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In the C-Suite: Bancroft Construction CEO Greg Sawka

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Bancroft Construction President and CEO Greg Sawka poses in front of the Living Wall inside the Tower at STAR on the University of Delaware STAR Campus, which is named in honor of Nash M. Childs, a late principal of Bancroft Construction, who was a 1976 UD graduate. The construction firm built the Tower at STAR in one of its most high-profile projects. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

NEWARK – Even when Greg Sawka was a young boy, he enjoyed the challenge of building, whether that was the neighborhood frisbee team or a project in the backyard.

“I think I just enjoyed the organizational nature of figuring out how things work logistically,” he recalled.

The oldest of three brothers, Sawka grew up in South Jersey just over the river from Philadelphia to a homemaker mother and a father who rose through the ranks of the Philadelphia Electric Company to become a computer programmer and analyst.

Sawka leaned on his father’s computer know-how when setting off to college – as the first in their family – putting his interest and skills into a primitive computer program that returned suggested colleges. He would end up at Lehigh University to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.

Sawka spent time as a summer intern with Exelon and was hired for an engineering position before he even graduated. He would spend seven years with the utility, working in a variety of positions and learning what he loved best: project work. That was spurred from his time with Exelon’s maintenance and engineering department, which served like a mobile maintenance unit, responding to different needs and projects across the region.

“That’s definitely where I attribute where I am today, with that love of project work. If I had probably joined a different department in that organization, things may have gone differently for me,” he said.

After getting married and earning his Master of Business Administration, Sawka took advantage of a voluntary separation program at Exelon as it was downsizing in the mid-90s to make a career change: he joined his brother-in-law in a custom homebuilding firm.

“I think I was kind of outgrowing the opportunities that were directly in front of me, and maybe I was slowly impatient about it, but it just seemed like the stars aligned to try something different,” he said, recalling that there were some long-winded debates with his wife, who was pregnant at the time, over whether to make the plunge. “It ended up being a pretty cool part of my life.”

Sawka and his brother-in-law literally built the first few homes themselves, subcontracting out some of the specialty trades but putting up the carpentry themselves. He also quickly learned the importance of customer service and marketing to try to set up future projects while working on the current one.

You want to do a great job for your clients, but you better have that pipeline for yourself and your employees, and that’s very poignant for me now,” he said, noting that time also taught him how to deal with rejection.

In 1999, Sawka and his wife had their second son and the small building firm had plateaued a bit, convincing him to revisit the job market. Picking up the newspaper in those pre-digital days, he called a job listing ad for project managers, not knowing the employer was Bancroft Construction.

He was hired as an assistant project manager and put to work, rising through the ranks of the firm to oversee operations and preconstruction for more than a decade.

“My career for Bancroft has been a series of opportunities to do the next great thing and I was interested in those opportunities. In some ways, the more challenging, the better,” he said.

While large by Delaware standards, Bancroft’s smaller size comparable to regional and national competitors allowed him to participate in the decision-making process. Sawka noted that the firm’s late founder Stephen Mockbee encouraged that participation through the ranks, which helped identify talent for future leadership roles.

When Mockbee decided to step down from the ownership role more than 12 years ago, he identified four principal shareholders among the firm’s leaders, including Sawka. Together, those four spent a year considering who should succeed the founder as president and CEO.

“Eventually, it started to kind of triangulate toward me. I always wanted it and felt like I could do the job,” he recalled.

After assuming the top job in 2010 and working with his fellow shareholders, they set a revenue goal that would begin to differentiate Bancroft in the minds of clients. To achieve it, they invested in the right people, targeted growth sectors like higher education and science and technology and used completed projects of increasing technical and design sophistication to sell visions on future ones.

When DuPont moved its construction management contract away from local firms, Bancroft was left with a huge revenue hole to fill, but it landed similar work with AstraZeneca and W. L. Gore & Associates. It parlayed successful expansion projects at the University of Delaware and Longwood Gardens into fruitful long-term relationships with both, including as part of a bid group on UD’s STAR Campus. Bancroft also opened offices in Princeton, N.J., and Salisbury, Md., to expand its geographic reach.

“We continue to use that strategy of kind of leapfrogging back and forth between market sectors to show clients our potential,” he said.

Looking ahead, Sawka said he wants to continue to grow out Bancroft’s existing offices and find partners in growth sectors, with an expansion to the Lehigh Valley a possibility too. He’s mainly focused on developing Bancroft’s next generation of leaders and teams though.

A big legacy for me is to provide that same opportunity I had applying to a blind post office box and becoming the leader of the organization,” he said.

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