Marpac: Opening doors in construction

Colors Magazine
Niki Stojnic
July 2004

Most contractors don’t look like us,” says Donald Mar, who, with his brother Doug, founded Marpac Construction in 1995. The third-generation Chinese Americans say that, “as a minority-owned business in the construction industry, which is dominated by white males, it’s been a challenge.”

But Marpac, housed in a building of its own construction in Seattle’s International District, has found its niche in nonprofit housing. “We found ourselves naturally gravitating toward people that would accept us.” Mar says, “That happened to be nonprofit housing groups.”

Besides nonprofits, which make up more than half of Marpac’s work today, the company has developed a varied roster of illustrious projects, including Uwajimaya Village, 176 housing units over a 70,000 square-foot c ommercial area; Nikkei Manor, and assisted living facility; and 1st and Denny Aparments, low-income housing in Belltown. One of their biggest current projects is a $15 million community center and residential complex in the International District called Village Square, which holds a Seattle public library, gynamsium and elderly housing.

However, Mar says one of his favorite jobs isn’t a building at all: “Mud Mountain Dam. We relined a quater-mile tunnel, it was big, heavy construction, with concrete and steel. We build a lot of buildings but occasionally get the opportunity to do some heavy civil work. That takes a little different mindset.”

Along with new construction, Marpac does historical renovation, and is turning Pioneer Square’s Kaplan and Tashiro buildings into artists lofts, and downtown Seattle’s St. Charles Hotel into commercial and residential space. Herman Setijono, a Marpac partner who is of Indonesian and Chinese heritage, says the variety of work keeps them interested: “We love all our projects because they’re all unique.

“That’s how we keep our sanity, you have to actually enjoy your work.”

While the firm doesn’t have any influence over the style of the buildings they work on, they often work with Asian architects, and since the bulk of their work is in the International District (ID), they do end up doing quite a bit of Asian-styled work.

In return for the opportunity to do the jobs they enjoy so much, the firm reciprocates in a big way. Says Setijono, “The community has taken care of us. It there’s any project, we get a big share of it, so I think it’s very important of us to give back.” In fact, a bulletin board in the kitchen of their office is littered with evidence of just how much Marpac does give back. “Anything that the community asks us to do, we have never turned them down at all,”say Setijono. “Everything from installing dragons on a telephone pole, to replacing bulletin boards in the ID, to cleaning up the district.”

Providing employment opportunities is another way Marpac helps its community. And the company’s multiculturalism- the office includes those of Chinese, Japanese, Laotian, Korean, and Filipino descent-is another way. “We have a high percentage of minority workers,”says Mar. Out in the field, the firm’s team includes African Americans and Latinos. Setijono says the firm is a magnet for people of color. “Since we are a minority-owned firm, we have a lot of minorities applying to our company,” he says. “A lot of times, they will apply to other companies and (not) get it. We are more likely to give them a chance.”

Mentoring other contractors is of prime importance too. Says Don, “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.”