Turner International's First Five Decades

In 2015, Turner International celebrated fifty years of operation in global markets. We took this opportunity to look back at each of Turner International’s five decades, highlighting iconic projects, key business accomplishments, leaders and leadership changes, and project milestones. 

The Journey Begins

Turner’s first decade of overseas operations was dominated by the Mei Foo Shun Chuen residential complex in Hong Kong. “Our participation as the overall project manager came as a result of the outstanding business relationships we had with the project’s owner, the Mobil Oil Company, and developer, the Galbreath Company of Columbus, Ohio,” said Nick Billotti, chairman of Turner International, describing the 99-building project as the largest private residential development in the world at the time. Completed in phases over more than 10 years, Mei Foo, as the development came to be called, was designed to house more than 80,000 people in 13,500 apartments.

Turner's key staff, 'ambassadors to Hong Kong,’ included Bob Kupfer, the first staff member of Turner assigned overseas. Bob formally established Turner International as a separate entity and served as its first president and chief executive officer. He was ably assisted by Shelby Reaves, who joined him in 1968 as a leader of the Mei Foo project.

“Turner was just coming to understand the challenges of working outside the United States,” said Nick, reflecting more broadly on the company’s steep learning curve in the early years. “We faced issues associated with placing personnel in a foreign environment, currency conversions, local taxation, local building codes and safety practices and much more.”  He went on to cite respect for the capabilities and customs of the local subcontracting community as one of the keys to the company’s success. “Many local contractors benefitted from working with Turner. We brought a disciplined approach to design and construction and our management skills and techniques became part of our long-term legacy in the marketplace.”

Upon completion of the Mei Foo project in the mid-70s, Bob returned to New York to lead the activities of Turner International and Shelby accepted an assignment in Tehran, Iran. Two years later Shelby transferred from Tehran to New York as a vice president of Turner International.

This first decade marked a beginning of our understanding of the overseas market and the early building of the Turner brand outside the United States. The next decade, 1975-1985, witnessed a great deal of growth by size and geographic market as Turner International expanded. 

Geographic Expansion

Turner’s second decade overseas, 1975 to 1985, was marked by geographic expansion into markets outside Asia; work brought the company to the Middle East, where we completed the Mobil Jeddah Housing in Saudi Arabia, and Europe, where we completed the ambitious Birmingham Convention Centre in England. Turner also entered Egypt, Pakistan, Cuba, and several other locations.

The company continued its work in Asia, this time as the general contractor on an I.M. Pei-designed office complex known as The Gateway (pictured). “Even more than geographic expansion, the second decade was a time when Turner International was coming to understand its best fit in a world-wide marketplace,” said Nick Billotti, describing Turner’s strategic evolution from a general contracting management approach to a construction manager approach.“Our efforts in general contracting didn’t yield the results we anticipated and we quickly came to realize that the greater value we carried abroad was in matching our technical and managerial skills with local capability and resources. Construction management as an exclusive model seemed made for us. And we could sell it as the brain-versus-brawn approach.”

Another landmark project and key learning opportunity from Turner’s second decade abroad is the Aga Khan Hospital and Medical College, a 721-bed teaching hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, on which Turner served as a project manager for the design, procurement, and construction. “It was Project Management 101 in an offshore location,” explained Nick. “A challenging client, a building program in flux, a large design team made up of both American and Pakistani firms, numerous contractors, unique international contract types, and unfamiliar local conditions made for invaluable learning experiences.”

Fortunately, Turner was a fast learner and the in-country team along with their local partners managed to navigate the intricacies of those challenges to deliver a successful project. Following that success -- the Aga Khan Hospital continues to be a provider of first class medical services in Karachi -- Turner went on to complete a number of high-profile projects in the country, including a United States Embassy and the Islamabad headquarters of the World Bank.

Turner International’s second decade began with Turner International founder Bob Kupfer at the helm and ended with the charismatic and hard-charging Frank Voci as President and CEO. While Bob’s leadership had carried the company to new places and helped the company find its footing in the international market, it was Frank’s leadership and strategy for future growth that carried Turner International into its third decade.

