In this episode…
Our guest today on Discussions at the Round Table is Pete Fowler, a construction consultant, professional cost estimator and President of Pete Fowler Construction Services, Inc.
On this episode, Assistant Project Manager Michelle Loux speaks with Pete on how he got started working in construction management and expert witness consulting. Pete shares everything from his early and continued inspiration from his mother to how he prepares for testimony and deposition with his attorney and how he breaks down his expert witness writing process.
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Michelle Loux, Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group
Guest: Pete Fowler: President, Pete Fowler Construction Services, Inc.
Announcer: This episode is brought to you by Round Table Group, the Experts on Experts®. We’ve been connecting attorneys with experts for over 25 years. Find out more at roundtablegroup.com.
Michelle Loux: Welcome to our show Discussions at the Round Table. Today, our guest is Pete Fowler, a construction consultant, professional cost estimator and President of Pete Fowler Construction Services, Incorporated, a licensed general building contractor in California, Oregon, and Nevada. Pete received a Bachelor of Science degree in Construction Management from California State University, Chico. Thank you, Pete, for joining us today.
Peter Fowler: Thank you for having me.
Michelle Loux: Let’s go back to your time at CSU, Chico and share with us why you decided on construction management.
Peter Fowler: That is a harder question than you might think. I started digging ditches when I was 16 years old and decided I would play in a rock band. By the time I was 21, my mother summoned me to her home, and she said, “Son, it is time for you to go to college.” I said to her, “I am having a lot of fun in this rock band. I promise I will go to college, but it is pretty fun right now. I cannot pretend to be a rock star when I am 30, but I can go to college around 30. There is no indignity.” She said, “I am sorry. I did not communicate what I intended well enough. What I meant was you are going to college now, or I am going to kill you.”
Michelle Loux: Sounds like your mom put you on the right track. Let’s talk about the rock band for just a quick second. Were you a guitarist? A lead singer? What did you do in the rock band?
Peter Fowler: In that rock band, I was a bass player. A very mediocre bass player, but I had long hair and was a decent dancer, so I was very entertaining. I always knew this was not my destiny and that I was going to grow up to be a yuppie. This was my only chance and I had to seize it. I was a guitar player and a singer later.
Michelle Loux: What were their influences like? What type of music did you guys play?
Peter Fowler: It did not matter. My favorites are The Rolling Stones. I did not like The Beatles until I was in my 30s. I had bad taste. I saw a rock band play in a garage when I was about 15 and I was like I got to do that. It is the same thing with all my business stuff. I want to do that, so I just try it and I am bad at it for a long time. Then I finally improve.
Michelle Loux: Then you get It. It is done.
Peter Fowler: Yeah.
Michelle Loux: Well, that is exciting. Now when you were in construction management at college, did you have any internships, or did they provide any hands-on learning?
Peter Fowler: Yeah. I was digging ditches living in San Diego from the time I was 16 and that company was a big engineering news record. It was in the top 100 of general contractors. They put me to work in the office during construction as an estimating intern. It was a super valuable time. I knew how they operated. They were hardworking and smart people, and I am an observant guy, so it was like what does it take to have a great life. Hence the rock band as a kid. I got that out of my system. I knew I was going to have a life of toil.
Michelle Loux: Shifting for just a second. How did you decide on expert witness consulting? When did that fall into your lap?
Peter Fowler: Early. Early. I did not finish college until I was 26. I sang in the rock band and had lower performance anxiety than most guys who came out of engineering school and one of my few natural virtues is I am a good writer. I was not a natively good guitar player. That took a lot of work, but I could write. So, when you combine low-performance anxiety with being a good writer, and a degree in construction management. You are a consultant. I did not need to do it, but that is what happened. I stumbled into it early, ran some construction, and got my contractor’s license. But being a contractor, you have to get up at 4:00 a.m. and drive all over the place. I started having kids early and I looked at these construction consultants and thought, I could keep banker’s hours as a consultant. I could not help myself.
Michelle Loux: It was so promising.
Peter Fowler: Yeah, and the fact that we do about 20% traditional construction management and building inspection work still to this day is dramatically higher than any of the people I compete with. They do a lot of expert consulting work. To be an expert consultant you have to know all kinds of things about the law and being an expert, plus have the underlying foundation of your expertise. It has worked out and I just dumb lucked into a situation that I was born for.
Michelle Loux: It is important to have that finesse when it comes to being on stage and writing. When you are doing a testimony, you need to present yourself well. Was there any preparation that you received from your attorney clients that helps you prepare better for testimony or deposition?
