Building firm adapts, grows by expanding range

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
The Great Recession delivered a hammer blow to building and real estate businesses, and New England Construction did not escape the pain. The East Providence-based company saw revenue fall from more than $58 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2010. But while other companies folded, New England Construction held on and worked hard to rebuild through the recovery. Today the company’s annual revenue is nearly where it was before the downturn five years ago, up to $53.5 million in 2012. More

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FASTEST-GROWING & INNOVATIVE COMPANIES

Building firm adapts, grows by expanding range

PBN PHOTO/FRANK MULLIN
FOCUSED ON SUCCESS: New England Construction CEO David A. Sluter, left, and President and Chief Operating Officer John D. Pignataro know the key to company growth is having the right people in place and choosing the right opportunities.
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By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Posted 9/16/13

The Great Recession delivered a hammer blow to building and real estate businesses, and New England Construction did not escape the pain. The East Providence-based company saw revenue fall from more than $58 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2010.

But while other companies folded, New England Construction held on and worked hard to rebuild through the recovery. Today the company’s annual revenue is nearly where it was before the downturn five years ago, up to $53.5 million in 2012.

“For a while it seemed like we had to sit on the sidelines,” said David A. Sluter, the company’s founder and CEO. “Lenders weren’t lending and the capital markets were shut down. As things started to come back, we had to reinvent ourselves a little as to who our customers are and how we find them.

“We’d always done work outside of Rhode Island, and that turned out to be an important move, because we found the Rhode Island market was no longer big enough. There simply wasn’t enough work in the state,” Sluter continued.

“We started looking in the Greater Boston area and in Connecticut. And we focused on some areas where we’d had success in the past. We looked for jobs involving automotive dealerships, retail, office space and multiresidential projects” he said.

Today you can see examples of the company’s work all over Rhode Island and the Northeast.

In Westerly, New England Construction played a key role in restoration of the historic Weekapaug Inn, serving as construction manager for the two-year, $20 million project. It was chosen “because of their depth of experience, quality of work and commitment to their clients,” Edward B. Wetherill, the owner’s representative, said in a website endorsement.

In Somerville, Mass., New England Construction served as construction manager for a 40,000-square-foot indoor rock climbing and fitness facility. “New England Construction has executed this project diligently and professionally,” said Chris Ryan, chief development officer at Brooklyn Boulders.

In Fall River, the company transformed a century-old-mill building into a new workforce training center for Bristol Community College. In Barrington, it supervised renovation work and an addition to the Bayside YMCA’s aquatics center.

It worked on several stores at Garden City Center in Cranston, and in West Warwick it is now completing work on a 60,000-square-foot facility for Balise Automotive Group. Currently the company serves as construction manager for a 78-unit housing community in Bloomfield, Conn.

When asked about the company’s comeback, the CEO gives credit to the staff.

“We have 45 employees right now, and that’s about where we were in 2008,” he said. “In this business, it really comes down to the team you have. At one point we did have to downsize and let some go, but we always held onto our core team. It cost us some money, but we have them with us now.”

“We try as best we can do give all of our employees a voice when it comes to our strategic and business planning,” added John D. Pignataro, the company president and chief operating officer. “Our staff has an open forum to ask questions and offer input, and they do. We want them to be engaged in our success and our struggles. Oftentimes, the greatest benefit is bringing the entire organization together to celebrate our collective accomplishments.”

Sluter worked for a Vermont consulting firm before he and his wife, Marjorie, launched New England Engineering in 1980. Early on they focused on providing inspection and consulting services for construction projects. Two of the firm’s biggest customers were the U.S. Navy installation in Groton, Conn., and the U.S. Air Force installation on Cape Cod.

By 1985, a building boom was underway in the Northeast, and the Sluters reinvented their business as New England Construction, a design-build company. Before long, the services they provided had expanded to include site selection, feasibility analysis, permit management, budget planning, energy management, building design, engineering and construction.

One of their largest projects to date has been the renovation of an historic mill complex in East Providence, a development known as Rumford Center. Using both state and federal historic tax credits, the Sluters and their partners transformed nine mill buildings into 88 apartments, 60,000 square feet of office space, and 8,000 square feet of retail space.

Sluter is cautious when asked if he believes the recent revival of the state’s tax credit program will lead to more construction projects of that scale, given its limited scope in both size and the number of credit opportunities available. “It’s great to have the program back, and it will certainly help some projects,” he said. “But I don’t think the tax credits will be that easy to come by.”

According to the CEO, hard work, planning and performance ensure success, not tax credits.

“Our approach to sustainable growth has always been based on sound planning and accountability,” he said. “Starting with a marketing focus, it is imperative that we understand the markets where opportunities exist. We focus on specific market segments that will provide growth, as well as a balanced portfolio of work.

“Sales planning and execution is where the rubber meets the road. Best-in-class organizations create their competitive advantage by developing a sales-planning process and sticking to it. The key to our success has been to set reasonable targets by market and geography, track our progress, measure team and individual performance and hold people accountable for results.” he said. •

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