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Firm Foundation

Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan says public work — his firm’s main niche — slowed down in 2020, but activity looks strong for the coming year.

Mark Sullivan wasn’t unlike countless other business owners, watching the COVID-19 story develop last February and March and wondering how his construction firm, D.A. Sullivan & Sons Inc., would fare.

While no one knew early on what the pandemic’s impact would be, the general consensus was “this isn’t going to go well at all,” he said. But the company, like all others, managed to keep moving forward, with office staff working from home and Zoom meetings a new fact of life.

“Ultimately, we were able to keep people working in whatever format worked best for the individual, and we’re thankful we didn’t have any layoffs in the field,” he went on. “We were able to employ everyone through 2020.”

What makes that notable is that this fourth-generation family business, which opened its doors in Northampton in 1897 and has been headquartered in that city ever since, relies heavily on public work, including some of the highest-profile municipal and collegiate projects in the region at any given time.

“Now it’s to the point where projects we built 30 or 40 years ago are being renovated or being torn down and replaced. It’s all cyclical.”

“We’ve always had a heavy mix of public work — probably half to 60% of what we do has been public work,” said Sullivan, who is the firm’s fifth president, while his brother, Dennis, is chief executive operator. “We certainly have private clients we do a lot of work for, and we look for that private work, but public work over the years has been the most consistent.”

When Gov. Charlie Baker shut down large swaths of the economy just over a year ago, “we were certainly fortunate we were deemed critical, or essential, and we were able to keep some projects going,” Sullivan recalled. “When COVID hit, we did lose some work; some projects were paused and some outright canceled as people tried to figure out what the pandemic was and what it meant in the near-term future.”

Some of the projects the firm completed in 2020 included a fitness center transformation at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, a new administration building at Harriman & West Airport in that city, a renovation of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority para-transit maintenance and storage facilities in Springfield, and the renovation of a mill building in Easthampton into apartments and office spaces.

“We rely on public work, and the state froze most public work after the first quarter. UMass did, too,” Sullivan said. “We had a backlog going into the year, and we finished up that work, but it was difficult getting new work toward the end of the year because everything had been frozen.”

renovation on Ferry Street in Easthampton

This mill renovation on Ferry Street in Easthampton features a mix of office space and apartments. (Photo by Leigh Chodos)

However, after the firm’s work volume in 2020 totaled about 20% from the year before, things are looking up. “What we’re seeing now is that, as the vaccine rolls out and people see the light at the end of the tunnel, those projects paused last year are coming back online.”

Considering that, he said, and the fact that new municipal projects are starting to emerge from the drawing board, “it looks to be a busy year.”

 

Plenty to Build On

Indeed, the projects currently underway — the firm typically manages 10 to 15 each year — speak to the breadth of the opportunities available in the municipal, academic, and other realms. They include:

• General-contracting services for the construction of the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst, the UMass Fine Arts Center bridge renovation, a renovation and expansion of the Worcester Public Library, and the Chicopee City Hall renovation;

• Construction-management services for a renovation of Mount Holyoke College’s Gamble Auditorium and the construction of 38 cottage-style homes at Lathrop Community; and

• Owner’s project-management services for the renovation of the Westhampton Public Safety Complex and a renovation of the historic Grafton Public Library.

“It’s cyclical,” Sullivan said of public work. “You might be doing elementary schools for a decade, then find yourself doing middle schools after that. Now it’s to the point where projects we built 30 or 40 years ago are being renovated or being torn down and replaced. It’s all cyclical. We do a lot of work for the Five Colleges, UMass especially. It’s always varied, and it’s always interesting.”

The mill renovation in Easthampton was a fun challenge because of the condition of the building when the project began, he noted, while the Worcester library project is fun in other ways.

“Our partners got a kick out of the high-end millwork installation,” he said, noting details in the children’s room like a rocket ship and an eight-foot-tall book. “Most projects are budget-driven from a carpentry standpoint and may not get a millwork package that’s particularly interesting, so to speak. But every now and then, we get a library project or private-client work — we do a lot of private work for prep schools in the area — and those are projects carpenters can really sink their teeth into; they’re a lot of fun.”

Sullivan noted that construction management is becoming more the norm in the firm’s projects than straight general contracting. What hasn’t changed, however, is a reliance on cultivating relationships with municipalities, colleges, and other types of clients over time.

“It can be difficult to be a contractor of our size in the area we’re in and sustain longevity,” he said. “Every project is different, every client has a different process, and the relationships are unique, too; we value those relationships and rely on those relationships to keep work coming.”

That stability was in direct contrast to the upheaval of COVID-19, and how that affected the way workers were able to do their jobs.

