The Sweet Construction Group
Sweet celebrates 105 years of stunning projects for high-profile clients.
By Chris Kelsch
Sweet Construction celebrates its 105th anniversary this year, and given its impressive list of clientele, it looks to be headed for another century of success. Founded in 1912, the company was incorporated in New York in 1952 by Marvin Sweet, who held the reins of the company until he retired in 2001. That’s when Steve Alessio took over. Alessio had joined the firm in 1980 as an intern, fresh out of architecture school.
The fact the company has had so few leadership changes over its century-plus lifetime reflects a broader philosophy of stability and doing the little things right. “Our motto is ‘big enough to do the job, small enough to care,’” says Alessio, who is now president of Sweet. And that means keeping limits on the jobs it does go after. “We want to focus our efforts on projects that will both enhance our expertise and keep New York afloat into the next century.”
Early on, Sweet developed an expertise in interior renovations. Eventually it expanded its capabilities into structural alterations and the rehabilitation and retrofits of existing structures, particularly those with landmark status. Its work on older, historic buildings has earned Sweet a solid reputation in its hometown of New York City.
“Basically, we always did very good interior work, as well as very good core and shell work,” Alessio notes. “When high-end jobs would come to us, we would always finish those jobs on time and on budget, never having to walk away.” That ultimately led to a business built on a great word of mouth reputation. Equally important, Alessio stresses that Sweet makes its project managers available to clients at all times. “We always make our management available and easily accessible for clients’ needs.”
Similarly, it is clear that Alessio also makes himself consistently available to his own team. He maintains an open-door policy, and stays involved in each step of each project, from start to finish. In an industry where such detailed jobs can easily be mismanaged, his involvement is refreshing.
Part of Alessio’s success in guiding Sweet might be due to his education. Many construction leaders have management backgrounds, but Alessio came from an architecture background. “I knew I wanted to be a builder,” Alessio recalls. “What I really wanted to do was also learn about the details; I wanted to make sure I understood every detail about creativity.”
Another part of Alessio’s management success is his encouragement of a family-first mentality. To understand why that mentality exists, one must first understand that Sweet is somewhat of a family business itself. Many employees are connected in one way or another to the Alessio tree, either directly or through word of mouth by family ties. This contributes to a supportive work environment for employees, which has proven successful for Sweet.
Keeping an eye on detail has led to work for high-profile clients in Manhattan. In 2001, for example, Sweet Construction won the bid to rehab the Biltmore Theatre in Times Square (currently called the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre), originally opened in 1925. After years of neglect, it underwent a two-year, $35 million dollar renovation. Sweet served as general contractor for the job, and recently was approached to do some more work on the facility as it approaches its anniversary.
Sweet has performed work for high-end retail clients as well. It was the lead contractor on interior work performed on the Breitling flagship store at 575 Madison Avenue in New York City, a $4.5 million project. Sweet has also done work for Vineyard Vines, Disney, Bergdorf Goodman, Ray-Ban and Wempe Jewelers, to name a few.
Sweet’s reliability has earned it much repeat business with its retail clients. “Retail clients are always refreshing their spaces,” Alessio notes. “If you do good work for them, it should result in repeat business.”
While retail work in New York had always provided Sweet with a stream of revenue, the company never desired to limit its scope to just one area of expertise. Sweet is also an expert in office space, restaurant, hotel and residential renovations. In today’s world where retail is changing rapidly, this broad background has proved beneficial.
Retail, however, isn’t the only industry that is rapidly changing. Although Sweet has thorough experience in office renovations, Alessio comments that workplace needs have changed in recent years, and therefore so have the needs of clients. Alessio notes that a desirable workplace is now less about where an office is located, and more about the amenities it has to offer. For the next generation, that means offices with more sunlight, tech-savvy spaces and an emphasis on environmentally sustainable practices.
One notable office project Sweet recently completed is 110 Wall Street, which is Manhattan’s first WeWork/WeLive combined space. WeWork is a membership collaborative where entrepreneurs can collaborate and help each other with ideas in a shared space. The WeLive component builds on that same idea and is basically a cross between student housing and a hotel. Kitchens, lounges and bathrooms are shared within units, and renters have their own personal space with a bedroom. The model serves a trend away from home ownership in many major U.S. cities. Ideally, a user could live and work within the same building.
