Our Guest This Episode: Bill Darden and Matt Dale
The Mercedes-Benz Stadium and The Home Depot Backyard. What did the project managers do to keep the development of these world class sports and entertainment facilities on track? We’ll hear directly from them in this podcast. Joining our hosts in the Velociteach studio are Bill Darden and Matt Dale. Bill is President & CEO, and Matt is the Vice President of Darden & Company, an organization that specializes in the development, design, and construction of a variety of real estate projects.
One of their recent projects was the construction of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United. Other projects include Atlanta United’s Training Ground, demolition of the Georgia Dome, and The Home Depot Backyard-- an 11-acre park adjacent to the new stadium. Bill and Matt explain their efforts to manage expectations, communicate clearly, and drive decisions, while meeting the goals of one key stakeholder: Arthur Blank. These two project managers have stories you’ll want to hear!
Table of Contents in Transcript
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“We talk about that we have what we call a “list of firsts.” And that just simply means that we took on a lot of challenges in the stadium, LEED Platinum being one of them. It’s the first one ever done. The roof the way it is, the first one ever done, and on and on. And I think we have about 20, 25 major items as the first thing, first time something on the stadium has been attempted.”
“Taking ownership in your work as a project manager is such an important part to making a successful project. And by having ownership in everything you touched, we as a team, you didn’t want it to fail. And whether you were losing sleep over it or you worked late on it, you had so much pride in it that you may have been working hard, but there was so much gratification that came from it.”
“The single most important thing you can do when you get in your position as a project manager is hire the right team. That, and then focusing on those fundamentals of safety, schedule, budget, and quality. And all those things tie together.”
Table of Contents
01:00 …Meet Bill and Matt
01:45 …Home Depot Backyard
09:30 … Arthur Blank
11:43 …Mercedes Benz Stadium
12:30 …LEED Platinum Rating
16:11 …Stadium Planning
22:22 …Bill’s Career Advice
28:22 …Dealing With Stress
37:07 …Surprises Along the Way/Communication
40:07 …In Retrospect/Know Your Managers
44:45 …Wrap Up
BILL DARDEN: That was a neat moment. I’ll admit emotions got me that day I walked in. The fans were let in, if you recall, just to walk around. And the documentary crew was following. And I had my family with me. It just hit me for the first time that all I saw was smiling faces.
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every couple of weeks we like to meet and talk about what matters to you as a professional project manager. We draw on the opinions and experiences of experts in the field. We see what’s worked for them and talk about lessons learned on the job. We want to help you up your game and your team’s game.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the two guys who have made it their mission to improve your game, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. And Andy, we’ve got a full house today. Two experts.
ANDY CROWE: It is packed in the studio, and the amount of expertise is starting to overflow.
NICK WALKER: All right. Well, let’s don’t let it overwhelm us; okay? Let’s meet these two guys here. First, we’ve got one Bill in the room all the time, but let’s meet the other Bill in the room today. Bill Darden is the President and CEO of Darden & Company LLC, a full-service project management firm. Its focus is on the development, design, construction, and tenant improvements for a variety of real estate projects. Darden’s recent big project was the construction of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, the home of the Atlanta Falcons.
Also with us is Matt Dale, Vice President of Darden & Company, working especially on the construction of the Home Depot Backyard. Guys, thanks so much for being with us.
MATT DALE: Thank you for having us.
BILL DARDEN: Thank you.
NICK WALKER: Now, there are a lot of things we want to cover on this podcast in a short time that we have. Let’s talk first about this latest project, the Home Depot Backyard. We’re talking about 11 acres of green space adjacent to the stadium for gathering and tailgating. Matt, let’s start with you. What’s the vision for this space?
MATT DALE: Yeah, so since starting on the project of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and joining the team back in 2013, even early renderings and early planning included a green space and a community asset where the Backyard is currently being constructed. So Arthur’s original vision was not only to have a collegiate atmosphere of just camaraderie and tailgating where the Backyard will now stand, but more importantly was to have a community asset and several amenities that the Westside could utilize on nonevent days. And that’s 300 days a year where they’ll be able to go over there, have yoga, playgrounds, picnics, farmers’ markets, arts festivals, you name it. They’ve got a whole team all working together to try to create a vision. And that has always been Arthur’s vision is giving back to the Westside.
BILL YATES: So have you already contracted with different groups besides those on game day?
MATT DALE: On almost a daily basis we have a tour of a different group, be it a concert, a yoga group, a nonprofit, anything that’s a charity fundraiser. It’s constant.
ANDY CROWE: It’s like Piedmont Park West.
MATT DALE: That’s right, yeah.
BILL YATES: Who is going to manage that? Like who do you hand this over to once you guys have completed the project?
