Adaptation Over Four Generations
The landscape for business ventures and the construction industry as a whole a century ago is incomparable to the industry and marketplace of today and often, companies that have existed for this long bear little resemblance to the one that was founded all those years ago. For Manafort Brothers, this is only half the story.
The company is celebrating its centenary this year and is, quite rightly, proud of its rich history that has witnessed it evolve from a demolition company to a multi-disciplinary construction entity that is an industry leader to many and various industries. The company has remained family-owned throughout its history but, in addition to this continuity and thread that weaves through the spine of the business, it has tweaked, adapted and evolved through many guises to become the giant it is today.
In the modern landscape, Manafort Brothers is a construction and demolition firm that has expertise in areas as diverse as concrete, civil and utility, demolition, remediation and abatement, highway and bridge, nuclear decommissioning, rail and mass transit, design build and alternative project delivery work. However, as Justin Manafort, Vice President, explains, this was far from the case one hundred years ago.
“The company was started by my great-grandfather, James Manafort, so we are in our fourth generation right now,” he shares. “Now, the company is run by myself, my brother and two cousins. and we all look after one or two divisions of the company so overall, we work together. We worked with my father and uncles when we were kids and worked our way up through the business. Back then, it started out as a small house demolition company. The founders of the company used to take houses and take them apart. They would save every brick and board and nail, window frames too. They would store them here in our yard and then sell the pieces to others that were rebuilding.”
Things began to grow for Manafort Brothers and, as its client list grew and diversified, so too did the team’s in-house skill sets. “From there it evolved into a bigger demolition company where they were taking on bigger commercial-sized jobs, hotels and apartment buildings, factories and other buildings of that size. Then my father and uncles, John, Frank and Jim Sr. started to expand the business into a more full service construction company. They were doing excavation work, digging holes and putting in utilities, paving. At this time they started to increase their geographical area from our hometown into other cities in Connecticut. They moved into the area of pouring concrete, so not only would they tear the building down and dig the hole for a new building, they would pour the concrete for the new building itself. Again, that evolved into bigger concrete jobs with power plants and hotels.”
The company may now look different from the outside; however, it has grown to where it is because of the solid foundation that has been built over the years. The skills that the team has developed are ones that have been honed over generations. These are skills and knowledge that now allow the company to apply its expertise to various areas. “With my generation, we have expanded to more power plant construction work; we started to decommission nuclear power plants and build bigger projects,” explains Manafort.
“We are now a general contractor for projects; we can take on design build projects and work with designers and partners to perform the whole job,” he continues. “We work on highway construction, on bridges and roads. Again, with this type of work, we have increased our geographical area so that now we are working in all of the northeast states, we are out west in Illinois, and we are chasing work all over the country.”
Building success over the course of a century cannot be attributed to just one single aspect. Numerous ingredients are required to ensure such longevity and it could be easy to overlook the vital contribution made by the skilled team that Manafort Brothers has built up over this time. “What has really been our success over the years has been what we call our extended family,” says Manafort. “The employees – some of them have worked with us for generations. We have a few men whose fathers worked with my father back in the day and part of our success has been the ability to not only hire, but retain the super-talented employees that we have. We have put a number of key managers in place to help us with our expansion and management of our activities,” he says.
This family aspect to the company is not merely lip service. Nor is it easily won in the world of business. Instead, there is genuine care and a relationship of mutual respect between the various members of the Manafort Brothers community. This is something that Justin is very clear about. “We try to treat everybody like family and to look at their views. We are always working long hours and on difficult projects so we try to be as understanding as we can to their needs just as we would with our own families. We try to keep pace with their benefits and pay; when things are good we try to share the profits because everybody is working hard to help with the success of the company,” he explains.
Certainly, the company has had to build its in-house skill set in a strategic manner. Manafort Brothers has grown incrementally, adding services and expertise to its repertoire whenever the circumstances allow. Justin is keen to explain that this growth has been organic and steady. “Our success is a direct result of our diversification with the different activities that we do,” he says. “We are not just a demolition company, we are not just a highway construction company; with all of the different tasks that we perform, not only are we able to be competitive but we can offer additional services to our clients. A lot of our bigger projects have evolved from a smaller demolition job that turned into an excavation job that then turned into a concrete job. We have the ability to work with our clients, to treat them fairly and be able to offer them a breadth of services. We can help them through the many phases of their projects. Our goal has always been to end a project with a new client that wants to hire us for their next job.”
