Home » Features » Class is in Session

Class is in Session

With a 2019 theme that focuses on education and a philosophy deeply rooted in collaboration, AGC’s new president is taking the membership to school.

BY AMY DREW THOMPSON

Tarlton Corporation is a third-generation business. And when Dirk Elsperman was a kid in St. Louis, his Saturdays were spent in the presence of the previous two.

“My grandfather would be in the office,” he remembers. “I’d go play sports in the morning, and then we’d all have lunch together, and I’d hang out with them all afternoon until it was time to go home.”

This, from the age of five or six.

Sometimes they visited jobsites. Other afternoons they were reviewing bids, talking strategy. Through it all, the new AGC president says, he was just the kid in the corner, listening to whatever was going on. It was so much a part of his life that he can’t really pinpoint a time when the grown-up chatter became something more significant. The education happened naturally; it was the background of his young life.

“As a kid growing up, my favorite place was a dirt pile in the backyard where I would have my Tonka trucks, where I’d be digging and tunneling. Once older, we’d go farther, into the woods beyond and build forts.”

And when he was old enough to work, he took it another step, swinging a hammer in the carpenter’s apprenticeship program — working his collegiate summers in carpentry, spending winter breaks in class.

“It’s been a long time now,” he notes, “but there’s not a day that I don’t draw on that experience. You learn a whole lot about the teamwork that’s involved in any project, the variety of folks who bring it together, and what it takes to be successful.”

Elsperman had known he wanted to be part of the family business since Tonka trucks — since the backyard dirt pile — but his father saw the merit in outside experience. So, post-college, he went to work elsewhere for a time.

“It’s a matter of building a little bit of self-worth, knowing you can put yourself out there and do good work and know that you didn’t get this job because you’re the son of the boss,” he explains. “You’re learning, you get an understanding of what it’s like in other businesses, how people run them. It’s an education.”

Elsperman’s formal schooling includes undergrad at Cornell University and an MBA from St. Louis’ own Washington U. He is a LEED AP credential holder, a graduate of the AGC Advanced Management Program, and 30 Hour OSHA certified but, he says, there are some things no school or class can impart.

“Construction management teaches you how to be a good construction manager. A civil engineering program will teach you how to do civil engineering. But they don’t teach you what it’s like to run a construction company.”

For that, he says, you need the AGC.

THE UNIVERSITY OF CONSTRUCTION

This is Elsperman’s presidential theme, and it stretches its arms wide to include the vast value membership affords, encouraging each to get involved, get connected, learn. From everyone.

“The breadth of knowledge that people bring to construction is vast, and it doesn’t matter what their job is — it could be somebody with the same title as me or that first-term carpenter’s apprentice who’s trying to figure things out. And he might ask a question that some people would find pointless….”

Others, he says, whose minds are more open, those paying closer attention, would feel differently.

“They might think ‘Hey, that’s a really good question. We’ve never really asked ourselves why we’re doing it that way. We just always have.’”

Elsperman’s first foray into membership came in the mid-1990s in groups that included Project Delivery Committee.

“Folks were still trying to figure out what design-build was and how we should do construction management at risk … they were looking for better, less confrontational ways to do business, and we spent a lot of time developing educational materials so they could understand the nuances of working under each delivery method.”


Although Elsperman has the solid confidence of his peers as the association enters its next century, he believes pulling the youngest of constructors into the mix will be challenging.

It makes sense; these days, the pros at Tarlton work under virtually every project delivery type.

Elsperman counts workforce development — recruitment and, he stresses, retention — among his presidential priorities.

“It’s not just getting people into our industry, but keeping them. Part of that is education and training,” he notes, referring back to his theme, “part of it is making this a lucrative business for folks to come in and do well, and we’ve got to do that by being more efficient, more productive in what we do.”

Related thereto, he points out, is market-building.

“We need to get some infrastructure spending going,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’ve got to do something to address [our country’s] needs. We’ve benefitted from that. It’s how America got great, but we’ve ignored it for too long…. It’s one thing to get people into the workforce, but another part of that is having these jobs for them to work on.”

Ultimately, the University of Construction is built on a premise that Elsperman’s father inspired, “something along the lines of, ‘the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know,’” he laughs. The point is that we should all keep learning, and be open to the idea that this knowledge can come from anywhere or anyone. Even that first-year apprentice.”

PASSION, PATIENCE, PRECISION

Elsperman’s respect for teamwork and the value he places on collaboration were forged early on, a trait that proved valuable as one of the original AGC members who spearheaded the Young Constructors Forum back in the day.

At 54, however, he’s still considered a “young gun” among many of his peers.

“But don’t let that make you think there’s not wisdom in those young years he’s got,” says outgoing AGC President Eddie Stewart.