MATT DALE: Very similar to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we’ll hand it over to AMB Sports & Entertainment. And they operate the Backyard, while Georgia World Congress Center owns the land. Very similar setup in the stadium as it is in the Backyard in that they’ll completely operate it and book events through their group.
BILL YATES: And then, Matt, is this going right on top of where the Georgia Dome was before?
MATT DALE: Yeah, it’s been a really unique project in that regard. The Georgia Dome was right on top of this space, using all 11 acres, in which we, you guys remember probably, we imploded it in November of last year.
BILL YATES: I remember that.
ANDY CROWE: The video of that is spectacular, and the MARTA bus pulling in front is even more spectacular. If you haven’t seen it…
BILL DARDEN: What are the chances?
ANDY CROWE: To our listeners, go YouTube that. It’s well worth seeing.
MATT DALE: I actually saw art the other day that a man created, the before the MARTA bus and the after.
NICK WALKER: Oh, how funny.
MATT DALE: In three frames. I’m trying to get my hands on it.
ANDY CROWE: That’s awesome. That’s outstanding.
NICK WALKER: And you’ve actually got pieces of the Georgia Dome underneath this space.
MATT DALE: That’s right. So we only had three months to crush it into six-inch material or smaller. And we crushed it, and it takes up the first 14 feet from the old dome slab to where our new material starts today that becomes fields and parking and pathways and everything else.
ANDY CROWE: And the implosion was your responsibility?
MATT DALE: I helped oversee it for Darden & Company with of course a huge team of engineers and consultants and experts. But I was primary over it from Darden’s perspective. And it was a unique project I was proud to be a part of, certainly from my experience, but most of the team members, as well.
ANDY CROWE: I’m kind of fascinated by this. And Bill, did Darden & Company have specific experience in demolition leading up to this? Or was this something new that you took on?
BILL DARDEN: Absolutely not. In retrospect, looking back on it, I hadn’t – I don’t think anyone had any idea how complicated it would be to take the dome down. It had what everybody knows as the “ring beam,” which was a very interesting part of the Georgia Dome structure that puzzled a lot of the people in terms of how could you – in fact, there were two different firms, one that said they didn’t believe it could implode it, and one that said absolutely could be imploded. So we had to get a third party to come in…
BILL YATES: Dueling experts.
BILL DARDEN: …and sort of say, hey, you know, we would like to implode it, but. And they came back and said we believe that it can. They showed the proof. But it was about a year or more in planning before someone could actually hit the button to take it down. It is not just go in and put some dynamite in the right places and drop it.
BILL YATES: Right.
MATT DALE: Yeah, you’re right. We started our engineering studies in September of ‘16, and it came down in November of ‘17.
ANDY CROWE: Well, I imagine it’s fairly easy to bring it down. It’s just hard to bring it down safely without impacting the rest of Atlanta and surrounding homes and everything.
MATT DALE: [Crosstalk] feet from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so we had a careful asset next door that had only been open a couple of months.
BILL DARDEN: And even then, wind, rain. The day of the event you just have to cross your fingers. You have to close the roads. And then, as you know, a little bit of it didn’t come down.
ANDY CROWE: Yeah, that small section just stood, mysteriously.
BILL DARDEN: Yeah, that was a real highlight.
ANDY CROWE: And that’s all that people showed on the news.
MATT DALE: That was hard to describe. That ring beam that Bill described was the important part. And once that was down, an extra wall was no sweat.
BILL YATES: What’s more fun, tearing something down like that or building something up?
BILL DARDEN: Building.
MATT DALE: Absolutely, building, yeah. It was the – one of the milestones I looked forward to was when we went from destruction to construction in February.
BILL YATES: Okay.
NICK WALKER: All right. Let’s talk about the project a little bit. Just what was involved? Obviously lots of things involved in getting people together. This is a major project, and probably most of our listeners have never encountered something like this before. What are some of the things that are involved in putting this together?
MATT DALE: Yeah, so like I mentioned, early in the design process Arthur’s vision was that this needed to be a community asset. And to accomplish that, we engaged a large design team. Not only our own partners Kimley-Horn, tvsdesign, and several subconsultants, but also AMB Foundation was engaged to establish the park’s program. And also to do that they involved some other third-party consultants with some international recognition: Projects for Public Spaces, BRV. Several of those are from New York and from London and from other parts of the country. They all have expertise in not only park design and operation, but they were responsible for going out to the community and getting their feedback in exactly what amenities they were interested in or what could help revitalize or give them something as a new asset to the community.
