No More Ceilings

Photo: Sheila Barabad

William “Billy C” Conopeotis got tired of being told how to do project management, so he founded ConopCo and wrote his own rule book

When people say that Chicago is the city that works, they’re talking about people like William Conopeotis, or, as he prefers to be called, Billy C. He’s the founder and president of ConopCo Project Management, a Chicago-based firm he started in 1999 after an active 18 years in the construction industry, during which he encountered all aspects of project-management, development, and property-management services, both nationally and internationally. In true entrepreneurial spirit—another characteristic of Chicago’s hard-boiled work ethic—Conopeotis says, “I was tired of ceilings put over my head, walls put around me, and thought I was pretty good at what I did, so at 40, I said, ‘life’s too short; you live once,’ and in 1999 I started ConopCo Project Management to reinvent the entire design and construction delivery model for corporate America.”

Big words, yes—but words backed by history: Conopeotis first got a taste for construction when he was six, playing in his backyard and building impromptu towers of wood and soil. His mother said to him, “You’re going to be a builder one day.” Fifteen years later, under further guidance from his mother, Conopeotis received an architectural engineering degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He sent out more than 30 job applications, and he was rejected by everyone except Turner Construction, now one of the largest construction-management companies in the nation.

Though Conopeotis as a child was content merely to get his hands dirty and celebrate his own freeform creations, his entrance into the professional construction world—first through Turner for 10 years, then through Chicago real estate giant Rubloff for two years, then through the John Buck Company for nine years—sparked his interest in the “business side” of the industry. He began to recognize that if you want to build a building, you first need to shake some hands. This talent for the schmooze isn’t something you pick up in school; it takes a salesperson’s swagger, and you either have it or you don’t. Conopeotis has it in spades, and if it’s not apparent in his smile when he insists you call him Billy C, it’s certainly clear as soon as he starts talking about what ConopCo does and why it’s important.

Interior project-management work for Calamos Asset Management proved difficult when the project expanded in scope by 300%. ConopCo still finished on its original schedule.

“Years ago, a lot of real estate firms were doing project management in-house, and they were offering it as part of a package deal, which they would then sell to corporate America,” Conopeotis says. “But then we came along and told people to stop buying these packages and hire the best-in-class: the best broker, the best architect, the best project manager. Over the past 14 years, the project manager has evolved, and it’s here to stay.”

ConopCo offers three primary services: property management, development consulting, and project management. Though proficient in all three, it’s the third that makes up roughly 80 percent of the company’s business efforts—because if Conopeotis believes in anything, it’s doing one thing extremely well. Since ConopCo’s founding in 1999, it has been involved in more than 100 tenant-interior projects and more than 30 ground-up developments, altogether totaling 5.4 million square feet of space with a volume of $650 million. And, all this was done with only eight employees. “We’re small, like a boutique firm,” Conopeotis says, “but we have a big voice in town and [have been] hired by some of the most prominent firms in Chicago—Orbitz Travel, Private Bank, Kaplan Higher Education, Sears, Discover—and a lot of local, self-made folks, as well.”

Of course, it’s one thing to just be a salesman, selling a product or service because it’s there and you’re good at convincing people they need it. It’s another thing to actually believe in what you’re selling. “When you believe in something so strongly—something you’re passionate about—you’ll never give up,” Conopeotis says. “I believe what we’re doing is right for the client, and that’s what matters.”

Conopeotis’s sense of what is right is evident in ConopCo’s innovative instatement of Integrated Project Management (IPM), an approach to project delivery now popularly accepted throughout much of the construction industry. The idea is to have a centralized point of organization, management, and communication for all parties involved in a project, and it’s a relatively new approach greatly popularized by the green building trend of the past decade. Some certification systems, including LEED, actually award points to projects that utilize IPM, though not for any reason explicitly related to sustainability. Rather, a project managed via IPM is, by virtue of the IPM system, more budget-conscious, more coherent in design, and more sound as an investment.

ConopCo designed, built, and helped 1,200 employees move into Orbitz Worldwide’s new 141,500-square-foot headquarters over a period of just seven months. (Photo: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing)
ConopCo designed, built, and helped 1,200 employees move into Orbitz Worldwide’s new 141,500-square-foot headquarters over a period of just seven months. (Photo: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing)

For ConopCo, project management is IPM; it’s not something the company subscribes to merely because it’s “in” right now. For Conopeotis, it’s an ethos; it’s what’s right. “We have a process that yields on-time delivery, under-budget delivery, and great design results,” he says. “We do this in a very collaborative, integrated way. All of the firms are using these words, but we’ve been living it and breathing it for 14 years.”

Because IPM is still a relatively new idea in the industry, Conopeotis believes he blazed a “trail through the snow” when he made it part of ConopCo’s mission statement in 1999. “When you’re doing something new, you’re going to have a lot of naysayers,” he says. “But I truly believe in what we’re doing because I believe in giving the client what is best—even if that means walking away from a deal.”

Thanks to his forward thinking, Conopeotis is now preparing to lead his firm into its 15th year—and beyond. “I believe in leading by example,” he says. “You need to be innovative and visionary; you need to think differently, and people will hear you if you have a voice about how and why you think differently. People will follow.”

This leadership philosophy trickles down to the extracurricular work Conopeotis does outside of the office, too, including his recent launch of the ConopCo Kids Foundation. The program introduces precollege youth to the real estate, design, and construction industry through a variety of programs, fundraising events, and professional-shadowing opportunities. “We’re really excited about this program,” Conopeotis says. “When I was growing up, I had nobody to mentor me or drive me in a certain professional direction, and that’s the reason I’m doing this program; I want to give kids the opportunity that I didn’t have.”

With or without opportunity, Conopeotis has found his way—sometimes by forging out on his own. ConopCo has proven itself an innovator in the project-management sector, and its founder looks forward to continued success and accomplishment as he works to grow his company’s reach beyond corporate clients and into the health-care and institutional sectors. “As long as we continue to improve and innovate every day,” he says, “we’re going to continue to be a market leader in Chicago and, if the client calls for it, [in the] national market.”

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