One of the great philosophies of life: You never know when what seems like a temporary stay will turn into a lifelong commitment. Fortunately, Jim O'Donnell was open to the possibilities after graduating in 1979 from St. Joseph's College in Maine with a bachelor's degree in English and Philosophy. He tried to get a job in the field of public relations, where positions were scarce, and ended up by default taking a temp job as a construction manager's assistant on a $50 million construction project for Alcoa Aluminum in Pennsylvania. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
"After the very first day on the job, I loved it," says Jim, who was 24 at the time. "I worked on that project for two and a half years. I enjoyed the diversity of it. I liked being inside and outside instead of behind a desk all day. I liked that every day there was a different challenge."
Following the Alcoa experience, Jim dabbled in technical writing and inspection work for an engineering firm before deciding to go back to school at Newark's New Jersey Institute of Technology for three years to earn a degree in construction management. In 1985 he participated in a summer job program with Bergen Engineering in East Rutherford through the Building Contractors Association of New Jersey. He's been with Bergen ever since, working his way up to project manager.
"The way our company is set up, I have complete responsibility for a project from beginning to end, from business development to cost estimating, all the way through running the project and client care," explains Jim, who also teaches a cost estimating certificate program at Rutgers University. "I work closely with the super, who is on the job site. The project manager is the one in the office who does the cost estimates and then issues the contracts to subcontractors. I run the meetings and handle the requisitions, do the scheduling and the change orders. The coordination, scheduling and details are very important. Human relations and personality are important. You have to deal with many different types of people."
Jim's latest challenge is running the construction of a Stop & Shop supermarket in Monroe Township. "We're building a new store around the existing store, which is very, very difficult, but it's fun because it's like a puzzle. My super might call up and say ‘we just tried to dig some foundations and we found an old sewer line; now what do we do?' Every job is a puzzle, and I like finding the solutions."