And so we engaged those firms. They came up with some great ideas, anything from shade structures to types of pavement, types of playground, different furniture. And what we have today now is a combination of pedestrian bridges; what we call a “destination playground,” a massive structure that anyone, not only from the Westside neighborhoods, but anywhere in town would want to come take their kids of all ages. Anywhere from two to 12 is really what we targeted. But different, we’ve got the Home Depot Sponsor Zone that includes different ways to activate during event days, but also on non-event days – picnic tables, café tables.
You guys have obviously heard about the soccer ball, as well, a 35-foot stainless steel ball from an artist engaged out of the U.K. And between its lighting effects and its just sheer scale, we’re excited for that to be yet another community asset for people to get excited about.
ANDY CROWE: So you mentioned Arthur earlier. And for those listeners all over the world who may not have been to Atlanta or may not be on a first-name basis with him, who is this?
MATT DALE: So Arthur Blank is the owner of not only the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United, AMB Sports & Entertainment, all AMB, Arthur M. Blank, family of businesses. Include others as PGA Superstore, Mountain Sky Ranch, and he is just an incredible benefactor to the community.
BILL DARDEN: Let’s back up a little bit, just to give him his due. I mean, he is one of the two cofounders of the Home Depot, which is…
ANDY CROWE: Right, Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank.
BILL DARDEN: He and Bernie had that vision, and it’s an incredible story. I mean, it’s worth a read. “Built from Scratch” is one of the most famous books written for business. But, you know, Arthur’s been a client on – this is the 25th thing that we’ve done for him since he “retired,” quote unquote, from Home Depot. He is a visionary. He is – what you see on TV, a lot of people ask me all the time, is it for real? I mean, is that who you – and I’m, like, yeah, he really means it when he’s fan-centric, when he cares about the fan experience.
The food price thing, that was absolutely – he was just determined to get that right and make sure that the fans came and paid street prices. That’s changed the entire food and beverage – I just saw Rich McKay do a little talk on it on one of the pre-season games the other night. And it’s unbelievable what something like that – that was him saying I’m doing okay on the rest of it, let’s give back yet another way. He wanted something iconic, something that was a first. We can talk about that maybe later in the question-answer. But he’s just a very special, unique individual. And Atlanta is very, very lucky to have someone like that living here.
NICK WALKER: Okay. Let’s talk more about Mercedes-Benz Stadium right now. A few statistics, first of all. It opened in August of 2017. It’s got 71,000 seats, 7,600 club seats, 190 suites, 24 bars and restaurants, and I love this stat: 1,264 beer taps. The Georgia Dome, I understand, had 30; right?
MATT DALE: That’s right.
BILL DARDEN: Somewhere in that neighborhood.
NICK WALKER: Yeah. And the cost, $1.5 billion. It just recently hosted the 2018 Major League Soccer All-Star Game, and will host the 2019 NFL Super Bowl. And this is the part I love. The stadium is green to the core. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, is the rating system for green buildings; and Mercedes-Benz Stadium has the highest rating of any sports venue in the world and has the distinction of being the first professional sports stadium in the U.S. to get the LEED Platinum certification.
Here’s just one example: The renewable energy generated through the stadium’s 4,000 solar PV panels can power 10 Atlanta Falcon football games, or 14 Atlanta United soccer matches. Bill, tell us what this LEED rating means, and how did you guys achieve it?
BILL DARDEN: Well, I’ll tell you, it goes back even – it goes back 17 years ago. Arthur took something out of a magazine that referred to LEED, sent it over to me on the very first project I ever did for him. I’d never even heard of it. And he said, “Hey, can you look into this?” He’s a very, very strongly committed person to the environment, among four or five other things in his life. And he said, “Look into this.” And I’m like, okay.
So I thought it would be easy. And at the time there were 12 LEED buildings in the world, 10 in the United States and two over in Europe. And I had to call out to Washington State to find a guy who actually really understood what LEED was. The U.S. Green Building Council out of Washington, D.C. oversees it, but just very few people even knew in any event how to orchestrate it. At the time it was like the Olympics. You had Bronze, Silver, Gold. There wasn’t, I don’t believe, Platinum at the time.
And so Arthur, the building that we ultimately built for him – which, you know, he was a pioneer. And he ended up having the first Gold LEED building on the East Coast of the United States. He took that as a platform to espouse that to other developers and builders. And then of course LEED caught on like wildfire, which has been wonderful, wonderful. And then they’ve since gotten rid of the Bronze. It’s just LEED is their initial, then they go to Silver, then they go to Gold, and then to Platinum. And Platinum is – I don’t know the exact number. There are very few Platinum buildings, period. No sports arena that has been Platinum. I would guess that there are very few that are Gold, and most that aren’t anything, you know, are not LEED at all.
