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N. Riley Construction Builds on Its Early Success

Company President Nick Riley

Company President Nick Riley

Nick Riley had never been one to turn down challenges, and he wasn’t about to turn down this one.

It was the summer of 2011, and he had opened his own construction business five years earlier. It was mainly repairs and remodeling work at first, but the goal was always to get into new-home construction. So he accepted a big request — to build a house in the Upper Hill neighborhood of Springfield.

Oh, and it would have to be done in a week.

Almost three years after accepting that challenge from the producers of TV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, his company, N. Riley Construction, has managed to procure more new-construction jobs, in addition to expanding the remodeling — especially kitchens and bathrooms — that have always been his bread and butter. And he sees that crazy week in 2011, and the preparation that led up to it, as a net positive when it came to taking his business to the next level.

“We ended up turning a lot of work away for that project,” he told BusinessWest. “Initially, going into it, we had many reservations about taking on a project of that size with a company my size. We certainly had never built a house in a week. But looking back at it, accepting that project was probably the best move I have made. It was gratifying personally to be able to help a family out on that scale, and as a business owner, the contacts that I made throughout that project — and the experience we gained from that project overnight — helped our business grow.”

Today, Riley is preparing to tackle three or four new-home builds this year, with one already under construction, and a slowly improving economy is bringing more remodeling business to his door as well.

“Our goal going forward is to build more new homes, but I think the market will dictate how that grows,” he said. “We’ve been busy, though. We’re pretty fortunate that we do all types of services, from small repairs right up to new construction and light commercial. That way, we’re able to adapt to different changes in the economy; if commercial is doing a little bit better, we do more commercial. We’re trying to stay flexible, not be bound to one thing.”

For this issue’s focus on construction, Riley talks about how his eight-year-old company has continued to evolve, the lessons he learned from the Extreme Makeover project, and how he’s giving back to the community — and helping to raise up the next generation of builders — in some unique ways.

One Big Week

Riley started out in the construction business working for his uncle, Andrew Crane, president of A. Crane Construction in Chicopee.

“My family has always been around construction, and I’d been around it all my life,” he said, adding that, with Crane, “I learned a lot of hands-on parts of the job. I found I really enjoyed this business, this industry. Then I started a family and decided to start my own business.”

That was a challenge, he said, but he intentionally started small, focusing on home repairs and gradually ramping up to larger remodeling projects and whole-home renovations. When the Great Recession began, construction was among the hardest-hit industries, but home remodeling took less of a dip, and Riley stayed busy.

And then ABC came calling, just four weeks before the planned blitz build in Springfield. Riley was recommended to Extreme Makeover producers by the Home Builders Assoc. of Western Mass. and other contractors, including Crane — even though he had never actually built an entire house.

The homeowner was Sirdeaner Walker, a single mother who lived on Northampton Avenue with two daughters, a sister, her mother, and her grandmother. A seventh person used to live there — her son, Carl Walker-Hoover, who took his own life in 2009 after being incessantly bullied by peers at the New Leadership Charter School in Springfield.

Nick Riley

Nick Riley on site at the one-week Extreme Makeover project in September 2011.

In the months following the tragedy, Walker became a strong advocate against school bullying, successfully pushing for anti-bullying legislation in Massachusetts, meeting with federal lawmakers and President Obama, and establishing a foundation in her son’s name that raises awareness of the bullying issue and scholarships for area students. But her house, in the Upper Hill neighborhood close to Springfield College, was run down and riddled with plumbing and electrical issues — in short, the kind of need, coupled with an emotional story, that the show specialized in.

“The family was amazing — and they’ve really maintained the house,” Riley said, noting that not every Extreme Makeover beneficiary has done so. “They’re amazing owners, with the things they’ve done and continue to do. It was well worth our time. Everyone involved agreed that the project went extremely well.”

Riley was starting work on another new-home build at the time, and since then, he’s expanded into other such projects, he said. “We’ve been adding more and more new construction as the economy gets a little better and the housing market starts to regain a little strength. But we haven’t gotten away from what we started out doing, remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. That’s what we most enjoy doing. We like working on people’s houses and making them into homes.”

The recession did scale back some homeowners’ plans, he noted. “It was smaller repairs and remodeling. People weren’t spending money on big-ticket items — kitchens, really ornate bathrooms — but they were still remodeling their homes. Fortunately, insurance work propped that up.”

He referred specifically to the freak weather year that was 2011, which started with an epidemic of ice dams and leaking roofs, included the June tornadoes and the August tropical storm and flooding, and concluded with a freak snowstorm two days before Halloween. BusinessWest has spoken with many contractors who said insurance work stemming from those events carried them through a rough year or two, and Riley was no exception.

Today, though, he sees an improving economy starting to make a positive difference in home building and remodeling.

“It’s far better than five years ago. I think the housing market has a lot of hurdles to overcome, but it’s definitely improving,” he said. “I’m not an economist, but I see very slow improvement over the next 10 years. In my opinion, we’ve still got a lot of negatives to overcome. Regulations, material prices, and land costs are really three keys slowing things down. I think the demand for new housing is there; the challenge is building it at prices someone can afford.”

Next Generation

With his company’s success, Riley said, has come an increased civic involvement, efforts that go far beyond financially supporting community organizations and getting involved with Rebuilding Together Springfield, which was formed in the wake of the tornadoes.

It also extends to Student Builders, an effort N. Riley launched to help young people gain experience in the building trades.

“It’s something we set up to help out vocational kids at Chicopee Comp,” he explained. “Two years ago, we built a house on McKinstry Avenue. Well, we didn’t build it — we just facilitated the financing and worked out the logistics and coordination, so students at Chicopee Comp were able to have a real hands-on project, able to build a house from start to finish.

“It was a great project to help the students figure out if that’s what they want to do for a living,” he continued. “It was a good project to train the kids and develop a better workforce, because in this industry, it’s hard to find quality employees. It’s so hard to find the workforce for what we do.”

A second build is scheduled for 2015, and he’d like to see a project begin every two years. “Whatever proceeds come from the house, if it ends up making money, goes right back to the kids in the form of tools or scholarships or into the next project. The idea of doing it every other year or so is that, over four years, the kids are able to at least see part of a project.”

As for his own business development, Riley has seen an evolution in the way customers approach projects, and said the change has probably been more dramatic for contractors who have been in the game a lot longer. In short, it has to do with the expectations of clients and the ideas they come with.

“With social media and things like Pinterest, people are able to find ideas and pictures and things like that,” he said. “Years ago, it was, ‘it’s a bathroom; can you put in a toilet and sink?’ Now, there are hundreds, thousands of sinks, bathtubs, and tile configurations they can visualize on sites like Pinterest.”

Personally, he doesn’t mind the more detailed input. “It certainly helps with the design aspect. A lot more creativity is going into these projects,” he said, whether it’s a client seeking an ultra-modern look or the recent customer in Chicopee who wanted the bathroom design to reflect the 1880s when the house was built, complete with a claw-foot tub and hardwood floors instead of tile.

“The best part about this job is being able to have a customer say, ‘this what I want; this is my vision,’ and you’re able to put it together for them,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re doing something different every day in this industry. That’s one of the main reasons why I love doing what I do — it’s something different every day.”

Of course, it’s still a challenging profession, one still crawling slowly from the tough years of the recession. Even so, Riley said, he managed to avoid the lows some builders experienced and keep making families happy — although it usually takes more than a week to do so. “We’ve been able to grow consistently every year. We’ve been very fortunate.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]