MGAC Impacts: Sarafina Klopfer on Top-Secret Builds, Tracking Storms, and the Art of Empathy
The Impact Blog is a spotlight series that highlights and celebrates the diverse employees that make MGAC tick. Beyond their day-to-day schedules, we want to know how they have a greater impact on their colleagues, their company, and the communities in which they live and work. We want to know what makes them get out of bed in the morning, what led them to their current role, and what they hope their lasting impact will be.
Today, we get to know Sarafina Klopfer, Project Manager at MGAC.
MGAC: Welcome to the Impact Blog, Sarafina!
Sarafina Klopfer (SK): Hi, thanks for having me!
MGAC: Tell us what you do at MGAC.
SK: I’m a project manager working in our Commercial and Corporate sectors. We manage anything from helping a client complete change orders to navigating a ground-up build. We can start with nothing more than a budget and location and help see a client through the real estate procurement process all the way to handing over the keys, or we can come in mid-project and help a client achieve very specific milestones. We have the ability to work from project conception to completion, so to speak!
MGAC: What brought you to MGAC, and what were you doing prior?
SK: I was working as an on-site project engineer for a construction company. I realized that what I enjoyed most about the job was the people aspect, and that’s what brought me over to the owner’s rep side.
MGAC: Makes sense! Did you study engineering in college?
SK: I did. I studied industrial and systems engineering at Lehigh University.
MGAC: So was this line of work always in the cards for you? What did you want to be when you grew up?
SK: Not exactly—when I was younger, I wanted to be the president! I knew I wanted to lead people, more than anything. It wasn’t until I got into high school that I realized that math and science were my strengths. Combining those with my knack for the leading people eventually led me to construction, which on the GC level is extremely team-based. Because at the end of the day, you’re working and collaborating with other people to build a building.
MGAC: Absolutely—and it sounds like your role now is the perfect fit. On that note, what’s keeping you busy these days?
SK: I just spent 2½ years working for a government defense contractor building and renovating Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF for short). In total, our team touched more than 10 sites around the country, so I did a lot of traveling and met with some incredible people. We essentially served as their in-house project management team. As soon as their real estate department solidified a lease, it was handed over to us. We were writing architect RFPs, general contractor RFPs, furniture RFPs, managed consultants —whatever was needed to complete the project.
MGAC: Wow. 10 projects in 2½ years—that’s no small feat!
SK: Absolutely. And a lot of these were quick turnarounds. All came with valuable lessons about working on the government side of things, which was new to me. In particular, it was interesting that, like any other project, you’re keeping the end-user in mind—but on this kind of work, you don’t really know who that is! We were building the infrastructure of the space, but for security reasons, we were understandably kept in the dark about the specific end-user. Instead, all kinds of cryptic names were used.
MGAC: Wow. Safe to say security considerations were also taken into account with the design?
SK: That’s right. I learned a lot about that, as well. For example, there are no windows in these spaces. Because nowadays, there is technology that can use the vibration of light in a room to record conversations.
MGAC: Fascinating! So now that those projects have wrapped, what’s next?
SK: I recently joined a team that’s building a global headquarters in Baltimore’s waterfront area. In total, the project involves redeveloping a 50-acre campus, while the headquarters building itself is 280,000 SF. Right now, we’re grading, and the foundation for phase 1 is going in. The headquarters piece breaks ground later this year. The client is striving for a Net-Zero building, with a target opening date of early 2025. When it’s completed, it will be one of the largest mass timber buildings on the East Coast.
MGAC: So, in a short time, you’ve traveled the country delivering government projects and started on a major HQ a short drive from your home base. When you think about all you’ve done and will be able to accomplish here, what impact do you hope to have?
SK: No matter what project I’m working on, I strive to lead with empathy—it’s an important skill in our line of work. To me, empathy is about much more than asking, “How was your day?” It’s about understanding what makes each client tick and adjusting my project management and leadership style accordingly. That could mean customizing communication to a client’s preference, or diving into even deeper detail in presentations. Ultimately, it’s all about understanding your client and how they work. I hope I can help others recognize that and also lead by example.
MGAC: Well said. What challenges have you been faced with in this role?
SK: MGAC’s project management style is very proactive. Our whole approach is to put a lot of work in on the front-end, so we can anticipate a lot of those challenges. But in the past two years, that just hasn’t been possible. That said, we certainly still do get ahead of the curve on issues and resolve them. But as soon as you do, there’s often a new supply chain issue or labor shortage around the corner—something you never would have been able to predict. That’s kept us on our toes. I think this has actually been an important growth opportunity for the construction industry as a whole, which tends to lag behind others when it comes to technologies and DE&I. We’re an industry that’s very set in our ways. So the past two years have really shaken things up. Anything you thought wasn’t possible, now has changed.
