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Dollar General Retail Store Program

...highly effective. ...very well managed.

Mike Hunkler readily admits it. Gresham, Smith and Partners’ ongoing work with a commercial developer that builds Dollar General stores isn’t architecturally glamorous. He knows it’s not common for engineering project management to be mentioned alongside more front-and-center architectural projects, but, that’s the fun and beauty of the work with Brentwood, Tennessee-based GBT Realty. It’s a continuous partnership that delivers practical — and critical — results for the client in a big way, and the elegance of the project is in its behind-the-scenes efficiency.



GBT Realty approached GS&P with the goal of becoming the highest volume preferred developer for Dollar General in the United States. The GS&P team’s role was to solve one of the project’s biggest dilemmas: figuring out how to create a flexible but highly detailed site design process that could flow as fast as humanly possible amidst a complicated array of pre-construction demands.

“Our client’s biggest ongoing challenge was to keep store openings on schedule and within budgets set prior to our involvement in the site design,” says Hunkler, professional engineer and Dollar General Principal-in-Charge. “GBT needed to deliver a cost-effective site design that fell within the original lease terms of Dollar General. We became GBT’s civil engineer on multiple projects happening simultaneously and on very fast-paced schedules. Our goal was to complete a set of site development construction and bid drawings for the initial permitting submittal within two weeks of our notice to proceed. It was, and is, multitasking on steroids.”

Finding solutions on a fast timeline

Dollar General is experiencing staggering growth. The publically-traded corporation, headquartered in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, employs over 90,000 people in 40 states, and is on track to have 12,000 stores by the end of 2012. The company’s long-term growth goal is equally impressive. They currently build over 600 stores a year (an average of approximately three store openings every two days), with an ultimate goal of 20,000 stores.

A standard Dollar General store takes about three months to build, but the due diligence period leading up to construction can take triple that amount of time or more. GS&P’s role is to organize, streamline and optimize the constant flow of pre-construction challenges and pressures.

“There are so many demands during the site planning and pre-construction phase,” Hunkler says. “Some of the biggest have to do with location and jurisdiction. We help our client navigate through a variety of agencies peculiar to specific sites. They may include city planning commissions, city councils, townships and county governments, departments of transportation and state environmental agencies.”

The typical site contains a pre-engineered store building with parking for 30 cars, truck access, storm water management, and landscaping on approximately one acre of land. At least 25 percent of the sites don’t have the required space needed or are oddly shaped, which inevitably means going through local officials to get a variance. For instance, it can be difficult to determine the best location for an entrance and adequate parking spaces, while also allowing room for a large truck to make deliveries. Although the GS&P team never changes the basic architecture of a Dollar General building, they modify certain aspects of the prototype design to accommodate the unique challenges of each site.

“The engineering from the property line to the face of the building differs a lot from project to project because no two pieces of property are ever the same,” explains Dylan Tarr, civil engineer and project manager. “We adjust our design approach on each project according to lot size, lot shape, utility locations, topography and any of the many other design restrictions or requirements that come along.”

Storm water and drainage problems are another example of a common pre-construction dilemma. Soil types and conditions vary widely and can require everything from a straightforward solution to a more complicated resolution such as placing drainage areas in high grass or in underground holding ponds.

“Municipal requirements, and our proposed solutions, for storm water quantity and quality vary significantly from site to site,” Tarr says. “It can be a substantial issue, and we have to grapple with it for the majority of our sites to some extent as we work toward a solid, approvable design.”

A unified team

A Dollar General project, always in the process of unfolding and evolving, requires a flexible, mentally nimble and highly unified team. In this case, it took time for a cohesive internal group to solidify, but the final team is a diverse group who feel comfortable with the extreme level of multitasking and hyper-attention required to stay on top of the project at all times.

“It takes a certain demeanor and mindset,” explains Hunkler. “It takes a willingness to be autonomous. A lot of decisions rest on your shoulders, but there is a lot of satisfaction in knowing you are steering the truck. When all is said and done, I think our intricate teamwork is the key to the continuing success of this project.”

The GS&P Dollar General team typically consists of about 22 engineers, landscape architects and technicians in total, working on up to 50 projects at a time. Hunkler is proud of his staff and says team members are highly committed and able to move with precision and speed. They must also be ready to communicate with external team members at a moment’s notice — from architects to environmental engineers to land surveyors.

“There’s a special talent necessary to gain these approvals concurrently with each other and in locations where we’ve had no previous project experience,” says Hunkler. “With the pace and number of projects required, adherence to a quality control process is important, and clock-like teamwork is essential. Everything has to happen in a sequence and it can’t be done out of order.”

In the process of managing the demands of the Dollar General project, the GS&P team created a comprehensive checklist for team members to use at every step. It has become an invaluable problem-solving tool that’s essential to keeping the project on track and free of costly errors and omissions. Although having the checklist may seem like a simple part of the project, Hunkler reiterates it’s a detailed tabulation containing many of the lessons learned over time by the team. It consists of over 90 key points, most of which are highly technical and directly related to dozens of tasks that have to be performed before the box can be checked.

“Everyone is touching so many projects simultaneously,” Hunkler says. “The more we got into this, the more we realized we needed tools to turn to. The checklist is one of them, but there are others. Our clear lines of communications with the team, and with people involved externally — city officials, architects, surveyors, planners — are tools we fine-tuned over time, almost to an art.”

Measure of success

Hunkler says he knows the Dollar General work is successful because of the client’s feedback, including the fact that workload continues to grow. Over a period of three years the account has soared with over 280 sites designed, approximately 230 stores either open or under construction, and another 40 in various stages of development. With the GS&P team guiding the pre-construction process, GBT now averages 80-100 stores a year and is the highest volume preferred developer of Dollar General Stores in the country.

“GBT has a choice in site design consultants; they don’t have to go with us,” says Hunkler.

“They’ve tried others, but quickly came back.”
Another key proof of the project’s success lies in GS&P’s record
of quality.

“We have written zero design error and omission checks,” Hunker proudly says. “The discipline required to follow our project management process, as well as the design and agency lessons learned from working across the nation with every conceivable government review entity, has had far reaching positive results in all aspects of our site design process in the Nashville Land Planning Division.

“Our work with Dollar General may not be ‘high architecture’,” Hunkler adds, “but it definitely has its own merit. With a project like this, you might not have that pleasing trophy design, but you have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped the client be extremely successful with a process that’s very demanding and complicated. This project is about the details people don’t see, but have to be accomplished. It has a lot of hidden secrets — a lot we are proud of.”


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Project Info

  • Client: GBT Realty Corporation
  • Location: Various, Nationwide, USA
  • Market: Land Planning and Design
  • Services: Engineering, Civil Engineering
  • Team:
    • Michael D. Hunkler, P.E., LEED AP Principal-in-Charge
    • Joseph A. Johnston Project Manager
    • Dylan Tarr, P.E. Project Professional
    • Robert Keeling Project Coordinator
    • Terence S. Mulvaney, RLA, CLARB Project Designer
    • Bruce K. Dretchen
    • Sarah Holley, P.E.
    • Michael Jenkinson, P.E., CPESC
    • Bill Spalding
    • Kevin Eakes
    • Jubal Parris
    • Lisa Kennedy
    • Dustin Briggs
    • Matthew L. Freudenthal
    • Curtis Smith, P.E., LEED AP BD+C
    • Kenneth Church, RLS
    • John Campbell
    • Thomas G. Martin
    • Rob Whitson, P.E.
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