for Future Generations: Tom and Jim Pientka
Business Watch Article by Karen Ostrov, PhD
Design Build is one of the leading commercial design-builders
in Wisconsin. President Tom Pientka oversees the design division
and his brother, Jim, is executive vice president and in charge
of construction. There’s also a third Pientka brother at the
helm—Ken is chief operations officer, having joined the company
after spending 25 years with Commonwealth Edison in Chicago as a
In 2004 the Pientkas celebrated their tenth year of ownership of
PLANNING Design Build. There were about 25employees at Planning
Associates when it was purchased by the Pientkas in 1994. Today
there are 115 employees in the disciplines of architecture, engineering,
interior design, and construction project management. Last year
PLANNING Design Build generated about $75 million in revenues. The
company has built 15 buildings in Old Sauk Trails Park; repeat customers
include John Livesey, George Gialamas, and Todd Nelson.
BW: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Tom Pientka (TP): We grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois, a
suburb of Chicago, near O’Hare. Our father was a structural
engineer who started his own family business in the 1950s, performing
structural engineering design work. Our mother was also employed
in the business. There were six of us kids and we all worked for
our father at one time or another. Without question, our parents
were responsible for our strong work ethic.
My first job was for my father as a laborer pouring concrete. I
was 15 at the time and really hated the work in the beginning—the
hours were long. That’s where we learned to work hard and
follow through. Our folks were very hard-working people and did
what they could to put us all through college.
I received my civil engineering degree from UW-Platteville and
then worked summers on various construction jobs in Chicago. We
rehabbed a ten-mile section of the Eisenhower Expressway. While
the work was good, the neighborhood was not. Hearing gunshots every
day made me wonder if I was in the right job. Soon after this, I
found work with Planning Associates in Madison.
Jim Pientka (JP): I attended Northern Illinois University for two
years before deciding to change gears and learn the carpentry trade.
It was during this hands-on training that I really developed a love
BW: Sometimes brothers fight tooth and nail. How do you
guys get along?
TP: Really well, actually. Jim, Ken and I are quite different
from each other with our own very different styles. While attending
a seminar at the UW School of Business, the instructor suggested
trying a business advisor—which turned out to be tremendous
advice. About three years ago we began working with Karen
Ostrov of Konect Consulting.
Karen blends the art of psychology with business. She’s really
done a great job in helping us understand how we individually process
information, which has vastly improved our communication. Retaining
a business advisor is one of the smartest things we have done for
our business. We are thrilled to be continually improving our communication
and management skills with Konect.
BW: What is the best-kept secret about PLANNING Design
TP: The first that comes to mind is our integrated design/build
capabilities. Only 10% of the design/build contractors in the world
operate in an integrated fashion, where the architect and builder
are all under one roof, part of the same company. This increases
efficiency and communication, which can help lower the overall cost
of building projects.
JP: The second is our expertise in waterparks. PLANNING Design
Build constructed Great Wolf Lodge and parts of the Wilderness Hotel
& Waterpark. We designed and built all of Kalahari Resort in
the Dells and are now doing their flagship Kalahari Resort in Ohio.
We are on the cutting edge of waterpark design, which keeps getting
bigger and more complex. PLANNING Design Build has built more indoor
waterparks than anyone else in the country. An incredible amount
of 3-D modeling goes into designing an indoor waterpark, especially
with slides, supports, lighting, HVAC ducts and structure above
ground and the complicated piping systems below ground. Water quality
control and ventilation systems also require extra attention in
these corrosive environments.
BW: PLANNING Design Build is also a leader in sustainable
esign—environmentally friendly, green buildings. What’s
the big advantage of “going green?”
TP: It is obvious to us that, at the rate we are going, we cannot
replenish the earth’s resources we are consuming. What will
be left for our children? We can make substantial impacts on reducing
energy and pollution by being better designers. We can conserve
resources and reduce operating costs dramatically through a variety
of methods, including daylighting and improved glazing systems,
which help cut cooling loads, which in turn reduces electricity
program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a
green-building rating system designed by the U.S. Green Building
Council. LEED-certified buildings are highly energy efficient and
environmentally friendly. Several years ago we spent substantial
time designing and bidding out a LEED-certified sister building
to the TomoTherapy Building. This exercise showed that you can build
a LEED-Certified, Class-A building for about $1/square foot more
than a standard building would cost. For the added long-term benefit,
that’s not a lot of money compared to the overall cost of
JP: Energy costs for most standard Class-A buildings are about
$1.25 to $1.40/square foot/year. A LEED-certified building will
run at about $1 to $1.25/square foot.
BW: What are some of the core business philosophies you have used
in growing your company?
JP: Customer service and quality. If you build good products and
stand behind them, this will lead to more work, repeat clients,
and lifelong relationships. We have a very strong commitment to
warranty and don’t cut corners.
TP: Be organized. Be prepared. Work hard and play hard. Most of
all, take care of your people and reward them as much as you can.
We try to empower employees to make decisions and keep an open-door
policy where anybody can talk to us at any time. Ken has helped
us a lot in developing this approach.
JP: We also stay on top of what the industry pays and offer at-market
or slightly above market wages and benefits. Our building provides
an excellent work environment which helps in employee hiring and
retention. We also sponsor many company get-togethers to provide
stress relief and promote friendships.
BW: What is a typical workday like?
TP: I don’t think there is any such thing as a typical
workday. We work long hours, about 12 hours a day. I travel a lot
on the road. I will often work nights and partial weekends
JP: Each job is a new challenge. It is very satisfying to see people
grow in what they do. What I dislike most about our work is the
number of meetings. Some weeks are nonstop meetings. On those weeks
it seems like there is little room for breathing, or for taking
time to visit with people during work.
TP: I also learn from the businesses of our clients. It’s
rewarding to help owners solve their unique problems by coming up
with design solutions and then bring it to life in terms of a finished
BW: Construction is a very cost-competitive industry. How
do you stay on top of things?
It’s important to stay on top of market conditions
and costs. One way of keeping costs down is not overdesigning the
large and small components of a project. Also, we’re growing
our business very carefully. Over the last ten years we have gone
from about 20 employees to 120. It is a continual challenge to find
the right people, especially in this competitive market.
JP: For the right client, we’re happy to travel. We have
a unique product and delivery system, which we are very proud of.
As more and more companies try to duplicate what we do, we must
stay ahead of them by constantly evolving our product and making
BW: There has been a lot of discussion about how Madison
is not business-friendly. How tough is it to get projects under
If there is one thing that should change, it’s the
approval process. It has become way too cumbersome. We find too
much variation in requirements among the various state agencies,
counties, and municipalities. We encounter numerous people who are
authorized to review and comment on designs, without having even
a basic understanding of architecture and construction. The decisions
they make are often shortsighted and not beneficial for the community
or the environment.
BW: What is your best piece of business advice?
“Go big or stay home.” It means when you get
up in the morning, make the best day of it you can. Don’t
bring you baggage to work, make a positive impact in the world today.
Life is too short to stay on the sideline, get in the game.
Who Jim Pientka
Hometown Park Ridge, IL
Family Two children, Jack and Jessica
Favorite local restaurant Johnny
Favorite movie The Godfather
Most recent book The Godfather Returns
Interests/hobbies Golfing, boating, college sports
Most important career experience Buying our company
Something that always makes you laugh Seinfeld
Greatest obstacle overcome Every time we have expanded
Best-kept secret in Madison Eno
Favorite charities Big
Brothers and Big Sisters of Dane County, Second