Middle East, Europe and Asia

Turner’s third decade overseas was the company’s most interesting and challenging so far; with Turner expatriate staff taken prisoner during first Gulf War, entry into the European market with the formation of Turner-Steiner, and a signed agreement to manage construction of Taiwan’s Taipei 101, which would become the tallest building in the world, the period between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s saw rapid geographic expansion and leadership growth for Turner International, and laid important foundations for the company’s business today.

“Turner International had signed an agreement to manage the design and construction for the Amiri Diwan, a very large and sophisticated set of luxury offices in Kuwait City,” said Nick Billotti, chairman of Turner International. “It was the largest agreement undertaken by Turner International at the time.” But, during the implementation of this agreement, in August of 1990, the army of Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait. “We had staff taken prisoners,” added Nick. “They weren’t released until December of that year.” 

“Two days after a cease fire was declared in March of 1991 we were back in Kuwait,” said Nick, describing how the company successfully completed the Amiri Diwan and a number of other important projects. “Among other things, our persistence and our success on those projects enabled us to recruit and train a large regional staff who went on to establish new Turner International offices across the Middle East. We’re the premier construction manager there now.”

To the west, Turner was also forming strategic relationships and laying the groundwork for future projects. “In 1986 the European marketplace was undergoing a number of changes that promised to improve accessibility to businesses across national borders,” explained Nick, describing Turner’s optimism about the potential for growth in European construction markets. “These changes to accessibility provided the impetus for the formation of Turner-Steiner, a partnership with the Karl Steiner Company of Zurich, Switzerland.” Headquartered in Brussels, Turner-Steiner was led by Tom Gerlach, Turner’s current senior vice president of Human Resources. It was during this time that Turner successfully completed the Birmingham Convention Center, a landmark project in Birmingham, England, led by Jimmy Antzoulis, then a project executive.

While Turner’s business in Europe did not flourish as anticipated, the relationship established between Steiner and Turner International – then under the leadership of President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Nilsson – had other financial and business advantages. “Largely due to Bob’s relationships, Steiner obtained a 50 percent share in Turner International. As those relationships continued to flourish, Steiner went on to obtain approximately 20 percent of the then-publicly-traded Turner Corporation stock,” added Nick. “This came at a time when Turner benefitted greatly from an outside – and very friendly – investor.”

And, in Asia, the island nation of Taiwan became Turner’s focus between 1985 and 1995. The company managed construction of Grand 50 and T&C Tower, two commercial high-rise projects – 50 stories and 86 stories respectively – in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city. “The success of these two projects led to our selection as the project manager for Taipei 101, then the tallest building in the world” added Nick, crediting Dugald MacKay with strong leadership and management of Turner International’s Asian operations at the time.

Signature Towers

It was early in Turner’s fourth decade overseas when a call came from Colombo, Sri Lanka. A truck-bomb explosion had caused significant damage to the World Trade Center, a Turner project composed of two 40-story towers with a common podium. 

The 1995 blast—a precursor to the much larger, more destructive 1997 explosion at the same site—shattered every pane of wall-glass on both towers and destroyed part of the podium, remembered Nick Billotti, who would soon replace Bob Nilsson as president and chief executive officer of Turner International. The event marked a turning point for the company.

“It was January 1996, and it was time for a more considered strategy overseas,” said Nick. “It was then that we narrowed the geographic focus of our sales efforts, and we adopted a business model that emphasized project management and construction management.” A key element of that strategy was growth in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates, and Egypt. Re-enter Ali Odeh. 

