Now at the helm of the company he worked for as a laborer out of high school, the new president and CEO of Sundt Construction sees big changes ahead for the industry.

A shortage of skilled laborers, combined with demands for smarter buildings, means construction will turn to robots in the future, Mike Hoover says.

“It’s a new challenge because smart buildings are only going to advance more and the average age of a construction worker is 42,” the Tucson native said. “I foresee more robotics; robots are already laying block.”

The lack of vocational training in public schools contributes to the shortage in masons, carpenters and electricians, he said.

For a company such as Sundt, which has major growth plans, the solution is on-the-job training and advocating for a guest-worker program, Hoover said.

The 56-year-old followed his father’s footsteps and began his career with Sundt after graduating from Sahuaro High School in 1978. His job was to steam clean the heavy equipment — something he did part-time while he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Arizona.

His father, Gary, worked for Sundt for 33 years.

When Hoover finished college, he worked for other companies, became interested in structures, got into carpentry and completed an apprenticeship as a journeyman carpenter.

“My dad was really proud of me when I got my engineering degree,” Hoover said. “Then I called and told him about becoming a carpenter. He was silent.

“I still have my journeyman card in case I need something to fall back on,” he said and laughed.

Before nail guns

While Hoover appreciates what he learned as a carpenter, he also remembers the hard work.

“Back then we didn’t have nail guns,” he said. “I remember holding the nail between my thumb and fingers and banging them all up until I was down to holding the nail with my pinky.”

In 1989, Hoover returned to Sundt as an engineer and worked on projects such as the Rillito riverbank protection, the Columbus Wash storm drains and the Costco building on the northwest side.

He grew within the company to chief operating officer and president, taking those offices in October.

Sundt grew from 1,200 employees in 2015 to 1,700 in 2016 and is planning to add another 500 in 2017. In 2016, the company completed $1.2 billion worth of construction jobs.

The 126-year-old company specializes in transportation, industrial and building work.

Locally, big jobs include work at Banner-University Medical Center, the remodel of the Tucson International Airport and the Ina Road-Interstate 10 project.

Mike Smejkal, senior director of development services for the Tucson Airport Authority, said Sundt stuck out during the selection process because of the “breadth and depth of its team.”

“Having their presence locally and being responsive are key,” Smejkal said.

“Their team is always proactive and working with our design team on unforeseen changes.”

Managing sprawl

As the company grows outside of Arizona, managing sprawl becomes a challenge, Hoover said. The bulk of the company’s work is in Arizona, but also has major projects in places such as Oregon, California and Texas.

Sundt is 100 percent employee-owned and has created more than 75 millionaires.

The company gives employees a percentage of stock —it’s not a matching program, but the employee can chose to buy more stock.

It is the largest employee-owned company in Arizona.

The Sundt Foundation is also employee-run, with the company matching employee contributions dollar-for-dollar.

The employee board also decides where to donate the money. Since it was started in 1999, the foundation has given $7.6 million in grants.

Hoover said his mission is to keep the company profitable so that employees prosper.

He plans to be CEO for about 10 years and leave a succession plan in place.

“It’s important, I think, to build a following of people in this business,” Hoover said. “People that are loyal and happy to carry out the mission. I think that is a big part of my program.

“It’s a real honor to be at the helm of a company like this,” he said. “I don’t take it lightly.”

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at grico@tucson.com.