Peter Fowler: It is so great that I only learn things the hard way. So, I got that out of my system early by working 80- hour weeks. I remember like it was yesterday, I had sent a client a two-page memo saying for us to do our work, you need to send us all these documents. It would have cost the client $10,000 to send us all these documents for a relatively small case. The client happened to be a superstar young lawyer, who was not much older than me and I was not even 30 at the time, He called my boss and said, “Who is Pete Fowler?” My boss said, “He is a bright young kid who came to work with me. He is killing it.” The lawyer said, “Fire him now! If this case goes to trial and my client loses and I have not sent you every one of those documents, I am going to get sued for malpractice.” I realized that was a good piece of information. Now when my clients say do not put anything in writing, we understand and train all of our staff what they mean is do not put anything stupid in writing.
Michelle Loux: Sometimes, you just have to learn early on that you cannot know everything unless you undergo trial by fire.
Peter Fowler: Yes, luckily, my getting kicked in the rump education did not end up causing anyone else harm.
Michelle Loux: What else do when you are preparing for expert writing? You indicated that you are a good writer. Walk me through just a little bit of how you mentally break it down. Do you have any good tips or tricks when it comes to organizing your reports?
Peter Fowler: I saw this special where Glenn Frey from the Eagles was talking about how he learned to be a great songwriter by listening. He lived in the apartment below Jackson Browne. Long story short, he said, “I just realized it was just elbow grease.” Another of the handful of natural virtues I have is a strong work ethic. I watched my mother, a single mom, who owned a barbershop, and put me through college. She was a single woman who wanted to have a certain life and she worked hard to get it. I have a compulsion to not get kicked in the rump. So, when a construction guy has to go up against a lawyer, that is like showing up to a gunfight with a knife. When I started testifying when I was 30 years old. I had only been out of college for four years and I had already been in the business half my life. I had to be the most prepared.
We also have internal training. I wrote my first how-to-write training program, and we still use it today, I was looking at it for a training program we are putting on in October. We have a copy of it from 2005. We have to outline the work and we do it in multiple passes all the time. We keep a picture of my mother who quit high school at 16, had me at 19, and started her business in her early 20s. She was a single mom who got her GED. I have a picture of her getting her degree with her cap and gown on when she was 48 years old. We put this picture in a bunch of presentations. Now, we just leave it on the server and put it in files, but we say, “Explain this to Pete’s mom because she is very smart but has no technical background. She is a barber, so explain it to her.” If consultants tell me what they think and I have no idea what they are talking about it is a you problem, not a me problem.
In the late ’90s, I wrote the first article in any national publication on the subject of construction defects. As a young guy I am using 25 cent words and the editor yelled at me because it was a construction magazine. He said, “Pete, stop using 25 cent words. We are going to dumb this down to the fifth-grade reading level.” And I thought, Oh my God! Construction guys are so stupid! When the article comes out, my lawyer. engineer and architect friends read it and they call me. They were like, “Pete, what a great article! It was smooth and easy read.” I realized that even people who can read at the graduate school level, do not want to.
Michelle Loux: Right, just make it easy.
Peter Fowler: That was another cornerstone in my education in being a good expert. I need to work hard on communicating with non-technical people.
Michelle Loux: They are going to be the jurors. You are going to have to make sure that they understand the problem when they do not know anything about the business of construction or whatever it may or may not be.
Peter Fowler: Last year we sent invoices on almost 400 unique projects. We call them projects. Insurance people who are paying the bills call them claims. Lawyers call them cases. We do a lot of work on a lot of projects, and we have only testified to juries maybe five or ten times. It is very rare. So, we of course have to think that down the road that we are going to communicate with a jury, and we need to communicate in plain language that is understandable to my mother, lawyers, and insurance people.
Michelle Loux: That is how to be successful at it. Many of your clients are attorneys that come back to you because they have already worked with you. They understand how you work and what the expectations are. Do you find that it is difficult to work with new attorneys? Is there a certain way that makes it easier to get to that position as an expert witness or the consultant with them? Is there a trick that you have up your sleeve or is just being direct and to the point?
Peter Fowler: Certainly, for us, there is no trick. We have our very first clients and we still have our very first employee who just celebrated her 20th anniversary with us. We are long-term relationship people, and It’s been our intention to grow this from a one-person practice. I could have just sat in my home office and stayed busy for 20 years, but I do not have that kind of attention span, so we have been growing this business from the start and we became successful. We have been able to attract very smart people through systems and processes. My stepdaughter makes fun of me and when I make fun of her for watching anime she is like, “Really, I’m a nerd?” She says, “How many books about the Toyota production system do you have on your desk?” We are a super system and process-oriented business, which is unusual for professional practice.
