Executive Vice President,  the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company

The Editorial Committee selected Keith Douglas for this issue’s interview to acknowledge his long-term contribution to COAA, and for his ability see issues through the eyes of an Owner, which enables him to transcend the labels of membership.

Many of us know Keith as “the guy with a microphone in his hand”. He’s one of the most visible people at any COAA conference. Whether leading a session, facilitating audience participation, or engaging in the group conversation, Keith brings value to every COAA conference.

Keith has been one of the biggest champions of knowledge transfer within COAA. Through his vast network of Owner contacts, he has contributed multiple sessions to many of our conferences. For example, Keith first introduced the Walt Disney Company and some of their innovations, to our membership.

“He’s big hearted, always cheerful, always positive, and, frankly, a joy to work with,” explains Stan Scott, who has worked with Keith in COAA committees over many years.

Keith currently serves the COAA Board of Directors as Director-at-Large. We talked with him recently about COAA, his work at Whiting-Turner, and his industry experience.

On Keith

Tell us a little bit about your journey from graduation day at the University of Virginia to your role at Whiting-Turner today?

That journey was actually very short. I graduated on a Saturday around noon in Charlottesville, and reported to work at Whiting-Turner the following Monday at 8:00 AM in Richmond as a project engineer. 33 years later, I found myself in Atlanta as an executive vice president for the same company and responsible for ten offices throughout the southeast. There was a lot of luck involved over the last three decades, but as my original boss Dave Hummel always told me, “Luck follows hard work.”

What does a typical day for you look like?

There is a lot of traveling in my job, so unfortunately I spend a lot of wasted time getting from point A to point B for what are often very short, but very important meetings. Much of that travel is visiting various projects and customers. This is a people job, and while technology now affords us many options, I still value a face-to-face meeting and an old-fashioned handshake. When I am in the office, like most others, I am glued to the computer and the phone.

What’s something about you that COAA members may be surprised to learn?

COAA members might be surprised to learn I am an accomplished oil painter; much of the subject matter being inspired by my family and our time together along the coast of Maine (near Acadia National Park). For the last five years, I have attended an annual workshop hosted by Bo Bartlett, who trained under Andrew Wyeth, to learn advanced figurative painting techniques. That valuable experience has really helped me to advance my skills.

While painting keeps me grounded at work, I definitely bring my competitive work style into my painting wherein I really push myself far out of my comfort zone in an effort to get better.

What were your most challenging projects, and why?

The most challenging project was trying to build a 10,000 piece toy castle in my office on Christmas Eve in 2001. Kidding aside, all projects have their challenges, but that drive to overcome them is what gets you out of bed in the morning!

Most of us would agree that the most stressful projects are the ones in which you have to overcome dysfunctional and disruptive team dynamics. Similar to a mission of COAA, much of my time is committed to finding better ways to improve the project team dynamic. Nothing is more rewarding than assembling a high-performing team that then accomplishes something thought to be impossible.

Is there a project you are most proud of?

That’s an easy one. At age 32, I moved from Richmond to Atlanta with the hopes of opening an office here. I ended up winning the contract to build the Aquatic Center for the 1996 Olympic Games. Never again have I had the same sense of pride with respect to pouring my heart and soul into a project and having the whole world see it. It was also a project that, no matter what roadblock was placed in front of us (or who placed it there), had us committed to all working together to remove it and finish on time with pride.

What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?

That’s a really good question and one that I often ask myself while mentoring our younger folks. I think that I would tell myself that, “You are going to be far more successful than you think. Aim even higher and invest heavily in your own future. Hire more people than you think you need, because you will need them and more, and train these young people to replace you, because you, because you are going to be needed elsewhere.


How long have you been a member of COAA? What prompted you to get involved?

In 2006, I ended my term as the president of the South Atlantic Chapter of CMAA (Construction Management Association of America) and was looking for something new to get involved in. It was that fall that I attended my first COAA conference in San Diego at the urging of a few Owner friends. I attended the following spring in New Orleans and got stuck in the airport (probably a little too long) with Lisa DeGolyer at the Delta Crown Room, where she sold me on getting further involved with COAA. Shortly thereafter, I was deeply embedded in the Conference Committee.

What really attracted me to COAA was that the conferences were smaller and you could really develop good relationships with like-minded folks who wanted to drive improvements in the industry.

How has your involvement with COAA impacted you professionally and personally?

I have been involved in a number of different organizations over the years, but COAA has had a profound impact on me. A number of COAA members are like family to me. It’s really nice to have such good friends whereby you can mentor and be mentored, both personally and professionally.

What would you say is the biggest benefit of belonging to COAA?

Simply joining COAA is not enough. You have to get engaged in it to reap the full benefits. Speaking as a contractor, the biggest benefit that I get is that I glean tremendous insight into Owners’ needs, as well as the industry trends that emerge to fulfill those needs. This insight allows me to build an organization that is well positioned to help Owners.

What do you see as the role of COAA going forward?

How do you see it evolving? I would personally like to see COAA grow to become the clear association representing all Owners to compliment AIA (American Institute of Architects) for architects, and the AGC (Associated General Contractors) and CMAA for contractors.

On trends in construction

What’s been your experience with integrated project delivery (IPD)?

Do you see it making a lasting impact on our industry? I have had personal involvement on several highly successful multi-party IPD projects now. This delivery method is definitely here to stay and its popularity and use will certainly grow. That said, I would caution Owners that it is just “another tool in the shed”, and that they should always pick the right tool for the job. I don’t think that IPD is right for all projects and/or all parties. Design-Build and CM At-Risk will remain popular delivery vehicles for years to come.

How has your use of technology on projects changed over the years? Is there a technology you’ve used in the last 12-24 months that has really impressed you?

It was “only” 33 years ago that I began in this business, and I clearly remember being on site using pre-printed forms and carbon paper. We didn’t yet have copiers, fax machines, personal computers, email, or smartphones. If we really got mad at someone, we had to send a telegram. Today, it would be hard to imagine doing business without email, the internet, and BIM, etc. The point is that technology seems to be advancing at an ever-increasing rate. The “kids” coming into our industry today will need to be prepared to embrace this new technology and use its power to continuously innovate.

About the Interviewer Matt Handal is a member of COAA’s editorial committee, works with a team of delay/claims specialists known as Trauner Consulting Services, and loves to receive your thoughts and article ideas at matt. handal@traunerconsulting.com.