So we talk about that we have what we call a “list of firsts.” And that just simply means that we took on a lot of challenges in the stadium, LEED Platinum being one of them. It’s the first one ever done. The roof the way it is, the first one ever done, and on and on. And I think we have about 20, 25 major items as the first thing, first time something on the stadium has been attempted. The Platinum LEED was sort of an amazing process. We kept waiting for them to come back and say, well, you can’t quite get these few points. You know, prepare for Gold. Prepare for Gold.
And through truly a team, well-managed, orchestrated event, we never dropped below the line, ever, of points necessary to get LEED. Now, you know, it’s not free. You know, you do have to do that, but you have to pay for that. But it is not as expensive as you might think, if you plan it from day one. If that’s your goal. You can get a lot of economies in that.
BILL YATES: That’s such a key – that statement you just made is so important, “if you plan it from day one.” I look at the constraints that you guys dealt with as you built this stadium. And knowing – I didn’t know until I read this, I didn’t realize that that was a goal, was LEED, much less Platinum. And so to think about that as a constraint as you were walking into this project is amazing. So to think about the planning that you guys had to instill right from the start. Were there other constraints like that, that from the very beginning you had to plan with those in mind? Obstacles that you knew you’d have to overcome?
BILL DARDEN: You know, I tell you, the way these things work, you just – you sit down, and the architect creates the initial vision. We interviewed, I think, nine major world-class architects to shortlist it down to three, and then they come up with what they come up with. And then you start looking at it. At first it looks, on paper, when it’s in conceptual drawings, you know, you sit there and look at it and go, okay, that’s really cool-looking. And then that’s when the work really starts.
And so the question you ask is you sort of – you find those things out along the way. In this case, multiple, multiple things that you come up – we have two structural systems. You know, we have the concrete bowl, and that was the dominant feature for a while. And then of course to that we have these very unique, one of a kind, 19 megacolumns that almost 30,000 tons of steel sits on top of. Think about that. No columns to support. It’s all cantilevered out over the building with a mechanized roof right in the middle of it.
ANDY CROWE: Where were those manufactured?
BILL DARDEN: The megacolumns are actually poured-in-place concrete. And they are – you could fit, on the largest ones, you could probably put; I don’t know, side by side, a hundred people in it. Good place for Jimmy Hoffa back in the day. But if you walk around the stadium, you just sit there and look up and see these massive, you know, pieces of steel that are sitting on top of these megacolumns, and that whole roof structure sits, all the way to that roof is carried down through those megacolumns. So that in itself is completely unique. And then you’ve got an entire new skin system that’s attached to that. Which, you know, I can’t remember how many tons it is. I don’t know if you remember offhand.
MATT DALE: Of the skin alone?
BILL DARDEN: Just the skin alone.
MATT DALE: Oh, my gosh.
BILL DARDEN: But it was, you know, thousands of tons in and of itself, comprising glass, and then this new product that we had not used, it’s not widely used in the United States, called ETFE, which is very strong, very durable, about the size of your fingernail.
MATT DALE: One percent the weight of glass.
BILL DARDEN: One percent the weight of glass, yeah.
ANDY CROWE: So, Matt, I see you shaking your head there. Was that just amazement at the material, or the difficulty of working with it?
MATT DALE: Well, what’s running through my head is to the question you just asked, was where was that made? And I think where Bill was probably going next is how many plants and locations we had to engage to fabricate the steel.
BILL YATES: Right.
MATT DALE: And, you know, we started at a process where we thought four to five, maybe one international plant could do it. And we ended up with, I think, 33 total because of the capacity. I mean, just the total bandwidth that it took to get the steel here on time and not only to be deadly accurate as they line up across the top of the roof.
BILL YATES: And I remember, Bill, you and I were talking early on. And part of the Atlanta area, the community, they were celebrating an announcement that SunTrust Park was going in, the baseball stadium. And you were looking at that as, okay, here’s another obstacle that I have to overcome.
BILL DARDEN: Yeah, I mean, if you, you know, think of it, project management is – you’re there to manage a group of people. People ask us all the time, what do you do? And they get very confused between us. They say, “So you built the stadium.” I’m like, no. “So you drew the stadium.” No. And, you know, it’s just a simple hierarchy. You know, you have the Falcons, and then we’re right underneath them, and then everybody else flows up through us. And so think about that. I don’t know of any city that’s ever attempted to do two stadiums at the same time. And you can imagine the vortex of workers it took to do the two stadiums. Now, think about the people trying to build a hotel or an office building or even a house out in the suburbs.
ANDY CROWE: Right, get in line.
BILL DARDEN: Get in line.
ANDY CROWE: I’ve heard it firsthand.
