020. Lieb is also doubling down on today’s challenges; similar to many firms, Pepper Construction has an aging workforce, so the focus on recruiting and retaining talent is more important than ever.

“We conduct a talent assessment each year, and we’ve noticed that we’re doing a much better job at career progression and better servicing our clients,” Lieb says. “I believe that’s a result of providing people the opportunity and responsibilities that they want, and equipping them to succeed in the process.”

As for Lieb? Seventeen years later, Pepper Construction is still a company she enjoys. Recently, she visited the job site for one of Pepper Construction’s latest projects—a forty-one-story apartment building called the MILA, a John Buck Development, located just south of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. It’s the first residential high-rise to be built on South Michigan Avenue in decades.

“Pepper is an exciting place to work, and I’ve been fortunate to grow my career here,” Lieb says. “I’ve always had ideas, and Pepper’s culture has allowed me to put them into action. It’s a company that listens and cares about their people and their clients. When you do that and go in a direction that really works for a business as a people, it’s always the best result.”