Overseeing large and complex construction projects requires quite a bit of skill and experience. Aside from industry and project knowledge, you need solid leadership and management skills to navigate unique challenges and ensure successful outcomes.
Mike White, Director of Design and Construction at North Point Hospitality (NPH), is one individual who possesses these traits and abilities. With a family background in construction, a degree in building construction, and nearly a decade of military service, Mike brings a remarkable skill set to his role. And so it's no wonder that he thoroughly enjoys—and thrives—in his career.
We recently caught up with Mike and chatted about his career adventures, NPH's projects, and the impact of technology on his work. Take a look at our conversation below.
North Point Hospitality started back in the late seventies. Our current president and CEO's father, JK Patel, started the company when he came over from Kenya. He was a banker there and came to the US and essentially bought his first hotel in the late-seventies.
Our president, Jay Patel, became involved and grew the company from there. It started in Aiken, South Carolina, and sometime thereafter, moved to Alpharetta. We were based in Alpharetta for a while in terms of the office and then, sometime after that, moved here to Buckhead. Anyway, NPH continued to buy a few other properties and eventually started developing and operating its own.
So, in terms of what I specialize in, My degree is in building construction and construction management. I was in the Army for nine years and developed good management and leadership skills.
I initially started at North Point, managing projects, then moved to Senior Project Manager and ultimately the Director of Design and Construction. I handle all aspects of potential properties starting with due diligence, geotechnical analysis, environmental site assessments, surveys, etc. I also oversee the development life cycle, starting with due diligence, all the way up through the end of construction and through the warranty period.
It's a large role in the whole development process. So that's what I do, and I enjoy it quite a bit.
I'll start at the beginning—my family. On my dad's side, construction is what we do. My dad was a builder, and so were my grandfather and great-grandfather.
I went to Georgia Tech, where I started as a declared architecture major. But once I saw what that field was (Georgia Tech also had a degree in building construction), I realized I preferred the field more than an office role. I liked the idea of getting out in the field, seeing how things get put together, and the building process—the actual hands-on people getting their hands dirty.
So, I switched majors to building construction, which was not a big deal during my first year at Georgia Tech. Architecture, building construction, and industrial design all had a common first year.
After that first year, I decided to take the building construction track, and that's what I got my degree in. I was also in ROTC and went to the Army for nine years. It had nothing to do with construction; I was a helicopter pilot. But that gave me valuable skills in leadership, personnel management, and project management.
When I got out of the Army in 2014, I went to work for a retail developer and operator headquartered in Cincinnati while I was based out of Memphis. I did that for a couple of years.
In early 2016 I got that call from NPH. My dad first called me and asked if I had any interest in moving back to Atlanta to work for North Point. Later, I talked to our VP of Development, John Hicks at the time. They spoke to me about why they wanted to bring me on and then my role here.
So, I started at North Point managing a couple of projects as Project Manager and Senior Project Manager.
And then, midway through 2018, I had my own ground-up development here in Atlanta. It was a 19-story Hampton Inn. During that project, my boss, the VP of Development, retired. And right after that project, I got promoted to my current position, Director of Design and Construction.
My proudest accomplishment would be the first ground-up build I did on my own—that 19-story Hampton Inn and Suites at 15th and West Peachtree in Midtown Atlanta.
We essentially built it next to and on top of the MARTA (subway) tunnel. So it was quite complicated when you talked about the deep foundation and getting utilities—particularly electrical—to the building. It was also a very small site, probably a quarter of an acre. The building footprint was only 9,500 square feet, yet we still went up 19 stories.
It's a unique Hampton Inn and Suites property; the registration desk, bar and lounge, dining area, and meeting space are all on the top floor.
So I'm really proud of it. And again, it was my first North Point ground-up project. It was totally my own in terms of project management, cost management, etc.
The many aspects of my role are now digital. That includes project management, document management, plan management, cost management, and scheduling. We have all these digital tools, so it makes us more efficient. That's especially true for my role on the cost management side. We're moving away from Excel spreadsheets and complex formulas.
Using Autodesk Build has really helped us, particularly on the cost management side. Regarding document management, we've been doing that for a while with PlanGrid and now Autodesk Build. The Cost Module in Build gives us better insight into real-time cost data.
When you're inputting cost data, plan data, or change data into the system, it lets you visualize where the project is at any given point. Previously, only monthly snapshots using spreadsheets would allow you to see that, and it wasn’t exactly real-time.