More traditionally, Sweet is also focused on 2 Rector Street in lower Manhattan. Sweet is doing all of the interior as well as core and shell work on the structure built in 1905. This landmarked building is also Cove Property Group’s first project as a new company, with principal leadership from former leaders at Savanna Fund, Barclays Investment Bank and Tishman Speyer. The team chose Sweet to complete the job, which is on track for 2018 completion.
Another notable project completed by Sweet is 95 Evergreen Avenue in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Built in 1951, the former Joseph Schlitz Brewery was entirely remodeled and is now suitable to market to high-tech companies that need Class A office space. The project was selected as the 2017 Building Brooklyn Awards in the Neighborhood Catalyst category.
The historic Falchi Building in Long Island City will become another notable Sweet job. Originally constructed in 1922 as a warehouse and distribution center for the famed Gimbels department store, the five-story building is now under construction and already an attractive alternative to Manhattan companies seeking creative work environments close to Midtown and Brooklyn. Juice Press, Doughnut Plant and Lyft are among its tenants.
Chasing projects rich in New York history seems to be nothing new for Sweet, and those projects go beyond office space and retail. One such project that caught the attention of Sweet is the renovation of another landmark building, this one residential: 101 W. 78th St., known as “The Evelyn.”
The seven-story building was originally constructed in the 1880s, and the renovation converted the building into 16 first-class luxury condominiums. Additionally, Sweet added first floor infill as well as a new hoistway for an additional elevator, constructed an eighth floor addition and completed interior renovations of the lobbies, corridors and residential space.
According to Alessio, the biggest challenge of the $32 million renovation was keeping existing residents happy. The solution? Clear and frequent communication with tenants, providing them with adequate protection that follows OSHA codes, and carefully following the construction schedule at hand.
Sweet has also done the core and shell work on the famous Empire Diner, an icon in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Empire is one of Manhattan’s few freestanding diners, and was an originator of upscale diner fare. This project came after working on owner Stacy Pisone’s highly popular Chelsea Restaurant and Cafeteria.
New Jersey Expansion
For much of its existence, Sweet has served the entire tri-state area, which includes New Jersey and Connecticut. However, in 2000 the company realized that there was more than enough work in New Jersey to justify opening an additional office in Middlesex, in the central part of the state.
Sweet called on Andy Snyder, who had extensive experience with major general contractors, to head up the office in 2004. “A lot of our work was focused on retail,” recalls Snyder, who is a vice president at Sweet. “As New Jersey was growing, we found ourselves doing a lot of retail work such as building for Banana Republic, Disney, AutoZone and TD Bank.”
Although the retail work was steady and consistent, the company was forced to adjust when the recession hit in 2007. “Retail really suffered,” Snyder recalls. “As a company, we felt the need to shift our focus. That’s when we started focusing on corporate fit-outs.”
Snyder started developing relationships with real estate brokers and building management companies, and Sweet began building corporate facilities for high-profile clients. The timing was excellent – many companies had begun to call New Jersey home because rent and real estate were much less expensive than in New York City.
One of Sweet’s major projects in New Jersey was Morris Corporate Center in Parsippany, N.J. The center actually consists of four buildings that are connected by a huge atrium. Sweet was awarded the contract to renovate the atrium as well as redo the walls and ceilings in the center in 2013.
Other major New Jersey projects have included work for Reckitt Benckiser on the corporate office of French’s Mustard in Chester, and on branches of Santander Bank, which led to repeat business when the company changed its logos and name from Sovereign Bank. Sweet’s other high-profile work includes upgrades to New York Life’s Clinton headquarters.
In recent years, New Jersey has announced significant tax credits to lure companies to leave their New York headquarters and make New Jersey their permanent home. RVM Enterprises was one such company, and Sweet Construction worked on its offices at Newport Tower in Jersey City.
Another company that is moving to New Jersey is the jewelry manufacturer Frederick Goldman. It secured a property in Secaucus that will serve as its corporate headquarters and again Sweet will work on the project. According to Snyder, many of Sweet’s newer projects have similar features. “Both the RVM project and the Goldman projects are green projects,” Snyder says. “Both feature building management systems that automate and limit the use of electricity.”
For Sweet to continue to attract high-profile business, Snyder recognizes the importance of networking throughout the state. “Networking is very critical in New Jersey,” Snyder says. “You really have to be involved. I am actually on the board for New Jersey Power Partners.” This networking group allows members to keep tabs on major corporate events happening in New Jersey, whether it is expansion or relocation. It also is an opportunity for Sweet to build strong relationships with major architecture firms, which oftentimes select the general contractors on projects.