“Initially, everyone was trying to figure it out,” he said. “There was no guidebook to follow; it was being established as we went along. That was true for everyone in our industry and in other industries deemed essential, and we were able to keep some projects moving forward in the field.

“Certainly, productivity took a hit, when we were sanitizing projects twice a day, taking temperatures, and keeping logs,” he went on, noting that, when a delivery person was found to have COVID, a whole job site shut down for a few days.

“In the big picture, we got through the whole year without too many issues,” he added. “It’s literally been a year since this thing hit; everyone has the protocols down pat.”

 

Getting to Work

Now that things seem to be looking up — both in the public-sector construction world and in general, with vaccines generating positive news on the COVID front — Sullivan is ready to tackle what he sees as pent-up demand.

“The need for work didn’t go away,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s a lot of liquidity in the market; last year, people held on to figure out a way through the pandemic, and now that they see an end in sight, things are starting to loosen up, and we’re very busy on the building side of things.”

As his family’s business has been for more than 120 years.

“We’ve been around a long time in Western Mass. We work roughly from Pittsfield to Worcester — that’s our zone — and there aren’t many mid-size contractors of our size left in Western Mass.,” he said, noting that the firm generates about $40 million in sales each year. “There are a few bigger firms and several smaller firms out there, but we’re happy with the size we are; it’s a good size. And we’re thankful just to be able to be working every day and be around as long as we have.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Creating a Solid Foundation

This lake home in Westhampton

This lake home in Westhampton is one of the many projects in Keiter Builders’ portfolio of residential projects.

While earning his master’s degree in finance at the University of Rhode Island, Scott Keiter wasn’t thinking about using it to manage his own construction company. But after a dose of the ‘real world,’ as he called it, while working for an insurance company, his passion for carpentry took his career in a completely different direction. In a short decade, Keiter Builders has constructed a solid business foundation and a diverse portfolio of projects across several disciplines.

Scott Keiter likes to say his company is what he calls “a typical Valley builder.”

By that, he means it is relatively small, at least when compared to outfits in larger cities, boasts a diverse portfolio — out of necessity and good business sense more than anything else — is agile, and also always looking to add new disciplines to the equation.

Florence-based Keiter Builders is quite atypical, however, in that it is a first-generation company, started just 10 years ago, almost at the height of the Great Recession (we’ll get back to that challenge later), and therefore doesn’t have a long history.

Indeed, most of the builders in the 413 can boast in their ads — and on the sides of their trucks — that they were launched a half-century or more ago. Their principals can talk about starting out working for their fathers, who can talk about starting out working for their fathers.

Scott and Jill Keiter.

There isn’t any of that Keiter Builders, said Scott, who noted that his father is an aerospace engineer and he himself earned a master’s degree in economics at the University of Rhode Island, and while he was earning it, thoughts of putting it to use to manage his own construction company rarely, if ever, entered his mind.

However, and this is a big ‘however,’ Keiter worked as a carpenter during the summer while in high school and college, developed somewhat of a passion for building, and stayed in touch with the industry throughout his education.

“I tried different careers, and between my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, I went to work for State Farm Insurance in auto claims — that was my introduction to the real world,” he said. “Which wasn’t for me; when I got my master’s degree, I decided I needed a break and went back to carpentry.”

To move the story along, things “progressed,” as he put it, deploying a word he would use early and often, and Keiter Builders started to establish a foothold and begin its transformation into, well, a typical Valley builder.

Download the PDF: List of General Contractors

Today, as noted, it is diverse, specializing in commercial, residential, and institutional work, with clients including Smith College and Amherst College, a number of smaller businesses in and around Paradise City, and the city of Northampton itself — Keiter is currently handling a number of projects within Look Park, for example.

As much as Scott Keiter is into building dwellings, commercial spaces, and softball diamonds, among other things, right now he’s mostly engaged in building his business, a process that, like most, he finds enjoyable, but also quite challenging, given the pressures of what comes day to day.

“One of my challenges is looking ahead,” he explained. “You’re just so busy as a small-business owner, it takes everything you’ve got just to get through the day, but you need to focus on tomorrow as well as today.”

With that in mind, he wants to continuously expand the portfolio, and he’s doing that through various initiatives, everything from investments in the ‘heavy construction division,’ as he called it, which is pursuing subsurface utility work, trenching, and heavy civil projects, to efforts toward gaining certification to handle work for the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, or DCAM, which would enable it to pick up work at UMass Amherst and other state-run facilities (more on all that later).

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on Keiter Builders, a comparatively young firm that has constructed a solid business foundation and is looking to continue building upon it.

