Surviving for Well Over a Century for Good Reason

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman Incorporated (BAC)

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Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman Incorporated (BAC) has been serving the needs of its clients for over 170 years. It is believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, construction firm in the United States. And it began with the most humble beginnings.
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Building a company legacy is not an easy task and is always fraught with challenges, but within those challenges are opportunities. With a strong conviction, excellent leadership, fortitude and a vision of what can be, many successful companies have withstood the test of time – they created a name for themselves that has lasted well over a century.

This is a task not easily replicated today according to Yale lecturer Richard Foster. He notes that successful companies tended to last sixty-seven years in the 1920s. Today, that number averages around fifteen years.

It was Charles W. Blakeslee who established the family-owned business in 1844. It was originally called C.W. Blakeslee and Sons and was operated as a mover of household goods for the wealthier families in New Haven, Connecticut who retreated to the countryside during the warm summer months. He noticed, on his return to New Haven, that stones were being hauled from local quarries for road pavement in the then growing city.

He soon purchased some quarries and began delivering stones as well. ”He decided that the road building was a lot more profitable than the moving business,” says David Chapman, Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman’s president. In 1969, the Blakeslees sold the company, which had expanded into the large multi-story apartment building sector and was, “one of the larger construction firms in the northeast,” to Westinghouse Electric Corporation, the suppliers of home products.

When Westinghouse sold the Blakeslee company, exiting the construction market, Vincent Arpaia and Roger Chapman, David’s father, both vice presidents in Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman’s construction division, purchased the company in 1976. After Vincent’s passing, Roger became president, followed by David, after his father’s passing.

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman has its headquarters in Branford, Connecticut and has a strong regional presence with a staff of twenty-five in the office and fifty to one hundred employees in the field depending on the workload and season. While operating as a unionized contractor, the company serves as both a subcontractor and contractor and is Connecticut’s only licensed engineering design construction firm.

The company provides engineered construction solutions in four divisions: heavy and highway, marine, utility and rigging and millwrighting. “The percentage of work between those really bounces around from year to year,” says David. Generally speaking, one or two of the divisions are busy while the others are slow. But what David has noticed recently is that “we have a lot of work in all of the divisions, which is kind of unusual.”

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman will pursue some projects out of state such as its current wastewater treatment plant in Rhode Island. It has a dock replacement project scheduled for the fall of 2017 in Long Island, New York and completed a substation project in Vermont about a year ago. “We’ve bid on work out of state, and we are trying to get broader,” he says.

As to how the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) – the highway program for the federal Department of Transport (DOT) – is impacting the company, David says that the nation is two years in of the five-year bill and that most of the company’s work is not DOT specific. The FAST Act has been good in maintaining existing highway infrastructure but, “it hasn’t really expanded it … I don’t see the DOT as being a really growing market in the next few years. There seems to be a lot of other work out there.”

The company has a skilled and committed staff, some of whom have been with Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman for decades. The late Roger Chapman believed that his company’s success was largely attributable to its staff. He had been noted as saying, “that’s really the heart of the business.” David concurs.

“I’m extremely lucky to have so many good people working for us, both in the office and also out in the field in the trades … I think when you have good talented people, and you let them take responsibility for their work, and you really appreciate their efforts, you develop a really good team. You start to attract the same type of talent.” He says that having faith in the team and respect for their talents and abilities, “makes a big difference.”

The company has five professional engineers and a land surveyor. “We do a lot of our own design in house, so if we get into a situation where it’s kind of complicated, we have the people who can quickly design a solution [and] keep the project going.”

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman has major manufacturing companies, educational and medical institutions, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and private businesses among its many clients. The company recently completed a $10 million pile driving project and will be undertaking a $10,000 sewer repair project. Regardless of project scale, Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman views all projects as the, “most important project … it requires interfacing with the designers and the regulatory people and other organizations. We have to provide a lot more detailed information than we use to before.”

David acknowledges that it is important to know what the client expects on a site and to respect and meet those expectations. “Now, there’s so much more to do on a project than just doing the work.” He refers to the numerous documents and details pertaining to each project and having the right people that can solve such challenges. “That’s important today.”

Health and safety is a vital concern in the everyday operations in the construction industry. As far as safety is concerned, there is no room for compromise; it is everyone’s responsibility.

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman is, “self-insured for workmen’s compensation in Connecticut which not a lot of companies are,” says David. “Being self-insured, safety becomes extremely important to us.”

He explains that his father was involved with construction in the 1950s before safety gained the attention it has today. “He became a big advocate for safety long before it was considered fashionable. He was actually one of the few contractors who thought OSHA was a good idea when it came out in the 1970s.”

The Foreman’s Club, an internal organization that is run by the employees, has roots dating back to the 1940s. It was initiated by company foremen, and its agenda is to address safety concerns and further promote more efficient construction practices while overseeing the company’s safety program.

Once a month, meetings are held to discuss how safety is being conducted in the field – both the good and the bad – and to make changes where needed. Dinner events, which include clients, are held three or four times a year to discuss safety topics.

“Companies always have sort of a top-down approach to safety,” adds David. “But this is more from the bottom up, saying ‘We’re out here in the field. This is what we need, [and] this is what we’re seeing is not being done’. It’s very positive. I don’t think a lot of companies do that … Having [people] in the field taking responsibility for it, I think, really makes a difference.”

He adds that the company does numerous foundation underpinnings and earth retention. “We do a lot of projects that are kind of complicated and have some rather unique facets to them.”

Currently, Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman is involved with a land development project called Steelpointe Harbor in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The site used to be a power plant, and there are now several projects being carried out to reclaim the land. The owners, Bridgeport Landing Development (BLD), are turning the development into urban mixed use and including a marina, which is set for completion in 2018.

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman has been working closely through the phases of the project with the owners and other contractors. “It’s probably one of those projects that will really make a difference for the city as far as being able to get some development in there,” explains David. “When it’s done, it should be really nice … It’s nice to be a part of that, but it’s been very challenging … It’s a much different atmosphere than a lot of the jobs. It’s been a very productive collaborative atmosphere.”

Another smaller project, completed just north of Hartford, Connecticut, was that of an old prison that was part of a copper mine in colonial times. The stone block guardhouse was starting to settle, requiring the foundation to be restored.

Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman re-supported all three sides of the building and put in a new foundation below grade. Thereafter, stone masons set the blocks. “Just to pick up this whole structure and keep it from moving was quite a challenge,” David adds. “When it was done, it looked better than when we started.”

Another recently completed project was also in Hartford. A new aeration tank commissioned by the city’s Water Pollution Control Authority. There were 3200 ‘H’ piles that had to be driven through the winter and into the evenings. The project was not challenge engineering-wise but was a challenge in terms of the schedule and project planning.

“It was quite an operation. We ended up having to condense the project and change the way some things were done. But we got the project done inside the window we were given.”

As for the future of the industry, David believes that there will be many more projects where “contractors will have a lot more control over the projects.” He explains that, currently, an owner hires a designer who goes out for bids but, “I know a lot of the owners aren’t particularly thrilled with that.”

Other models like the design-build and the construction manager at risk seem to be getting a lot more attention. “I think these models are going to evolve into something new, but I think, eventually, you’ll see a lot more of the contractors and the owners collaborating on a project.”

For a company to survive a century, or beyond, is a true testament to its ability, among other things, to create a strong company culture, a committed investment in its employees, and a strong focus on customer satisfaction. And what is the future for Blakeslee Arpaia Chapman? “We like the more difficult projects, the ones that require a lot of engineering and planning. We’re kind of set up for that … I think that sets us apart.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 18, 2019, 10:11 PM EST

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