MGAC: How so?
SK: Take contract writing. Given the unpredictability of material lead times, some projects are no longer afforded the time to finish design prior to going out to bid. There is more of an effort to complete drawings and specifications for MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) and roofing, trades not commonly included in initial GMP (Guaranteed Maximum Price) packages. Clients and agencies who haven’t typically procured via a GMP are being advised to consider an early contractor engagement process to avoid a major schedule impact. Specific contract language is now being included to account for unprecedented world events, and it is our job to help the owner weigh the risk of these new contract clauses. Being proactive is essential to protect our clients.
MGAC: And all the more reason to have an owner’s rep on your side.
SK: No doubt. What’s cool about MGAC, in particular, is that we all work on such diverse projects. Private projects might be dealing with things differently than I am in the Commercial sector; the same goes from one industry to another. We’re always sharing information across the company and learning from each other—and our clients are the ones who ultimately benefit.
MGAC: What have you learned as you’ve navigated all these unknowns?
SK: I’m someone who loves to plan everything out, and my job very much relies on that. But the last two years have humbled all of us and taught us that, sometimes, no amount of planning can tell us how the market will react. Things we once felt we could rely on are no longer assured. So, I’m learning to be agile.
MGAC: Aren’t we all! What at MGAC has made an impact on you?
SK: The people. There’s such a breadth of backgrounds that brings people into project management. That contributes to us having such unique perspectives. Here, you’re never working on a project alone. As I mentioned earlier, there’s so much collective knowledge. People are quick to send an email requesting advice, because you know someone will have valuable insights. MGAC attracts a lot of hardworking, dedicated people, and we’re all willing to take the time to share our experiences.
MGAC: We’ve talked about the impressions you aim to leave on your clients and colleagues. How do you hope your work will impact your community at large?
SK: So much of the work we do is a once-in-a-lifetime project for our clients. As an employee, it’s not often you have your entire office renovated or your headquarters relocated. I hope our clients can come out of the experience with a new appreciation for construction and the difference it can make in our lives.
MGAC: What have you found most rewarding about your job?
SK: Seeing all your effort executed and brought to life. Going back a few months later and seeing someone sit at their desks beneath a light that you spent months laboring over the positioning of.
MGAC: What gives you energy?
SK: There’s a quote that comes to mind: “If not you, who? If not now, when?” I often realize I have the power to make my day—or to not! That really inspires me. There’s no one out there handing me my future. I’m the one who has to put in the work.
MGAC: What is your secret to winding down at the end of a long day?
SK: Taking time to be outside by going for walk, just releasing some steam.
MGAC: What about your secret to starting the morning off on the right foot?
SK: I enjoy starting the day with a workout and a cup of coffee. It clears my head.
MGAC: Now, we’ve got a few rapid-fire questions for you. Ready?
MGAC: What’s the first thing you do at work every day?
SK: Open my email and check my calendar.
MGAC: What’s the last thing?
SK: Check my calendar again.
MGAC: What’s the weirdest thing we might find in your desk or work bag?
SK: Pre-Covid, I had such a variety of shoes under my desk. I’d typically walk into the office in flats, and then switch to heels. On a job site, I’d wear work boots. And if I’m exercising after work, I’m lacing up a pair of sneakers.
MGAC: What’s one of the most used apps on your phone?
SK: The app that I use more than your average individual are weather apps. I grew up in Hawaii, and never once checked the weather—it’s pretty much always beautiful! When I moved to the East Coast, I became fascinated with the weather patterns. So today, I use weather apps to track storms around the world.
MGAC: Interesting! Describe your job in 5 words or less.
SK: Identifying and implementing creative solutions
MGAC: What’s your biggest work goal for 2022?
SK: Successfully navigating my current client transition, moving from a fast-paced TI fit-out with multiple projects across the country to engaging with a larger team on a single project.
MGAC: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
SK: I got asked that five years ago when I joined MGAC, and I couldn’t have described the opportunities I have been afforded to date! Hopefully, continuing to grow within MGAC and mentoring younger project managers.
MGAC: What’s something your colleagues don’t know about you?
SK: I was born and raised in Hawaii, but my family is Swiss. In fact, my entire extended family is in Europe. I grew up speaking German at home, and English is actually my second language!