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SF Business Times: Skyline’s New CEO was a Lifetime in the Making

William Hicks
Assistant Managing Editor
San Francisco Business Times

 The construction industry naturally attracts doers, people who want to see blueprints become buildings and interiors get built out. That’s what drew Jessica Carps, CEO of Skyline Construction Enterprises Inc., out of management consultancy and into construction. Consultants, love them or hate them, are talkers, thinkers, strategizers, PowerPoint presenters. Carps wanted to be a doer.

Despite her business education and CPA training, she knew construction from an early age, trailing her father from job site to job site when he worked as a supervisor in Detroit.

“My brother and I used to ride around with my dad and his truck, visited a lot of job sites, spent a lot of time in trailers looking at blueprints and eating donuts,” she said. “One of my favorite memories is that my dad was the superintendent on the Riverfront Towers project, which is a big residential high-rise condo building down by the Detroit River, and Cecil Fielder came to hit baseballs off the top of the tower into the Detroit River.”

Carps has worked for Skyline since 2015, rising through the C-suite from CFO to COO to CEO, managing the company’s swift expansion into new markets like Washington, Illinois and Texas. When she closed the books on Skyline’s 2014 financial year in her first year on the job, revenue stood at $176 million. This year the company estimates it will have revenue of $725 million, Carps said.

The employee-owned company grew in line with the tech boom, targeting large tech companies to build their ultra-modern interior spaces with high-profile clients such as Oracle, Microsoft and Zoom. Its expansion followed growth in burgeoning tech scenes, opening offices through local acquisitions in tech hotspots like Austin and Seattle.

Before Carps was closing deals on major projects for Fortune 500 companies, she was a consultant. After graduating with a degree in business from the University of Michigan in 2003, she landed a job at Deloitte — an ideal placement for many new grads, but not quite the right fit for Carps.

“The thing that I didn’t like about being in professional services was the fact that you feel external to the actual execution,” she said. “You come in, you make a bunch of recommendations, and then it’s kind of up to the organization to execute on what you told them to do, and by nature, I’m a doer.”

So she did what any Rust Belt native would do and pivoted to the automotive industry, a field relatively as hard-knuckled as construction. Carps worked for a few automotive manufacturing firms before eventually making the move into construction in 2010. She says her dad was thrilled.

“To this day, my dad is a card-carrying superintendent carpenter and he believes his job is complete now that his daughter’s a CEO of a construction company,” she said.

Her early work in construction was helping midsize companies go big, a skill that would prove valuable later on at Skyline.

David Hayes, Skyline’s former CEO and current chairman of the board, says as the company was growing fast, he needed someone like Carps to take the reins and handle the firm’s maturation.

“I think it’s obvious to me watching Jessica in action, that she grew up with somebody in the business,” he said. “I never found out until years later that her father was a superintendent in the business in Detroit and so once I heard that I had my ‘aha moment’ with her. I mean, she, she was picking up all kinds of things related to the construction business before she got into this field professionally, and she can really laugh with the best of them.”

He said she also had the skills of a startup CEO, noting the company needed someone to secure its hard-fought growth and create the institutional framework of a billion-dollar company. In Silicon Valley terms, she was the Sheryl Sandberg to his Mark Zuckerberg.

“The skill set required of a startup CEO is very different than the skill set required of a mature company,” Hayes said. “Every organization reaches a point where there’s so much infrastructure required to run the company properly, to manage risk properly, to attract really top executive talent. I was good on the revenue production side, but to sit down and talk to the head of cybersecurity that you needed to recruit, Jessica brought a certain amount of credibility to the table.”

Carps was officially appointed CEO in April, but the transition began in 2019, when Hayes approached her and offered her the job and directed presidents and key corporate support personnel to begin reporting directly to her while she was COO. When Skyline announced her appointment, it noted that only 3.25% of the top 400 contractors ranked by industry publication ENR are led by women.

A key decision she made when taking the reins was to shore up the firm’s cybersecurity. The construction industry was the top victim of ransomware attacks in 2021, with successful attacks on 93 companies. Outdated systems, multimillion dollar contracts and a general disregard for the cyber end of the business has left the industry vulnerable. And lax security could be a major liability not only for the companies themselves, but their clients. According to Carps, the industry was hit so hard by cyber crimes, many companies had difficulties getting cyber insurance.

In 2014, Target fell prey to a major hack with the source coming from an HVAC general contractor who was provided network access when doing work on a Target office. This event spurred some in the industry to clean up its act on the cyber front.

Skyline was able to leverage its connections in the tech industry to find personnel who were up to the job.

“We sat down and looked at what the infrastructure we were going to need to support this expansion?” Carbs said. “And that’s where we recruited best in class IT and security by leveraging the Bay Area technology infrastructure to get that person on staff.”

And cyber crimes are only a taste of the smorgasbord of problems the industry faces this decade. Labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and inflation on key construction materials makes lining up jobs and accounting for uncertainty increasingly problematic.

The dearth of new office projects caused by a reluctance to return to brick-and-mortar locations by many employees, especially tech workers, has also weighed heavily, but Carps sees the changing nature of offices as an opportunity for the interior construction firm. “Instead of a whole bunch of cubicles packed into a small space, I think you’re going to see a shift towards small touchdown meeting spaces, maybe more open air type, while rooftop decks are at a premium,” she said. “I don’t think that the offices you’re going to see post-pandemic are going to look the way that pre pandemic offices looked, but at the same time, I think you will see people back.”