To most Americans, the news of Love Canal -- one of the most notorious toxic-waste dumps ever to be uncovered -- opened a new era of anxiety. But to the seven Elia boys, joined together in Sevenson Construction Corp., their own Niagara Falls, N.Y., construction business, it was a singular opportunity.
Their break came in the summer of 1978, when the company was one year old. Black poisons had begun bubbling out of the ground at the suburban site of Love Canal -- just five miles from Sevenson's offices -- forcing the evacuation of 239 families. The Elias, who at the time were doing a hodgepodge of small commercial and civil construction jobs, had no way of knowing that Sevenson would submit the low bid on New York State's first cleanup contract in 1979. But since then, the family-owned business has used its Love Canal experience -- not to mention the exposure -- as the spring-board into many of the better-known hazardous waste-remediation jobs east of the Mississippi.
"Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden held a press conference right there at the site," recalls Albert Elia III, holding back a grin. "I don't think you can get much higher profile than that."
Over the past eight years, the Elias have consistently proven an ability to perform gracefully under pressure, whether at Love Canal or at the jobs that would follow. By finding innovative ways to complete complex jobs on time -- and to turn problems into profits -- they have created a $56.9-million business, and earned #54 on this year's INC. 500 ranking.
The ability to exploit circumstances creatively may be in the Elia genes. The boys' grandfather launched the family in the construction business back in the 1920s. A bricklayer turned contractor, he built churches, schools, and the town's very first movie houses. He retired early, but following World War II, his sons -- Albert's father and his three uncles -- went into business for themselves. They put up houses, bars, and bowling alleys, and in time they moved on to bigger-ticket projects involving road construction. Their biggest coup came in 1969, when the Army Corps of Engineers hired them to temporarily divert the river above Niagara Falls, the only time in all of recorded history that the world's most celebrated falls have paused.
After that, however, the glory faded, and bad estimates on a few big jobs during the 1970s brought losses of millions of dollars. So Albert, a brother, and five male cousins, all in their twenties and early thirties, decided to form a new company to consolidate their experience and put the problems behind them. "It was a logical step," recalls cousin Larry Elia, now 36. "Each of us had been living and breathing the construction business since the time we were 10."
Sevenson, as they called it, was sealed with a handshake. Rather than setting up a formal structure, each son became involved in areas of the business that interested him. Within four years, they were doing more than $1 million worth of business and were at work cleaning up Love Canal. They had also cooked up a plan to purchase the stock of their fathers' business, for about $4 million over 10 years.
There was nothing spectacular about Sevenson's early jobs, notes 38-year-old Albert, a Notre Dame graduate who, as treasurer, has followed the flow of money since the early days."We did a lot of $10,000, $20,000, and $30,000 jobs, and we did a $500,000 gorilla cage for the Buffalo Zoo." But when New York State sought bids for the first phase of the Love Canal cleanup, things began to change. "We saw the potential for becoming a leader in a new field," Larry says. The original $3-million contract called for complete excavation and containment of the contaminated soils and on-site disposal of the toxic materials. Sevenson has since done six more jobs at Love Canal -- totaling another $10 million.
The Love Canal work, in turn, paved the way for other high-visibility jobs involving other environmental disasters. In 1981, for example, Sevenson was hired to do $3 million worth of demolition and cleanup work at the 52-acre site of a chemical plant in Michigan -- where toxic polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) had been confused with cattle feed. The company spent two years there, managing a crew of local workers and paying meticulous attention to their health and safety. All workers were required, for instance, to have thorough preemployment and postemployment physicals. And that was just the beginning. "Workers were protected with two layers of special gloves and chemical-resistant clothes and boots," says Rick Elia, 32. At many sites, he notes, "they even carry their own breathing air. And before going home at the end of every day, they're required to shower and dispose of their work clothes."
Today, the Elias count their business, which has a full-time staff of around 100, as one of a handful of construction firms in the country with the experience to handle major hazardous waste-remediation projects. "The engineering firms and government agencies know who we are," says Albert."And they invite us to bid." To protect the rest of the company from potential liability claims stemming from the hazardous waste-containment business, the Elias have recently organized it as a separate, wholly owned subsidiary.
But Sevenson has distinguished itself in several other ways. In 1984, for example, it undertook two large prison jobs in Upstate New York, each involving extensive site preparation and huge quantities of masonry work, which might have stretched the management capabilities of larger builders. "We were flat out -- pedal to the metal," says Albert. But the facilities -- 33 buildings altogether, totaling $30 million -- were ready within nine months, earning Sevenson $1.3 million in bonuses.
Moving through complex projects quickly has earned Sevenson other kudos, too. Last summer, it got a half-million-dollar bonus check from the New York State Thruway Authority for polishing off the repair of an 89,100-square-foot bridge in what may be record time. Crews worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the Elias taking a constant interest. "On any given evening," notes Larry," one of us would come by as late as 2 a.m. to make sure that the workers had everything they needed." With $1 million worth of state-of-the-art, high-pressure water-blasting equipment (versus slower, more conventional jackhammers), Sevenson finished the $5-million job in just three months. In fact, it was one whole year ahead of the mandated completion date. "We're overjoyed," says William H. Clark III, the Thruway Authority's supervisor of construction management. "They weren't afraid to try something new, and they rose to the occasion."
In the future, the Elias hope to spend more of their time in construction subspecialties -- such as bridges and waste containment -- where the opportunities for profits are much better than average. "We'll do less work that requires simply putting the shovel to the groun," says Albert," and more in what might be called the highertech end of the business." Beyond the United States, the Elias are taking their expertise to Canada, where they recently set up a new subsidiary. In addition, the company has established a real estate-development arm, to develop and own motels, office buildings, and commercial space in western New York State, and they are talking with a European power company about a joint venture.
But for all of the projects in the works, the Elias have no intention of changing the style in which their company is managed.The four founding cousins who remain with the business -- all vice-presidents with equal shares -- continue to operate without traditional breakdowns of responsibility. Each pitches in wherever his skills are needed. In fact, there has not been a president or a chief executive officer since the 1981 acquisition of the fathers' company -- only an eight-person board of directors. "We've never seen a reason to compress authority into a single person," says Albert with a shrug. "Whenever there's a question, we get together and massage it around. And it seems to work."