Marpac: Constructing from the ground up

International Examiner
Ken Mochizuki
May 16, 2006

In 1996, one of the projects Marpac Construction LLC took on was to reline a quarter mile of water tunnels at the Mud Mountain Dam site outside of Enumclaw. That meant diverting the White River to work inside the tunnels.

As Marpac co-founder Doug Mar watched the evening news, he learned of floodgates accidentally being opened at that site. News cameras showed construction vehicles, machinery and equipment being washed downstream.

“That’s our stuff!” Mar remembers reacting. Even though Marpac lost $3.25 million in equipment, it still completed the $5.5 million job on time.

In 1990, Marpac refurbished seats at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium with its workers “still bolting seats the day of the game” against the University of Nebraska, recalls brother and Marpac co-founder Don Mar. Another Marpac job was to install new goal posts. As Doug Mar watched the game on TV, he saw fans swarm the football field after a Husky victory, storming and climbing the goal posts.

“Please stay up,” Doug Mar, 45, remembers pleading. The goal posts held.

Among its eclectic list of construction projects, Don Mar estimates that 65 percent of its work is for non-profit organizations, with much of that work building and renovating low-income housing in neighborhoods such as the International District, Belltown and Pioneer Square. One of their recent completions is Nihonmachi Terrace, the International District’s 50-unit housing project that opened earlier this spring.

Many of the major buildings in the International District and within Seattle’s Asian Pacific American community were Marpac projects: the Nikkei Manor assisted living facility, the International District Village Square, the Uwajimaya Village retail/housing complex.

One of its current projects is the $11 million conversion of the historic Kong Yick building in the International District into the new site for the Wing Luke Asian Museum (WLAM).

However, Marpac’s involvement with its community doesn’t start and stop with building and renovating buildings. With its motto, “Building the Community From the Ground Up,” Marpac continues to encourage, promote and hire minorities and women in the construction business, perform pro bono construction work for community organizations, donate to and sponsor community events; and engages in lesser-known activities such as providing the dump truck and personnel for the recent 2006 Chinatown International District Spring Clean Up.

“Marpac has sponsored a lot of our events,” says WLAM Executive Director Ron Chew. “They started out as, and still are, a community-based business with strong relationships with the community. They’ve grown and prospered, but remain very down-to-earth people. They really are a community treasure.”

“We try to support community organizations that have a benefit for the community at large,” Don Mar says.

For these reasons, Marpac Construction LLC will be one of the recipients of the International Examiner’s “Community Voice Award” during a dinner benefit on May 17.

What is now Marpac began with Don and Doug’s father, the late Dan Mar. An electrician in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Dan Mar then worked at Seattle’s Blackstock Lumber Company in the “door shop,” Don Mar recalls. He also began working with pre-fabricated materials, including wall panels that could be assembled quickly. In 1971, the elder Mar founded Pacific Component Homes, manufacturing and selling those wall panels all around the world.

“He was ahead of his time,” Dan Mar’s two sons agree.

Both involved with their father’s business since “day one,” Don and Doug Mar began learning general contracting. With a slump in the construction industry during the early ‘80s, Pacific Component Homes began taking on city and community projects – installing a kitchen in a community center or a bathroom in a daycare. By the mid-‘80s, the Mars’ business became Pacific Components, Inc.

“‘Home’ sounded bad,” Doug Mar says. “By 1985, we were getting out of doing pre-fabricated houses – we were one of the first to build houses that way – and doing more apartment and school renovation. The ‘home’ thing had to go.”

In 1995, the year their father retired, the Mar brothers joined “Mar” and “Pacific” and formed Marpac. What began as a company begun by their father in 1971 with three employees, and then doing a half million dollars in annual business 10 years later, now has 58 employees and does $40 million in annual business with 10 projects – ranging from $1 million to $15 million each – going on concurrently.

Doug Mar says that dealing with millions of dollars on a regular basis isn’t “scary” – “not when you know what you’re doing.” The “members” of Marpac Construction LLC also includes Herman Setijono, 47, Jon Okada, 44, and Sai Chaleunphonh, 35.

A quarter of Marpac’s business involves contracts with the federal government. Current projects include seismic upgrades to the Bremerton Naval Hospital and construction of a new 2-level parking garage at the naval base there, and the remodeling of two dining halls at Fort Lewis. Because the construction industry is booming, Marpac cannot hire enough workers. And the cost of construction-related materials is starting to soar.

Sheetrock that used to cost 20 cents per square foot now costs 45 cents, explains Doug Mar. And with any product containing petroleum such as asphalt, “whenever gas goes up, asphalt goes up,” Don Mar says.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Setijono says.

As are others based in the International District, Don Mar is also keeping an eye on zoning changes that will allow buildings with “much higher densities,” he says. If the District changes that drastically where the present non-profit organizations no longer have a client base to serve and cease to exist, then Marpac will have lost a “constant customer,” he says.

Setijono, who has been with Pacific Components/Marpac since 1981, says Marpac’s philosophy is not to “push volume” of construction projects, but to place more emphasis on “returning clientele” that will “keep coming back.”

For some of those clients, Setijono adds that, even though Marpac may have finished the job on their building five years ago, “we still help them out.”

Don Mar stresses “long-term relationships” of a “decade or more.” Quoted in the July 2004 issue of Colors Northwest magazine, he says: “My advice to other contractors is to always service your client, and make sure at the end of the job you get their next job.”