Profiles in Business
Building on the Foundation of a Family BusinessDave Fontaine was in his conference room, referencing the pictures on the walls, all representing projects this family business had undertaken — from perhaps its biggest initiative, the complex at UMass Medical School, to one of the most visible in this region, Scibelli Hall on the campus of Springfield Technical Community College.
But it was one not spotlighted within this collection — there are many pictures elsewhere — that soon captured his attention as he attempted to place the history and longevity of Fontaine Bros. Inc. in perspective.
“Chicopee Comp High School … we built the new one, but as part of the project, we also had to raze the old one — which we also built, in 1962,” he said. “In this business, you never think about being around long enough to tear down your own work.”
Fontaine Bros. has been part of the construction landscape in this region for nearly 80 years. Dave Fontaine, its president since 1995, has been involved essentially since his father took a more prominent leadership role with the company in the late ’70s (more on that later). That means he’s been around long enough to experience at least five or six serious swings in the economy, both up and down.
But there’s been nothing that can compare with the current downturn, he said, adding that it is unlike those that have preceded it in many respects, but not all ways.
“We can always see them coming,” said Fontaine of dips in the economy large and small, noting that construction work is traditionally a lagging indicator, but those in the sector can easily see the dark clouds forming on the horizon. “And we can usually guess how long they’re going to last. With this one, no one knows, and I mean no one.”
There are other aspects to this downturn that are equally mystifying and compelling, he continued, citing the lack of method and what appears to be some madness when it comes to how companies are bidding on projects.
Indeed, Fontaine has come in as the runner-up in no less than 25 projects over the past 18 months or so — initiatives ranging from the new Putnam Vocational High School in Springfield to the new Longmeadow High School, to perhaps a half-dozen police and fire stations across the Commonwealth. The winning bids have been so low, he continued, that in at least 20 of the 25 cases, Fontaine Bros. simply wouldn’t take the job at the price it was awarded at.
When asked what it’s like to come that close, but apparently not that close, two dozen times, Fontaine simply shook his head repeatedly, as if to say he didn’t know how to put it into words and also didn’t need to.
In retrospect, Fontaine says this historically slow period for the company should have been a time to perhaps play a little more golf — he’s a 14-handicapper at Longmeadow Country Club and the incoming president of that institution. “But I always thought that the call that would turn things around for us would come in … and I’d be out on the course,” he laughed.
So like most in this business, he’s been in the office, doing some muttering and stewing about the economic conditions, while also welcoming the fourth generation of the family to the business (his son David), as well as his energy and imagination.
“He went to Bentley, and he’s bringing a lot of that business education to the company,” said Fontaine. “He has a lot of good ideas on how to generate new business.”
For this, the latest installment of its Profile in Business series, BusinessWest talks at length with Fontaine about his business, construction, overcoming shyness (a lifelong challenge for him), and cutting the grass.
That’s right, cutting the grass.
Fontaine says he’s always loved doing it and still does — and that’s good, because he and his wife, Beth, recently moved from East Longmeadow to a six-acre farm in nearby Somers, where she tends to a few horses and copes with a considerably larger lawn and a 200-year-old home that is decidedly high-maintenance.
Looking back, Fontaine said his first entrepreneurial venture was a neighborhood grass-cutting operation that lasted from the fifth grade well into high school. And he might have wound up pursuing a career in landscaping had not the family business started suffering through another of those pronounced downturns he described earlier.
Before telling that story, Fontaine ventured back to the 1930s, when his grandfather and one of his great uncles left their family farm in Canada at the ages of 12 and 13, respectively, to come to this country and seek their fortune. They landed in Chicopee Falls and eventually started building porches. They shaped this specialty into a residential construction company that would later be led by first cousins George and Ray Fontaine, who would transform it into a commercial builder.
Starting with some buildings at what was then Westover Air Force Base, the Fontaine company quickly evolved into one of the region’s largest construction companies, handling mostly public work that included everything from dormitories, academic buildings, and the Fine Arts Center at the rapidly expanding UMass Amherst campus to dozens of schools across the region and far outside it, to a host of municipal buildings.
