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Building the future Industry icon Sanzari constructing new headquarters in Hackensack

Jo Ann Sanzari, left, vice president; Joseph Sanzari Sr., CEO; and Joseph Sanzari Jr., general superintendent of constuction, on the site of Joseph M. Sanzari Inc's new headquarters in Hackensack.-(PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Sitting at the head of the table and flanked by his son and daughter — both senior leaders in the construction company that bears his name — Joseph Sanzari proudly talked about the new headquarters he is building on a lot in Hackensack his company has owned for nearly four decades.He boasted about how he always has made doing business “the right way” and showing loyalty to both his employees and his customers a top priority. He joked about how his new LEED-certified building will have all the features he doesn’t truly understand, but knows the next generation needs and craves.

He said he hopes Joseph M. Sanzari Inc. will last for another “50 or 100 years,” run by future generations.

Sanzari, an icon in the industry, is a symbol of today’s New Jersey, where a self-made, straight-talking high school graduate can build a multimillion-dollar family business, consult with numerous governors and literally help build the state.

But he also serves as a warning.

He saw the damage the economic downturn did to so many in his industry, he said. And, he said, saw how the squabbles over the Transportation Trust Fund did more.

He worries about how the state does business and wonders if too many people are worried about themselves and today, instead of tomorrow and the next generation.

In a wide-ranging interview with NJBIZ, Sanzari talked about the state of his company and the state of business (and politics) in New Jersey.

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Sanzari loves to talk about his new building: “Silver-certified LEED … all energy-efficient appliances … LED fixtures.”

And a whole lot of other modern features that he doesn’t understand. He just knows he needs them. And knows it’s worth the 30 percent additional cost to the project.

His daughter, Jo Ann Sanzari, who serves as vice president of the company, said the emphasis to go green came from its employees.

“One of our project managers educated me on it and convinced me,” she said. “Once we learned about it, we realized it’s all great stuff. We’re not going to see the savings for a while, but it feels good to be doing something like this.”

While the financial payoff will come down the road, she said the immediate payoff is not in the savings, but in attraction and retention.

“The younger employees want this,” she said. “They know all about this.”

Joseph Sanzari says the building will be closed up before the holidays and he expects to move in next spring.

In many ways, the company never thought that day would come.

For starters, the intention was to move the company headquarters to the working yard it has in Elmwood Park. Then the economic recession hit and everything was on the table. Sanzari, saying he never felt he could truly leave Hackensack, decided to stay put.

“It was important for me to stay in Hackensack,” he said. “My goal was to have everybody under one roof for the efficiency and the camaraderie of it. This was important to us, but then the recession hit and I had more time to think about it.”

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The economic downtown hit the construction industry as hard as any other. Even companies such as Sanzari’s — stable for decades — felt the impact.

“From 2009 to 2011, we had bad times,” he said candidly. “Things didn’t go too well for us for the first time in 30 years.

“We were in a situation we hadn’t been in. The core of our business is the bonding, and the bonding is the banking. And when the banking industry went, we started, like everyone else, being questioned and looked at. It was much stricter. And our bonding became an issue, and it had never been an issue.”

Sanzari credits two things for pulling him through: an old client and a new banking partner.

“Thank God for Public Service (Enterprise Group),” he said. “If it wasn’t for their programs the past two years, I don’t know where we’d be. They have jump-started this economy second to none. If it wasn’t for the Public Service work we have now, we wouldn’t have 300 men out there.

“And thank God for Provident Bank. I put my cards on the table and said we had two bad years. We worked out a lot of stuff, and they had faith in us.”

Which enabled Sanzari to maintain his faith in his people.

“We pulled through, but it was rough,” he said. “We would do a $30 million job with 2 percent on it just to keep our employees going.

“But one thing I believe is to never lay anybody off. If I have to carry them for a bit, so what? Those are the people that make you. You can only do what your people and your support in the office will do. You’re only as good as that. You can have your name all over the place, but if you don’t have the people to go out there and do it, you can’t do that. I take pride in keeping everybody going.”

Sanzari said 90 percent of his workforce has never left.

“What we’ve learned is that relationships really do work,” he said.

Sanzari said he also takes pride in understanding his spot in the industry, which is something, he said, that hurt others in the tough times.

“One thing about our company,” he said. “We don’t want to be the king of the mountain. We want to do what we do best and only do what we can in the year. It’s very important. People who want to be king of the mountain take jobs all over the place, they bid them for nothing and then they get in trouble.

“I saw a lot of them go down. They focused on wanting to be the biggest and you can’t do it. If you don’t have the people, you can’t perform.”

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Sanzari was thrilled to see the gas tax pass. He knows the additional revenue spent on infrastructure will be a boost for his industry.

He hopes the industry will rebuild properly. But, he warned, it’s time for the industry to rebuild itself in a different way.

Looking forward, Sanzari uses sort of a bucket theory for how he hopes the industry will rebound now that more money (and more state projects) is on the horizon.

In his experience, contractors should fall into three categories: small (local jobs with municipalities), medium (companies like his who can handle almost any job) and large (the massive corporations who can handle the large infrastructure projects, such as the Pulaski Skyway or major work on the New Jersey Turnpike).

Sanzari feels the smallest companies will rebound first, since bids for those jobs are more easily released. He’s not mad about it. In fact, feels it will help his company in the long run.

For too long, he said, smaller companies have been bidding out of their range or bucket because they were desperate for work. This process, he said, hurt everyone. Smaller companies would get the jobs, he said, because they could undercut others bids.

“We would look at who was bidding and know if we were going to get the work just by looking at the names,” he said.

Sanzari, however, argued that these companies were slower to complete the work, hurting everyone.

“To me, it’s not fair,” he said. “There are a lot of contractors here that are two years behind schedule. Is the state getting quality to tie up that job for two additional years?”

Sanzari feels once more jobs become available, more companies will return to the bucket they belong, benefiting everyone.

That being said, adding more jobs doesn’t solve all the problems.

Sanzari thinks two changes could help the industry.

First, he would like to see stricter completion dates, especially on small- and medium-size jobs. And he’d like to see bigger jobs divided up more.

“What the state has to do, instead of putting these projects out for $150 million, put them out like they did years ago, in stages,” he said. “If they break it up, everybody has a piece of the pie. Once you get into that $100 million, then you can’t build the smaller jobs that are your bread and butter.

“When they put a job out for $150 million, you’re only going to have three, four bidders. They probably could put that job out in five pieces where everybody gets a part. That should be looked at when this money starts to come out.”

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Sanzari knows there may be more storms to weather in the future. But he also feels he’s prepared for them.

That preparation, he said, involves slowly turning over the business to the next generation, starting with Jo Ann Sanzari and son Joseph Sanzari Jr., the general superintendent of construction.

“One thing I hope my family does do is continue my business for another 50 to 100 years,” he said. “I will never sell out as long as I’m sitting in this seat.”

As for succession planning, Sanzari said whether his family will fill the seat is up to them.

“I really want my family to take over, if that’s what they want to do. It’s up to my children to carry the ball, and we have enough people to do it. Joseph is handling more and more out in the field. And Jo Anne’s been taking care of the business side with the contracts. It’s really a smooth operation now. We have a lot of young blood to keep this going.

“I have six grandsons and one granddaughter. If they were into it, we could go forever, the name could go forever.”

E-mail to: tomb@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @tombergeron5

Tom Bergeron