All in the Family
Two Generations Build on Laplante Construction’s Solid Foundation
Ray Laplante says he’s always been more of a “hands-on guy.”
He told BusinessWest that he was following in his father’s footsteps by starting his own framing and carpentry company back in 1964, and that, while he would subcontract some work for his dad’s firm — called Albert Laplante Construction — his own namesake business went through the roof in the early 1970s.
“When he got out of the service, my older brother went to work for our father,” he remembered. “And when they hired a project manager, there wasn’t really room for me to be there all the time. Even though I was on my own, they did hire me a few times for sub jobs.”
It was a handful of spec houses that he put up 40 years ago, though, that paved the way for Laplante to find his niche in the home-construction market, and he went on to build many such properties in East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, and Wilbraham. “That’s when my business took off,” he said.
But even though his business, R.E. Laplante Construction Inc., started to develop a reputation for fine home craftsmanship that endures to this day, it was his desire to be out in the field that prompted one of his biggest decisions in the company’s almost-five-decade history.
His son, Bill, currently the company president, went to college to get an economics degree. “Basically, I started working here when I was 12 or 13,” Bill said. “I would come after school, during school vacations, and continued that throughout high school.
“During college,” he continued, “I was still in the field, framing or doing finish work, and continued that after I graduated. But in four or five years’ time, I made the transition into the office, doing a lot of the day-to-day functions, and then eventually sales.”
As Bill told the story, Ray smiled and added, “I’m a framer, a carpenter. I don’t have any kind of management education. Although the business was very successful, my plan always had been for him to come in, and bring the business up to that level.”
And that level, as the elder builder called it, was for his son to take over the behind-the-scenes (and front-of-house) operational aspect of Laplante Construction, while he himself builds on the foundation he created and nails down the strategy that continues to bring success to the family business.
Father Knows Best
As president, Bill said, his job is not just to make sure all the bills get paid — “all the day to day financials,” as he called it — but also to be the top-tier salesman for the company. Which is easy when his number-one selling tool happens to be the man who built the reputation he’s pitching.
With a history of building homes that he designed himself, Bill called his father’s expertise “invaluable.”
“He meets with the customer, listens to them, and has an incredible knack for design and for coming up with ideas,” Bill said. “He can take a look at something, especially in renovations, and come up with the ‘good idea’ for that specific project.”
Ray added that some 90% of his clients don’t in fact work with an outside architect. “So when people call us, they’re looking for ideas and for layouts,” he added. “And we have that capability here — we can put it on the computer and do layouts. My brother, Paul, does all the CAD drafting, which we do in-house. Which is great for our customers because we can take them from the design stage all the way through to completion.
“We’re not architects,” he clarified, “but both Paul and I are very knowledgeable with regard to framing, structural needs, and putting things where they need to be. When we run into situations where we need an engineer, we will hire one, but a lot of it we can do ourselves.
“And we do that design work for a fraction of what you would expect a professional architect or designer to do,” he added, emphatically.
As a result of the economic downturn, Bill did say that he’s noticed an overall shift in priority, from new construction back to renovations. “People are staying put, and putting money into their existing homes,” he explained.
But while other firms might have historically shied away from smaller-profile jobs, focusing on bigger budgets and entire houses, Laplante has always made it an unofficial policy to take on all work that met its criteria for a job well done, no matter the size.
“This has always been the case,” Bill said. “We never let go of renovation, remodeling, and new-addition projects.
“Through the years,” he went on, “you get a dip in the economy, or a recession, and renovations pick up. Some builders, when they get busy, might not want to have to deal with the $20,000 remodel job; we always did, no matter how busy we were — just for that reason, to keep the company diverse. And this has served us well.”
Just because a project might be termed a renovation, Ray noted, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a small-scale project. “Some of these types of work can add up to $500,000 or $600,000.”
In addition, Bill said that a key facet to broadening the horizons for a building company is to always keep pace with developments in the industry. To that end, he has undertaken the necessary coursework through the National Assoc. of Home Builders to receive the designation as a certified green professional. What this means, he explained, is that his role as salesman for the firm now is fully compliant in all that a customer should and would want to know about available green technologies, processes, and products for their project.
“More and more people are looking for it these days,” he said. “But more than just using the word ‘green,’ I’d say that what they are after is energy efficiency. And they are looking for a payback on those investments.”
The key is to look at those technologies and discover what will give the payback that his clients expect, he said, whether that be spray-foam insulation, higher R-value windows, different construction techniques, or siting the house to take full advantage of the sun.
“There are a lot of ways to reduce the energy costs on a new home,” he added. “The nice thing is, we will give our customers that whole array of different products and technologies, and then help them make an informed decision, to decide if it works for them personally, or fits into their budget. That’s really why we tried to get out in front of the green-building process.”
The Family Way
“A lot of people that we work with aren’t price shopping,” Bill told BusinessWest. “They come to us through word-of-mouth referrals, and they trust that we’re going to give them a high-quality product at a fair price. We will bid against other contractors, but one thing we won’t do is compromise what goes into that house.
“I’d say that 75% of our business is just through word-of-mouth referral,” he continued. “That, and the reputation my father has built up over the years of being a high-quality and fair, responsible builder.”
To prosper in an industry that has suffered perhaps more than any other sector in this down economy, both men agreed that the best tack has been to proceed with business as usual. Provided, of course, that one has a track record like the Laplante company.
“It ultimately comes down to trust,” Bill stated. “In many cases this is the largest investment that someone will make in their lifetime. There are so many ways that builders can cut corners, to reduce price or increase their profit, and ultimately it comes down to being able to fully place your trust in the person you’re working with.”
To illustrate that point, Ray told of a recent meeting with a client, in this case someone with whom Laplante has worked in the past.
“We bid on this job; I think it was $80,000 or $90,000,” he said. “Now, they also had gotten a price of $20,000 less, and they wanted to know why. So they called me up and asked if I would go over the price bids. I put them both on the table. The other contractor hadn’t figured in painting, and hadn’t added a number of things — different materials. None of it was written into their contract. We try to be reasonable with our allowances, and because of that level of trust, we are doing that job now.”
Adding to their offerings as homebuilders, father and son have branched out both geographically and in their building envelope. Clients have asked them to build houses on Cape Cod, as well as light commercial structures.
But that doesn’t mean the pair are changing their direction at all. Rather, they’re just doing what their customers have asked of them. And when the conversation arrives at the next generation of Laplantes that might bring the company into the fourth generation of builders, the pair smiled. They aren’t ready to hang up their hammers yet.
Ray said he’d like to have the chance to play a bit more golf, but there’s plenty of time for that in the future.
“My main priority is to maintain the Laplante reputation,” he said. “That’s all I’m looking for.”
When the business of building homes can fall back on more than 40 years and multiple generations of service, that’s a pretty good sign this family is doing it the right way.