Van der Latt and Jimenez Construction Co.

In 2010, more than 77.9 million square feet of space was constructed in Costa Rica, with most of the work being done in the residential, office, commercial and industrial sectors, according to the Professional Society of Costa Rican Architects and Engineers. With strength from the non-traditional export and tourism markets, that number is likely to grow, the society believes, and this will be buoyed by the country’s reputation as one of the most stable and prosperous economies in all of Latin America. In fact, the society notes, more mega-projects are about to come online, and Van der Laat & Jimenez (V&J) Construction Co. is one firm that is ready to take on the work.

“As our company has grown, we’ve performed larger projects and continue to expand our capabilities,” co-owner Esteban Acon explains. “At this point, we really try to focus on the big projects – we’d rather be working on five to eight large projects at one time, instead of 20 smaller projects.”

Based in the country’s capital of San Jose, V&J has been in operation since 1969, and it has spent this time building a strong reputation in the Costa Rican construction market. In fact, in the past decade, V&J has been the contractor on some of Costa Rica’s biggest commercial and institutional projects, such as the Terramall, Multiplaza and Paseo de las Flores shopping centers, Dos Pinos, Intel and Panduit manufacturing plants, and JW Marriott Hotel at Hacienda Pinilla and multiple projects at Reserva Conchal.

“Our mission is to deliver our projects on time, on budget, to the requirements of our client and with no accidents,” Acon stresses. “We work toward that on everything we do every day, and we’ve been largely successful in meeting those goals. The best result always is delivering a project the way it should be delivered, and that involves performing quality work, keeping our client happy and working well with the inspectors and architects.”

Understanding Every Aspect

The company’s operations are certified to the ISO 9001:2008 standard, making V&J confident of the quality it delivers. Acon stresses, however, that quality operations are not the only factor in delivering a successful project.

“We manage all of our projects the same way – we have certain processes and procedures we use to ensure quality – but our controls are customized to the needs of the specific project so we can remain on track,” he says.

For each project, a cost control table is filled with information from the accounting department, the budget, the actual cost of labor on the site and the procurement department. The analysis performed based on this table allows V&J to foresee what would be the economic outcome of the project after one third of the total duration of the project, Acon notes.

“It is important that the person making this analysis understands what is happening in every aspect of the project,” he stresses. “This information allows the project manager to maintain a project’s costs until the very end, with a goal of always remaining on budget.”

At the same time, remaining on schedule is just as important to V&J as is keeping to the budget. The company uses Microsoft Project Manager to assist in this effort, but it also values ongoing communication between project managers and the company’s workers, so “everyone knows what they have to do and when to do it,” Acon says.

Before the construction team even breaks ground, however, V&J is focused on ensuring the necessary materials and equipment are in place. The company strives to procure all of its materials during the first third of a project, Acon says, which helps to have everything in place by the time it is needed. Additionally, by ordering materials early, the company has time to resolve shipping or supplier problems if they arise, he notes.

Once the materials are on site, specialized software helps V&J with material management and keeping the project on schedule.

“We track everything,” Acon says. “Take concrete, for example. By charting our concrete activity, a graph can tell us how many cubic meters of concrete have to be poured each week to remain on schedule. We do the same for every major activity, such as rebar installation, earth movement and the prefabrication of concrete slabs. Every week we know where we are, and it helps us to deliver our projects on time.”

Additionally, V&J owns most of its equipment. “We rent very little,” Acon stresses. As a result, those resources are available when the company needs them, reducing the chance for equipment-related schedule delays.

“We have been in operation for 42 years, and we have never delivered a project late,” he says. “That is very important to us because we know how important it is to our customers.”

Remaining Competitive

The Costa Rican construction market is full of activity for V&J, but at the same time, competition is increasing, Acon says. “On every project, it’s as if we have to do the work quicker with better quality and absolutely no accidents,” he explains. “That makes for some challenges.”

One of V&J’s recently finished projects is a commercial shopping center that is more than 530,000 square feet in size, and the project had to be delivered within 10 months, for example. With such a tight schedule, Acon says it is “very challenging” because the company is not willing to sacrifice quality or safety, even though it must deliver nearly 14,000 square feet of work each week.

“Quality and safety is very important to us on all of our projects, and our standards are very high, but we have to be sure we also keep up with the project owners’ and inspectors’ requirements,” he explains. “We maintain high standards because the Costa Rican market is heavily influenced by the U.S. and European markets, and we want to comply with the standards of both of those markets.”

This is one way in which V&J remains competitive in the Costa Rican construction industry, and with its ISO certification in place, the company is encouraged to continuously improve its operations. As a result, Acon notes, even though competition is increasing, V&J has the ability to go after bigger projects where other firms can’t compete.

V&J currently is bidding on the contract for the construction of a new national hospital, he says, and it continuously is on the look out for “new equipment, good resources and great people” to support its expanding operation.

“We have good relationships with all of our clients, and that helps us remain competitive,” he says. “When our clients recommend us to new customers, it is very satisfying. We may start with them as just a construction company, but we finish a project as friends.”

Slower Growth, Stronger Operations

The competition in Costa Rica may be increasing, but it has yet to slow V&J down. The company currently is involved with the expansion of the Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in Liberia in the northern Guanacaste province, as well as the construction of a hospital in northern Costa Rica. Additionally, the company began work on a large condominium project at the beginning of March, and is awaiting the award of wastewater treatment plant during the second semester of 2011.

Since 2000, V&J has grown consistently by 10 to 15 percent each year, Acon says, but the company is slowing down now and would like to limit its growth to 5 percent annually for the near future. “We had many good years before the economic crisis, but we don’t want to grow as quickly any longer because we’re not prepared to handle that level of growth,” Acon says.

V&J may be limiting its growth in the next few years, but it has no plan to slow down. The family’s next generation is preparing to take over the company’s operations, Acon says, and the company’s  goal is to remain competitive, regardless of market challenges.

“This company always has been managed like a family, and we are proud of that,” he says. “Five of the original founder’s sons are involved in the company, and one of them always is involved on a project. If there is a problem, clients can come directly to one of the owners and get an immediate response. Management always is available to project owners and inspectors, which is important in this industry.”

The company’s financial strength, Acon adds, will be key to its success going forward, as well as the experience of its work force.

“We have the financial strength that companies similar in size to us don’t have, and they also don’t have the equipment that we do,” Acon says. “Also, the experience in our company can’t be replicated. Some of our workers started as carpenters and masons, and now they are project superintendents. They have been with our company for 30 to 35 years, which is outstanding.”