Almost two decades ago, Bob and Paola Pizzano’s son, Joey, died in a drowning accident while the family was on vacation.
It was a terrible blow to the tightknit family, but the Pizzanos made the best of it. Buoyed by what Bob Pizzano Jr. called an “outpouring of support” from friends and their community, they created a nonprofit organization—the Joey Pizzano Memorial Fund—that holds water safety course for special needs children.
Bob Pizzano says the closeness of the family and community that was essential to weathering that terrible time captures how the Pizzanos do many things. That includes how they run the family business, Pizzano Contractors, where employees are treated like extended family members.
All in the family
The interior construction firm was founded almost 60 years ago by Bob Pizzano Sr. who originally ran it out of the back of a Ford panel truck.
Now, with a proper office, years of success behind it and much, much more revenue, the firm renovates the interiors of commercial and institutional facilities in and around Washington D.C. It is still every bit a family business, with three generations of Pizzanos actively working side by side.
Pizzano says his firm handles everything from “above the floor to below the roof” of a building. It focuses on high end corporate offices as well as law firm interiors; however it also renovates the interiors of schools, restaurants, medical complexes and even high-security facilities used by the Department of Defense and other government agencies.
Jobs can entail everything from doing millwork for kitchen counters in an office, to installing cutting edge phone and video conferencing systems in law firms, to building fitness centers, lobbies and day care facilities for apartment complexes.
Managing an increase in business over the years has meant expanding the “family” in a certain sense. “Our business is a family business. It’s got lineal family, but also extended family,” Pizzano says, referring to long-term employees. In an industry dominated by independent contractors who jump between firms, Pizzano’s average employee has been with the firm for 18 years.
“When we hire someone, we hire them for life, not to a specific project,” Pizzano says.
The Pizzanos take this life bond very seriously. Chief Administrative Officer Lisa Paul—who is also a member of the Pizzano family—remembers an instance where an employee who worked with the company for 11 years stepped in to help the Pizzanos when their son passed.
“I remember him calling and telling me not to worry and that he would handle everything at the office while we dealt with our loss,” Paul says.
Years later, the same employee passed away and the Pizzano family returned the favor by providing a funeral reception for his wife and setting up a college fund for both of his daughters. Paul says she still has the letter the employee’s daughters handwrote to Pizzano, thanking him not only for the education he helped provide, but the friendship.
Giving back to the community by working together
Not surprisingly Paola Pizzano describes her husband as the kind of guy “who always tries to bring people together and always knows what people are going to need, even before they know it.” Bob Pizzano sees his wife in the same light.
Though the couple oversees a successful construction company, they don’t limit their talents to finding and filling needs in the for-profit sector. One of the projects most important to them is also one that they gave away for free.
Our Special Harbor is a 7,000 square foot water park proposed by their nonprofit, JPMF, and built by Pizzano Contractors. Designed specifically for special-needs kids, the park has no pools or standing water. Not only are the attractions all wheelchair-accessible, but the park provides wheelchairs that will keep traction in slippery areas and won’t rust. The attractions themselves range in intensity from gentle water tables to a small waterfall.
After the Pizzano’s built the park, they turned it over to Fairfax County under one condition—it remain free to families.
“We raised the money and built it and donated it to the county. But my wife’s big concern was that the park always remain free,” says Pizzano.
Building the park took a lot of cooperation between the family, donors, the parks authority and Fairfax County’s board of supervisors. As with any big project, the entities involved were cautious when discussing exactly how much money each participant should donate.
Paola remembers sitting around a big table with her husband and struggling to get anyone to speak openly about funding.
“It was a poker game,” she says,” but Bob threw his nickel in the middle of the table and said, ‘this is how much money I have and this is what I’m willing to do.’ Then all of the sudden everybody starts talking and it’s all high fives and handshakes.”
By the end of the meeting it became clear that the county supervisors and the state parks authority were both eager to contribute, but simply needed someone to help them figure out how to work together equitably.
“I guarantee our nonprofit is successful because of the private and public partnerships we form,” Pizzano says.
That’s evident in the golf fundraiser the Pizzanos host each year to support the nonprofit. Like many things the Pizzanos do, it involves family—136 families in this case, 100 of which have been attending the fundraiser since 2001.
“This event really has become more like a family reunion for us and our partners,” says Pizzano.
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