All walls all the timeBy Tom Hatlen
Well, nearly all the time. “If we have a project going on, a retaining wall, and the client asks me, ‘Can you do our front walkway?’ We'll do it, but it's rare that we do that,” explains company president Drew Nicoliello of New Jersey Interlock Systems, Inc.
It wasn’t long after the startup of Drew’s 35-year-old business that retaining walls become the primary focus of his company. That was back in 1989 when segmental retaining walls were starting to take off. Today, nearly all the retaining walls he installs require engineering.
“We've carved out a niche as an earth retention contractor. There's not a lot of companies around that specialize in engineered residential retaining walls. Especially since we do a full package. We take care of everything including the engineering. People love that.”
Clients seek out NJ Interlock as the experts in the field. They know that Drew and company will be able to tell them what is possible, and will build the wall to last well beyond the company’s 10-year warranty.
As such, Drew says profit margins are exceptional and allow him to pay “top dollar” and keep well-trained employees a very long-time. Most of his 4 employees have been with the company 16+ years. “And my subcontractors have been with me even longer.”
New Jersey Interlock Systems, Inc.Franklin Lakes, NJ
President/Owner Drew J. Nicoliello
Customer base90% residential
Services100% retaining walls & earth retention
Project price range$25,000 to $250,000
Annual sales$1.5 million
Staying small building wallsDrew sees no reason to grow his company beyond his 4-man crew. Employees include his foreman and 2 technicians that build the walls, and his machine operator who moves materials, backfills and grades with a track loader. All excavation work and engineering tasks are handled by subcontractors.
Keeping his company a very manageable size allows for exceptional quality control and accurate scheduling. “I'm blessed. We have an awesome crew. I have great subcontractors. I'm surrounded by a lot of really, really talented people, hardworking, honest people that make my job a lot easier.”
For his part, Drew takes care of sales, project management and all the logistics. “And, I’ll do whatever else needs to be done. If I have to drive a dump truck for a day, I'll drive a dump truck. But it's rare that I'm doing anything like that, any of the physical stuff. My guys take care of that.”
Take 1 job at a timeAnother benefit of keeping the company small (and managing it well) is that they’ve only got 1 job going at any given time. “We do not try to juggle more than 1 job. So we're focused on that 1 project. We give it our full attention and get it done right.
“The homeowners love it. I use that as a selling tool. ‘Once we start your project, we will be there until it's 100% done.’ I give them a list of 50 people that they can call and all will say, ‘Oh yeah, they came in, banged it all out, cleaned up and got out of here.’"
Years of building 1 wall at a time with 1 crew make scheduling straight forward. “People don't mind waiting. If I say, ‘We're 3 months out,’ they say, ‘No problem. We'll see you in 3 months."
Outsourcing engineeringDrew works with 2 of his subcontractors (1 engineer and 1 excavator) so often that they’re practically part of the company.
“We give Skrable Engineering enough work to keep him busy on almost a full-time basis, 1 or 2 jobs a week. We’ve outsourced our engineering to him for many years. ‘I give him a survey and mark up the job on there. And within 3 or 4 days I have a full set of engineering plans and design calculations. I have everything that I need.”
Drew looks to a specialty engineer when a municipality requires more involved global stability calculations for a job. That happens 4 or 5 times a year. Beyond that, a handful of other engineers in the area bring their wall work to Drew.
Outsourcing excavationDrew says he’s always outsourced his excavation work. “Schifano Excavating is working on our jobs pretty much 4 or 5 days a week. And he's been working with us for many years.”
“Then I have 2 other contractors that have different size machines that I can say, ‘Hey, we need this machine on this job.’ They do trucking for us, also. Outsourcing helps keep my expenses down. I don't need a low boy. I don't need all these different sized machines.
“We just have a good network of people. I can call any one of them and they will be there ready to work. They like being on our job sites because we take care of them and they get paid very well. We move things along quick. They know all my guys, everybody knows everybody, and they all work great together. If you're organized, and you treat people right, they're going to respond. And you're going to be successful.”
Work directly with the clientDrew works directly for the homeowner. That’s another principal he lives by. “I won't work for any developers. I won't work for any contractors. I have contractors that I've known for a long time, and they connect me with the homeowner and I work directly with the homeowner.
“But I will not work through anybody because it seems like there’s often a problem when it comes time for payment on the final invoice. I've been strung a couple of times, and just a bad taste in my mouth from that. I have plenty of work on my own, so I don't need anybody to feed me work.”
Minimal design timeWhile Drew wants to work directly with the homeowner, he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time designing. “I'm not a designer. I don't care to be one. There's too much time involved with it, there's too much chatting with the customer, changing this, changing that, even after it’s done. And then they say, ‘I'm really not happy with that curve.’ Or, ‘I'm not happy with that.’"
Drew says building engineered walls is different. “Once the project is engineered, that's it. This is the way the wall is going in, just pick the color block that you want. And basically, I only see the client when the first check is due, the middle checks due, and the last check is due. It just makes things a lot easier.”
Overbuild everythingDrew would rather focus on building. Actually, overbuilding. He is a firm believer in overbuilding. In talking to long-time contractors over the years they offer the same advice.
“They overdo everything. When I was young one contractor said to me, ‘When you do something on a job, just overdo it. That way you're never, ever going to have a problem.’ And that's the way I've always done it.”
“So I really have not had ever had any issues on any jobs. We've just always overdone everything and done things the right way. I hire people with hopefully the same mentality and teach them the same thing.”
And the crew keeps overbuilding all winter long. “If we get a couple bad days, we'll sit home. But, if the weather's good, we're working.”
Drew wanted to put in a plug for Belgard and his primary supplier, Structural Stone in Fairfield, NJ. “They’re phenomenal to work with. We only use Belgard Diamond Pro wall block. The quality is great. Very consistent.”