Case Studies

The Congress Companies

Simple design, quality construction and lasting relationships

In the early 1950s, Peter and Paul Nicholson established The Congress Companies (Congress), a small, but well organized general contracting business in Salem, Massachusetts. The brothers both attended Wentworth Institute of Technology and leveraged their education to build up a strong business and lasting relationships in the Northeast. Within only a few years, Congress started to draw interest in the commercial market.

The team’s first big break was when Howard Johnson, owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants of the same name, selected Congress to help him expand his company’s footprint throughout New England and across the northeast quarter of the U.S. Over the following years, the brothers built more than 200 Howard Johnson, Ground Round  and Red Coach Grille Restaurants, as well as 80 Howard Johnson Hotels, from Bangor, Maine down to Wilmington, Delaware, and as far west as Mentor, Ohio.

The company has evolved ever since. Bill Nicholson, current CEO and president, bought the business from his father and uncle in the 1980s and has directed Congress’ transition into new markets for more than three decades.

“I grew up in the business,” he recounts. “As an adult, I naturally gravitated back to it. While hospitality was the original focus of the business, we broke into the nursing home market in the early 1970s. When assisted-living emerged in the 1990s, we did a number of those projects. Through the following decades these sectors became the focus of our work. Today, 100 percent of our work has been in health care and senior living. This allows us to assure our customers that the team assigned to their job will be well experienced in their project type.”

Building relationships

From two offices in Peabody, Massachusetts and Lake Success, New York, Congress currently has a number of senior living and health care projects in the ground; four of which are for LCB Senior Living, a repeat customer.

“Right now we have a project in Ipswich that is in the final completion stage,” Bill elaborates. “We are doing inspections commissioning the building and punch-listing to wrap everything up. As an operator, LCB does a great job of establishing a positive presence in the community. Assisted-living is very local business, so with this project, the client was very focused on that aspect of things. The project donated a significant acreage to conservation groups and created walking trails and river access for the community. The response has been overwhelming. Pre-leasing is off the charts for this project.”

Bill goes on to note that company also has a project in South Windsor and another in Avon, Connecticut. “Both of those are moving into the finishes phase and they will be complete in early 2015,” he continues. “We have another LCB project in Easton, Massachusetts, where we just completed the structural steel and slabs. Now we are in the building closure phase. This is a slightly larger project than the other three.”

Turnkey services

While Congress frequently performs turnkey design-build work, the LCB projects are primarily construction management at risk contracts. “In Ipswich, we worked with the client to identify the site and then we worked together through permitting and approvals,” Bill details. “We get heavily involved in preconstruction services. We are a boutique firm. Our specialty is really collaborating with clients on the program and planning phases. We want to deliver what our customers are looking for and good upfront planning is how we best do so. Our relationships with our customers are very important to us and all of our work is on a repeat basis.”

The company finished Forest Manor Nursing Home in Hope, New Jersey, a turnkey project for a 120-bed facility. “We did the design, construction, the department of health work, zoning, permitting and even the interiors,” Bill says. “We purchased and installed all of the interior furnishings, including beds, dining room furniture and office furniture. The customer wanted to focus its company’s efforts on their nursing operations and didn’t have in-house development staff. That was a great project and we brought it in two months early.”

Also recently in the books, the company completed a 186-bed skilled nursing facility in Galloway Township near Atlantic City, New Jersey. “The project is called Royal Suites and was a similar turnkey project,” Bill details. “We assisted in site selection, and then handled all zoning, permitting work, a number of state permits and performed the design, construction and furnishings. We brought the job in five months early. The bank was ecstatic, as was the client. Lenders like our approach, because the turnkey model centralizes and helps manage a lot of risk. Efficient delivery is good for everyone involved.”

More recently Congress finished a challenging addition and renovation to the Golden Pond Assisted Living in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Congress built the original 136-bed assisted-living facility under the HUD 232 program, which was the first HUD insured assisted-living in New England.  When the client decided it was time to expand the master plan for the Golden Pond campus, Congress was chosen to work closely with the client, as well as the designers and lenders to put a plan in place that was optimal from buildability, financing and master planning perspectives.

Looking ahead

With a strong and growing portfolio of nursing and assisted-living projects, Congress has great potential for growth in the coming years. “The assisted-living market is very robust right now,” Bill explains. “For those of us builders who are involved, and that have the experience, there is going to be a lot of work over the next few years. At the same time, skilled nursing, despite its ebbs and flows, remains a focus of our company. Within the health care industry, that market isn’t going away either, particularly since most of the country’s current stock of nursing homes is rapidly reaching the end of its useful life, it is now 40-50 years old, and functionally obsolete. We have a number of projects currently in design in the skilled nursing market, which is going to be very strong for us in 2015 and 2016.”

Congress continues to stand out with proven capabilities and an established network of reliable partners. “We do have carpenters, laborers and all-purpose tradesmen who can do the typical trades of the general contractor, but by and large most of our work is now subcontracted, which has been an overall industry trend since the early ’80s,” Bill says. “Construction, like many industries, has become more and more specialized over the past three decades. We operate now mostly through our project managers, project engineers and superintendents.”

It is evident Bill is confident in his team’s ability to deliver. “We have a great team of deeply experienced project managers and supers, as well as an exciting group of younger construction professionals who are contributing tremendously, bringing great new ideas and energy to our systems and operations,” he continues. “We have the relationships and experience that sets us apart from other developers and contractors. Our people have developed tremendous muscle memory after doing this kind of work for decades, and our delivery method has helped differentiate the firm, and has allowed us to grow in a steady and controlled manner.”

In the coming years, Congress’ team will continue to apply decades of experience to serve a growing target market throughout the Northeast. The team is consistently prequalified to perform these integrated contracts. By building and fostering strong relationships with clients and partners, The Congress Companies is poised for steady growth over the next decade.

Published on: April 30, 2015

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