How Mortenson Got Game

How Mortenson Got Game

The long-time Minnesota construction company's first sports project was the Target Center in 1987. Now working on the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium and the Minnesota Twins' Target Field, it has become one of the nation's largest sports-facilities builders.

Four years ago, John Wood and Ken Sorenson were ecstatic that their Minnesota construction company was selected to build a $420 million ballpark in Miami for the Florida Marlins Major League Baseball team. Their excitement rapidly turned to disappointment when issues with public financing delayed the project. Early last year, however, when the Marlins called to tell them that the project was back on track, it was the Marlins’ turn to be disappointed.

“We had already committed to the Twins and Gophers,” says Wood, senior vice president for M. A. Mortenson Company and the head of the construction firm’s sports group. “We had already started both projects and we didn’t want to stretch ourselves too thin.”

Besides the Twins’ Target Field and the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, Golden Valley–based Mortenson was also working on a new basketball arena in Louisville (the University of Louisville will be its primary user). “We’re not out chasing every sports project,” says Sorenson, vice president with Mortenson and its manager of all commercial projects in Minnesota and surrounding states. (Mortenson also built the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, home of the Minnesota Wild National Hockey League team.)

Mort Mortenson, Sr., the son and grandson of construction workers, founded the company in 1954. Still owned by the Mortenson family, it’s now the 27th-largest construction firm in the country. It specializes in power generation, health care, educational, commercial, sports, hotel, convention center, telecommunications, and correctional facilities. Mortenson also has constructed 74 wind farms nationwide (with five more currently under way), as well as the $25 million Russia’s Grizzly Coast exhibit completed last year for the Minnesota Zoo. That said, the firm’s bread and butter is still the $8 million to $25 million job.

But the sports projects are perhaps Mortenson’s most prestigious undertakings. What’s more, the company is batting 1.000 for finishing major-league sports projects on time and under budget. Sorenson and Wood attribute the group’s reputation to remaining within its capacity—as well as special building technology and a team dedicated to growing the division. The sports group grew to account for 11 percent of Mortenson’s total revenue of $2.1 billion in 2007. Mortenson has built 26 major-league ballparks, stadiums, and arenas, as well as nine such facilities for universities. In fact, it has quietly become one of the top builders of sports venues in the United States.

The Tip-Off

Mortenson’s foray into becoming a nationally recognized builder of sports facilities began in 1987, when Marvin Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, then owners of the Timberwolves, selected Mortenson to build Target Center. “Sports projects, especially back then, didn’t have the greatest track record of getting done on time and under budget,” Wood says.

At the time, Mortenson had yet to build a sports facility, though the company was one of the premier builders in the metropolitan area. “There was no question about the fact that we wanted to build it,” Wood says. “It was in our hometown.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune had run a feature article one weekend about Ratner and Wolfenson, who’d just been awarded a new NBA franchise. When Wood returned to work the following Monday, Mort Mortenson asked if Wood had read the article. “I think we should just drop over and talk to them,” Wood recalls Mortenson saying.

Mortenson became one of several builders asked to bid on the project. After negotiations between the Wolves owners and the first firm selected fell apart, Mortenson got its first major sports project.

It helped that Mortenson had acquired some sports facility expertise when it purchased Minneapolis-based Construction Management Services (CMS) in 1983. One of the CMS’s owners was Dick Duerner, who’d worked with Michigan-based design and construction firm Barton Malow on the Metrodome. “Dick’s knowledge and expertise were very valuable to us,” Wood says.

Even with Duerner’s help, Target Center wasn’t an easy foundation on which to build a sports reputation. Each sports facility has its distinctive components and complexities. At Target Center, Wood notes, “The long-span roof construction represents a fairly unique challenge, and these buildings involve a lot of unique systems, including sound and broadcast systems, concessions.”

Sorenson notes that in an arena setting, a lot of work needs to take place simultaneously in a small space: “How we sequence that work is critical.” Target Center was an especially tight space, built nearly to the curb on all four sides, leaving no room for outside storage. Building materials had to be delivered on an as-needed basis. As part of the project, Mortenson built a health club (now a Life Time Fitness facility) for Wolfenson and Ratner, as well as training courts for the Wolves—all tucked underneath the arena.

Despite the challenges for the rookie team, Mortenson finished the Target Center project early and within budget. That would set the tone for its future major-league sports facility projects—starting with its next one, Coors Field in Denver.

Mortenson had already opened an office in Denver in 1981, having seen it as a growing market (and having four company officers who’d attended college in Colorado). In bidding to build Coors Field, Mortenson threw its first pitch with Barton Malow. The Rockies—the mountains, that is—didn’t pose any notable challenges. But the Rockies Major League Baseball team did, deciding halfway through construction to add an additional 4,000 seats. This meant that Mortenson had to extend upper-deck seating into the outfield behind the foul poles. But the firm still completed the project, in April 1995, on time and below budget.

