Lessons From a CEO Who Built an Office Tower

Forgive John Schlifske if the solar eclipse isn’t the most exciting thing on his agenda right now. He’s in the process of opening a new, 32-story, $450-million high-rise in downtown Milwaukee on the same day. The Northwestern Mutual tower is now the largest building by capacity in the entire state of Wisconsin.

Deciding to build the Tower and Commons is how the CEO of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. chose several years ago to make a huge statement about the importance of the company’s hometown, to invest in the city that has nurtured the insurer since its founding in 1857, and—perhaps most importantly—to serve as a flexible and modern headquarters that lubricates relationships among employees and between the company and the community.

“We are a Fortune 100 company, with virtually all of our employees in Milwaukee, and that’s a huge, huge advantage to us,” Schlifske told Chief Executive. “So it’s easy for us to get together and meet, formally and informally,” given that Northwestern Mutual has four buildings—including the new one—downtown. “We wanted to preserve that.”

“Plus we wanted to do something that would demonstrate to the city and everyone here that we’re committed to Milwaukee for the long-term. Putting this facility in a suburb would have called that into question. We also had to make sure, with our stewardship and fidelity to our policy-owners, that what we did made sense financially. So through a tax financing arrangement, the City of Milwaukee contributed tens of millions of dollars.”

But while unique in certain ways, the planning and building of the new Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons is an experience from which other CEOs with the construction itch can learn.

More and more office and residential towers are going up in major cities across the country as the economy continues to recover and business confidence grows, including the new Vista Tower in Chicago, and the new Salesforce Tower, which just opened as the tallest building in San Francisco.

And like the Northwestern Mutual tower, some of these projects also are largely CEO-driven, inlcuding Quicken CEO Dan Gilbert’s project to build the tallest building in Michigan in downtown Detroit, on the site of the old Hudson’s department store.

Here are 3 lessons that Schlifske passed on, from which other CEOs could learn as they contemplate building a marquee new structure.

1. Be involved. Schlifske didn’t exactly sketch out his vision for the new tower on the back of a napkin—he used a page in his notebook. And it was the CEO’s vision for the building’s design that dictated how it ended up taking shape, after he made literally dozens of visits to other buildings around the country.

“We were inspired by aspects of a bunch of different buildings that I thought could work for Northwestern Mutual,” Schlifske explained. “I didn’t leave it up to an architect or a design firm, though we had architects translate it … I wanted it to be iconic but timeless, distinctive so that everyone would think it’s beautiful, but not something where 10 years from now people would say, ‘What were they thinking?’

2. Make it work for workers. While a tower, Schlifske was determined that the new building would turn the traditional notions of work organization on their head and inside-out—almost literally—and cater to the more egalitarian ideals of millennial staffers.

So, for instance, instead of being reserved for the board room or a restaurant, the top floor of the building can be used by anyone in the company for a meeting as participants enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the Lake Michigan shoreline. There now will be one corporate cafeteria, inside the new building, instead of a number of separate ones on the Northwestern Mutual campus. And the only offices are on the inside of the building, instead of hogging the windows.

“We’ve always been knowledge workers, but now we’ve created a world-class facility so we’ll be able to keep the best ones,” Schlifske said. “It shows our commitment.”

3. Don’t be cheap. One reason Schlifske was forced into deciding on a new tower is because the building that pre-existed on the site, which was built in the late 1970s, was quite literally crumbling in places. It wasn’t good optics for a brand that not long ago fielded TV commercials that drew analogies between the solidity of Northwestern Mutual’s financial advice and investments, and a bunch of strong concrete pillars.

“The previous building was built in a tough economic era, so as a result, it wasn’t reflective of who Northwestern Mutual is—it was more from penny-pinching,” Schlifske said. “The new building isn’t extravagant by contrast. But because we thought it would be around for at least 100 years, we had to do it right.”

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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