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Operations manager retires, project manager promoted

After 30 years with Wilhelm Construction, Operations Manager Chris French retires. Seasoned project manager, Jeremy Ayres, has been promoted to operations manager.

French, Chris

Chris French

French began his first Wilhelm project, an addition to the pro-insulin building for Eli Lilly and Company, in 1984.

He has tended to more than 200 projects, valued over $2 billion, ranging from parking structures and museums to institutional facilities for life sciences and higher education. These include monumental projects such as Belterra Casino, the Indiana State Museum, Indiana University Health Arnett Hospital, and more recently OneAmerica’s parking garage and pedestrian bridge.

As French reflects on his most memorable project, the Indiana State Museum in 2002, he recalls a great team on a complicated project with a very tight schedule.

The project was unique in that it incorporated several different materials like concrete, stainless steel, limestone, sandstone, glass, brick, terrazzo, and terra cotta.

“I was able to take my two boys, who were 9 and 11 [years old] at the time, on a tour of the project the day before the grand opening. It was a proud moment to show them what their dad had helped build,” says French.

The biggest change in the industry in his tenure has been technology. When French started, purchase orders were completed on electric typewriters, fax machines were just introduced, digital beepers were distributed for communication and lay-out was performed with “basic transits and dumpy levels”.

“Now everyone has a smartphone, we build off of electronic drawings and 3-D models; emails have replaced letters, and lay-out is programmed in robotic total stations,” says French.

Several of French’s colleagues have served alongside him much of his 30 years.

Doug Curts, operations manager, shares his sentiments regarding French’s retirement, “I am saddened to see Chris retire, but very happy for him to be able spend more time pursuing his interests and spending more time with his wife and family. Chris has always been a reliable source of inspiration and knowledge to our company, and I have often sought his advice when faced with difficult decisions. His leadership and talents will be missed and difficult to replace.”

Given the opportunity to go back and advise his younger self, French shares that he would remind himself to not be so hard on himself when challenges arise.

“When you are in the middle of a big problem, that at the time you couldn’t imagine any way to resolve it without major negative repercussions to the project…I would tell myself, ‘to stay calm and remember that you have been in similar situations in the past. And somehow, some way, found a way to resolve it and successfully complete the project.’ Maybe I would have less gray hair if I practiced this.”

“It has been an honor and pleasure to work with Chris French over the past 19 years. Chris has been a loyal and dedicated partner at Wilhelm. He has always had the Wilhelm team members at heart, along with upholding the reputation of Wilhelm and servicing its customers. I will miss Chris and his ‘Franklin Planner’,” says Mike Kerr, another Wilhelm operations manager.

French concludes those he has met in the construction industry are some of the “finest people” he has met. “As a whole, I’ve found them to be down-to-earth, hardworking, give the shirt off their back people who take pride in what they do. And with Wilhelm Construction, I was blessed to be surrounded by the ‘best of the best’ people in this industry for the past thirty years.”

Moving up into the operations manager role, is current Wilhelm Project Manager Jeremy Ayres, LEED AP.

Jeremy Ayres, LEED AP

Jeremy Ayres, LEED AP

“With Chris retiring it looks like I am taking his place. However, considering the depth of experience, knowledge, and compassion Chis has demonstrated over his career, I am not taking his place, but moving into a new role with big shoes to fill. I have heard from many people how much Chris is respected and that he will be missed when he is off in retirement.”

Ayres, a graduate of Purdue University’s structural engineering program, has 17 years of industry experience, 11 of which with Wilhelm. He recently wrapped up three projects on Purdue’s campus, his last as project manager prior to taking on the new role.

In the years Ayres has been with Wilhelm, he has completed more than a dozen projects, valued over $300 million.

Notable projects he has completed include the Indiana University Health Neuroscience Center, Indiana Grand Casino, and the recladding of Regions Tower. His projects have received nearly ten awards including the top national honor by America’s Best Buildings of the Year (ABBY) for the IU Health Neuroscience Center in 2013.

“Jeremy has proven to be a driven, conscientious and successful project manager on some of Wilhelm’s most challenging projects that are now monuments for our customers. He has the knowledge and drive to serve Wilhelm’s customers well. Jeremy will set a great example and be a good leader for his team members,” says Kerr.

Ayres feels Wilhelm has prepared him for this role by the diverse work it performs, serving multiple markets. Additionally, he has turned to his peers for guidance when needed.

“I have had the pleasure of working alongside so many talented people over the years.

Oftentimes when facing a problem, I will ask myself, ‘how would he have solved it?’ I continue to pull from the experiences and lessons taught by others at Wilhelm,” says Ayres.

One of Ayres’ biggest challenges up until now has been concerning clients and owners consistently shortening schedules; however he expresses Wilhelm’s reputation has set a standard for meeting client needs.

“Wilhelm has always stepped up and met the challenges and our commitments with schedules to meet our clients’ needs. With the compression of project schedules we have to work harder to ensure we are maintaining the quality in our product that we always strive to achieve,” says Ayres.

Wilhelm’s large amount of self-perform work has also provided Ayres better depth and understanding of actual construction requirements, sequencing, and scheduling. He believes greatest challenge moving forward will be time management and the ability to work with multiple project teams.

“For several years I have been focused on single projects and the day-to-day details. My new role will require me to modify this focus, to step back to continue to look at bigger picture,” says Ayres.

This new role will allow him to interact more with owners, clients, and designers, something he is “very much looking forward to”.

Wilhelm President Phil Kenney is encouraged by Ayres’ new leadership role. “I am confident that Jeremy will do very well as an operations manager. He has the work ethic, communications skills and imagination necessary to be very successful.”

So, what can Wilhelm’s clients expect from him?

“I hope to bring a fresh perspective into my role as well as a positive attitude and energy into every task I work on. I hope to continue the teamwork and “can-do” attitude that Wilhelm has always possessed,” says Ayres.

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