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Caitlin Russell’s path to serving as president of the family construction business was laid out more than three decades ago. She, along with her brother and her sister, grew up in and around Russell Construction, the company her father Jim Russell founded in their family home in 1983. In fact, Ms. Russell said, “the business is almost like a fourth kid.” Engineering and construction also are deeply embedded in the DNA of the woman chosen by Quad Cities Regional Business Journal readers as 2023’s Most Influential leader. In addition to her dad, her mother Terri Kabat also is an engineer. “So I really grew up with two hard-working professionals and engineers,” Ms. Russell said. She also knew as a young woman that she not only would follow her father into the family business she would one day lead it. “When I was in my teens I would say I had a distinct memory of driving down 53rd Street (near Russell’s previous Davenport headquarters) and really feeling the weight of the responsibility of carrying on the family business. And I really knew someone had to continue Jim’s legacy both for the company and the community,” said the 36-year-old Ms. Russell. “He’s just done so many great things and I felt that weight upon me.” She added: “My two younger siblings did not know what they wanted to be yet, so I knew I couldn’t let the company go.” Not only did she hang on to it, she’s worked to deepen and widen the already considerable footprint of the 40-year-old company now known simply as Russell. “From 2021 to 2022, we’ve doubled in size and we’re the sixth fastest growing company in the Quad Cities,” Ms. Russell told the QCBJ during an interview at Russell’s newer headquarters at 4700 E. 53rd St., Davenport. “Our development space is part of that because we have a lot of just good projects also with pure construction clients.” Russell has been busy. It has expanded its real estate development, built the first new warehouse space in the QC in six decades, and captured major federal government projects. The latter includes the federal building under construction in downtown Rock Island which city leaders and residents hope will help spur that downtown’s ongoing revitalization. Russell also has expanded outside the local bi-state market with offices in Kansas City and St. Louis, and it is looking for more opportunities. “This market only has so much construction and if we want to continue to grow, looking at other regional markets that are similar in values and industry as the Quad Cities was something that intrigued us,” she said. Ms. Russell also continues to be an active, engaged Quad Citizen. Despite a busy work schedule and home life – she and husband Nic Brandt have four children ages 2-7 – she finds time for organizations including United Way of the Quad Cities and the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, where she is both on the executive committee and a co-chair (with IMEG’s Molly Foley) on the CEO search committee. How does she do it? “I am very fortunate to have an amazing partner who is a much harder worker and who carries more than his share of responsibility at home – and he works harder at John Deere than I do,” Ms. Russell told the QCBJ. “Your life partner is the most important decision you make and I’m extremely grateful for Nic.” She added: “Additionally, between my mom and my mother-in-law I don’t think there’s a day that there isn’t a family member at our house.” While home is clearly where her heart is, Ms. Russell did leave the Quad Cities region to go to college at Arizona State University in Tempe, from which she graduated summa cum laude. “I knew that I was always going to return to Iowa so I wanted to get away while I could,” she said. “Arizona State had a really good construction management program and you really can’t beat the weather.” While in college, she worked at some good firms including in Chicago and at a real estate company in the Phoenix area. After graduating college in 2009 and “when the market was not doing very well,” she said she worked for a mechanical, electric plumbing contractor in Des Moines to learn more about that critical aspect of buildings. She came back to the Quad Cities soon after to first work as a construction project engineer at Russell. One of her first projects was “the construction of a prominent project in the Quad Cities which was the First Army’s headquarters in Building 68.” The project on Rock Island Arsenal Island, she said, was “a big building, big renovation and very important for our community and our nation. That was fun to be a part of.” She also began working to earn an MBA with an emphasis in Finance from the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa because “I knew that I wanted to be a part of more aspects of the built environment.” Once she completed her MBA she tackled growing Russell’s real estate development capabilities. The company had been “doing development in a reactionary form since the early ‘90s,” Ms. Russell said. It has since become more proactive and strategic, and it’s what she continued to focus on before becoming Russell president in November 2021. She also is an accredited Certified Commercial Investment Manager (CCIM). Around that time, the company also began doing government lease-back projects throughout the United States and eventually in downtown Rock Island. “We’re very proud of the federal building and it will be a great project for the community. It’s great to have the opportunity to do what we’re really good at on a national level here in the Quad Cities,” Ms. Russell said. “Rarely do we have a VA project in the Quad Cities or any other government project in the Quad Cities, so