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No-Sunday stance has not slowed success of Costco builder

Published: Monday, Nov. 1 2010 11:30 a.m. MDT

A mere five words ignited the showdown:

"We don't work on Sundays."

On one side of the table in the worksite trailer sat Firoz "King" Husein, owner and founder of Span Construction & Engineering, a company that specializes in the engineering and construction of large steel buildings.

On the other side sat the executive management team in charge of construction for Costco, the gigantic consumer goods wholesaler.

At issue was a 110-day schedule during which Costco's latest warehouse store needed to be completed.

Span Construction had negotiated the contract to build the project, and a few wrinkles, as they always do, had come up to delay the construction schedule. This would not do. Costco's timetables are sacrosanct. The store had to open at the end of 110 days, as announced.

So the executives were letting Husein know that Costco was willing to pay for overtime, but obviously the hours and the days had to be ramped up or the deadline would not be met.

And King Husein was letting the executives know that he would bring in larger crews and they would absolutely lengthen their days — with the exception of Sundays. Span Construction did not work on Sundays. That too was sacrosanct.

Suddenly the air was leaden. Maybe the 110-day clock was spinning, but in the heavy silence of the trailer time stood still.

Finally, a Costco executive spoke, saying to Husein without disguising his incredulity: "You would not work your men on Sundays even if it means you could lose this entire account?"

Answered Husein, "I hope it doesn't come to that, but if it does, I'm sorry, I will not work my guys on Sundays."

The executive stood up, approached Husein, and, inches from his chest, said, "You'd better meet that commitment."

As he was leaving, he said to an architect outside the trailer, "That is one stubborn Indian."

Truer words could not have been uttered.

The above incident in the trailer occurred 21 years ago. Since that time, Span Construction has become the exclusive builder for Costco worldwide, erecting over 59 million square feet of structures in North America, Asia, Europe and Australia, including 350 warehouses, 16 depots, four office structures, 66 expansions, four additions and 376 gas stations — an average of more than 40 projects every year.

And not a single solitary finger has been lifted on Sunday.

King Husein shakes his head at the memory.

"Though it was not my intent at the time," he says, "since that day, the respect and trust from the Costco management increased substantially. We met our deadline, but we did not work on Sundays. They know we will not compromise our principles in meeting our commitments."

Two decades and all those millions of square feet later, Tom Walker, Costco's executive vice president of construction and logistics, says of Husein, "He's a fantastic vendor for us, an incredible person, and he earns everything he gets. He's on schedule, on time, construction costs are under control and he does it in lightning speed."

Adds Walker: "He's always available, I can reach him anytime, day or night. But not on Sundays. He's absolutely blank on Sundays."

* * * 

He wasn't always King.

He came into the world in Bombay, India, in 1946 as Firoz Mohamed Husein, born into a Muslim family in the largest Hindu country in the world.

His father died when he was 11, and his mother raised Firoz and his two brothers and a sister on money she earned teaching embroidery on foot-powered Singer sewing machines in their small home in order to send them to a private Catholic school.

All she asked was that Firoz get good grades so he could go to college. He did his part and after graduating from the University of Bombay with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1969 he won acceptance to graduate school in America at Rice University in Houston. A $500 loan from the Muslim Education Trust got him across the Atlantic.

He was having difficulty acclimatizing to Houston when a telephone call with the cousin of a friend studying engineering at a school in Provo, Utah — Brigham Young University — changed everything.

"You'll like it better here," said the friend's cousin, and without ever enrolling at Rice, Firoz was on his way to a school he'd never before heard of, owned by a church — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — he hadn't heard of either.

At BYU, he got his master's degree in one year, graduating in January 1971. Along the way he met and dated Diane Clark, an undergrad from Star Valley, Wyo. After he moved to Boston for his first job, they continued their relationship long-distance, which ultimately resulted in marriage, four children and, for Firoz, membership in the LDS Church eight years after arriving in Provo. The Muslim was a Mormon, adopting all that entails.

It was in Boston that he got his nickname.

The Jewish owners of the steel company he worked for started calling him "King" for King Hussein, the longtime Muslim ruler of Jordan (this was before another Hussein, Saddam, would enter world consciousness).

"I knew their intent. They were being friendly," says Husein of the Jews who gave him a nickname from a Muslim. "My first name is not that easy — you pronounce it like a rose, fee-rose — so I became King."

* * *

King left Boston for California and struck out on his own. He started Span Construction & Engineering out of a storage closet in 1979. One building project led to another, until along came the partnership with Costco. Thanks to that association and other major contracts, for nearly 20 years now, Span Construction & Engineering, with headquarters in Madera, Calif., and a staff that ranges from 200 to 500 employees, has maintained a position as the country's No. 1 builder in the steel building industry.

Span has stayed at the top with worksite policies that in the construction world stretch beyond unconventional into unheard-of.

Besides the no-Sunday mandate, Husein requires that his crews refrain from drinking, smoking or using bad language. He also conducts random drug tests weekly. The strict code of conduct is spelled out in the company policy book that all employees agree to and sign.

At first, Husein says, "we used to lose about 20 percent of employees" to the rules. "Now it's very rare to lose anybody."

And yet, his crews are only about 2 percent LDS.

"It is just what we require, and they know that," Husein says. "It is the way we do business."

* * *

Through all the success, Husein, who recently joined the Deseret News Editorial Board, has never forgotten BYU, his unlikely alma mater. He has remained a friend to the university in a variety of ways, as a mentor to engineering students, as a donor — he and his wife provided the endowment for the King and Diane Husein Professorship in Civil Engineering — and as a member of the President's Leadership Council.

"King Husein has been able to give back and give back a lot to BYU and to BYU-Hawaii. He's a great support to both institutions," says Alan Moore, associate director of major gifts for LDS Philanthropies. "He's given his time and his talent. I'd describe him as a happy fellow who is concerned about others."

If you look around the BYU campus, Moore notes, there's plenty of King Husein's signature in the skyline.

It was King's company that built the Gordon B. Hinckley Center when the old alumni house needed to be torn down; it was King's company that built the massive indoor athletic practice facility that adjoins the fieldhouse; and it was King's company that built the student athlete building that borders the practice football field. (Okland Construction of Salt Lake City was a joint partner in the projects).

He didn't build those buildings entirely for free, but it was close. "Let's say he was very generous," says Moore, "and he got others — plumbers, electricians and others — to be very generous, too."

And no one bothered him one bit about not working on Sundays.

e-mail: lbenson@desnews.com

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