- Written by: Molly Shaw
- Produced by: Chuck McKenna
- Estimated reading time: 7 mins
After nearly 70 years in business, family-owned and privately-held DeFoe Corp (DeFoe) has become a well-known contractor in the greater New York City and New Jersey market, performing new construction, major rehabilitation and reconstruction projects on the city’s key highways, bridges, viaducts and various critical infrastructure. From the Long Island Expressway to the Van Wyck, the Cross Bronx and up and down the New York Thruway, DeFoe works in conjunction with major public agencies such as the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New York State Thruway Authority and many more.
Since 1946, DeFoe has been one of the leading general contracting firms keeping the city alive and well and remains one of the few family-run, privately-held firms in the competitive sector. “In the last decade or so it’s been exceedingly difficult to get work because many worldwide firms have saturated the market,” tells Robert Colella, vice president and general superintendent at DeFoe.
Staying in the game
After 35 years with DeFoe, Colella says competition and tighter margins have made business more challenging now than ever before. “There are a lot of players with big dollars trying to push the smaller guys out, but we’re still in the game,” he says.
That’s because DeFoe’s goal is clear; do quality work and deliver the project on time. “We are real, we are hungry and we are simple,” measures Michael Amicucci, third-generation vice president of DeFoe. “Our success is based on knowledge, teamwork and leadership. Each generation carries on our traditions and work ethic best known as The DeFoe Way.”
The DeFoe Way began with John DeFoe, company founder, in 1946. “We started as a small, specialty contractor doing parks, playgrounds and sidewalks,” recounts Amicucci. “My grandfather eventually got in involved a decade later. He and his two partners purchased the company and in 1990, my father, John Amicucci, who was hired in 1973, bought the shares of what was then, one of the most sought after bridge and highway contractors in New York.”
Father to son succession and pride in people
“My father played a major role unionizing the company,” tells Amicucci. “His ambition stemmed from his roots. He is a proud construction-worker.”
At first, Amicucci wasn’t sure the construction industry was for him as he went onto college for business management, but it wasn’t long before he realized the strength in the people and potential of DeFoe.
“Although my father is still company president, there’s a clear succession plan in mind and he’s steadily handing over the reins,” explains Amicucci. “His hope is for us to modernize the business, so DeFoe can take on the challenges that lie ahead.”
Over its life span, DeFoe has grown from just a handful of employees to upward of 300 union members -laborers, dock-builders, latherers, carpenters, operators, teamsters and more. “I am honored to work side by side with these men and women that wear our hard hat valiantly,” says Amicucci. “They speak through their trade, whether, a laborer, operator, teamster, carpenter, lather, estimator or project manager. Our team is self-aware, self-critical and able to appreciate what we have because we respect where we came from.”
And many of DeFoe’s employees, like Colella, have been with the business for years upon years. “We try to hold onto our employees,” adds Colella. “I’d say at least 80 percent of our workforces have been with us for 20-plus years.”
At the end of the day, DeFoe’s employees are the people on the front lines, protecting the company’s name so Amicucci says it’s important to empower them.
“We cover 75 percent of their health care costs – it used to be 99.9 percent before the recession, but we’re doing the best we can to support their families health and well-being,” he says. “It’s important for us to attend annual trade shows such as the CONEXPO-CON/AGG in Las Vegas. It offers new technologies, seminars and team building. We are surrounded with dedicated men and women, so work doesn’t stop when training seminars are attended. Just prioritize your duties, ask others for help and avoid the noise. “
A name and a face
Amicucci says DeFoe’s team does business differently than the large, multinational competition in the area. “Since the recession we’re running leaner and keeping things simple,” he explains. “We’ve developed better cost reporting, bidding systems and we’ve streamlined our estimating department with the help of our Alumni, especially Michael Casella, PE, executive vice president. I don’t know how I would have managed without his help. Additionally, we are performing maintenance on our fleet of equipment, saving on downtime, but really the biggest thing we’ve stuck to is meeting face to face.”
