For 125 years, four generations of George Cooks have led the George F. Cook Construction Company. Each generation has had its favored projects. Founder George Cook built landmarks, including St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral and Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis. His son, George F. Cook, preferred power plants and factories. George F. Cook, Jr., loved constructing railroad spur lines for private companies. And current company president George F. Cook III is partial to restoring and renovating landmark buildings from his great-grandfather’s era.
But perhaps the current George Cook’s most notable monument is how he has rebuilt the company in the face of industry change. The George F. Cook Construction Company, headquartered in Golden Valley, is a lean operation: four principals in the office and a dozen or so carpenters and foremen out in the field. Like most general contractors, it hires extra workers when they’re needed. About 40 percent of its $6 million annual revenue comes from subcontract work for larger general contractors, construction managers, and industrial manufacturers; the rest comes from general contracting.
Projects have included trade contracting in schools, subcontracted carpentry work in semiconductor manufacturing facilities and senior living complexes, and general contracting for historic building restorations, such as the Sumner Community Library in North Minneapolis.
George F. Cook III started working for his father in 1971, spending his college summers driving railroad spikes, mixing mud, and hauling brick and block up and down scaffolds. Although railroad work was his father’s favorite, George III didn’t find it particularly inspirational. “It got me back in the classroom in the fall, that’s for sure,” he says.
Cook graduated from Montana State University and worked for an architect in Montana for a few years before the dismal economy of the late ’70s made the family company a more appealing employer. “Luckily, I was able to help out by doing some estimating,” he says. “Then, by the mid-’80s, we got too busy for me to leave.”
The family business he joined was in transition. The first George F. Cook, who actually represented the second generation, formed the George F. Cook Construction Company in 1940. He grew his father’s business by taking on projects beyond Minnesota. In 1950, he moved the office to 29th and Lyndale in Minneapolis, where it remained for more than 50 years.
“My grandfather’s accomplishments were immense,” George F. Cook III says. “His first construction project [under the company name George F. Cook Construction] was the Northern Ordinance weapons plant in Fridley, which still has the largest footprint of any building in Minnesota. He started the company’s real industrial era, building power plants and creating an underground utility division that laid down telephone cable here, in Arizona, and in the Dakotas.”
George Cook III says his father helped the company weather the economic challenges of the early ’80s by refining its estimating and project-management practices, which had tended to vary from estimator to estimator. The refinement was a database of production rates for hundreds of specific tasks (continually revised, and still used today) along with the development of consistent project-management systems incorporating best practices from both outside and inside the company.
The early-’80s recession also led the company to analyze why it was losing money on bigger projects. An analysis of previous projects revealed that George F. Cook Construction was best suited for small and midsize projects. There were higher margins on such work, for one thing. And there was a niche in the industry for an experienced subcontractor to work with larger firms on an as-needed basis. Local giants that have tapped the Cook firm include Adolfson and Peterson, Kraus-Anderson, and M. A. Mortensen.
George Cook III still estimates jobs, manages projects, and meets face to face with owners, architects, construction managers, and larger general contractors. “When you are this size, we all have to be hands on,” he says.