Fisher’s Big Birthday

Fisher Development San Francisco construction Northern California Gap Bay Area Robert S. Fisher Alex Fisher contractor tenant improvement
Bob & Alex Fisher
Bob & Alex Fisher

As Fisher Development turns 45 in 2016, the company looks to the future with a firm footing in its past.


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he son and grandson of San Francisco builders, founder Robert S. Fisher made Fisher Development into one of the most recognized and respected names in construction.

As a developer of residential subdivisions in the early 1970’s, Fisher learned the business from the ground up. In 1974, a fledgling retailer asked Fisher Development to build their store. It went very well and the rest, as they say, is history. During this storied 35-year partnership, Fisher’s business model not only helped make Gap’s meteoric growth possible, it also transformed the retail construction industry. The firm’s other retail clients happily leveraged Fisher’s expertise to get their brands to market in the most efficient and cost effective way possible.

Bob Fisher believes success and longevity in this business has always been about one thing: relationships. It is just one of the traits he has made a priority in passing to the next generation of leadership at Fisher Development.

Much has changed in the industry over the last 40 years: construction methods and materials, safety standards, not to mention the staggering pace of emerging technologies. Fisher stays fresh and relevant, relentlessly pursuing new ideas and better ways to build. But Fisher’s commitment to partnering with their clients has remained the key principle of its work, especially so as the generational transition in the company takes shape. While retail remains a robust part of the company’s growing portfolio, the firm also welcomes logistically complex, urban projects that require creativity and smart planning.

TR: Fisher Development will be celebrating its 45 years in construction and building in 2016. During the nearly half century of development, what has changed and what has stayed the same?

BOB: Without a doubt, technology has accounted for the largest change in the construction industry. In 1971, when we started Fisher Development, there were no computers. Not that long ago but it sounds like the dark ages. Technology improves how we communicate, how we manage projects and how we estimate. We’re able to collaborate in real time with all of our stakeholders. Decisions are made more quickly. Overall, advances in technology have collapsed the schedule to make projects move at a much faster pace. We’ve also seen a tremendous advancement in the quality and types of materials and equipment used in construction.

Even with all the advancements, our industry still relies on the skilled workers in the trades to do the work.

Another thing that remains unchanged: no matter how many projects we’ve done for a client, we’re still always judged by the last job we did for them.

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TR: Looking at your timeline and history, what are some of the projects of which you’re most proud?

BOB: It’s difficult for me to pick a specific project because, while it may sound trite, every project is equally important to me. To have the ability to create something that wasn’t there before and then to stand back and say “we built that!” is incredibly gratifying. That said, The Golden Gate Bridge Visitor Enhancement Project was one of our crowning achievements. As native San Franciscans, we were honored to be selected for this project. Fisher played a major role in getting the Bridge ready for its 75th anniversary celebration, which included a ribbon cutting with the Governor, Mayor and other dignitaries.

TR: Looking at that timeline, one can also see that the company at one point had national and global aspirations, can you tell us what drove that expansion and the lessons learned from that experience?

BOB: For most of the 1990’s, the trade magazine, Shopping Center World, ranked Fisher as the largest tenant improvement contractor in the U.S. We had more than 13 offices domestically plus offices in London, Paris and Dusseldorf.

For many years, this business model worked extremely well. It was advantageous to be local in the markets we served; we knew our subcontractor base, city requirements and it made it easier to hire local talent. In the 2000’s, Fisher shifted its focus away from retail rollouts (a concept that fell out of favor due to the economic downturn) and more onto local non-retail types of work. Having offices all over the country no longer made good business sense and so, over the course of several years, we systematically closed those offices.

The lesson learned: all building is local but if you have a good team, the job goes well.

TR: As Alex assumes more leadership within the organization, where will the first impact be felt? In other words, what will be the first area of his immediate focus and why?

BOB: Alex has had full leadership of the company since 2010. His focus has been on shaping the company so that we are a diverse, regional general contractor with core strengths in multi-family housing, seismic strengthening, adaptive reuse, historic preservation, private education, office tenant improvement and retail/fine interiors.

The strategy has been multi-tiered, but in particular, the effort has been around staffing the company with estimators, project managers and superintendents who have the local knowledge and technical expertise that our clients require. In addition, we’ve worked tirelessly to ensure that we are working with clients who see the general contractor/owner partnership as just that: a partnership.

If you look at the diversity of our portfolio and that of our staff, it’s easy to see the change. Until 2010, it would be safe to say that approximately 80 percent of our volume was in retail tenant improvements. In 2016, it may make up less than 3 percent of our volume.

TR: What does the firm want to be in the 21st century? Every industry and business changes, what will be the core that will carry the organization ahead, and what will transform within the organization longer term?

ALEX: We leverage best-in-class technologies like ProCore, Timberline, BIM, Bluebeam, etc. to enable our project managers and superintendents to run their jobs as efficiently as possible. At its core, construction is a service business. Our value rests with our people and the relationships they cultivate with subs, clients, architects and one another. We hire the best and brightest, and we continually invest in their careers.

TR: How will Fisher Development distinguish itself from other construction companies in the Bay Area?

ALEX: There are many fine contractors in the Bay Area. We’re proud to be in their peer group. We’re completely focused on the type of projects we pursue—logistically complex, urban—then our high performing teams get to work adding value by coming up with innovative solutions that can save time and money. We will continue to refine our partnership model and stand by our values of honesty, integrity and fairness. Construction is a high risk business that can be very challenging for all parties. We’re in business to make a difference in our community and to make the process as enjoyable as possible for everyone. Ultimately, the market place will decide if that sets us apart.

TR: Are there certain industries where you will put more of your focus in the future?

ALEX: We’re all well aware of the severe housing shortage in the Bay Area and will be for years to come so multi-family for sure. Our intention is to continue building our business in a way where we can stay nimble and adapt to the needs of the time.

TR: What are you doing today to prepare for an eventual slowdown?

ALEX: Having been in business now for 45 years, we’ve seen our share of ups and downs in the market. We’re all about sustainable growth. Typically, general contractors are the last to slow down and the last to ramp up when the economy rebounds. We’re always talking to our architect friends about their pipeline so like in slowdowns past, we have time to adequately prepare. We’re qualified to do public works projects, which remains fairly steady during downturns, so we feel quite well positioned.

TR: What are you most excited about in the industry today?

ALEX: San Francisco is in an unprecedented growth mode and building touches every aspect of that growth from high-tech offices to housing. Owners are designing innovative structures with sustainability baked into the projects that are literally changing the city’s landscape. It’s exciting to be part of a solution to reduce our carbon footprint.

TR: Are you optimistic about the next year and the immediate future?

ALEX: I think we all agree that this is a crazy, unpredictable world we live in and who knows what tomorrow will bring. In the 2016 that Fisher controls, we couldn’t be happier to ring in the New Year. We see a lot of growth and exciting projects for our company next year. Our team is energized and totally focused on taking Fisher to the next level.

This is an exciting time to be a builder. It’s fast-paced and dynamic but also inherently unpredictable. This unprecedented building boom is putting a strain on the trades and their capacity. We’re constantly analyzing our workload in an attempt to strike the right balance between the work, attracting and retaining top talent and getting the right subcontractors on our jobs so we can keep our promise to our clients to deliver on time, on budget, on schedule…and to have a good time doing it.

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