Q+A: Female-Led Otto Construction Celebrates 75 Years in Business

Otto Construction, Fairytale Town, SMUD, MOSAC, AGC of CA, San Francisco
SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity. Courtesy of Kyle Jeffers

By Meghan Hall

The San Francisco Bay Area’s explosive growth has largely occurred over the past two decades and has made the region one of the most competitive markets in the country. One firm, who has not only thrived amidst the Bay Area’s changing landscape, but preceded the region’s boom, is Otto Construction. The firm recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and 

The Registry connected with Otto Construction’s President and CEO Allison Otto, on how the company has succeeded and its plans for the future.

Otto Construction recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. Can you talk a little bit about the firm’s beginnings, and how it has gotten to where it is today?

My grandfather, John Otto, did like so many other contractors in the postwar era and started his company out of the back of his pickup truck. He had a vision that we follow to this day, which we call The Otto Way: We believe in hard work, honesty, integrity, and compassion for others.

Over the years, we have grown into one of the 10 largest general contractors in the Sacramento region and have expanded into the Monterey region as well. We’ve done this through the great leadership of my dad, Carl Otto, and then Carl Barrett after my dad’s untimely passing. We’ve also worked hard to keep up with the latest trends and technologies, we are innovators in design/build and sustainability, and we pride ourselves in creating an outstanding product at a competitive price.

We’ve been “changing the landscape” in Northern California for 75 years now and are poised to grow even more in the years to come.

What business strategies has the firm implemented to allow it to remain competitive in one of the most active commercial real estate markets in the country?

One strategy that I think sets us apart from many of our competitors is that we do much of the work ourselves instead of subcontracting out tasks such as concrete formwork and placement, rough carpentry, and finished carpentry. That allows us to provide competitive pricing that complements our reputation for quality.

From your perspective, what are some of the most iconic projects that you think Otto Construction has worked on? Why do these projects stand out to you?

Wow, there are so many projects we’ve built that have really stood the test of time. We built Fairytale Town 60 years ago, and it remains a local treasure that lets children learn and use their imaginations in sets that tell the stories of favorite nursery rhymes and fairytales. We’re really excited that we have been selected to be the contractor that is building the park’s expansion and modernization. More recently, we are proud that we built what is already an iconic addition to the Sacramento community – the award-winning SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity (MOSAC). By modernizing a century-old powerplant and combining it with a brand-new planetarium wing, we have provided the community with a fantastic hands-on center to stimulate children’s passions in STEM.

What are some future projects that Otto Construction is excited about? How do they push the envelope (in design, tech, processes, etc.)?

There are many that come to mind! The Pamela Mari Da Vinci Charter School Tech Hub, Florin High School’s Agriculture, Culinary, and Engineering Career Technical Education (CTE) center, and the King City High School CTE Building are three highlights. It is exciting to be part of projects like this that house the programs for our high school students.

The Tech Hub for Davis Joint Unified School District is a 13,000-square-foot facility that will be home to the school’s computer science program and will consist of spaces including a tech hub, computer lab, science lab, makerspace, and media production. It’s one of our lease-leaseback projects.

The CTE project at Florin High School is a design-bid-build project that will include an 8,000-square-foot Culinary Center that will house kitchens and classrooms to help students learn about careers in the culinary fields, and a separate 4,000-square-foot pre-engineered steel animal barn to provide show space for livestock and a hatchery for poultry. We’re also modernizing an existing building to make it into a computer design studio and adding a 3,700-square-foot advanced fabrication lab that will let students create parts for robots, rockets, and remote-controlled vehicles.

And the CTE building at King City High School includes science labs, a floral lab, a metal shop, and space for mechanics. It is great to see how these types of educational spaces reflect and eventually will enhance the communities in which they are located.

And, of course, I have to mention the new Into the Deep exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which showcases the rarely seen wildlife of the deep sea. This just opened during the first week of April. The project was successful during the pandemic because of the collaboration of the Monterey Bay Aquarium team and Otto Construction.

Allison, you stepped into the roles of President and CEO in 2021; thus far, what have you learned? What is your vision for the company’s future? Women are typically thought of as rare in construction, and women-led construction firms are even rarer. Has this aspect of the business presented you with any challenges, and if so, how have you worked to navigate them? 

I have had great mentors, men and women, throughout my career. The two generations before me (my grandfather and my dad) paved the way for me and many other women at Otto Construction who are now in leadership positions. Otto’s previous president – Carl Barrett, who worked with me for the last seven years – also played a major role in not only my success, but also the success of Otto. Today, I still lean on other family business owners and also a great group of women in construction who I can call on any time of day. They are strong leaders, business owners, mentors and friends. There are more and more women in the industry these days and there is room for more!

Since Otto Construction has been in the business for so long, how have you seen the industry change over the years? What challenges do you think the industry will face in the future, and how does Otto Construction plan to overcome them? 

The biggest challenge right now is the aging workforce. There is a high demand for workers in our industry and not enough people entering the workforce. From labor in the field to project oversight in the office, we are facing an uphill challenge. That is why we are working with AGC of CA (Association of General Contractors) on their Build CA campaign.  This program helps to spread the word about careers in construction and provides connections to local training programs and jobs.

Conversely, what are you most excited about?  

On that same note, I am most excited about the work that Build CA is doing and looking forward to seeing the increase in our workforce and changing the perception of construction from a second- or third-choice career to a first-choice career.  I love to come to work every day for two reasons – the people and the new challenges.  Every day is different, but when you are surrounded by a great team, anything is possible.

Is there anything else you would like to add, or anything we should be asking?

As a third-generation family business, we really do see our employees as family, which is probably why we are seeing the sons and daughters of long-time employees moving into our workforce. As part of that, one of our core beliefs is a dedication to the safety of our staff. And that goes beyond just making sure they are well trained and have all the needed safety equipment.

A case in point is the local Hard Hats with Heart program sponsored by the local chapter of the American Heart Association. We’re a founding company because we want to do more to help our employees and are working to implement policies and procedures to help educate our employees about lifestyle changes. One in four construction workers are overweight and one in four uses tobacco products. That’s far too many. We want to implement programs and environmental changes that can yield positive health outcomes. 

Along those lines, we’re also involved in the National Safety Stand-Down, scheduled for the week of May 2. This annual event brings a focused awareness on safety, particularly fall protection. Additionally – and equally important – May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In the construction industry, mental health is often a topic swept under the rug.  As a member company of AGC of CA, we are adding a Mental Health Stand-Down component to Safety Week to bring mindfulness to this important issue.

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