BILL DARDEN: And everybody wanted to work on the stadium, particularly at the labor level. They wanted to be able to walk around. It was a big source of pride when we’d walk out on the field with Arthur. I mean, it was just incredible, the people that would come over. They’d want to shake his hand. He took a lot of time just to stop and say thank you because he’d get out there and see the mass of humanity. We had 2,500 people at our peak out there in the field, working on it; another 200, 250 sitting in supposed white collar jobs right next door in a trailer farm.
And then you’ve got the whole Falcons organization in addition to that, and people like Arthur Blank. And then you have Rich McKay, who’s the president and CEO. And then along the way Greg Beadles, huge, huge piece of this, their chief financial officer and new chief operating officer, just as of this year. And then along the way Arthur wanted to sort of step back a little bit. And right after he cut the Mercedes-Benz deal, he got acquainted with Steve Cannon. And Steve Cannon is now chairman or, I’m sorry, CEO of AMBSE. And that allows Arthur to pull back and work more on philanthropic things and whatnot.
ANDY CROWE: So Bill, I’ve got a question. Don’t let this go to your head. I’m really sitting here talking with you, and I’m curious, and I’m sure some of our listeners are wondering the same thing. How do you get to the point where you’re suddenly managing the construction of the coolest stadium in the country? I mean, what is the short version of the trajectory of your career? What’s your background? What did you study? Because that’s a bigger project than most people will ever manage. Now you’re on a first-name basis with a billionaire, and you’re getting to fly around and interview architects, world-class architects. How does this happen? Give me a short version of that.
BILL DARDEN: Well, interesting. My whole career has been a series of building blocks. And I look back on it, and I used to wonder why, when I’d have tribulations in my career, and I’d go, God, just don’t understand why I’m having to go through this. But when I retrospectively look back, it’s just really easy for me to see that I was being essentially prepared for something this grand. And that’s just, you know, you can call it fate. You can call that a blessing. You can call that someone’s, God’s intervention. You can call it whatever, however you see it. I prefer the latter. I do believe that’s really what it was. I do believe I essentially – Arthur’s not the first billionaire I actually worked for. He’s the third. And most people don’t even know one. You know, just right place, right time, and circumstances being what they are.
I will tell you what might be of interest to a lot of project managers is a gentleman who taught me this business early on, in my early or mid-20s to late 20s. I probably send him four or five notes a year thanking him for the building blocks that he gave me on core project management: budget, schedule, quality, and the one that I think got left out 20, 30 years ago that now is at the forefront is safety. You know, we used to just – that used to be something that people paid lip service to. Now it’s the first thing that we talk about, and the other three come along with it. But those four formed the legs of the stool that, frankly, every project is built on. The fact that makes this different, and it is different, there’s a lot of zeroes behind the number, you know, one or two more than you normally work on. Maybe three or four for most.
And so I think – I talked to a gentleman when I was putting the team together, my team, to do this. And he was an experienced guy, and I was trying to decide, you know, this is going to sound a little odd. I was trying to decide young or old? You might say, “What does that mean?” Well, I was trying to get – do I want to go with experienced, a little more gray hair like myself? Or do I want to go with youth and vigor and whatnot? And so this one guy I really thought was a slam dunk to join me, I told him about it, and he called me back the next day. He goes – and this is a great guy. He is a great guy and would have been a wonderful part of the team. But he said, “Bill, this is just over my head.” Sort of your point. And my response to that is, I said, “Well, whose head isn’t this over?”
BILL YATES: Right.
BILL DARDEN: And I said, “In all candor,” I said, “there is nobody I can call that could give me a comparable.” I mean, you know, Dallas’s stadium was unique. We visited a lot there. We visited the New York stadium. It was unique. But these one-of-a-kind facilities. And so you really go back, and I said, after that phone call and listening to that, I said – it really made my choice very – I went out and sought out, I’ll just call it the smartest, most well-thought-of individuals that I could find. And I said, “I’ll provide the gray hair. They’ll provide the energy.”
And so that, I’ll tell you, when we got into the last six to eight months, we were working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, sleeping with our phones really most of the project, but certainly in that last year. Their energy invigorated me, and hopefully my experience helped guide them. We had to change entire management philosophy, at least I did. I used to, you know, when you hire really good people, it’s like a jockey on a horse. When they’re getting the home stretch, you can watch the jockeys. They don’t do too much until the end, and then they start to really sort of…
ANDY CROWE: Then you start whipping them.
BILL DARDEN: Yeah. You crack the whip. But this project didn’t allow for that. And I had to just personally, and our corporate philosophy, I said, these guys, everybody in the field, all 2,500, so many hours and so much dedication, they were burnt out and tired. And we’re like, how do we get them across the finish line? And it came with a much higher dose of carrot than stick, and walking around and saying, “What can I do for you today?” and “What runway can I clear for you?”
