If you hear shouting down the hall at Gioffre Construction Inc., don’t worry. You know the problem is almost resolved. It’s a family thing. Siblings, actually.
Brothers Tony and John Gioffre are simply working through an issue important to their $50 million commercial construction business. If that requires a little verbal explosion, so be it. These moments usually take place after hours and when John feels closed in by construction deadlines.
It’s more like therapy, because big brother Tony helps John work through the stress.
The brothers consider themselves part of a close-knit, Italian-American family and they’ve brought that love and respect to the office at Gioffre Construction Inc. for more than 20 years. A little row between siblings now and then doesn’t mean a thing.
“In the heat of battle, when the pressure is very intense,” John says, “it’s usually me blowing the cork and Tony calming the situation down.”
The battle, he explains, comes when there are three or four jobs going, one is running into a deadline and certain subcontractors are not cooperating to meet the schedule.
“It’s one thing after another, a constant pressure cooker situation,” he says. “Then something will come up in the office. I’ll get a call that’s not favorable or totally irrelevant and I’ll just explode and people will hear that. Everybody knows to back off; but at the same time, they appreciate what’s going on and understand.”
A colorful pair
The brothers teamed up professionally in 1976 when Tony, now 53, and John, 45, decided to start a residential construction business. Tony was a salesman at an unrelated business and John was studying business and accounting in college.
John learned about the building business while working summers at Gioffre Concrete Inc., a Powell-based residential concrete business owned by Carmen Zappia, a first cousin, and by another Gioffre brother, Carl, who is 49.
Tony and John knew it wouldn’t be right to interrupt Carl’s partnership by asking to become part of that company, John says. So they created their own construction firm. Tony contributed $1,000 to the business account and John put in $500. Tony became president, but it wasn’t because he put in more money at the start of the 50-50 partnership.
“In any business, no matter what you have, there has to be one leader,” says John, who carries the titles of executive vice president and CFO. “In the beginning of the company, Tony was that individual. Tony was the oldest; it was almost a natural fit.
“Growing up, if we ran into any trouble as kids, we used to go get Tony, and Tony would settle the problem,” he adds with a laugh.
Tony is the dealmaker. He can walk into a room with his crisp, white shirt and stylish suit and feel comfortable. His personality is made for networking, John says.
John oversees and implements the contracts.
“If we were a football team,” John says, “I’d be the offensive line. I keep pounding. I’m going to open the hole and make it work. Tony would be the running back that would be more visible.
“I’m the one that will make sure that the jobs get done. The detail guy. The blue jean guy.”
While each has a markedly different personality evidenced further by the fact that Tony drives a flashy Jaguar, while John prefers a more rugged Suburban to get around town the brothers complement each other and have the same goals for the business.
“We grew up together, so we think alike,” Tony says. “In essence, we have the same type of attitude and the same type of mindset. There is no conflict. That’s the major asset.”
Enlarging the family
The Gioffres’ sister, Victoria Delfino, 51, joined them in the business 10 years ago as secretary/treasurer. She had worked part time for Carl, but when Tony and John needed some extra help, Victoria moved over to Gioffre Construction. When the position became full time, Victoria just stayed on, Tony says.
Victoria brings the personal, family touch to this hard hat business, John says. She knows all the right ways to treat people, especially when hard times befall an employee, and she’ll make sure an employee strapped for cash can get his car fixed.
“We had wonderful parents,” Victoria says, “very devoted, very family-oriented. We just branched off from that. We are an extension of what they believed in. They made us understand what is valuable.
“From that, you learn your values and what’s important in life. Our family is still very close.”
So close, in fact, that all the Gioffre siblings regularly gather for Sunday dinner at the home of their parents, who emigrated from Italy in 1932. They grew up in the Milo District, north of downtown Columbus, near Fifth and Cleveland.
“Have we had shouting matches? Yes,” John says. “But at the same time, when we go to mom’s house for Sunday dinner, it’s done. We sit. We laugh. We joke. We enjoy being a family. You’ve got to leave it at work. At times it’s very difficult.
“I’ve seen the stress at times, and thank God we’ve been able to overcome the stress factor at work and still stay together as family.”