In today’s world emails and texts sometimes replace human contact, but Amicucci says it’s still a cornerstone of DeFoe’s business model. “It’s something my grandfather’s and father’s generation grew up on,” he considers. “Back then, you’re word was your reputation, now it’s defined by your online presence, but we stick to monthly meetings on jobs to review costs, face to face meetings with subcontractors and we hold quarterly officer meetings to stay on track.”
Investing in infrastructure
Based in Mount Vernon, New York, DeFoe proudly serves five NYC boroughs and parts of New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The union contractor frequently is tasked to meet tight schedules, all while working on some of the most challenging and congested roadways in the country.
DeFoe specializes in a range of infrastructure projects, including elevated steel and concrete for bridges, roads, rail and airports. The company also has a particularly strong niche in viaduct projects, pioneering the process of architectural concrete for foundations. “We do a lot of viaduct work with our own forces, including excavation, drainage and all concrete work,” details Colella. “We only subcontract about 30 percent of our work, including electrical, steel erection and landscaping – things like that we don’t do in-house.”
From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Tappan Zee Bridge, DeFoe has been driving major infrastructure projects for decades. “One of our largest recent projects is the new Van Wyck Expressway viaduct in Queens, which was completed 18 months ahead of schedule,” notes Colella.
The elevated highway structure that crosses over the Grand Central Parkway and Union Turnpike in Queens is valued at $35 million, 30 percent of DeFoe’s full contract. The new viaduct is part of New York State’s $265 million investment in operational improvements at the Kew Gardens Interchange. “Completion of this viaduct is a large step toward improving traffic flow for commerce, commuters and JFK Airport users along a very congested interchange in Queens,” said New York Governor Cuomo in a November 2014 press release. “Getting it done a year and a half early is proof positive that our commitment to working harder and smarter to improve our State’s infrastructure is paying off for New Yorkers.”
New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald said, “This project will enhance safety, improve traffic mobility and reduce travel times for the entire Van Wyck corridor and for traffic heading to and from the JFK Airport. We are especially pleased that this portion of the project has been completed 18 months ahead of schedule.”
Designed to last for 75 years, the new structure was constructed with state-of-the art materials, including stainless steel rebar and high performance concrete, as well as new LED lighting and a new drainage system. As the prime contractor, DeFoe will begin to remove the former northbound viaduct through this winter 2015, with a projected completion date in spring 2015.
“Another DeFoe job is the $31 million Route 21 viaduct restoration in Newark, New Jersey,” details Colella. “A smaller secondary road, Route 21 has three lanes in each direction and the older viaduct is being strengthened. We’ve supported the existing concrete floor beams with steel tubs while rebuilding the top of the viaduct.”
“We were recently awarded from the New York City DOT [NYCDOT] the Harlem River Drive, Reconstruction over 127th Street, as well,” adds Amicucci. “The project will rebuild the Harlem River Drive from Willis Ave Bridge to the 3rd Ave Bridge. The new viaduct will be built over 127th Street with safety and drainage improvements. NYC Park restorations will also be performed and new landscaping will beautify the entire site for neighboring communities. The project value is $105 million.”
DeFoe also steps in when there’s an infrastructure emergency. In 2009, the company was recognized by the Concrete Industry Board for emergency repairs of the Gowanus Expressway in Kings County, New York. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, DeFoe deployed crews to go to work, repairing flooded roadways, sidewalks and infrastructure damage from the storm.
Despite a market flooded with multinational conglomerates, Colella says DeFoe has remained a viable player. “There’s no doubt large players are taking work from the local guys -they low bid and they can afford to lose $10 million on a job; we just can’t do that,” he explains. “That coupled with regulatory challenges puts the pressure on our business and is a little disheartening for contractors, but at the end of the day, our team is unlike any other.”
Colella says the biggest sense of pride is working for a private company with a family feel in the midst of massive corporations. “When you know the owner personally and in fact, you’re good friends -that’s what it’s about,” he says. “The owners let us do what we have to do and there’s no second guessing because there’s trust between the owners and the management and everyone is happy.”
“Our men and women wear our hard hat valiantly,” the third-generation owner says proudly. That’s just the way it’s been for almost 70 years as DeFoe Corp continues to be one of New York’s chief infrastructure contractors.
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