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Trail Blazers

Balancing Risk with Caution has Carried Forish Construction through 60 Years
Eric Forish

Eric Forish at the site of the Amelia Park Children’s Museum in Westfield

Forish Construction in Westfield has blended perseverance, diversity, and some calculated risk-taking to script a 60-year success story. As it moves forward from that milestone, it will continue to seek new business opportunities — real estate development may be the next frontier — while expanding its geographic reach.

Eric Forish and his father, Leonard, are risk takers.

Both decorate their offices at Forish Construction in Westfield with mementos from their unusual hobbies – extreme skiing and aviation, respectively – in addition to photos of completed projects and plaques given in recognition of community service.

In some ways, those pastimes are reflective of the passion and drive it takes to run a successful business. But in other ways, they are a departure from the solid presence Forish Construction maintains in this, its 60th year in business.

The younger Forish, who spoke recently with BusinessWest, said even with daredevil streaks running in the family, consistency and longevity are two mainstays at Forish Construction. His father, 86, is proof, Forish added: he still reports to work every day, rain, sleet, or snow.

“Our personal lives have elements of risk and managing risk,” he said, “but running a construction business is all about minimizing that risk, in terms of project management, safety, and finances, and maintaining a reputation for reliability.”

Building Moguls

Forish Construction emerged in Western Mass. in 1946, after Leonard Forish returned from WWII a decorated Marine. He began building homes, and continued to do so until the early 1960s when he spearheaded a shift to the commercial market.

Eric Forish explained that the transition was successful due in part to his father’s attention to diversifying techniques as well as customers.

“Dad always had the latest and greatest tools for his time,” he explained, “and for a long time, servicing the paper industry was a mainstay for the company. But as paper companies like Strathmore and Southworth began to close, the diversity of our skills and clients helped us move onto other things without feeling a major hit.”

Forish has been involved with the company since the age of 16, when, at his mother’s request, he began working summers with his father.

“My mom suggested – insisted – that I go to work for my dad during the summer,” he said, noting that his mother’s foresight paid off; after two summers in the trenches, Forish decided to pursue construction as a career.

Today, Forish Construction specializes in a mix of commercial and industrial construction projects, both public and private. Its offices are located in the same place they have been since the ’60s, on Mainline Drive in Westfield, but over time, the company has extended its reach within about a 60-mile radius.

“Western Mass. is a highly competitive marketplace,” said Forish. “We had to look at creating a larger geographic base. Our main presence is still Western Mass. and Connecticut’s capitol district, but we’re always focused on maintaining a variety.”

An Uphill Battle

He explained further that to achieve that diversity, the company must also maintain high levels of customer service and employee retention, and constantly reinvest in new equipment and technology to remain current and competitive.

“There’s always going to be room for growth in this industry,” he said, “but companies only survive if they meet the challenges that constantly arise.”

One of those challenges is the rapid pace at which the very tools of the construction trade are changing.

“The ruler and tape aren’t necessary anymore,” said Forish. “Now we’re investing in GPS systems, digital measurement tools, and lasers. It allows us to transfer information from the office to the job site more readily, and allows us to work from virtually anywhere.”

But new equipment is expensive, Forish countered, adding that the easiest mistake any construction company can make is to overspend. To flourish, outfits such as Forish Construction must “run lean and mean,” he said.

“Regarding growth, we are conservative Yankees at heart,” he said, returning to the idea of avoiding unnecessary risk. “We like to minimize risk and manage our projects successfully, and we have a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that we’re staying within the costs of the projects.

“Purchases are made based on long-term plans and needs,” he added. Those capital items include heavy equipment – bulldozers, payloaders, backhoes, and trucks. The other items include the software and hardware that are upgraded on a continual basis.”

That’s the balance, Forish said, that is essential to controlled growth in a competitive marketplace, adding that both consistency and acceptance of new ideas and technology are crucial to surviving in the industry.

“One of my dad’s favorite sayings is ‘watch the pennies, and the dollars will follow,’” he said. “Reinvestment in new technology is really key, but proceeding with caution is just as important.”

Plowing Through

That’s not exactly the case when Forish is climbing an icy ledge atop France’s Mont Blanc, strapped to five other people, each wearing clunky ski boots in search of a new, exciting trail. It’s the careful management of his business, though, that he said has allowed him to leave the comforts of Westfield behind, just for a few days, in exchange for a zoom down some of the world’s most treacherous peaks.

More importantly, however, with six job superintendents on the payroll, the company also needs to maintain at least that many projects simultaneously at all times, and also stay busy enough to keep every employee (there are about 40) working. A conservative approach has also helped in that endeavor, as has filling slow months with whatever work is necessary to keep the company’s momentum strong. Sometimes, that means taking on ancillary jobs, such as snowplowing – a service that remains part of the Forish repertoire.

With a quick glance out the window though, Forish said that, thankfully, all of the company’s vehicles are not in the parking lot, but out on construction sites.

Those projects are proof of a diverse mix of clients; right around the corner from Forish’s offices, the company is completing work on the new Amelia Park Children’s Museum (formerly the Westfield Children’s Museum), while across the region in Wales and Holland, construction of two senior centers is underway, and in Ludlow, work has begun on a facility owned by Pods, a storage company that blends the capacity of self-storage with the mobility of a moving service, providing ground-level storage containers to customers and then offering a transportation service of the ‘pods’ to anywhere in the U.S.

“Our typical jobs vary from $1 million to $5 million, but we are glad to do smaller or larger projects if it makes sense,” he said. “We’ve also done buildings for several car dealerships,” he said, adding that healthcare and light manufacturing are also current strong spots.

The company’s next direction, said Forish, will likely be real estate development in the industrial and warehousing sectors, within the next four years.

Snow Doubt …

Other than that, Forish said he’s focused on maintaining a strong presence in existing areas of expertise within Western Mass. and Connecticut, and with 60th anniversary celebrations still underway, he also has another date rattling in his mind.

“If I can get to the same age as my dad and still be working here,” he joked, “I’ll be around for our 100th anniversary. Imagine that.”

That’s contingent, of course, upon Forish’s prowess on the slopes as well as behind the desk.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]