Two Offices, One Culture
As with Sweet’s home office in Manhattan, much of the New Jersey office’s projects come from repeat business. For Snyder, that is gratifying because it affirms the company’s philosophies. “I think one of the first things you will notice is that it’s a family atmosphere,” Snyder notes. “We’re known for being very accessible, and for being very personable with clients.” And though the New Jersey office has only about 15 full-time staff, the office shares many of the project managers and superintendents of the Manhattan office.
Both offices preach a culture of safety. According to Snyder, all New Jersey employees are OHSA certified for construction safety training. “Our guys really keep up with it,” Snyder says. “And it’s not just important for us, it’s also really important that the client knows that safety is a huge concern of ours.”
In addition to safety, another focus for Sweet is communication, and that means getting everyone involved, Alessio says. “We constantly strive to be great communicators with the clients as well as the architects and the unions,” Alessio says. “If we get everybody on board, we have a successful project.”
Alessio adds that communicating with subcontractors is also a vital part of any successful project. “We do have excellent working relationships with our subcontractors,” Alessio notes. “But at the same time, we do want to open our doors to multiple bids per trade, to encourage competition.”
For Alessio, it is also important to make sure there is adequate representation of minority and women-owned businesses on Sweet’s projects. “With many of our projects we would like 20 percent minority participation,” Alessio says. “And so we work hard to meet those goals.”
In addition to helping women- and minority-owned businesses, there is also a consistent effort to stay active in the broader New York community. “We’re very active with Saint Dominic’s Home,” Alessio says, referring to a nonprofit Catholic agency that cares for individuals with developmental disabilities. Sweet holds fundraisers twice a year for the organization. In addition to that, Sweet contributes to Eger Nursing Home on Staten Island, which the company built from the ground up. The company is also very active in an organization called Outreach, which offers alcohol and drug abuse treatment services for both adolescents and adults in New York communities. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Sweet also partnered with the city’s “Build it Back” program.
As Sweet Construction has grown in its 100-plus years of business, its commitment to the community and its clients proves that the company has indeed remained small enough to care.
Build it Back
Build It Back is a New York City program designed to assist homeowners, landowners and tenants in the five boroughs whose primary homes were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The goal of NYC Build It Back is to help those residents affected by the hurricane to return to safe housing by addressing unmet housing recovery needs.
Though the program began in 2013, the de Blasio administration assumed control of it in 2014 and implemented creative solutions to get relief to homeowners and multifamily property owners. As a result of these efforts, today there are more families moving back to stronger homes and neighborhoods.
Robert DiSarro, a Sweet Construction superintendent, served on 10 Build It Back-sponsored homes. “As soon as the city gave us the OK to start, residents were thrilled,” DiSarro says. “The gratitude many homeowners had for our laborers who worked countless hours in rain or snow on these homes was evident. We were thankful Sweet was able to make significant strides to further the program’s progress, and make very real and welcomed changes in these people’s lives.”
All things considered, the program has done a remarkable job of serving its applicants. As of June 13, 2017, 4,746 of the 5,174 homes that have required construction work, or 92 percent, had seen construction start. Further, 3,819 or 74 percent had seen construction finished, according to the de Blasio administration. Overall, 95 percent of families that have applied for the program have been issued a check or are in construction.
The average age of homes in the Build It Back Program is 81 years old, which predates modern NYC building codes. After reconstruction began, it became clearer that more funds would be needed to complete the Build It Back program. As a result, the de Blasio administration requested additional funds from the federal government, which were approved, adding $500 million to the $1.7 billion estimate of costs needed to complete the program. Out of a total $20 billion allocated to New York City by the federal government for Sandy recovery, New York City’s Build It Back will cost $2.2 billion and fortify homes and communities across New York City.
Additionally, there have been upgrades to New York City’s building codes to address potential new climate threats. Through the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, New York City is implementing a comprehensive $20 billion resiliency program. With this funding, New York City is building a stronger, more resilient New York by strengthening coastal defenses, protecting infrastructure, strengthening communities and adapting buildings.
Such measures have included laying more than four million yards of sand in Coney Island as well as the Rockaway peninsula. Nearly 10 miles of dunes have also been installed in Staten Island as well as the Rockaway peninsula. $1.7 billion was also invested for the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which operates the public hospitals throughout New York City, including Bellevue, Coler, Metropolitan and Coney Island.