When it comes to ensuring that the company remains a leading force in the industries it serves, Manafort Brothers acknowledges the need to offer more than its competitors. The company is renowned for its award-winning safety record and sees this as something that sets it apart. “We try to stay ahead of the trends and the changes in the industry,” says Manafort. “We were one of the first companies to have safety-specific personnel… It doesn’t matter how cheap of a price you can give a client, they still rightly want to look at all of your safety records and safety performances to make sure that you are going to do it right.”
However, the company is not immune to the same challenges faced by others in the construction sector. The skilled labor shortage is a concern for growing businesses across the country and Manafort Brothers is no different. “We are a union company so we get our workforce through the local union hall,” says Manafort. “The construction industry unions have had a tough time in keeping pace and bringing in new members and apprentices. They are finding it tough to stay ahead of the industry needs. Right now, that is a big challenge.”
One aspect of Manafort Brothers that has, to some degree, shielded it from the worst of this shortage is its diverse range of services. “Part of our success, with all of our diversification, is having a workforce that – when demolition slows down, for example – we can move to a concrete job. We have a multi-skilled workforce and, although the lack of new members still hurts us, it has been a way for us to try and counteract some of those challenges.” In addition to that, Justin acknowledges that ensuring its staff are remunerated in line with industry standards is an essential facet of retaining its workforce. “It makes it a fast changing market right now,” he says. “There are more jobs than there are workers.”
The company prides itself on being an attractive draw for employees. This is something that Rob Lewandowski, Regional Vice President, is adamant about. “We work hard to make this a great place to work and a great team to work with,” he says.
Given that the company has been in existence for one hundred years, it could be expected that it has been enjoyed its share of memorable moments. It would be only natural that some projects or successes have stood out over this time. However, for Manafort Brothers, this is not necessarily the case. When pushed, Rob feels that the highlight for the company is more thematic than tied to a specific project. The company sees itself as an industry leader, one that has repeatedly broken new ground across its products and services. This is what stands out for Rob.
“I don’t think that there is one particular project,” he shares. “We are a very diverse company so in every line of business in which we work, you could almost identify a few special projects that define the company. When I look back at this company, I am especially proud of the unique, first-of-its-kind projects; we have been involved in a lot of them. If you look at our timeline, in 1973 The 75 Pearl Street building was the first building demolition by implosion in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1983, The Madison Hotel was the first building demolition by implosion in Boston, Massachusetts. We worked as a key contractor performing civil, utility, and concrete work for two of the largest Casinos in the world, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. In 1997, The Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant was the first nuclear power plant was decommissioned in the United States. In 2012, The Wickford Junction Commuter Rail Station was The State of Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s first Design Build Project. And in 2016, The Route 8 Bridge Replacement Project was also the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s first Design Build Project.”
This long-running involvement in pioneering and groundbreaking projects has led to Manafort Brothers’ position as an industry leader. “Being recognized as a leader in the industry and performing one-of-a-kind projects, I think that is especially gratifying. It is something that myself and, I believe the entire company, is very proud of,” says Lewandowski.
The company has existed and thrived across four generations and multiple industry sectors. This simply cannot be achieved by adopting a rigid and formulaic business model. For Manafort Brothers, adaptation is key. The company has flourished where others have floundered and has grown through necessity and by taking risks. While it may seem as though these ideas and strategies are innovative, it could also be argued that the company has reached this point by being attentive, by listening to its clients and responding to changes in the market through fluid and dedicated practices.
Manafort Brothers has been around for a century, and with its rich skill sets across multiple disciplines, it would come as no surprise to see it thrive for another hundred. “We are in a service industry so we have to adapt to the needs of the market,” says Justin Manafort. “We always try to pay attention to what the market needs in each area and we always try to find a better way to meet the needs of the market,” he shares.
“A lot of the work we have done has been done in a creative manner. We have done a lot of jobs but the way in which we accomplished them – it hadn’t been done like that before. That creativity and diversity within our teams have allowed us to adapt to the market and stay out in front. It allows us to be a leader in all of the industries we serve.”