Mortenson’s current wide reach—it now has offices in Denver, Colorado Springs, Seattle, Phoenix, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.—has helped it become a national player in sports facility construction. But Wood and Sorenson attribute much of this success and growth to a unique technology that the firm developed a decade ago—though not originally for sports projects.

In 1999 until the project’s completion in April 2003, Mortenson was one of the builders working on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Gehry’s architectural style requires a powerful modeling program to create complex shapes, such as those on view at his Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. It’s a style that can create difficulties for builders. In working on the Disney Hall project, Mortenson had to develop modeling technology that could interface with the computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application program Gehry used.

Gehry’s program was one he’d adapted from the aerospace industry. It was the only system he’d found that had the power and scale his work required. According to Wood, Mortenson “had to invest in that modeling capability to understand his design information and translate it into information that we could use on that project.”

In developing its virtual design and construction process, Mortenson partnered with Stanford University and the Walt Disney Company’s Imagineering division to create a modeling system that included a fourth dimension, which manages and communicates the sequence of construction. This program allows Mortenson to “build” a project on the computer before the crews assemble on site.

“We can go to any given day during the course of the project to look ahead and see exactly what construction activities we’ll be doing on a specific date,” Wood says. As a project is being erected, Mortenson can update the model to show what has been built, and look ahead to see whether any construction activity needs to change due to structural concerns. It also can adjust the construction schedule as needed.

“It electronically highlights and flags conflicts,” says Dan Mehls, the Mortenson construction executive in charge of the Target Field project. “We then send the conflicts back to the architects and engineers to correct.” Mehls notes that the model contains 11,000 scheduled activities for the ballpark, everything from installing a door to erecting structural steel. “We would have gotten through the project the old-fashioned way,” he says. “But it would have taken us at least two months longer.”


Hometown Team

That technology was just one reason why the Twins hired Mortenson to build Target Field. “The fact that they are local had a lot to do with it,” says Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports, Inc. “Mortenson was well qualified with a terrific reputation and local. Why not? I thought there would be a sense of pride that would come from the workers, having them build a ballpark in their hometown.”

Twins President Dave St. Peter agrees: “The people building the ballpark will be the same people attending the games.” Mortenson also had been working with the Twins as a consultant since early efforts to secure a ballpark began. “They’ve worked with us for 12 to 15 years, beginning when the Twins first began to formulate the notion of a new ballpark,” St. Peter notes. At that time, the Twins turned to Mortenson to help the team determine costs and the feasibility of a new park.

The Twins originally considered using a joint venture team of Mortenson and Arizona-based Hunt Construction Group, considered to be the country’s top builder of sports facilities. “But after giving it a lot of thought, I was not that interested,” Bell recalls. “I thought we would end up with divided responsibilities and higher costs.”

Like all the sports venues that Mortenson has built, the $412 million Target Field has had its unique challenges. “The eight-acre site is so tight that several architects and consultants advised the Twins it was not big enough to build a ballpark on,” Sorenson says.

Mortenson has had to build the ballpark right to the curbs—and, in some cases, past them. Part of Target Field actually juts out over adjacent buildings, a portion of Interstate 394, and operating railroad tracks, while other parts of the building extend underneath the Fifth and Seventh Street bridges. The tightness of the site also forced Mortenson to build from the inside out, using three tower cranes ranging in height from 123 to 166 feet. Placed on the ball field, the cranes hoist construction materials over the structure and into the park. Though the ballpark is scheduled to be completed in April 2010, “all cranes have to be off the field by midsummer [2009], so the sprinklers can be installed and the grass can begin growing,” Bell says.

Neither Bell nor Wood foresees any problems that threaten a delay. Over time, the cost of the project has risen due to the added amenities, like the park’s stunning and very Minnesotan limestone exterior. But Mortenson still expects to complete the project under budget. “We’ve expanded the budget, adding extra amenities, but those were voluntary,” Bell says. “It’s like building your house. You continue to want to add something nicer.”

Relatively speaking, TCF Bank Stadium is posing fewer complexities. “All of the challenges with the Twins tight site, building over adjacent properties, didn’t exist,” Sorenson notes. “The [Gophers] site was clear when we arrived. There was much more room to work.”

That doesn’t mean it has been easy. TCF Bank Stadium required complex building strategies, just like any other sports project. In addition, the construction timeline has been tight—just 26 months from start to finish. The stadium needs to be ready when the Gophers take on the Air Force Falcons on September 12.

Since the company’s inception in 1954, Mortenson has completed more than 140 projects totaling $960 million for the University of Minnesota. But that relationship alone did not secure the job for the firm. “We conducted a thorough RFP [request for proposal] process, and Mortenson competed in that,” says Kathleen O’Brien, vice president for University Services for the University of Minnesota. O’Brien served as a co-chair of the university’s eight-person Stadium Project Executive Committee with Joel Maturi, athletics director for the university.