So, but I will take it right back to one simple common denominator. If you get off, on any project, if you try and get off on the right foot, and you have a good team – I talked briefly at Georgia Tech, you know, to a senior project management class. And I told them, I said, the single most important thing you can do when you get in your position as a project manager is hire the right team. That, and then focusing on those fundamentals of safety, schedule, budget, and quality. And all those things tie together. And if one of them gets out of sync, everything tends to get sideways.
BILL YATES: Yeah. That stool, that table starts to wobble.
BILL DARDEN: Yeah.
BILL YATES: I want to ask you guys a personal question, both of you, because this was an intensely – the pressure with this stadium was just unlike anything. Just when I’d read about it, or when Bill and I would talk, I just would cringe, thinking of the pressure you guys are feeling. How did you personally, you know, you’ve talked about how you tried to coach the team through it. How did you personally deal with stress? I know every now and then Bill would try to sneak off to a golf course. But I know that didn’t happen very often. How do you guys deal with – how did you all deal with the stress during that time?
BILL DARDEN: I’ll let Matt answer, and then I’ll interested to see what he says.
MATT DALE: I don’t know how to answer that. I think I came with no gray hairs on my head, and now I’m about 25 percent. So, you know, this is actually something I wanted to mention in terms of the lessons I learned. Taking ownership in your work as a project manager is such an important part to making a successful project. And by having ownership in everything you touched, we as a team, you didn’t want it to fail. And whether you were losing sleep over it or you worked late on it, you had so much pride in it that you may have been working hard, but there was so much gratification that came from it. But you also knew a five-year project, or five-plus, but I’ve almost…
BILL DARDEN: Eight years for me, almost.
MATT DALE: Yeah. Five years really since the design team came onboard, and the contractor came onboard, and we got to the finish line. When you started to see that light at the end of the tunnel, and what was going to be enjoyed by the community and the fans, it made it 100 percent worth it. And it pulled that stress back.
ANDY CROWE: So, Matt, I’m going to put you on the spot here a little more because that sounds great, to take ownership of your work, and take pride in it and so forth, and keep your eye on the prize. I do that, but here’s the result it has with me, is it makes me internalize stress a lot more. I probably internalize stress more than the average person. Which in some ways makes me a great PM. It’s also probably going to shorten my life, if I’m not careful with it. Does that resonate with you? Are you basically able to let it go when you go home?
MATT DALE: No. In fact, I completely agree with you. I’m as guilty of it as it sounds like you are. I can’t turn it off.
ANDY CROWE: Okay.
MATT DALE: Whether 5:30, 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 o’clock hits, and you need to go home to family, you can’t turn it off. If anything, you can pause and try to get through and make sure everything’s good on the homestead. It’s hard to just shut it down.
BILL DARDEN: Well, to that point, I think communication. You say, well, communication just means you’re talking to your people. No. Communication means – just think about it. We had to communicate very, very, very honestly, directly, and diligently with our owner, with our client. They needed to know where we were hurting. It helped them help us when we were honest with them and said, listen, we’re – I won’t say with who, but I had a very personal conversation on a down day for me with a senior person at Arthur’s company. And he knew. He could tell I was really feeling it, the weight of it.
And he just – he gave me an experience that he’d had in life, back earlier in his life, that helped him realize, he said, “Bill, you’ve got another gear. You just have to realize, you know, this will help you realize that, and it’ll benefit you the rest of your life.” And I’m on the back side of my career. These young guys are on the front side. So I in turn took that lesson, tried to impart it to them. If you want to go to the personal side of it, and switch all the way from the client to the very personal, if you don’t go home and tell your whatever, your husband, your wife, your significant other, even your general family or your friends, you have to say, I’m in the middle of the most pressure-packed thing.
And I found that in doing that – because what you just said when you said that a minute ago, it sounded like me talking. Those were exactly the words I would have used about the way I do. I do think it’ll probably shorten my life. I mean, and some people might say, God, don’t you have regrets over that? No. I don’t. We don’t – you don’t necessarily choose your lot in life. But you have to go home and tell them. And here’s what I found is that, because I was honest with them and told them what was coming, and then when I was in the middle of it would share some of what I was going through, they rallied around. And so that helped me. And they’d come in, they’d go, man, you’re building the coolest thing. And they were enamored with the outside. They didn’t need to know the details.
To Matt’s point, that helped me, to go, yeah, this is really pretty unique. Because when you’re in the forest, the trees, you know that saying. And so it was neat to hear people say, “You know how excited we are” – I hate to say this – “to know somebody so actively involved? To be up here having dinner with someone who’s in charge? You’re really in charge of this?” I’m like, yeah, just regular old me. Because, you know.
