STG's tower technicians stand ready as an Erickson Sky Crane approaches a communication tower during the GCI TERRA broadband project. STG Founder Jim St. George says the GCI project was one of his company's largest and most interesting. Photos courtesy STG Inc.
Jim St. George has reached a pivotal peak in life: looking back at his success with STG Incorporated while projecting forward to a lifestyle with fewer obligations and not so many board meetings.
St. George and his wife, Sandy, sold STG Inc. and its two subsidiaries — Alaska Crane Ltd. And Terra Foundations LLC — to Calista Corporation in September 2013. He left his jobs as president of STG and director of business development for Calista this past January.
And in November, St. George will pass the gavel as board president of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska to a new leader: Cuauhtemoc “Rod” Rodriguez. The incoming president is the owner and president of Coldfoot Environmental and Red Box Refuse.
St. George’s success has been well earned. According to a history of STG Inc., St. George was born in Oregon in 1957 and first came to Alaska as a junior in college doing survey work for the Red Dog Mine. He returned to Alaska a few years later to run a mineral exploration camp for Anaconda Minerals Company. While there, he interviewed and hired his future wife and business partner, Sandy.
Following a stint at elk ranching in Montana, the couple returned to Alaska for a job in Kotzebue. Always ready to pounce on new opportunities, St. George pursued a tank farm contract his boss didn’t want, and in 1991 St. George Construction was born.
The company became STG Inc. in 1996 because the name St. George Inc. was unavailable; the island of the same name was already using it.
Over the years, St. George always kept thinking how he could do the next job a little bit smarter and a little bit better than the last, and STG’s profit margins continued to grow.
The company’s projects are largely in remote regions of Western Alaska, with a primary focus on infrastructure including power plants, tank farms, wind turbines and interties, St. George said.
The subsidiary companies are involved in communications systems, tower construction, pile-driven and drilled foundations, and a variety of civil and bridge-related work. With such a wide array of expertise, it only seemed logical to purchase Alaska Crane in 2001 and Terra Foundations the following year.
As St. George’s contract bidding skills improved, the company found itself earning a reputation for taking on difficult projects.
“We took on many very, very difficult projects — some I didn’t know how we were going to get them done when we started them,” he said. “I just always had faith that we had the best people and equipment in the business and that we could always figure it out.”
St. George labels the GCI TERRA (Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska) broadband network project one of the company’s largest and most interesting. The same holds true for GCI.
The eight-year project that began in 2010 basically connects rural Alaska with the rest of the world, said Rebecca Markley, GCI’s director of rural initiatives.
That feat involved building 24 tower sites on mountaintops far from any community, complete with fuel tanks, equipment and living accommodations for crew that were relocated with completion of each specific site.
In order for STG to build a mountaintop site, heavy equipment had to be broken down, sling loaded by helicopter to the site and rebuilt before work could begin, Markley explained.
Solving challenging logistics is where STG shines, she added.
“Jim and his team were in the game to do it right,” Markley said. “One of STG’s greatest attributes is they understand the culture out in rural Alaska and always used local hire when possible. They made it a point to get involved with the locals in the village, whether it was building a dog house, fixing a roof or repairing a kid’s bike.”
Installing two 900-kilowatt Emergya Wind Technologies wind turbines on 75-meter towers in Kotzebue for the Kotzebue Electric Association, or KEA, was the first time such large turbines were installed in permafrost.
Once again, logistics were the key challenge.
The project began in 2011 with how best to transport turbine components from Seattle to the village 550 miles northwest of Anchorage, said Matt Bergan, KEA engineer.
Roads in Kotzebue were unable to handle heavy equipment needed for the project, so St. George and his crew used landing crafts to bypass the village and deposit materials and equipment on a beach near the project site. Getting a huge crane to Kotzebue required a rare barge-to-barge transfer in the open waters of the Chukchi Sea, according to the STG website.
“One could say Jim is a legend in rural/Western/Arctic Alaska construction,” Bergan said. “A master-planner and problem-solver, Jim and the team he built at STG always figure out a way to get it done.”
STG was awarded the AGC Sustainability in Construction Award in 2012 for its long-term contribution to the sustainability of the community of Kotzebue.
After decades of building STG Inc. into the success it is today, Jim and Sandy St. George are looking forward to continuing their active lifestyle into "retirement."
St. George attributes part of his success to treating STG employees with respect while empowering them to do their best.
“(We) really felt for a long time that no one was in our league in the things that we did,” he said. “We looked at the long term and had strong, long-lasting relationships with many of our clients. We avoided change orders almost to the extreme and never paid liquidated damages or failed on a job. Very, very few companies that were in business as long as we have are able to say that.”
St. George said empowering employees includes never asking an employee to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself, including taking out the garbage.
Kristee Nease had little experience when St. George hired her in 2004 to do payroll. Fourteen years later, she’s still there.
“Many of the employees who were first hired when STG was just getting started are still working for the company today, which I think speaks volumes,” Nease said.
“They genuinely care about the people who worked for them and the work that we do,” she added. “They always went above and beyond to take care of us like we were family.”
As with everything, St. George sees changes in the construction industry.
“I don’t see people investing the time and energy to develop the personal relationships that my generation spent much more time and effort on,” he said. “I feel like we used to know the people we worked for much better than what I see happening out there currently.”
As outgoing president of the state’s only full-service construction association for commercial and industrial contractors, St. George said AGC is a great way to get to know other members and the industry.
With Alaska’s unique challenges in the construction industry, it helps to surround yourself with those who have faced them before.
St. George said his work at AGC has been a continuation of the three previous presidents, and he thinks that effort has been consistent and made good progress.
STG operators using a 250-ton crane and a 30-ton assist crane position one of three wind turbine sections for the Kotzebue Wind Farm Expansion project. Installation of two 900 kilowatt turbines approximately tripled the generation capactiy of Kotzebue Electric Association's existing wind farm.
Brennan Walsh began working at STG 16 years ago when he was still in college. His business cards now show the title “President” after his name.
“I had become comfortable working for Jim in a senior leadership position as he steered the ship and my colleagues and I rowed,” Brennan said of his transition to the top spot. “Now I was ready to take the step into my new role and all the changes that came with it. Taking Jim’s seat was exciting but also a little daunting, and I knew I had big shoes to fill.”
Not a couple likely to be found sitting with their feet propped up in front of a wood stove, the St. Georges have plans.
“I am currently doing a major addition to my hangar at Lake Hood that I am enjoying,” he said.
Mix that with flying, golfing, fishing, working out, skiing and planning trips to New Zealand and Tibet. The couple recently completed a two-week float trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with their two sons.
And, oh yes, “some consulting when I have the time to fit it in,” he added.
Nancy Erickson is a freelance writer living in Moose Pass.