to have it at home is cool,” she said of the building, which will house six federal offices including a new federal courthouse, and could be ready for occupancy in 2025. She was involved in the bid for the project from Day 1 and felt positive about her company’s chances because Russell had been gaining valuable knowledge and experience working in the government space. Building on that is something Russell will continue to focus on, she added. Russell also is busy tackling its ambitious Russell Industrial Park in northeast Davenport. “We kept on hearing about the need for warehouse space and knew that we were confident in ourselves and the community that we could make it happen in collaboration with many that helped support us and so that was a really big endeavor from a real estate perspective,” she said. That project also includes private equity investment by Blue Vista Capital Management, which Russell has partnered with for more than five years, including on a large development/construction project in Florida completed in 2019. “To know that a Chicago firm has confidence in our market and in Russell is something that we’re really proud of,” Ms. Russell added. Russell recently landed a new tenant for the park, Nestle Purina, which in December will lease one of the new warehouse buildings. The building at 8730 Northwest Boulevard spans 301,320 square feet and is known as Building 6. The strong leasing activity also has Russell planning for three more buildings in the new business park. It expects to break ground late this month on another 300,000-square-foot building. Once complete, the park – near Interstate 80 and Northwest Boulevard – will include six structures that are expected to be valued at more than $100 million. Because there had not been warehouse space built in the Quad Cities since the 1960s, the Russell Industrial Park is “something that will forever be impactful to this community,” Ms. Russell said. And while the federal building and industrial park are important, they’re not the only things on Russell’s very full plate. For example, next month she said Russell will celebrate the opening of a Courtyard by Marriott and it’s planning another hotel at the TBK Bank Sports Complex, both in Bettendorf. And these days it’s been doing work for Quad Cities schools. At the same time, Ms. Russell continues to be involved in the community. For example, she’s helping interview candidates for the Quad Cities Chamber’s next CEO. When Ms. Russell returned to the Quad Cities, she said, “I knew engagement in the community was important both to just meet people and the fact that community is so important to our company and the wellbeing of our family. Investing my time and resources into the success of the community was important.” After engaging with a number of nonprofits over the years, she said “one that’s really stuck around and has made the biggest influence on me is United Way.” That organization not only assesses the needs of the community and allocates resources accordingly, Ms. Russell said, “I think they do the best job to understand varying needs and that’s why I continue to be a United Way supporter.” Ms. Russell also was one of the first-ever QCBJ’s Forty Under 40 honorees in 2022. She won a similar honor when Black Hawk College had its own Forty Under 40 awards program about a decade ago. While QCBJ readers believed that all those achievements and perhaps others made Ms. Russell the Most Influential Leader In The Region in 2023, Ms. Russell said she was surprised by her selection. She also is quick to credit others for her success. “We all can read books and have endless resources as it relates to libraries and what not, but really it’s the experiences of people in our industry, people in our community, people in business and personal life that have been the most influential for me,” she told the QCBJ. “Creating those relationships before you ever need them has been so valuable,” she said. “I have a friend in Texas I call about family stuff. I have a doctor friend I call about kid stuff. Knowing that there’s people out there who have expertise that you can leverage and providing that in return is essential.” In fact, she said, “I think relationships have been the most influential in my career.” Regarding the company’s future, Ms. Russell expects to continue to benefit from the input and insight of the man who, she said, “definitely lived, slept and breathed” the company he built. “Jim is a very progressive, fun, generous and caring leader,” she said. “While there are many similarities between Jim and I, we really have a good balance.” She added “Stepping into a founder’s role can be challenging, and thankfully Jim has put much thought into making the transition successful. We hope that the mark Jim has had on the company will be indefinite.” Is there a third generation of Russell leaders waiting in the wings? “My children are too young to be considering their life path,” Ms. Russell told the QCBJ. “While I hope that they find their purpose and align their career behind it, I have three sons and a daughter. And my son Otis has already informed me that when he works at Russell he’s going to throw his brother Theo through the roof. And so I am hopeful for joyous holidays and that they can work together, and if it’s at Russell, all the better.”
Caitlin Russell at a glance
- Quad Cities born and raised.
- Graduated summa cum laude in 2009 from Arizona State University, Tempe.
- Earned her MBA with an emphasis in Finance from University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.
- Certified Commercial Investment Manager.
- Married to Nic Brandt.
- Mother of four children ages 2-7.
- Chairman of the United Way of the Quad Cities Board.