BILL YATES: Well, I recall, I remember the first time I went in the stadium, it was for an Atlanta United game. And I was there with my family. And I took a picture, you know, with my phone, and texted it to Bill. I said, “Check it out, man, I’m in your house. This place is awesome.” So, yeah, there is that reward at the end. But man, oh, man, kudos to you both for finding some way to stay sane through the whole thing.
BILL DARDEN: No project manager should ever, in my opinion, be, you know, we all handle pressure differently. But I will tell you, I’ve only met, in my entire almost 41-year career, I’ve only met one guy that sort of had what I’ll call a passive Type B personality, who did not seem to be bothered by anything, he was very low key, who was massively successful in this business. And it just sort of requires and calls for that don’t let it go when you go home, and sort of stay with it. What you hope to do, and what I’ve watched some of the longer term folks do, in between projects is when they try and make up for some of that difficulty and stress during the project. They try and catch a little breath. And then you have to like what you do.
And it is fun to watch one of these things go up, even while the stress is there. When you walk out, and you say hey, they’re putting the first piece of metal panel on. When we got to go out and all sign the last piece of steel erected, that was a neat moment. And then jumping way ahead, when you talked about walking in the stadium, I’ll admit emotions got me that day. I walked in. The fans were let in, if you recall, just to walk around. And the documentary crew was following me. And I had my family with me. It just hit me for the first time that all I saw was smiling faces. And I went, yeah, that’s why we did this.
ANDY CROWE: Maybe that added a year back onto your life.
BILL DARDEN: I do. I like the way – that’s a good way of putting it. I will tell you, I had to turn the camera crew away and say “Can you give me a moment?” because it was really emotional.
MATT DALE: I think another important point is that not every project that everyone’s going to manage has the opportunity to have 70,000 people walk in and say, “Way to go,” or “Thanks for doing this.”
ANDY CROWE: And they’re all stakeholders.
MATT DALE: Right, right. And you’re going to – people are out there that are going to build a warehouse. They’re going to build a datacenter or an office or who knows what; you know? And I think one thing, to take something out of Bill’s book that I constantly keep in mind, it ought to be written on your wall, is to work smart. Not just work hard, but work smart. And working 120 hours a week and neglecting all those other aspects of your life is not the healthy way to do it.
But, you know, ask yourself, is clearing my inbox or is looking at this change-order or reviewing schedule or – is this a smart task that’s going to benefit the project immediately? And think about what you’re doing and what’s the right thing to delegate, but also the right thing to do yourself and what’s going to make a real difference. And I think by doing that you can figure out a way to balance working 120 hours a week versus, unfortunately, 80 in our case for this project. But somewhere much more reasonable.
NICK WALKER: With all this in mind, could all of this have been anticipated? Or were there any surprises along the way in this project?
BILL DARDEN: No, you can’t anticipate probably on any project. But on one this large there’s no way to anticipate everything you’re going to encounter. And that goes a little bit back to your question about stress because here’s – I’ll just say, let’s take maybe a $200 million, 50-story high-rise. A tough project. But I’d say on that you’d walk in, and once a week you’d get an, oh, my goodness, this is going to really be a tough one to solve. On this we had those on a daily basis. The project isn’t going to make it. The project’s going to go, you know, the cost is going to be this.
And so you just had to say, well, if I’m going to let this get to me every day, I’ll never survive it. So you had to come in and say, all right, fine. Get the right people in the room, and they’re all very smart people working on this, just multitalented people, could not give them enough credit. You’d sit down with them, go all right, what caused this? What are we going to do to get around it? And when you give people the opportunity to think and speak their mind – I remember walking into one meeting, and the steel erecter and the steel designer and the steel manufacturer were just – I sat there and listened to them. And it was – these are all really talented people, but under a lot of pressure, and they were really tired – physically, emotionally tired.
I said, “Time out. Stop. Just stop. All right. I’m going to officiate this. I’m going to tell you each when you can talk. And when you talk, you have the floor. And you two other listen. And then we’re going to stop then I give you the cue. And I don’t want another word until that person is finished.” I did that for about 40 minutes. And all of a sudden you could see every one of their light bulbs turn on. And they were talking, all around and all – but not connecting.
And all of a sudden they just – the pressure dropped. Everything, you know, the stars aligned. They go, “So all you need is for this.” And the person said, “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say.” And they go, “Well, if we do this, and then” – and then I just sort of pulled back. And then I heard this guy under his breath lean over to a guy, and he said, “Why haven’t we been doing this for the last year?”
