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Q&A with Project Management Expert Holly Demers Sawyer

Associate Director Holly Demers Sawyer discusses her team-based approach to project management services, the value of giving back to the community, and her passion for the growth of her native state Rhode Island.

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Q&A with Project Management Expert Holly Demers Sawyer

Associate Director Holly Demers Sawyer has more than 30 years of experience in the Rhode Island construction industry in sectors as diverse as affordable housing, luxury hotels and education. Whether she’s working on school projects or mentoring and supporting Colliers Project Leaders’ talent, she thrives on fixing things and making sure people get what they need. This mindset complements her role as she deftly manages the relationships and complex processes that make projects run successfully.

Here, she discusses Colliers Project Leaders’ team-based approach to comprehensive project management services, the value of giving back while working in the built environment, and her passion for the growth of her native state Rhode Island.

Tell me about your background and what led you to Colliers Project Leaders.

Affordable housing was my passion for decades. When I started out, I worked for The Community Builders, a national nonprofit out of Boston, I was a development project manager and I worked for many small Community Development Corporations (CDCs). I did primarily commercial and mixed used projects – affordable housing for seniors, people with special needs, or families all over Rhode Island and into Massachusetts. It was such a wonderful way to start my career and helped me recognize how you can give back when you have a position like that. The impact of affordable housing is about changing the quality of life for the people moving into these beautiful units, whether it's a mill renovation, a new build or renovating things that were neglected for decades and putting them back where they’re supposed to be.

That's what really made me love being an owner’s project manager (OPM). You're touching every aspect of the project, from the very beginning when it's just an idea, to the reality of handing it off to the end user where it's changing the quality of their life. I worked in affordable housing for 18 years. Then I worked in the hotel business, and I was an OPM for Disney Hotels and Hyatt Hotels, which was quite a change; it was glamourous four- and five-star hotels. I enjoyed it for what it was, but I recognized the job didn't give me the satisfaction or self-worth that I feel when I'm making an impact and giving back.

Derek Osterman, Senior Director at Colliers Project Leaders, was an incredible leader for me for the education industry, which I didn't know at all when I was first hired. They hired me as a project manager and then I evolved into where I am today. It was because of his faith in me that I was able to advance relatively quickly to where I am right now.

What is the day-to-day work of an associate director at Colliers Project Leaders?

My role isn’t really managing the day-to-day of projects anymore. My role is managing relationships and troubleshooting, dealing with more of the higher-level politics and financing and working with an incredibly talented team to make sure they're successful in managing their projects. Watching my team’s professional growth is so fulfilling for me.

Every single day is different, and that variety is part of the charm of this job. One day I’m helping the team with a budget, and another I’m spending half of my day meeting with engineers, the superintendent and lawyers. All day, my phone is going off, I’m fielding political questions, putting out fires. I’m on lots of calls with the heads of each of the communities in which we’re working, whether it's the town administrator, mayors or superintendents. Every single school district or project has so many different personalities that you could have two identical schools being built and the experience is very different from the beginning to the end. The work is stressful and exhilarating all at the same time, and it's what makes me tick.

Colliers Project Leaders has been an incredible opportunity for me providing a diverse portfolio of projects to work on. I think what Colliers Project Leaders brings to the built environment is a level of professionalism and trust. Building owners can really breathe and allow us to do our job. In Rhode Island, with the clients and the scale of work we have, that's our reputation. You can trust Colliers Project Leaders. We know what we're doing. We're professional. There's a high bar here.

What does it mean to be a native of Rhode Island and contributing so much to its built environment?

Rhode Island is a geographically small state with a very big personality. Everyone knows everyone. Whether it's politics, education or whatever industry you're in, people typically stay within it but change roles. So, over the years, there are many people that are kind of doing what they have always done, but in a higher capacity. Watching what all these professionals have done over the last 40 years in Rhode Island, collectively as team members, has been really fulfilling. And watching the transformation of the City of Providence and the school districts and being part of that very early in the process on a high level, is fulfilling. Living where you work, there's a level of instant gratification because your work is everywhere. No matter what town or city I drive through, I've touched something. And if I go back to my work in hotels, there's two big hotels that I did in Providence and Warwick. When I’d be driving around when my kids were little, I'd point them out – “Mom did that!” When I worked in affordable housing, I'd make them go to ribbon cuttings, so they really understood that part of the built environment involves giving back, which is your job as a human being.

Share with us your most memorable project.

We just delivered the Henry J. Winters Elementary School, which was a $48 Million+ new school construction project in Pawtucket, RI. What was interesting about this project was that it was a COVID-19 project. There was budget, supply chain and lead time issues, but the children were in a swing space, so we had to deliver on time. And we weren’t in-person. This was this district’s first new build. It was the biggest thing going on and they had to experience it via Zoom and trust us. And we were successful.

But there was a window of time where team members got COVID-19, and it was so amazing to watch the team here step up when we were having labor issues. There was such an amount of camaraderie and a ‘bring it’ attitude. I could call any one of my team members and say a staff member needs some help and two or three people were there. They were covering for each other on each other's projects. We were there on weekends. We were there at night.

Winters turned into a gorgeous school. And to watch those little kids walk in on the first day is what makes you just go, “Oh my gosh.” This school started early enough so that people could really see what 21st century learning is supposed to look like, not just in renderings and designs. You could reach out and touch it. It was one of the coolest things that I've experienced in my career, and it had nothing to do with managing the project itself. It was just watching the talent and team making it happen.

How do you envision the Colliers Project Leaders team and the project work in Rhode Island continuing to grow?

In Rhode Island we work in Cumberland, Johnston, Pawtucket, East Greenwich, and the list goes on. If we don’t have a project in a city or town, we either finished portfolios or we have a wonderful working relationship, so that when work comes up, they think Colliers Project Leaders.

When you have a lot of talent around you, and they're open to working with each other and really want to succeed and watch their colleagues succeed, it's pretty easy to be successful. But, when I started here, there were probably 5 to 6 people at that. We didn't even have an office. We were in someone's back room or we were at Starbucks with our laptops. Now we have this amazing team.

Our end-of-year feedback surveys always have amazing results because of our team. At this point in my career, what I get most out of my job is watching our talent become a united front here in Rhode Island and evolve into a powerhouse team delivering world-class projects.

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Click here to learn more about how Holly and Colliers Project Leaders can help with your next capital construction project in Rhode Island.