The biggest project in the portfolio was the UMass Medical Center complex in Worcester, a $50 million project when built in 1970s, but perhaps a $500 million venture today, when adjusted for inflation.
But then, the bottom fell out — and in a big way.
“Overnight, the construction market just stopped,” he said. “It went from being the busiest time in the company’s history to a period when it had zero work.”
Things looked so bleak that Ray Fontaine, who was now alone at the top following George’s passing in 1972, was thinking about shutting things down. Before he did, he asked Dave’s father, Lester, a long-time field supervisor for the company, if he wanted to take a more active role in overseeing the business, its construction work (what little there was), and its many commercial real-estate properties, especially apartment complexes.
“It wasn’t a hard choice for my father,” Dave recalled. “It was essentially be out of work or give this a try; he gave it a try.”
The younger Fontaine started working at the family business part-time almost immediately upon graduation from high school, but he said his father informed him that, if he ever wanted to take a leadership role in the business, he would need more education.
So he enrolled in STCC’s Civil Engineering Technology department and graduated in 1982. He credits that experience with giving him not only the necessary skills for his eventual career path, but also some needed self-confidence. Today, he sits on the school’s board of trustees.
Nerves of Steel
Fontaine now manages the business with his first cousin, Chris, who handles the estimating work — all those bids — while Dave tackles the day-to-day operations.
In recent years, the portfolio and, in some cases, the office walls have been bolstered by work that includes the MassMutual Center, the new Chicopee Comp (perhaps its largest public-school project), and, more recently, the new Minnechaug Regional High School and soon-to-open Center for the Sciences and Pharmacy at Western New England College.
There are currently six projects on the company’s books — roughly half the number during what would be considered a typical year, if there is such a thing. Business has picked up slightly, said Fontaine, but there is still a ways to go before this sector can approach what can be considered normalcy.
Waiting for that time to arrive is more than a little nervewracking, he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that some of the anxiety is self-inflicted.
“After all this time and all these cycles, I should know better,” he said of the hand-wringing he’s been doing. “Eventually, things are going to pick up — I know that.”
He said those who remain cautious about the economy and moving ahead with building projects should understand that, while there are risks to doing so, the conditions, especially in terms of prices, won’t be better for a long, long time.
“We’re doing a four-story building at Holy Cross College,” he said. “The way the bids came in, they’re getting the fourth floor for free. There’s a lot of that going on.”
While waiting impatiently for conditions to improve, Fontaine is enjoying having the next generation of the Fontaine family come to the Cottage Street offices for work every day — a decision that wasn’t the foregone conclusion it was for the third generation.
“We had some discussions before he went to college,” he recalled. “I had always indicated that we’d love to have him and that there would always be a place for him, but it really needed to be his decision because there are certainly other ways to make a living, and if it was his idea, that would be terrific, but it had to be his idea.”
And Fontaine is happy that the younger David did choose this way to make a living.
“He’s been spending some time learning the estimating side of the business,” Fontaine continued. “And he’s become very proactive with getting our name out to the private-sector client base.”
Meanwhile, Fontaine has officially taken over as president of Longmeadow Country Club after working his way up the leadership positions. He’s expecting that his tenure, which could last anywhere from one to three years, will help in his seemingly lifelong battle against shyness and putting himself before large groups.
“I’m incredibly shy, and I fight that virtually every day of the week,” he explained. “From college on, it’s been one of my goals to get over that, and I’ve done a pretty good job of that. But every time I have to go speak or say something or meet new people, I think about it for a couple of days in advance; I’m still not comfortable with it.
“I am getting better — I think,” he continued, “and being president of the club will force me to get better still. I keep telling myself that I’m better than I think I am.”
Looking ahead to 2011 and the plight of the construction sector, Fontaine said there is evidence that the skies are brightening somewhat.
Just when a pronounced turnaround will begin is anyone’s guess, though, he said, adding that it’s likely there will be more of those maddening runner-up finishes in project biddings in the months to come.
But there are some things to distract him — bringing his son along in the business, taking the country club through the process of installing a new irrigation system, and, starting in the spring, anyway, more chances to mow the grass.
At least that activity isn’t impacted by those wild swings in the economy.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]