Episode 42: And Then The CEO Said, “Let’s Build A Colosseum”
May 10, 2018
Jackson Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest healthcare staffing firms, recently broke ground on a $100 million expansion for its corporate headquarters that will accommodate 1,400 new associates. Based in Alpharetta, Georgia, the company frequently tops the list of “best places to work” in the Atlanta region.
The new expansion adds an 267,000 square-foot headquarters building to its campus in Italian Renaissance-inspired architecture. But the most interesting aspect of the expansion is a 36,000 square foot “amenities building” that is modeled after the Roman Colosseum.
We interview two key players in this episode. Leslie Day-Harrell is a Senior Vice President of Corporate Real Estate who has been with Jackson Healthcare since 2007. Peter Tokar is the Economic Development Director for Alpharetta, Georgia, a community that markets itself as the “Technology City of the South.”
Andy Levine (DCI): We all know the story of Rome’s Colosseum. Finished in ’82 A.D, it is still the largest amphitheater in the world’s history, built to hold an estimated 70,000 spectators.
Patience Fairbrother (DCI): Pick your favorite movie, Russell Crowe in Gladiator or Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. Gladiator contests and wild animal fights were the entertainment of the day. The Romans knew how to put on a show. And although two-thirds of the original structure has been destroyed over time, the Colosseum is still Rome’s most popular tourist attraction.
Andy: So lets fast forward 1,936 years later and a new Colosseum is taking form in Alpharetta, Georgia on the campus of a fast-growing company called “Jackson Healthcare.”
Patience: So welcome to episode 42 of “The project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.” I’m Patience Fairbrother of Development Counsellors International.
Andy: And I’m Andy Levine, also with DCI and Patience’s co-host of The Project.
Patience: So last week, Andy had a chance to interview Leslie Day-Harrell, Senior Vice President of Corporate Real Estate for a company called Jackson Healthcare. We’ll tell you about the ambitious expansion all in Italian renaissance inspired architecture. Currently under construction is a new 267,000 square foot building as well as, yes, a second 36,000 square foot building that is modeled after the Roman Colosseum. But first, we want to tell you about their location in a city called Alpharetta, Georgia.
Andy: So, we’re going to start today’s interview with Peter Tokar, the Economic Development Director for the city of Alpharetta, Georgia. Just give us a thumbnail sketch of Alpharetta and the population size, what distinguishes it from other Georgia communities, that kind of thing.
Peter Tokar (City of Alpharetta, Georgia): So on paper, Alpharetta is a 26 square mile city, 20 miles north of Atlanta that has 63,000 residents. That would suggest that we are a suburb of a major metro area. But what really sets Alpharetta out and sets us apart from other cities in the region that are not the downtown major metro area is that within that 26 square miles, we have over 600 technology-based industries and about 22 million square feet of class A office. So we are the tech destination for the metro Atlanta region. Out of that 63,000 nighttime residents, we have over 120,000 people here during the day which equates to about roughly around 85,000 to 90,000 people commuting in to Alpharetta to work every day as opposed to just the 63 that lay their head here at night.
Andy: So you talked about technology center of the Atlanta region. What are some of the names? What are some of the big named companies that have operations, major operations in Alpharetta?
Peter: HP Enterprises has one of their major, not only customer centers here but data center operations. They added about 2,500 jobs here about a year and a half ago. ADP which a lot of people know from getting their pay stubs from them, they’re a large payment processing and payroll processing company. They have over 3,000 jobs here. McKesson which just recently merged with Change Healthcare has their major IT centers here. They employ over 2,000 people there. LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Equifax, Avarent Systems, Priority Payment Systems, Hi-Rez Studios, which is one of the fastest growing gaming companies. They develop video games and computer games. And then a lot of the healthcare industry, Jackson Healthcare being one of our largest employers as well in the health IT and medical IT field.
Patience: And Jackson Healthcare and their corporate expansion is the subject of today’s podcast. The company is run by a father-son team, Rick, and Shane Jackson. We asked Leslie Day-Harrell, Senior Vice President of Corporate Real Estate to give the elevator speech about the company.
Leslie Day-Harrell (Jackson Healthcare): Jackson Healthcare, it’s the parent enterprise for a family of companies that specialize in temporary and permanent healthcare staffing and services. Basically, it’s so healthcare facilities can provide optimal patient care. So we essentially, what that really means, is we’re a staffing company for the healthcare industry. We are the third largest U.S. healthcare staffing firm by revenue. We’re close to $1 billion in revenue now.