By the Booklet

As part of those business-building efforts he described, Keiter said the company has become more aggressive in its efforts to promote its brand.

Like most all builders, large and small, word-of-mouth referrals have always been the most effective marketing tool, but the company has added another component with a slick promotional brochure that Keiter and his staff, including his wife, Jill, invested considerable time and energy in and are quite proud of.

This booklet does a very effective job of explaining the company’s depth and agility — or that ‘progression,’ as Keiter described it, while detailing not only what it does, but also, and perhaps more importantly, how.

Indeed, it devotes pages to the firm’s work to carefully develop a sound pre-construction strategy and manage the construction process and meet the most fundamental of objectives in this highly competitive business — finishing on time and to the specifications set by the client.

But it mostly focuses on wide array of projects in the portfolio.

That list includes everything from a telescope observatory dome at Smith College to the memorial fountain at Look Park; from the Valentine Hall rooftop deck at Amherst College to the work at Roberto’s restaurant in Northampton; from the new Northampton offices of the law firm Bacon Wilson to the Convino Wine Bar in Thornes Marketplace.

It also includes an addition and renovation to the optical studios almost directly across Main Street in Florence from the Keiter offices, as well as a host of new homes, remodelings, and additions.

Overall, that brochure shows a great deal of progression in a decade and how quickly the company has been able to establish itself within this market.

And remember, it started at the height of the recession. Well, sort of.

“We weren’t really a construction company at that time,” said Keiter, adding that the enterprise amounted to him handling a wide array of carpentry work. “We went out and just built a network of clients, and kept at it.”

By that he meant, well, a lot of things, including taking whatever jobs he could get, eventually adding his first employee and then more as the project list grew — “we’re really fortunate to have an excellent group of craftsmen working for us” — and lots of hard work building the solid relationships that are the very bedrock of this sector.

The softball field at Smith College

This relationship-building ability is clearly evident in the list of projects the company is currently handling, including several smaller initiatives at both Smith and Amherst Colleges, for which Keiter has already handled a number of assignments, and ongoing work at Look Park — which is in the midst of a comprehensive capital-improvement project. Renovation of Pines Theater is among the current initiatives.

There are a also a few residential projects ongoing, as well as a new building to support teen housing being developed by a Greenfield-based group called Dial/Self, said Keiter, adding that the company continues to build on the relationships it has forged in its early years while also establishing new ones.

“I don’t think there’s a defining moment over the past 10 years when it comes to how we’ve arrived here,” Keiter explained. “We try to take a long-term approach to our work as it relates to the quality, but also the relationships, and that’s really paid off for us.”

He offered Smith College as an example.

“We’ve been working with them for about six years,” he explained. “We started off doing very small projects, and we’ve just earned their respect and worked our way up to being involved with larger projects. As a first-generation company, we have to consistently prove our value.”

The company currently handles work within a relatively small geographic radius — roughly 15 miles from its Florence base, by Keiter’s estimates — but it is looking to expand that reach as well as its list of core competencies.

Keiter Builders handled renovations of the common area at Amherst College, one of its many institutional clients.

Indeed, Keiter, as noted, is currently investing in a heavy-construction division — a subsidiary of the company, actually — based in Hatfield. This division pursues work with utilities and larger contractors and focus on excavating, trenching, and site work, and it has been growing steadily, said Keiter.

Such diversification is important, especially for a sector so profoundly impacted by downturns in the economy.

“We need to stay engaged in many different disciplines,” he explained. “Sometimes, when commercial or institutional is a little slow, the residential fills the gaps. We really enjoy all the different kinds of projects; it keeps us sharp.”

Meanwhile, the company now owns a number of properties in the Northampton area and will look to develop them, said Keiter, adding that he’s eyeing a mix of commercial and residential development opportunities.

Then there’s the process of becoming DCAM-certified, which, Keiter said, should open a number of doors, including the large one involving UMass Amherst.

“We’re starting to enter the public arena,” he told BusinessWest, adding that DCAM certification should be a catalyst for growth within the heavy-construction division as well as the traditional contracting side of the venture.

Building a Legacy

Keiter, who has young children, said that someday, maybe his company can be one of those that boasts multiple generations of ownership and a half-century of history.

“I really enjoy building the business — it’s a pleasure to build a legacy,” he explained. “My hope is that maybe, sometime down the line, there will be a second generation.”

For now, he’s focused on that business- and legacy-building process, and said the formula for doing that is pretty straightforward.

“You have to keep grinding and building a reputation,” he explained. “And in our industry, there are no shortcuts to doing that.”

Indeed, there’s just hard work — on the job site and in creating and strengthening relationships. And success in those realms has enabled Keiter to come a in way in a short decade.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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