Family ties, however, do not get in the way of fair trade in business dealings, they stress. Tony and John don’t favor their brother’s concrete company when it comes to bidding. In fact, it’s rare when Carl’s firm bids on a Gioffre Construction job today, John says.
As for nepotism, John says, “We try to keep everything on the up and up. We have to be careful with that.”
As a family, the Gioffres have grown their Dublin-based construction company from a two-man, $120,000 firm in 1976 to a 50-employee, $50 million business with separate real estate holdings of $13 million in 1999.
“The trust factor is critical,” John says of the siblings’ business success. “As you grow, that trust factor has to be shared with the other employees. It’s a definite benefit to the foundation of any corporation.”
The Gioffre brothers got a good test of their trust in each other when, in the early 1980s, the two discovered they had different visions for the company’s future. At issue was whether the company should move from residential to commercial work.
“We sat down and discussed it,” John says. “I said residential brought us where we are. I didn’t want to lose it. Tony felt strongly about commercial business. It panned out that we went strictly commercial.
“We respected each other not to say, ‘If you don’t do it my way, I’m leaving and starting my own company,’” John says. “You see a lot of that. You have to have mutual respect of a partner. That plays in the hand of a family business.”
Today, Gioffre’s client list reads like a who’s who in retail centers: Sears, Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Toys R Us, Marshall Field’s and Marriott.
Both brothers have found commercial business “more lucrative and more professional,” John says. “There are better opportunities here. There’s more stability. You have a more educated buyer.
“Tony wanted the company to grow. My mind was along the lines of fighting the battle in the trenches. He was more visionary.”
Looking outside the family
As the company grows, Gioffre Construction has the standard pains to deal with, including the art of delegation. Over time, the key decision maker has changed from Tony to John and soon that power will be split between two vice presidents.
“Tony, at the beginning, was the mainstay,” John says. “As Tony aged, I pretty much took on that roll. At this point, I would be called the point person. As the point person, you would make the decisions and a lot of things come across your desk.
“Now I see the company evolve and see these decisions being given to the VPs under me.”
Those VPs are Herb Jagels, who oversees construction, and Patrick Fisher, who oversees operations.
“The two VPs are excellent individuals,” John adds. “We have 100 percent faith in what they do. If you are going to evolve, you have to delegate responsibility to other individuals “
Ironically, delegating has become one of John’s biggest challenges.
“If you look at any privately held company, the hardest thing to do is give up the reins,” he confesses. “I have my nose in everything. One thing I was doing was trying to control everything. That is impossible with the size of the company today. At that point, I started delegating duty.
“It works out fine. But I’m having a difficult time doing that. It’s like giving up the care of your baby to someone else.”
Yet both brothers recognized they couldn’t always depend just on themselves.
“We were intelligent enough to know we had to go outside the family to grow,” Tony says.
Longevity in the business was a key factor in deciding who would get promoted. Both vice presidents were doing business with Gioffre Construction before joining the company. Jagels signed up more than 10 years ago and Fisher joined eight years ago.
Besides, Jagels and Fisher were always in positions of authority in the absence of Tony and John. And the two understand how the brothers operate.
“I tell people who I hire, if you are thin skinned, this is not the business to be in,” John says. “If you can’t take it on the chin, a direct hit [figuratively], and stand back up and accept it, this is not the business to be in. If you can’t have someone get into your face, then you have a problem.
“I stress that I have an open door policy. If you disagree with me, that’s not an issue. I want you to be blunt with me. If your method of doing business or handling a job is better than mine, that’s OK. But in the final analysis, I know all the pieces to the puzzle and I make a decision that’s best for the company.
“If I disagree with you, it’s not an ego move. You have to accept that the final decision, right or wrong, lies with me.”
Open communication, respect for one another and responsibility keep the brothers and the business together.
“It’s trying any time you are in any type of partnership,” John says. “A company, a marriage, whatever you will always run into tough times. But it’s how you were brought up, and I think that’s what’s held us all together.
“We’ve always been a tight family.”
Andria Segedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a free-lance writer for SBN.