Andy: Give me a sense, Leslie, of the company’s growth path over this period. It seems like a very rapid growth company. How big was it in 2011 in terms of the number of people working there when you joined?
Leslie: So we had about 400, I’m going on memory here, but probably about 400 associates. And now we’re over 1,000. I think our last count that I looked at, we had about 1,300 associates. So it’s been phenomenal growth which is a great thing. It’s also created a lot of problems from the perspective of where do I put all of these people. Thus, you know, kind of leads into the bigger project.
Andy: It sounds like it has tripled in size since you joined the organization seven years ago.
Leslie: That’s correct.
Andy: So I wanna jump ahead and switch gears to the company’s decision to build a new $100 million corporate headquarters. Can you tell us about the genesis of this particular project?
Leslie: So the genesis of this really started about five years ago. I recall sitting in Shane Jackson’s office and he said, “You know, we probably ought to, with this rapid growth that we have, we probably need to look in the future and kind of determine when we’re going to need something.” So when we actually sat down and looked at our growth rates, we kinda had that “uh-oh” moment that we realized that as far as development goes, we’re probably already a little behind the curve. And so we purchased a parcel of land in between our current building and what was then a DeVry College, and we made that purchase.
Andy: But that didn’t solve their space problems.
Leslie: What we realized very quickly thereafter was that the topography of that created some challenges. There was a power line that ran right through the middle of it and it was a 2:1 grade change on the slope. And every way that we tried figuring out a way to develop on that, we just kept hitting roadblocks with that. So in 2015, we started conversations about purchasing the next parcel of land. It was a combination of several different parcels. So we decided that we would go ahead. It was where DeVry College was placed. There’s a building, it’s a 65,000 square foot building. And so we went ahead and purchased that thinking, “Well, at the very least, it gives us a place, some swing space to put people if we need it. And so we really kind of started these conversations. So once we had secured property, at that point, we really started development going, “Okay, what does this mean? What do we need to build?”
Patience: Andy, are we getting close to the Colosseum part of the story yet?
Andy: Yes. Don’t worry. It’s right around the corner. So here’s where the planning gets a little tricky. They were planning for a complete new eight-story building about 250,000 square feet or larger but they also had an existing building of 180,00 square feet. Let’s go back to Leslie.
Leslie: Working for entrepreneurs, I will tell you it’s an interesting, interesting process in that you go through lots of evolutions of thought and creativity before you finally land on what feels right. We finally came to what we felt like is a perfect model that best suits the physical challenges of the location but also keeps it close enough so that our culture…just to keep the culture very tight and close-knit. That was our biggest challenge is how to not lose anything because of the physical proximity. There is a separation between the properties so that was our biggest concern is having physical separation. We did not want a cultural separation. We wanted every associate to feel valued. And so a lot of that played into the creation of this. And I love one of Rick Jackson’s…one of my favorite quotes that he has is… He’s got three children and he said, “The best way to love your children equally is to love them uniquely.”
Andy: So it sounds to me, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you were…the concern was we don’t want there to be two classes of citizens. We don’t want the people in the old building to feel like well they’re second-class citizens and the people in the new building are kind of the cool kids. Am I reading this right?
Leslie: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes.
Andy: Okay. So how do you do that? I mean, how do you do that? Because one is a brand new building, the other is an older building.
Leslie: So the way that we have accomplished this is in between the two buildings, we’ve created the amenity center. It’s a 36,000 square foot replication of the Roman Colosseum. You can imagine the head scratching that went on when our general contractor said, “You want us to build a Colosseum, a round building?” We actually have an Olympic sized swimming pool that’s in there, a two-story fitness facility that has got three different flex space training rooms, and we offer any and everything in the fitness facility. So anything from massage therapy, stretch therapy, Pilates, your typical boot camps, personal training, kickboxing, Tai Chi, yoga, meditation, the list goes on and on and on and on. But on the first floor, it will be a full-scale restaurant as well as the cafe combined. And then outside there’s a piazza with fountains and places where you can have exterior seating and all of the connection points. That’s really where we put a lot of our focus is how to energize those connection points between the buildings.
Andy: How did this idea of the Colosseum between the two buildings emerge?