ANDY CROWE: Well, and you made it look easy is the point.
BILL DARDEN: Well, you know, at the end of the day, if you think about it, go back to communication. They all laugh at me because I always tell them, over-communicate. I honestly don’t get the – you’ll ask someone a question. It’s usually the third, fourth, sometimes fifth time I ask the same question, I get the honest answer. And then you go, wow, okay. And then someone says, “Well, I didn’t know that.” And then all of a sudden you’re off to the races to the correct place.
NICK WALKER: So was there anything that you would have done differently now, looking back over the past five-plus years, in retrospect?
BILL DARDEN: It’s boring, one of the things. And I tell you, I can’t get anybody to publish it, so at least I can say it here. Maybe you guys will actually – I think about this. If I ask you guys, you know, you go in, and you’re going to go do a new – it could be your house, for that matter; right? But certainly, let’s just take it to a larger scale. The normal course of events is that you go in, and you interview architects. Okay? So who’s going to show up? Well, the head designer chosen for this is going to show up, and he’s going to have all, or she’s going to have all the pretty pictures. And they’re going to wow you, and they’re going to woo you because we have a lot of talented architects in the world, and frankly most of them dominant in the United States. Just fabulous designers. And that is the normal way. And I’ve seen that done most of my career.
I would not do that on something like this again. I would reverse it. And I don’t know if people would ever have the discipline to do this. I would flip it around and go, I’ll get to that; but I want all of you to come in, and I want you to introduce me to your management team. And I want you to tell me who is going to manage the everyday. Who are we going to be in the trenches with? Who are we going to fight battles with? Who are we going to have to work together in a concerted manner with a contractor? I want to know who your management team is.
And they of course would sit back and go, well, what if we have a good manager, but we don’t win the day on the design? I’m like, well, then we’ll do what a lot of people do. I’ll marry you up with it. Or vice versa, you know. What if someone comes in and blows us away with a design, but do we lose? No. In a perfect world, you’d hope that the best design would be the best manager. Candidly, I doubt it would often be the case.
And that comes down not to just a philosophy of a company. It comes down to the person, and the people supporting that person. I’d want to grind in that detail and ask them minutiae questions, and down to their style of management, philosophy, how they get along with contractors, how they manage subconsultants. How are they going to manage political issues? Because here’s what’s going to try and win the day. The guys who are doing the design, because that’s what everybody sees and touches, they’re going to want to control that. I’m going, how are you going to push back when what you know they’re designing is not in budget? How are you going to do that? I want to hear you articulate that for me. I would grind on that. That’s one thing I would do dramatically different if someone asked me to do one of these again, or something of a high-end nature.
ANDY CROWE: You know, back in the ‘80s Peter Lynch was one of the most famous money managers in the world.
BILL DARDEN: Incredible.
ANDY CROWE: And he wrote some great books. And he wrote one that stuck with me called “Beat the Street.” And it was talking about how he basically beat Wall Street consistently. One of the things he would do when he was managing this enormous fund called Fidelity Magellan, he would go buy whole companies. But before he would buy them, he would sit down and get to know the management team. He was far more interested in that than how much money they were making or whether they were in some hot industry that was taking off. He wanted to know who was running it. And I always found that to be fascinating. And he talked one time about buying the Pep Boys company. And he said, “What can be more boring than Manny, Moe & Jack and the auto parts?” And yet he made a fortune off of that one thing because he loved the management team. It’s just an interesting parallel as you say that.
MATT DALE: I think something that Bill’s also taught me on this project is that, regardless of the scale – and at first I thought, okay, this is a world-class project. We need world-class team members. And we don’t have time for B players and C players. And I learned through Bill and watched it firsthand that, if we had somebody that slowed us down, we challenged it. And then it made me realize as we did other projects, the Atlanta United Training Ground and others that applies to any project, that you need to challenge everything, and especially the team and their dedication and their expertise and the way they’re managed, because it can make all the difference. And they can also be that one person that brings the project down.
NICK WALKER: Well, Matt and Bill, we appreciate so much your taking time to share your expertise with us. This has been an eye-opening conversation for all of us, and hopefully for our listeners, as well. We’ve got a gift for you right here, this Manage This coffee mug. It’s our way of showing our appreciation for your time with us today.
MATT DALE: We really appreciate it. Thank you for having us.
BILL DARDEN: Our pleasure. Thank you.
NICK WALKER: Guys, before you go, can you tell us how we can get in touch with you?
BILL DARDEN: Sure. I think the easiest thing is just to go to our website, DardenCompany.com. And it has our bios on it and everything about the stadium and all our other projects. So that’s kind of you even to bring that up, so thanks.
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