“Dirk is a really sharp individual. He’s got a passion for construction. He’s got a passion for his people. He’s got a really good handle on everything that’s going on in his business — the details, the people, his workforce. He knows them intimately. He brings that same attention to detail in his work with the AGC.”

Stewart says Elsperman’s attention to detail will likely be a hallmark of his presidency.

“He’s really interested in attacking the things we need to do to make things better, and whatever he does, he’s going to give 100 percent. It’s not going to be a global, 30,000-foot look at the issues; he’s going to get into the weeds of it. It’s one of the things he does best.”

AGC’s leaders may take their roles seriously, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a chuckle.

“We jokingly give Dirk a hard time — Art Daniel, Mark [Knight] and myself,” Stewart laughs. “He’s a free spirit…. When we go on trips, he will have his clothes in a backpack and his checked bag consists of a bicycle. He will disassemble it, check it and wherever we go — he goes out riding his bike. He’s just that kind of guy.”

Disciplined with his exercise and, says Stewart, with his fun time — which makes him unpretentious and easy to talk to.

“But, he’s no pushover. He’ll tell you what he thinks. There’s no façade … what you see is what you get, and what you get is the truth,” Stewart notes. “I trust Dirk. I value his opinion. Throughout the year he’s been right behind me, and he’s been good counsel on many things that have come up.”

And, says the outgoing leader, Elsperman’s youth is an asset along with his wisdom, skills and experience, a feature that will help bolster membership among millennials, and Gen-Z right behind.

“Having that younger face, I think, is very important, particularly as we’re trying to get more of the young constructors involved … we want them engaged in the whole body of AGC of America, and I think Dirk is going to help move the needle.”

PROJECTS AND PEOPLE. ABOVE AND BELOW.

With four divisions — Core Construction, Concrete, Concrete Restoration and HydroVac Services — Tarlton serves diverse markets including healthcare, commercial, telecom, higher education and water/wastewater.

While projects that include parks, zoos and work on St. Louis’ beautiful and historic Municipal Theatre, otherwise known as “The Muny,” are a few of the feathers in the company cap, Elsperman’s pride extends well beyond the glamour gigs. Far, far beyond.

“Sometimes it’s the projects that no one will ever see that are the most challenging and rewarding,” he says. “Once we were doing work for a local sewer company and had to dig a hole that was about 45-feet deep. Everything was going against us and when we finally got to the bottom, we had a party at the bottom of the hole.”

Literally. The company actually brought in pizza.

“It was that kind of a project — everybody just stuck with it, kept on working really hard, and we made it. We had to celebrate the fact that we were there!” he laughs. “Then we still had to do all the work and come out of the hole and at the end of the day, the only thing you could see was a manhole cover at the top.”

Other gigs, like the LEED Gold Expansion of the historic Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park, allow the company to show its face in the community.

“Everybody can drive by and see that,” he notes. “We’ve done many projects that people can enjoy and see, and we get to help reinterpret how to use them from time to time — and that’s a lot of fun. But sometimes, those really challenging efforts are covered up by a manhole and nobody will really understand what’s right beneath them. And there’s a beauty in that.”

NEXT-GEN THINKING

Although Elsperman has the solid confidence of his peers as the association enters its next century, he believes pulling the youngest of constructors into the mix will be challenging.

“The newer generations don’t join the way the previous did,” he opines. “I’m kind of in that swing spot between my father’s generation and my children’s.”

Elsperman has two daughters, 22 and 21. The elder, Nina, graduated from college in 2018 and is thinking about her next steps. Stefanie, he says, is “the epitome of the new economy.” After two years in school, she took off for parts exotic — Bali, Vietnam, Thailand — before coming home to start her own business.

“I use my kids as reverse mentors all the time,” says Elsperman. “Maybe some of what they’ve taught me has crept in more than what I’ve taught them on this front. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. But I think in a perfect world, that’s the way it would work. We’d all learn from each other and figure things out.”

He’s hoping his theme, in part, will bring AGC closer to this ideology.

“How do you use this university? How do you use AGC in your succession planning as you build your business for the next generation? Eddie’s theme was Focus on the Future, and I’d like to pick that up and tag onto the back of it — because I think if you want to prepare the next generation within your company, get them involved in the AGC and you can jump-start the education process.”

And with the new blood, he notes, comes diversity of thought that can only make the association — and the industry — stronger.

“When I think of a university, it’s a place where you have all kinds of people, and everyone is welcome to join the discussion. There are so many different opinions on how we can improve our industry. If we open ourselves up to be fully inclusive … we embrace the diversity of thought that comes with it.”

And with that, he says, the AGC will be fully poised to go on an exponential run for the improvement of the industry.