Alumni Profile: Sebastian Sergi, MRED ‘09

By Maggie Haslam / Jun 23, 2020 / Updated Jun 26, 2020

Sebastian SergiWhen Sebastian Sergi’s employer asked if he could perform his job 100% from home this past March, it felt like a nonstarter. Sergi, who is a project executive for Sully Construction, typically spends 50% of his day in the field meeting with clients and visiting project sites. But Scully Construction is located in Westchester County, NY, the epicenter of the first widespread COVID-19 epidemic in the United States; typical fieldwork and client meetings would be off the table.

While Sergi’s work certainly looks different these past few months, it’s persevered, even in the face of a global pandemic. This is in large part because of the amazing team Sergi has helped cultivate at Scully; with the help of knowledgeable subcontractors and foremen, some creative scheduling and a strategic use of technology, it has been more or less business as usual. The venue has certainly changed but my productivity and efficiency havent, surprisingly,” he says. I thought there might be an overall drop, but it hasn’t slowed us down. It would be impossible without our team.”

Sergi grew up just east of College Park in Greenbelt, Maryland, earning his undergraduate degree in landscape management at UMD—a field, he confesses, he didnt intend to join. I never actually had any intention of practicing it, I always had the real estate/construction bug.” Shortly after graduating he went to work for Bozzuto, one of the largest development firms in the region. It was there that he met Julie Smith, president of Bozzutos management company (and now Bozzutos CAO), a former lecturer at Marylands Real Estate Development Program. It was Julie who pushed me to check out Marylands real estate program,” he says. She was really supportive and encouraging of me continuing in the field.” After the birth of his first child, Sergi and his wife moved closer to family in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and he took the job with Scully, a commercial general contracting company specializing in interior fit outs for office spaces. As a project executive, he cultivates a robust client base and oversees projects through their lifecycles. In my role Im responsible for my projects from start to finish, which is really rewarding.” Below, Sergi talks about how his company is completing projects during COVID-19, the pandemics impact on his industry and the first place he is going when given the all-clear:   

How has the current situation changed your business? Its definitely slowed things down, obviously, because there are restrictions on how we can perform work. It used to be that it was a blitz to the finish line with our projects. We would budget 3-4 months to complete a project, but behind the scenes wed be pushing it to be finished in 8-10 weeks. Now, we cant have three-to-four subcontractors on a job, each with a three-man crew, so we just naturally have to draw that process out. With some subcontractors, were scheduling them after hours. For others, were splitting up the day and having them run a two-man crew instead of a one-man crew. Well bring one sub in from 6am to noon and then have another lined up behind them from 1pm to 5pm. Its unusual and requires more coordination on our part. But the reason were working this way is we dont want to give our clients any reason for looking somewhere else to get their jobs done. Everybody realizes that its the world that we live in.

On the job, safety has been paramount. Were doing temperature screenings every day. We keep a log of everyone who comes into a space and masks and social distancing are required. And we have a zero-tolerance policy on all of that. We do regular deep cleans on each site. Its really just doing the right thing. Moving forward thats going to be standard operating procedure for us indefinitely.

You regularly bring people within the construction industry together virtually to strategize and share experiences working in this climate; you have even extended invitations to competitors. What sort of benefits have you seen from these conversations? My initial goal was to bring together the different industry people that we work with on a regular basis. I wanted to have representation from the engineering side, the architects, the brokerage side, the construction side and to create a forum where we could have an open conversation about what everyone is experiencing: where they see the next couple of months going, how their operations have changed and what theyre seeing from their clients in terms of requests. For example, are architects getting new requests for interior layouts? How is the demand or the layout for open office spaces being changed? What kind of requests are they getting from building owners or the tenants that are going to be occupying these spaces? Or from a mechanical engineering standpoint, what kind of changes are they seeing as far as life safety is concerned? Its critically important to have clean air in a space, so now, how do you assure a tenant or an owner that the air is being scrubbed as well as possible? And that can get complicated. Owners dont want to spend money unnecessarily but, at the same time, they want to be able to assure the tenants that theyre meeting minimum standards for life safety. Its been interesting. Clients are very interested in keeping their projects moving forward and are very driven by achieving a substantial completion date so that they can start collecting rent, even if the tenant isnt physically occupying the space. Its an interesting dynamic. They cant force a tenant to move in but if they substantially complete they can legally start charging rent. So, there are these dynamics at play that dont align necessarily between a tenant and an owner, especially with the uncertainty around COVID-19.

Do you try and provide any guidance to tenants as far as proactive things that can be done mid-job? Weve had some in-depth conversations about how to retrofit mechanical systems with blue light systems that can clean the air. But its a financially-driven consideration at this point; they dont want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit their system unless it’s been proven to be effective. But I also have a number of clients whose spaces are built that are now looking at how to prepare them for reoccupation. Weve looked at over a dozen spaces and have retrofitted them with these very simple plexiglass barriers so that, on some level, it is providing a physical barrier between employees. There is also the psychological part of that, in that its providing a level of comfort to employees who are being asked to come back to work. Weve installed them on reception desks and in lobbies of commercial buildings where there is typically heavy traffic, and weve just recently started to explore installing them within office spaces. There is no one-size-fits all, so weve conducted several surveys of existing spaces and put forth a number of proposals for how to do that.

Whats been your biggest takeaway from this experience? I think the biggest revelation is that I can effectively work from home. It helps that I have great people in the field that are on the job site for me; I can have a FaceTime call with any of my subcontractors and be just as productive as I would be going out to meet them in the field. Our team is absolutely invaluable; part of the reason weve been able to continue on is we have a great team in place. I think, moving forward, thats going to be even more important.

The pandemic has flipped everyones life upside down, seemingly overnight. How are you staying sane? For me personally, getting outside is really important. Even if it’s just getting out on the deck for a change of scenery. My wife and I make sure were taking breaks and getting some time for ourselves and thats been a real lifesaver. She is a teacher, so were both on calls a lot and have work to do. Plus, we have two kids who are really high-energy. We have a good system in place, with a daily calendar that shows when we each have calls, and a lot of open communication. It makes things a bit easier—not easy, but easier!

What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life? What is the first thing youll do when given the all-clear? I really miss the social interactions. Thats a big part of who I am both at work and in life. I was recently able to meet up with a client in person; there were just three of us and we were following all of the protocols, but just to be able to banter and talk shop gave me a small level of normalcy. Once the green light is given, I think the first thing well do is go to a bar and get a glass of wine. Im tired of making drinks at home!

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