Forty years ago, Joseph Natoli founded a general contracting business that would become one of the most respected firms in the industry. Today, under the leadership of his son, Company Owner Paul Natoli, Natoli Construction celebrates four decades of impressive, renowned projects with an extensive list of prestigious awards. Among them are the construction of the New York Giants’ Home Headquarters, an expansion of Rutgers University Livingston Campus and the remodeling of the Statue of Liberty.
How does a relatively small company of 50 employees, still bearing its family name, end up with such high-profile projects? “We have an impeccable reputation in the tri-state area,” Paul Natoli explains. “It’s our best marketing tool.” From past performance to its manner of business, the firm has created a reputation that has spread from private sector clients to public and to federal.
New York Giants Sports Complex
“It started with the New York Giants in the early ’90s,” Natoli relates. “They’re a demanding group and there’s a small window of time to do work on their facilities. [Team owner] John Mara has been loyal to us. It got to the point they had to knock down their home and build a new one.” Until then, the firm had been doing $2 to $5 million renovation jobs for the team. “When a $75 million project came along, he had the trust and confidence to award us that project,” Natoli adds.
Natoli completed the New York Giant’s Home Headquarters and Training complex in 2009 – a $75 million facility near the Meadowlands Stadium. The sportsplex houses a 104,000-square-foot headquarters and training facility, a 98,000-square-foot indoor practice area with a synthetic turf field and a 6,750-square-foot maintenance building. The construction firm also built four outdoor practice fields, including three grass and one synthetic turf. Indoor facilities include a reception area, weight room, players’ dining room, players’ meeting room, television production area and coaches’ offices.
Statue of Liberty Pedestal
Not one to stay in a single niche, Natoli also has a 20-year history with the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which has funded different projects on Ellis Island and ultimately raised the money for Natoli’s first renovation project at the Statue of Liberty in 2004. The project included life-safety upgrades necessary to open the monument after the events of 9/11. “When the recent project came up, it was with the federal government,” Natoli notes. “We are a company that changes with the times, so we asked ourselves, ‘Why don’t we compete for this unique, prestigious federal project?’” The technical proposal and price were on target, and the firm had the experience and qualifications needed. Natoli had already proven itself through years of work with the Foundation. Once it landed the Statue of Liberty project with the National Parks Service, it entered competitively into a new market.
Natoli’s job was to completely demolish the interior of the statue’s 145-foot-high granite pedestal, install new elevators, interior stairs and HVAC systems, and upgrade the electrical and fire systems. The $42 million project also included various new sets of egress stairs to the exterior. On October 28, 2012, the Statue of Liberty re-opened to the public and for the first time in history, the observation deck was now completely accessible to handicapped visitors.
“The Statue of Liberty work was extremely complex,” Natoli recalls. “A lot of contractors shied away from it. They felt the project was impossible.” Naturally because of the statue’s historical value, certain elements needed to remain intact. Among those were the monuments’ original Eiffel beams, which Natoli couldn’t touch. The firm was challenged to come up with creative ways to internally support construction rigging while completely demolishing the interior. “It was one of the most complex projects in this area, and we pulled it off without a hitch,” Natoli notes. The construction work was so impressive, it was recognized by ENR magazine with a 2014 Best Project Award of Merit.
Natoli has worked the surrounding New Jersey area and accumulated a collection of happy repeat clients along the way. Among them is Rutgers University, which over the years has hired the firm to improve its New Brunswick and Piscataway campuses. At the Rutgers Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, the firm recently constructed an 80,000-square-foot, three-story building with research laboratories, laboratory support, research core facilities, a preschool, office space, team rooms, a foodservice area and public space.
The Mason Gross School of the Arts received a 24,000-square-foot addition with a 3,100-square-foot choral hall, an atrium with a cafe, technology and recording studios, dance studio, art studio and offices. For the Livingston campus, Natoli built a 63,000-square-foot, two-story dining commons with a full kitchen, adjacent to the student center also built by Natoli. Currently, the firm is working on the expansion of the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine in Newark.
Adjusting to Market Demands
Although the construction company could easily rest on its laurels with the jobs that continuously come from its most prestigious clients, Paul Natoli knows better than to do just that. “We don’t put all our eggs in one basket,” he says. One of the main reasons the firm has stayed in business this long is that it strategically focuses on what is in demand. “In the ‘70s, we were small with small projects, like municipal buildings,” he recalls. “The ‘80s were a booming time; there was a big demand for office space. We did a lot for private customers. Hotels started to get popular. The Sheraton Parsippany Hotel was a large project at the time, and it put us at a new level and size. In the ‘90s, construction of hotel and office space declined and hospital care grew. In 2000, healthcare construction slowed down and school construction became popular. We built public and private schools. Now, we have a lot of institutional work and lab centers. The pinnacle of our success to some degree is our ability to change and adapt to the markets as the markets change.”
As Natoli has navigated through its many projects over the years, one thing that has remained constant is its workforce. With little employee turnover, Natoli manages his core group to work as a team without overextending them with clients. While some companies in this industry hire – and fire – as needed on a project basis, Natoli prefers to keep his staff consistent, affirming that this consistency to his clients and staff is an important driving force in the company’s long-term growth. “Our model might restrict us a little bit in size, but in the end, we feel it is most contributory to our success,” he says.
There are plenty of opportunities for employees to move up within the company. Many workers who have been there for years started as entry-level tradesmen and are now managers. Founder Joseph Natoli started in the industry as a bricklayer, then became a foreman, a project supervisor and a manager before opening his own business in 1975. Having accomplished the American Dream, he fervently supported his employees to climb the ranks. Years later, his son shares the same values. Paul Natoli took the college path, graduating from Purdue University, but also started at an entry-level position before working his way through various levels and ultimately taking over the company.
As an owner, nothing makes Natoli happier than to see his employees advance. Promoting from within is one of the main reasons the company has held on to many of its workers for years. The company’s safety compliance officer, who wears a dual hat as a project manager, began with the firm as a carpenter and was later promoted to a superintendent. After furthering his education, he was raised to his current position. Additionally, in partnership with its contractors’ association, the firm takes in summer interns from various local colleges, including the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Some of the current office members came from this program.
Outlasting the competition
In other industries, it’s not uncommon to find a company celebrating a 40th or even 50th anniversary, but the construction business is so challenging that only a handful of firms constructing projects of similar size to Natoli’s are able to remain in business as long. It is especially unusual to find a construction company with the original owner’s name still on it decades later. “It’s rare because you continuously hear about construction companies going bankrupt,” Natoli says. “We work in such a fiercely competitive market that there’s no room for error.”
The firm’s competitors average four to five years in business, which doesn’t sound intimidating, but surprisingly, Natoli believes it can be a bit of a disadvantage to be in business as long as he has. “Sometimes, ignorance is bliss,” he says. “When you have nothing to lose, it’s an easy business to be in. When you start to accumulate a reputation and financial strength, it’s more trying to remain competitive. The amount of risk we take versus the reward is sometimes difficult to swallow, especially as you become an established company.”
To make sure his company stays in business for the long term, Paul Natoli mirrors his father’s work ethic: work hard, be persistent, stay involved, be hands-on, and most importantly, conduct yourself with honor and integrity. Clients know if they have an issue they can speak directly to the owner. He is well aware of the happenings on each project, and prides himself on making quick decisions for an organization that he says has no layers of bureaucracy. “Clients value that,” Natoli relates. “They want to deal with a decision-maker. I have a personal responsibility to a job well done.”