Leslie: Originally, we had all of the amenities in the new building, and then we went full circle back to our values and to our…you know, it kind of flew in the face of everything that we knew we were trying to accomplish, which was to create equality for all of our associates to feel that they had something. So it really was at that moment that we said, “Okay. Well, let’s focus on that. What does that mean?” And at that point, I really do think that Rick kind of threw that out almost not as a joke but a little bit like, “Well, why don’t we just build a colosseum. Let’s just do something really unique that’s different that nobody in the U.S. has ever seen before.” And I think really, it kind of started out almost as a…you know, everybody sort of chuckled like, “Ha, ha. Okay.” And then he’s like, “Well, why don’t we? Why not?” And I love that about Rick and Shane Jackson. It’s kind of like a lot of us are going, “Why would we do that?” And they’re always the, “Why wouldn’t we? I mean, let’s do it.” So once we kind of got our heads around that, and I think we all loved the fact that it sort of made the general contractors’ head spin. They were like, “We’ve never done anything like this before.”
Andy: How did you roll out the Colosseum concept to people? And how did they react?
Leslie: I’m sure we’ve recorded it somewhere but the gasps and the oohs and the aahs and like, “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t know you could do that.” And we were kind of thinking, “We don’t know if we can, but we’re gonna give it a try.” It was amazing. I mean, it’s just… I think our associates feel so… I guess the best word is to say they feel so loved through this process because they realize that this is not for Rick, this is not for Shane, they’re very clear about it. They are building this for the associates. This is for them. And for them, there’s such a level of pride that comes with that. And I see so many people now that bring their families into the building and they walk through and they are looking at that 3D model and just the wow factor.
Andy: Let’s go back to Peter Tokar of the city of Alpharetta to put the project in perspective in the Atlanta region.
Peter: Jackson Healthcare may not be a household name right now, but when you look at the impact of this project in the region, their expansion with over $100 million building that they’re building, adding 1,400 new jobs to the area, that project alone represents the largest investment by a company in the metro Atlanta area probably in the past 10 years.
Andy: Peter contrasted that with another major headquarters project in the region, the 2016 announcement of the relocation of the Mercedes-Benz headquarters from New Jersey to the Atlanta region.
Peter: Mercedes is creating 900 jobs, they’re bringing 900 jobs in. Jackson is creating 1,400 new jobs. Their building is around 200,000 square feet. His is over 300,000 square feet. So apples to apples. The significance of the investment they’re making in Alpharetta and in the metro Atlanta region makes them literally the largest and most significant project in the region in a decade.
Andy: Construction on the project began in may 2017. Completion of the project is expected in January 2019. So if you can’t afford to fly to Rome and visit the original Colosseum, you can now visit Alpharetta, Georgia for a similar experience.
Patience: So we are up to the takeaways portion of the episode. Andy, you spoke to both Leslie and Peter. What stood out to you in this episode?
Andy: So, Patience, this episode is a little different. It wasn’t a competition in terms of do we choose location A or location B. It was pretty clear from the start of this, this company wanted to stay in Alpharetta, Georgia and they wanted to make it work so that wasn’t their issue. Their issue, and I think what was interesting about this one, is they have this existing building of 160,000 square feet. We’re building this new, gorgeous, beautiful building and they were concerned about equality among the staff, the staff not feeling like the second-class citizens in the old building and all the cool kids, as I said before, going into the new building.
And in this brainstorming session, you know, the CEO of the organization blurts out, “Well, why don’t we build a Colosseum?” And it just sounds like it was a very funny moment in the whole thing this year. I’ll mention one other thing, and this didn’t get profiled quite as well in the podcast due to limitations of time, but it was very clear that the relationship between Jackson Healthcare and Alpharetta was really strong. And you know, the city really bent over backwards to make sure this expansion went smoothly. And Jackson Healthcare sort of…there just was a smooth relationship between the two organizations and it made for a great and, I wouldn’t say easy expansion, but a great, great win for Alpharetta, Georgia.
Patience: So that is a wrap on episode 42 of The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.
Andy: We want to thank Leslie Day-Harrell, and Peter Tokar for coming on The Project and talking to us about Jackson Healthcare’s expansion.
Patience: The Project is sponsored by DCI. We are the leader in marketing places and have served over 450 cities, states, regions, and countries. You can learn more about us at aboutdci.com.
Andy: We hope you’ll keep listening. There are many more projects to come.