Company built to excel during rough markets
One thing that truly stands out in an interview with Geoff Stodola, president of Exxel Pacific Inc., is his genuine excitement to preside over an impressive company and its near-200 employees.
Drawing attention to a set of core principles framed on a wall in his office — and also on the back of his business card — Stodola outlines the basics for “building enduring relationships” at Exxel: “We are dedicated to shared success; we take ownership and lead by example; we provide opportunities for a fulfilled life; we take care of each other like family; we do the right thing even when no one is looking.”
These core principles have governed the company throughout its 40-plus years. Exxel Pacific, founded in the 1980s by Sid Baron and Kevin DeVries, was originally a development company with a focus on building hotels and apartments in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
In 1989, Exxel became licensed as a general contractor to have better control over quality and schedule performance. This led to the company doing its own general contracting, concrete and rough carpentry. Exxel then evolved into building mixed-use multifamily apartments, offices, commercial spaces, medical centers and student housing.
The contracting side of things started to grow in 1991, when Exxel began doing more work for clients who found the company’s people and approach unique and successful. This enabled Exxel to grow geographically in other market segments beyond housing and hospitality, and 13 years later, projects began in Seattle and Bellevue — the latter of which now has an Exxel Pacific office, in addition to its headquarters here in Bellingham.
A must for all successful business growth, Exxel Pacific’s ownership group commenced working on a succession plan in 2014, which brought about the idea to sell 100% of the company to Exxel employees.
Through its employee stock ownership program, Exxel gives company shares to its employees after one year. Then, after six years, these employees become fully vested. As time goes by, they see their stocks grow, and it pays out when they retire, like a 401(k). In 2023, the first Exxel employees to enroll in the program became 100% vested.
Exxel’s succession plan already has been implemented, with several company owners now having retired as planned. The company continues to progress through its leadership transition plan and will see it in action soon again when its current CEO, DeVries, passes on the chief executive officer responsibilities to Stodola, who will continue as Exxel Pacific’s president and CEO in January 2024. DeVries will remain as chairman of the board.
Stodola grew up in Bellingham and graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Washington. He began working for Exxel out of college in 1992, starting out as a carpenter wanting to get more hands-on field experience before beginning what he thought would be a career in architecture. After working as a carpenter for a year, Stodola was brought into the office. During his years with Exxel, he has held many positions within the company, including estimator, project engineer, project manager, superintendent, vice president and now president for the past 12 years.
“I really aspire to see a company that thrives for a hundred years,” Stodola said, “and we’ve really set ourselves up well for that long-term success.”
Even though Exxel has a progressive platform in place, it nonetheless has its challenges: workforce challenges, project entitlement timelines and financing are top on the battles list for Exxel. With Whatcom County’s restrictive building and permitting policies and limited available land — not to mention the increasing cost of materials — how does the company create better solutions?
“We’re seeing exactly what the fed has been attempting to do, with interest rates slowing things down,” Stodola said. “If there’s less work, there’s less demand, and construction prices tend to go down. In addition to that, we have to look at every way possible to make (projects) efficient, with good staffing and sharing of responsibilities.”
Stodola does not consider Whatcom particularly difficult to work in compared with other counties.
“There certainly are some challenges here,” he said, “but honestly speaking, there are other (counties) that are more difficult.”
Most of Exxel’s current work is from Whatcom County to Bellevue and Seattle and even further south into Olympia.
“We have completed work throughout Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada and as far east as St. Louis,” Stodola said. “Generally, our out-of-the-area work is with known clients we have repeat work and strong relationships with.”
Regarding the labor pool, which remains depleted, especially in the subcontracting trades, the construction industry in general faces significant challenges in attracting younger generations of tradespeople. The industry has lost many tenured and experienced workers, and, as Stodola noted, the next generation of young workers is not as inclined to get into the construction trades. This took an even worse turn during the pandemic, but there could be hope on the horizon in this department for businesses like Exxel.
The Meridian School District has proposed a skills center for Whatcom students that would provide juniors and seniors with preparatory career and technical training while still in high school. Although it is unclear at this time what courses would be offered, we can hope it will replicate the skills center in Mount Vernon, which offers a construction course with hands-on training for students in entry-level trades jobs.
Skills centers and online resources like YES Whatcom, which helps bring together employers and the workforce of the future, are sure to be advantageous. Exxel has also developed its own in-house education and training program, with classes taught by employees. Many of these courses are recorded and available online for Exxel employees.
“There is a major misconception in our youth about the opportunities and pay in the construction industry,” Stodola said. The financial rewards can be excellent, he said, and it’s all about educating and creating excitement for those who are direly needed for entry-level trade positions, like swinging hammers and pounding nails. “Exxel definitely supports a training center, and we’d like to help out where we can,” he said.
Project financing, however, is currently Exxel’s biggest challenge.
“The lack of equity and lending to finance construction projects, driven by the federal reserve’s interest rate hikes, have severely impacted the private development and construction industry,” Stodola said. “Most of the projects you see today were financed before the worst of the interest rate hikes were in place. There will be relatively few new private construction projects starting next year compared to what we have seen over past years.”
Exxel Pacific currently has 25 projects under construction, both small and large, Stodola said. Six are in the Bellingham/Whatcom area, and another 19 are spread out south to Olympia.
Unique local projects slated for completion in 2024 include a medical clinic for PeaceHealth in Lynden and a new 1,200-square-foot building for the nonprofit Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center. For the latter, Exxel is donating all of its profits and project management labor, Stodola said.
“We have worked with all of our local subcontracting and supplier partners to make donations of materials and labor as well,” he said. “We are very proud to be involved in this fantastic nonprofit, community-focused organization.”
In 2023, Exxel Pacific donated more than 400 hours to various charities and programs. The company also has an ongoing relationship with Lydia Place, volunteering throughout the year and with the family sponsorship at Christmas.
Stodola smiled when asked about some of Exxel’s most significant awards in 2023.
“Being selected for Puget Sound Business Journal’s Best Places to Work award in the Large Washington Companies category is particularly meaningful, as it comes from the anonymous vote of our employees, who are all saying (Exxel) is a great place to work,” he said. The company has won that award two years running.
Exxel Pacific also was awarded two Night of the Stars awards from the Commercial Real Estate Development Association in November 2023: Multi-Family Development of the Year and Multi-Family Residential Suburban Development of the Year.
It all tracks back to Exxel Pacific’s longtime and long-term vision to build enduring relationships with its employees and clients.
“We know that if we do a fantastic job for our client on our first project together, that will create a special relationship and an opportunity to do repeat work together and have fun while we do it,” Stodola said. “(With Exxel) having been founded in Bellingham with many long-tenured local employees, despite the challenges, we love working here and being part of this community.”
For more information about Exxel,