In my role, we can now be precise with how we manage a project.
The biggest challenge for us is cost management and schedule management. Schedule management is more on the contractor once we start construction. But in terms of how we can get ahead and help that process, with the tools we have now in Autodesk, we can use historical cost data, plan data, and other information at our fingertips to be active participants in the decision-making process. Rather than passive bystanders to the conversations between contractors and designers.
It's all in one place in terms of document management. Now that we have Autodesk Build, we can start to build—no pun intended—a good database that we can look back on that can help us make better information decisions on current and future projects.
Another big challenge that we can control directly is cost. It's quite helpful to move away from Excel spreadsheets and that monthly snapshot I mentioned earlier.
Once we start inputting cost data in real-time as we get it or as we sign contracts into cost management within Build, we can see how healthy our project is in terms of cost. And it's easier to determine what we can do around other budget items where we may have over-budgeted. We can do internal budget transfers to help in some areas where we may fall short.
Seeing that real-time data allows us to make those adjustments on the fly instead of that monthly snapshot where we suddenly realize, "Okay, we've busted this budget, and now we've got to send this to the bank."
In other words, we can make those adjustments ahead of that timeline to avoid getting ourselves into trouble.
We also love the tool's flexibility and the ability to customize it. We made it look exactly like what we're used to. Our COO and CEO are used to seeing things a certain way, and essentially, we can make cost management look exactly like what they're used to seeing, and that's really big for them.
We've got a project in design right now. Technically, it's multiple projects, but because of how we're going to deal with the cost, it will all be one project.
We've got a riverfront property in Savannah right up against the river. We're going to build a secondary seawall behind the one that the city owns and maintains. There's going to be one story of underground behind that—so essentially zero feet—i.e., sea level.
One building, a Hilton-branded hotel, will be an eight-story, 230-plus room with a third-floor amenity deck and pool. The other hotel will be a two-story, three-building Hilton-branded hotel with several below-grade amenities and a rooftop with a pool, bar, and event space.
Those two projects, the one eight-story and the other two-story structure, will be connected underground via a tunnel. The unique part about this is we will have three sets of plans: one for the sea wall we're building, one for the eight-story building, and the other for the two-story buildings.
It'll be a challenge in terms of plan management on how to fit that in. We may have to set up three different projects, but the good news is we've got unlimited space and unlimited sheets. But in terms of cost, it's all going to be under one development budget.
The cost flexibility within ACC allows us to build our budgets and add our cost codes as we deem necessary to break out all three of those to track them separately.
We've got separate agreements with two different architects, and then you include our interior designers, civil engineers, and landscape architects. That's six different agreements. The good thing about cost management is we can customize all those cost codes, so we’re able to track all those costs and manage those contracts separately and in real time.
And in terms of the construction costs, even if it's a large project (close to $200 million total development), we can manage those costs and change orders as well as manage our other development costs like furniture, fixtures, equipment, operating supplies, and equipment. So it's going to be a big one.
When I came on board, it was all PDF or hard copy plans and Excel spreadsheets.
I initially wanted to find ways to make us more efficient. As a small shop, managing many projects or very large projects can be very time-consuming. I started looking at just plan software for document management to streamline that process and make our workflows more efficient.
How can we track all these RFIs? How can we mark up our plans instead of using a PDF editor? I knew we would have to maintain that data separately, whether stored on our shared drive or elsewhere.
I knew we needed software that would enable us to manage our plans and documents and store them in one place where everything is easily identifiable and retrievable.
We found PlanGrid when it was separate from Autodesk and saw it would be a good fit. Later, once PlanGrid became part of the Autodesk family, there were obviously many more tools available to us.
Once Autodesk Build came about, it was a conglomeration of all these tools—including documents, cost management, RFIs, and submittals—that allowed us to manage a project from start to finish.
I recommend spending as much time in the field as you can. In the classroom, you don't really see how things get built. And I think once you do that and see how things come together, the logic of how things are sequenced, the layering of the various trades… that gives you at least some knowledge and skills to understand projects better. You know why or how various aspects of the project come together; you can begin to understand how things are put together, and this will enable you to offer valuable input and/or alternative solutions.
And then also, look into things that will make your life easier, because more and more workload and tasks and responsibilities are getting put upon each individual. There's so much work out there; any way you can make your life easier and more efficient, the better. Autodesk Build is one way we're doing that.