2022 Executive of the Year: Jim Yehle’s baptism by COVID

Feature Eoy Jim Yehle Panel
Photo by Shawn Harper

Register to attend the Executive of the Year awards and reception on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Two months into his tenure as president and CEO of J.H. Findorff & Son Inc., Jim Yehle acquired a nickname — COVID guy. His tenure won’t be defined by the pandemic, however, but by how he and the general contracting firm have responded with one of its best years.

“It’s hard not to snicker when you think of starting in this role and two months later the pandemic hit,” he says. “They called me the COVID guy, or the COVID notes guy just because of all the messages I’ve sent.”

Since Yehle’s two-year tenure has coincided with the pandemic, it’s been quite an executive baptism, but it’s also a forged-in-fire story that led a judging panel of local business executives to select him as “Executive of the Year.” Yehle is one of six people selected for this honor by the panel of previous EOY winners.

No failure to communicate
Those communications that earned Yehle the nickname COVID guy — somewhere between 70 and 80 individual COVID memos since March 2020 — kept everyone in the loop on everything from COVID rules, mask requirements, and the eventual return to the office.

One pandemic-related objective the company accomplished early is grow its virtual construction program by 12%, and it now offers a more robust menu of products and services in both the preconstruction and construction phases of its projects. It’s really nothing new, but the pandemic accelerated the trend.

“Virtual construction is really the idea of building something on a computer first before we go out with the men and women and build it in the field,” he explains. “When we build it on the computer, we might find there are some clashes, some collisions, some things that aren’t fitting. Let’s figure it out on the front end with technology versus when we have a crew of 10, 15, or 20 people on the job site and then it’s inefficient when you find those problems.”

Project diversification also helped Findorff weather the pandemic, just as it has helped the firm withstand past economic downturns. “We’re 131 years old,” Yehle notes. “We’ve learned a lot of things.”

Things like the value of sustainability. Findorff has consecutively received national recognition as “Green Contractor of the Year” from Engineering News Record (ENR) magazine, and the most recent example of how it has distinguished itself is the completion of Forest Edge Elementary School in Oregon. As the largest verified net-zero carbon project in the country, Forest Edge is a project of firsts: The first net-zero verified elementary school in the Midwest/Great Plains region; and the first net-zero school in Wisconsin (and the second net-zero building in the state). It is one of only 74 net-zero verified public projects in the U.S.

Findorff’s sustainable practices are another example of its innovation. With what appears to be a greater sense of urgency to wringing carbon out of the economy, Yehle was asked how soon every new commercial building — educational, office, industrial, etc. — will be a net-zero facility.

“It’s a big deal. As much as I’m a leader who likes to give praise to his team, I can’t hide from this one. It’s a big deal, and I’m humbled by it.” — Jim Yehle, J.H. Findorff & Son

“As I look to the future, I’m encouraged,” he says. “I’m not the person to tell what date, but I’m encouraged that our clients, with the commitment they have and the substantial investment they make in time, resources, and dollars, look at their projects a little bit more critically. Not just what’s the bottom line, but how does this project impact the environment? How does this project impact the community?

“A lot of our education and corporate partners are interested in spaces that limit the environmental impact,” Yehle adds. “This net-zero project took a long time. It took multiple years and planning, with many stakeholders at the table, and it was very intentional.”

One of the EOY judges noted the way Findorff has invested in its people under Yehle’s direction, but he notes that commitment predates his elevation to the president’s office. It has taken on even more importance since the pandemic began to unfold, especially with so many people now emboldened to quit their jobs and look for greener professional pastures. The Great Resignation and the spate of recent retirements have rocked American businesses, and so valuing your people has taken on added importance.

During the early part of the pandemic, construction firms were deemed essential, but some still laid off workers. Findorff did not have major layoffs, even though about 75% of its workforce is based in the field at job sites. The company did not want its employees to worry about their employment status with children home from school and day care centers closed and spouses possibly being let go.

Yehle, who has been with the company for 23 years, recalls how he’s “grown up” at Findorff, a process that included making an early connection with eventual chairman Rich Lynch. Yehle recalls being the bottom guy on the ladder when Lynch was a vice president, and he now wants to emulate his mentor’s example with today’s young employees.

“People create our success,” he notes. “We have an open and supportive and inclusive environment of sharing and teamwork. We have high levels of expected performance. We invest in them and encourage them to grow and succeed both personally and professionally.”

Along those same lines, Yehle has been actively involved in enhancing Findorff’s culture of inclusivity and openness. He’s led the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and partnered with clients to help increase minority business subcontractor engagement. He’s also been active in a cross-cultural dialogue group of local business leaders and Dr. Alex Gee, and he serves on the capital campaign for the Center for Black Excellence and Culture. Findorff will be involved in building this facility, and Yehle believes it can be transformative, not just for the Black community but the entire community.

Fundraising in the Black community has been successful, as more than 200 donors stepped up to support the project, and now a more public phase of the fundraising campaign will begin to reach the overall fundraising goal of $36 million. The is not meant to compete with other important initiatives such as the Black Business Hub on South Park Street or the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center to provide job training for the trades, but to complement them.

Yehle believes the center, which is being designed by members of the Black community, could be as impactful as the Overture Center for the Arts and the Madison Children’s Museum. The idea is to design a dynamic community attraction with vibrant cultural, leadership development, coworking, and social spaces that help make Madison a more desirable place to live and stay rooted in. He’s proud that Madison is cited as one of the nation’s best places to live, but he’s come across data that doesn’t support that a high quality of life is enjoyed by everyone.

“I’ve seen Black colleagues in different organizations leave Madison over the years,” he says. “I’m not sure what their reasons were, but if we don’t have a community where talented Black leaders want to be, it’s going to hurt the community.”

Fit to lead
Yehle’s personal passion for well-being includes incorporating a daily workout into his routine. He believes it improves his mental and emotional states and it makes him a better, more upbeat collaborative leader. On occasion, he’s substituting “walks and talks” for office meetings because it gets the blood pumping and stimulates creativity. “I’m pretty energetic,” he says. “I tend to be positive, a collaborator. Positive energy is contagious, so be positive.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB Ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.