The committee looked at the various contractors’ abilities to complete projects on time and on budget as well as their safety records, ability to work with public clients, expertise in sports structures, green building know-how, and financial stability. The university was also interested in finding a general contractor that would work with local subcontractors and laborers, including minority- and women-owned firms. “All of the five or six contractors that responded to the RFP had local firms as part of their team,” O’Brien says. “When we finished the interview process and talked through all the criteria, it was a unanimous decision for Mortenson.”

Maturi notes that the project has progressed without a hitch. “There were many categories that we looked at and we were most pleased with Mortenson, but we are even more pleased now that they are doing the project,” he says. “Everything has gone very, very well.”

Excluding the Twins’ ballpark, Wood considers the $205 million Memphis FedEx Forum, home of the Grizzlies basketball team, one of Mortenson’s most challenging sports projects to date. One-third of the way through construction, in July 2003, straight line winds, measuring up to 90 miles per hour, bent three of the tower cranes erected on site. “We closed the project for 10 days while we stabilized and dismantled those cranes. One was in a very precarious position,” Wood recalls. “Then we had to replace those cranes. It was a major problem. It could have substantially delayed that project.”

Arnold Perl, chair of the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority, vividly remembers that storm. The project was set back roughly six weeks by the time the new cranes were brought in, he notes. “John Wood made up that time in the next four months,” Perl says. “He had a ready-made excuse why it couldn’t be completed on time, but John Wood would have nothing to do with it. He said, ‘We will finish on time.’” Previous public projects in Memphis had either been “wildly late or wildly over budget,” Perl notes, which made Mortenson’s accomplishment particularly impressive.


World Serious

There are only about six firms nationally that specialize in major-league and collegiate sports facilities, but the competition for these high-profile projects can be fierce. Hunt Construction Group and Turner Construction, a German-owned company with U.S. headquarters in New York, are considered the biggest sports facility construction firms, having built 79 and 60 major league and collegiate stadiums, respectively. Mortenson Construction’s total is 37. But at the Minnesota firm, Wood says, “we consider ourselves number one now, not in terms of quantity but in terms of quality.”

The quantity could be increased if Mortenson’s sports group takes part in construction projects for the National Basketball Association in China. “The NBA has interest in expanding operations into China,” Wood says. “We are assisting AEG [a Los Angeles–based company that is one of the world’s leading sports and entertainment presentation firms] in planning the necessary upgrades of certain arenas in China.” If that work materializes, it would be Mortenson’s first sports facility project outside the United States.

But Wood and Sorenson are even keener on securing another potential project—a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings pro-football team. “We’re working with the Vikings and the Sports Commission,” Wood says. “Obviously, we are very enthusiastic about that project and hopeful it might become a reality.”

If the Vikings were to get the OK for a new stadium and Mortenson were to build it, the Minnesota company would have built all five major league sports facilities in the Twin Cities. That would be an accomplishment that no other builder in any other major metropolitan area could claim.

TCF Bank Stadium – 10 Fast Facts

{1} Old-time collegiate stadium feel, with open-air horseshoe bowl.

{2} Brick façade and arches resemble the look and feel of the old U of M Memorial Stadium.

{3} Seating capacity for 50,000 can be expanded to 80,000.

{4} Main video scoreboard will be the third largest in all of college sports.

{5} 97 percent of the 8,800 tons of structural steel being used is recycled material.

{6} Uses 95,000 linear feet, or 18 miles’ worth, of precast concrete stadia (structure below the seats).

{7} Construction work force peaked at 750 workers; 2,200 construction personnel have worked on the project.

{8} Minnesota-based Thor Construction is an associate on the project.

{9} Received a Minnesota Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program award for safety.

{10} Designed by HOK Sport, along with Minneapolis firms Architectural Alliance and Studio Hive.


Target Field – 12 Fast Facts

{1} Hennepin County paid two-thirds of the building costs; the Twins paid for the other third (the team will lease the field from the Minnesota Ballpark Authority).

{2} Building is 1 million square feet; playing field is 130,000 square feet.

{3} 3,300 pipe piles set 100 feet deep to reach bedrock.

{4} Seating for 40,000.

{5} Incorporates native flowers, trees, and shrubs, as well as more than 100,000 square feet of Kasota limestone from Mankato.

{6} Field dimensions similar to those of the Metrodome.

{7} “Knotholes” allow those without tickets to watch the game from a public sidewalk that cuts under the outfield bleachers.

{8} Minnesota-based Thor Construction is an associate on the project.

{9} 55,000 cubic yards of concrete, 5,000 tons of rebar, and 4,600 tons of structural steel used.

{10} 35 percent of the Twins’ electricity received from renewable sources.

{11} Mortenson employs three full-time modelers.

{12} Designed by HOK Sport, along with Minneapolis firm HGA Architects.