He crossed the Atlantic at 21 with a thick British accent and without a clue about American sports.
Four decades later, John Wood is a senior vice president with one of the nation’s premier stadium and arena builders and the point man behind the construction of some of the most impressive and stylish sports venues in the land.
But now, deep into a long career with Mortenson Construction, of Golden Valley, the 59-year-old native of Manchester, England, faces his most formidable building challenge yet: the nearly billion-dollar Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
With all of Minnesota watching, Wood knows success rests on whether the project gets built on time and within budget and whether Mortenson delivers the state-of-the-art gem that a region, its team and its purple-and-gold following not only want, but demand. “In many ways, it’s the project that Mortenson has spent 58 years getting ready for,” Wood said recently from the 58-year-old company’s headquarters in Golden Valley. “And in many ways, it’s the project I’ve spent my 37-year career prepping to do.”
Wood’s portfolio boasts dozens of sports venues coast to coast, from Coors Field in Denver and the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis to Target Field, Target Center, the Xcel Energy Center and the TCF Bank football stadium in the Twin Cities.
But of all the projects, this is the biggest, and by far the most expensive. With talk of a retractable roof or wall, it may well be the trickiest to build. More than that, it’s a chance to add to the company’s hometown legacy.
Wood, who grew up a fan of the Manchester United soccer club and adopted Minnesota as home after marrying a local girl, understands the stakes.
His wife, Betsy, and her brother, Tom, are season-ticket holders and tailgate at home games. Many of his co-workers are avid fans, too. The day Mortenson won the building contract last month, the company closed its offices at 3 o’clock so employees could gather to celebrate.
“It’s the biggest project in the history of the state,” Wood said. “And it’s one that every single member of our organization here in Minnesota is excited about. It’s just captivated the interest of the whole community.
“There’s a whole ’nother level of accountability when you are working in your hometown,” he added. “But, we pride ourselves in working the largest and most important projects in the community. It’s part of what motivates us.”
That the soft-spoken Englishman with the silver-gray mustache and easy smile is riding point on the project at all is a credit to years of training and experience and a twist of fate.
Crossing the Atlantic
He moved to Minnesota in the mid-1970s and landed a job with Mortenson, a relatively small Minneapolis company looking to grow.
Fate struck earlier, when Wood, working as a construction cost estimator, met Betsy Bothof of Hollandale, Minn., while vacationing on the Greek island of Corfu in the summer of 1973.
She spent the next summer in Manchester; he spent the following Christmas in the Twin Cities. Despite cold weather and later, a Super Bowl blizzard, Wood was hooked.
After returning to England, he phoned Bothof and proposed. He flew back to Minnesota several months later, and by June, the couple married.
He knew little about American football, baseball or hockey. But four children would teach him, along with a steady diet of stadium and arena projects that put him close to the action.
Wood’s early work at Mortenson involved developing bids on construction projects. If the bid was a winner, he’d double up as project manager. By 1983, he was a company officer. A decade later, he was promoted to senior vice president.
During that time, Mortenson went from building its first major sports venue — Target Center, home of the Minnesota Timberwolves — to becoming one of the top sports construction companies in the country. And Wood, who leads the company’s national sports group, has overseen much of it.
Whether working a conference room in a suit and tie or kicking up dust at a work site in a hard hat and boots, there’s almost nothing in the life of a project that Wood doesn’t touch.
He plans, pitches and prices. He tells architects and team owners and public authorities what they can or cannot afford to build, and weighs in on hundreds of team decisions, from the selection of subcontractors to monitoring project safety to hiring goals. If a concrete spill screws up a job, he’s on site to fix it, reworking the schedule to keep things on track. If an owner pushes too hard on a questionable idea, he’s there to politely, but firmly, check it.
“He’s a guy I trust, even though he will tell you when you are wrong,” said Stan Meadows, former owner of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, who worked with Mortenson to build the FedEx Forum in Memphis a decade ago. “I had ideas, ridiculous as most of them were. And he’d give me guidance and say ‘Well, let’s look at it this way.’ ”
Meadows said Wood was at his best in July 2003 when a storm packing winds in excess of 100 miles per hour blew through Memphis as Mortenson was building the FedEx. The winds, dubbed “Hurricane Elvis,” buckled three of four large construction cranes.
Although construction stopped for nearly a month, Wood and his team were on-site daily, making up time by reshuffling the work schedule.
The latter was important — if the project wasn’t completed on time, the Grizzlies had an escape clause to relocate to another city. The arena, which opened in 2004, was built on time and on budget.
“We had more than a concern — we had a paranoia,” said Arnold Perl, who at the time worked for the local arena authority. “But to John Wood’s and Mortenson’s credit, they said, ‘We committed to a deadline and we’re going to meet it.’”
Others have been equally impressed.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who worked on the Target Field project, credits Wood’s calm demeanor and self-deprecating humor for taking “tension out of the air” when issues got sticky.
“He’s an Englishman, and he’s very, very low-key,” said Jim Host, the former chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority, which worked with Mortenson on a new arena for the University of Louisville basketball team.
Said Jerry Bell, the Twins’ point man on Target Field, “It gets down to personalities. They had some people at Mortenson who would just go crazy if things didn’t go right. At certain points, that’s what you needed. But you don’t need John that way. And he wasn’t.
“He was the go-to guy when you had a real difficult problem. But there was nothing that was ever confrontational.”
The work ahead
Wood knows that the Vikings stadium will present its own challenges.
Already, a squabble over the dimensions of a baseball diamond in the multipurpose stadium and concerns about project financing have made for second guessing.
Time is tight, too. A schematic design, initially planned for this month, won’t be unveiled until April to give Mortenson more time to work with HKS Inc., the project architect, on pricing. With groundbreaking scheduled for October and a projected opening date of July 2016, “it’ll be pedal to the metal for the duration,” Wood said.
Still, he sees mostly the upside.
It’s why he worked 15-hour days for weeks preparing Mortenson’s sales pitch to the Vikings and Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which made the hire. And it’s why Mortenson’s fee was so competitive — $12.5 million, or about 1.7 percent of the construction cost in an industry where the norm is 2 to 3 percent. The firm could earn as much as $15 million if it finishes the work early, but also agreed to take a $5 million per NFL game hit if the stadium isn’t finished on time.
“He was determined,” said his wife, Betsy Wood. “It’s the biggest project Mortenson has done. It’s the biggest project in the state of Minnesota. He wanted it for his kids, he wanted it for his legacy. And he wanted it for the state of Minnesota. They all did.”