Based on his successful leadership in Kuwait in the early ‘90s, Ali took responsibility for Turner’s operations in the Middle East, growing the company’s business there exponentially. “Together with Tony Gordon and Jimmy Antzoulis who were focused in the Emirates, we established a real foothold in that part of the world,” said Nick. “Our brand became a powerful calling card and we became the go-to construction manager for every major project.” Those major projects included the Emirates Towers in Dubai, the Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha, the massive Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, and the start of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

In the late 1990s, the company also focused on growth in East Asia and in Europe. Based in Taiwan at the time, Ian Dugald Mackay was a key leader. “At six foot eight, he was literally a larger-than-life character,” remembered Nick. Under Dugald’s leadership, Turner completed Taipei 101 in Taiwan (then the tallest building in the world), Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, and an office tower in Manila, Philippines. But, Nick added, “The currency crisis in Asia had a dramatic effect on us. We were just beginning our expansion into South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. And their economies stopped overnight. To me it serves as an important lesson. A reminder that external factors far beyond your control can change your business.”

In Europe, Turner made its first foray into the Russian market, signing a contract to manage construction of Federation Towers. The tallest building in Europe, Federation Towers led to other major projects in the region, including the large and sophisticated headquarters for Turkey’s IS Bank and a new terminal at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul.

Other active regions at the turn of the 21st century included Angola and Brazil, though the company’s bread and butter continued to be the Middle East. “With its focus on construction management and specific markets, the company was coming to understand its role overseas,” said Nick. “But lurking in the next decade was the financial crisis, which shook the world—and in particular a number of developing economies where Turner had plans for expansion—in 2007.”?

Fifty Plus

Throughout the past ten years, Turner’s overseas operations have continued on their course of controlled expansion, while absorbing and reacting to the impact of worldwide economic tumult. The first half of the decade in particular saw Middle East operations booming even as Turner’s activities in other regions—Europe, Southeast Asia—slowed down.

“After 2005 our work continued to grow in the Middle East, where vast financial reserves were put to use to grow out the regions local economies,” explained Nick Billotti, Chairman of Turner International. “And it was during this time that we completed the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, and many other signature projects.” Turner also earned recognition and accolades for the iconic Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, designed by I.M. Pei, the Dubai Mall, and the extravagant Palace Hotel and Conference center in Abu Dhabi. 

In fact, the development and economic growth of the Middle East added such value to Turner’s operations there that the firm piqued the interest of massive, Dubai-based real estate developer EMAAR. “We sold Turner International's Middle East operations—still under Ali Odeh’s leadership—to them,” added Nick. “The sale was a win-win. EMAAR got their construction management firm, led in the Turner way by Ali. And we maintained a shareholding.”

As pressures began to ease in the second half of the decade, Turner International was ready to expand into new and recovering markets, and in 2013, the company promoted Abrar Sheriff to the role of president and chief executive, with Nick Billotti transitioning into the role of chairman. 

“The company began a strategic expansion into new markets, and a deepening of Turner’s market share in markets where the firm was regaining its footing,” explained Nick. “Since then, work in India has taken off, work in South East Asia—Malaysia and Indonesia—has picked up. Future business will likely see a rejuvenated effort in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.”

Looking ahead to the next fifty years, Nick is confident that the breadth and depth of Turner’s presence overseas will only grow. “Our business experience and our capabilities are very well established and I think we’re well positioned to expand into the next half-century,” he said. He went on to say that as we look to maintain our position as an industry leader, it’s important to maintain that strong and growing presence outside the United States. “A lot of people know who we are from hearing about these high-profile, recognizable jobs—like KL118, pictured above—that are transforming cities and communities. An important part of the Turner brand is built on our overseas projects,” he added. “In other words, our success overseas reinforces and contributes to our success in the United States, and vice versa. And it will continue to.”

Then, as he often does when sharing project stories, Nick pivoted to the people of Turner International, and the people they encounter in the sometimes far-flung communities where we work. It is not only the iconic projects themselves, but the impact of those projects on the communities they serve, that has inspired him throughout his nearly four-decade career. “When I consider the more private, personal side of our work, I’m reminded that it is not where we build, or what, that matters most, but how. That’s what’s special. The group of people that travel out to crazy places, build relationships, and work together to deliver our projects.”

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