Phil Shuluk, United Rentals, and the 600 project hustle

With just over a thousand locations across the United States and Canada, United Rentals Inc. is the largest equipment rental company in North America. The Stamford, Connecticut-based company’s facilities portfolio comprises about 10.8 million square feet situated on just under 3,100 acres. Designing, building, and maintaining all that space is in the hands of Phil Shuluk, director of design, construction, and facilities. But, because the company is spread so far and wide, Shuluk depends heavily on his direct reports to get all the work done on more than 600 projects a year—and that depends on trust, open communication, and respect for his team’s abilities.

“We are not all under one roof, so trust is a huge factor,” Shuluk says. “I am not a micromanager by any means. Trust is critical simply because of the logistics.” He built his team with a diverse group of talents and strengths. “I like to bring on people who are brighter than me, with stronger skill sets,” he says. “Then I keep things simple. I tell everyone to hold themselves accountable and don’t ever lie to me. If you do that, everything else falls into place.”

Shuluk, born and raised in Dobbs Ferry, New York, attended the University of Arizona and graduated with a business degree in 1982. After graduation, “I continued my trek west, to Southern California,” he says, where he worked at a local bank handling a bond portfolio. The bank was expanding and needed someone to manage its new development and construction group. And Shuluk, who had worked construction jobs in high school and college, was the perfect fit. “I had hands-on experience and had learned a lot of the practical trades,” he says. He took the job in 1984, and since then he has worked in that role for restaurants, health clubs, and other businesses. He joined United Rentals in 2006.

The company had a loosely organized design and construction department then and outsourced much of the work. Shuluk was hired to direct the department to handle the company’s rapid growth. (It now controls about 11 percent of market share nationally.)

His department is divided into two groups. The first is concerned with the development, design, and construction of new facilities. “We handle all site due diligence, entitlement processes, planning and zoning, all the design work with architects, permitting, bidding, and the building or rebranding of structures,” Shuluk says. The other group handles facilities management and capital-improvement projects.

Shuluk directs all this with a team of 14. His five construction project managers are based in northern California, Denver, Houston, North Carolina, and Detroit. “I try to visit each of my direct reports in the field two or three times a year,” he says. “That is a personal goal of mine.” He also holds a quarterly business-review meeting with the entire team and is always communicating by phone and email. This constant communication is one of his keys to success.

“I am always available to my team 24-7, and they know that,” he says. “They are not shy about approaching me about anything, from continuing education to assistance on a project. My team is my strongest asset.” He tries to get to know all the people on his team and take an interest in their growth. “I put them in scenarios where they will succeed,” he says. “That’s my job.”

As befits his hands-off management approach, Shuluk lets his project managers handle the daily chores. “They are all self-sufficient and tasked from the get-go,” he says. “They own the project, and they need to be familiar with the project from beginning to end.” There are two types of projects: self-perform and built-to-suit. In the former, United Rentals buys or leases the land and handles the entire build-out. A recent project in Orlando that created 23,000 square feet of space on 12 acres to combine two existing locations was a self-perform project.

In a built-to-suit project, the company partners with an outside developer. “The developer hires the architect, does the planning and build-out, and then turns it over to us,” Shuluk says. “You need to do a bit more babysitting on those.” He developed a design and construction manual about a dozen years ago to codify precise guidelines that the developer must follow. A typical ground-up project encompasses about 10,000 square feet, he says, and the manual has blueprints and a complete set of comprehensive specifications needed to meet United Rentals’ footprint and brand guidelines. For existing buildings that are being repurposed, Shuluk works with the developer to meet as many of the specifications in the manual as possible while maintaining cost control. A 9,900-square-foot facility in Clute, outside Houston, Texas, was recently built-to-suit.

A current project, in Brookhaven, outside New York City, is high on Shuluk’s agenda. “It’s in a very competitive market for us,” he says of the Long Island town. “And people tend to look at the larger projects.” This one, at about 25,000 square feet on 10.5 acres, is now in the planning and zoning phase. It will open in early 2019.

The company is heavily invested in sustainability as well. Shuluk is overseeing a massive lighting retrofit—“low-hanging fruit with a high return,” he says—involving $16 million in LED-efficient lighting at 685 locations. He believes in recycling and reusing materials whenever possible in both new and rehab construction. “The company has a robust sustainability initiative,” he says. “We do what we can.”

Shuluk sees the company continuing to grow, and his team is ready to handle the increased workload. “We have good processes and procedures in place—not so many that they inundate staff but so that they are allowed to do their jobs,” he says. And, after 35 years in the business, it’s a job he still loves. “There is always something new,” he says. “No matter how long I have been doing this, you think you’ve heard it all but you never do.” He also enjoys overseeing the entire process from start to finish. “I love seeing a project from the design phase to handing the keys over to the operators,” he says.

Photo: Courtesy of United Rentals

Drill Construction congratulates our friend and colleague Phil Shuluk!

There are challenges inherent in every construction project. No one manages them better than Phil. He is knowledgeable, efficient, practical, and passionate about every project he undertakes. He built a URI Facilities team that’s second to none. We feel fortunate to work with the team and pleased Phil has earned such well-deserved recognition.