Michelle Loux: You did 400 projects last year and you are seeing a trend obviously with COVID where testimonies or depositions are done by video call. Where do you see litigation changing in your realm of business?
Peter Fowler: Not for us. I did not mention that I also have a minor in computer information systems from the 1990s. So, I know just enough to irritate the IT guy who helped me get my microphone set up, but it has kept us on the leading edge of technology, so when COVID came our people just came to the office, picked up their computers, and took them home. It was nothing. Everything is in the cloud. I have 1.7 million photographs in the cloud in a searchable database. We have 5 or 6 million PDF files that contain 20 million or so pages of stuff, so that part of it is wonderful for us. We have two offices in Southern California. We do business in Oregon and have a fast-growing office in Nevada. We are in escrow on a building in Florida because we have been doing business there for the last four years. Texas has already started, but we will have a physical office there certainly next year. Even if we just did California, driving to Los Angeles takes longer than getting to Las Vegas. The traffic is terrible, so for us to be able to do our work the way we are talking right now and sharing our screen is great! It is great for us and great for our clients because it is cheaper versus having to go to the office.
Michelle Loux: Now that you have offices in multiple states, do you see the same litigation trend in California that you might have seen in Florida, or are there differences?
Peter Fowler: There are differences. It took a while. I think the model, the construction defect litigation specifically because our litigated work used to be 90 something percent construction defect litigation and we just bundled people calling us saying “Hey, somebody fell down the stairs can you figure out if there’s a building code violation or something?” We still do about half construction-defect litigation. The rest are property and injury claims. There are lots of that. Other than socially there is more litigation than ever before, and people are more comfortable with being involved in litigation. The construction defect litigation model was, I think, invented in Southern California. It grew up here, and the wind has blown north and east. I have seen some numbers. I am doing a presentation in Florida next month about this. Florida went from having 30 Construction Defect Litigation cases in 2010 to 3000 or something currently. The numbers are big, and you can read about all the supertall buildings in New York City in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that are in $100 million litigations.
Michelle Loux: Is there a particular case that stands out in your mind that you can talk about or share?
Peter Fowler: We wrote a magazine article and did a presentation for a big trade group about a million-dollar single-family home, and we called the presentation. “I Built a Monument to Myself and You Ruined It.” A super-rich owner and a not quite ready for prime-time general contractor come together and spend millions of dollars and make a mess. I have got more of these. I have been working on them literally since my first job and they have become popular over the past 20 years. Some of them go on for years because the contractor cannot or will not fix what is wrong. The owners can continue to pay to pursue the litigation because they got more money than they know what to do with, and they are spitting mad. I have one I think is seven years old. It is terrible and it consumes a big chunk of someone’s life over a construction project.
Michelle Loux: That is interesting. Thank you for sharing that piece of it. Let’s end with something a little closer to your hometown. Is there anything that you look forward to? A city event or an annual thing that you do every year or something you recently discovered.
Peter Fowler: I split my time between Carlsbad, CA, which is where I went to high school, and Las Vegas. I used to split time between Orange County, California, and Portland, Oregon. Now that I am in Las Vegas there is more cool stuff to do than I could rattle off. I am going to go see Sting next week, but tonight, I will go to the Taste of Carlsbad.
Michelle Loux: Excellent! I enjoyed that and I love the story of your mom and that she is your inspiration. She pushed you to drive that focus and determination. I think it is wonderful that you always include that in your training and other events. Thank you for sharing everything with me today.
Peter Fowler: My staff is sick of hearing about my mother.
Michelle Loux: It is a great point.
Peter Fowler: “We hate that woman!”
Michelle Loux: She is like the guest speaker at every big function, right?
Peter Fowler: “Stop talking about your mom! It is weird!”
Michelle Loux: I appreciate your time, Pete. Thank you so much.
Peter Fowler: Michelle, great to talk to you. Thank you for having me.
After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.
Pete Fowler is a construction consultant, professional cost estimator, President and Chief Quality Officer of Pete Fowler Construction, a licensed general building contractor in California, Nevada, and Oregon. Pete received a B.S. in Construction Management from CSU, Chico. He has held certifications from AAMA, ASPE, ICBO, and others. Mr. Fowler has published articles in national magazines, has been invited to speak by the most important groups in the building industry (AAMA, APRA, ASPE, ASTM, BETEC, CAI, CLM, ICC, NIBS, PLRB, RCI, etc.), and has composed and delivered hundreds of educational programs.
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