When Michael Armento talks about Philadelphia being a tight-knit community, he speaks from the heart. As a young boy, he would often take a ferry across the Delaware River from New Jersey to South Philadelphia where his father worked for the U.S. Navy.
“There is some history and there are some good memories here,” Armento says.
This memorable locale from his childhood is now the place where Armento goes to work each day as leader of the Philadelphia market for Red Bank, N.J.-based Torcon.
That sense of belonging he has always felt for the area was front and center in Armento’s mind eight years ago when the construction management firm set up shop in the City of Brotherly Love.
“What we set out to do was hire only employees local to Philadelphia with deep roots in the region,” says Armento, a vice president in the firm. “Philadelphia is a very parochial community and we knew that for us to succeed, we had to base our Philadelphia office with Philadelphia-based employees.”
Armento and John DeFazio, Torcon’s project executive, felt strongly that potential clients in Philadelphia wanted to do business with people that they felt a connection to, people who understood what they were all about.
At the same time, Torcon was not a new company. It has more than 200 employees and is one of the most active construction management firms in the Mid-Atlantic region. Torcon has done more than $4 billion worth of construction in the past decade.
“The challenge for us was to learn how to introduce Torcon to the local Philadephia community,” says Armento, who has more than 30 employees in his Philadelphia office. “In the beginning, it was a lot of knocking on doors to visit with people John and I knew from years back working in Philadelphia. It was spending a lot of time out on the street, getting out there and introducing ourselves.”
The effort has paid off in the form of 3.5 million square feet of construction work in Philadelphia, amounting to $70 million in 2011 revenue and about $105 million in revenue for 2012.
Here’s a look at some of the steps Armento has taken to build a team that could make those valuable connections and ultimately drive growth.
Set clear standards
If you’re looking to establish a strong presence in your community, make sure your employees and everyone on your leadership team is up to speed with your expectations.
“Our strategy can be very complicated if it’s ambiguous,” Armento says. “We’re in the construction management business. The reality is it’s a customer service business where our client always and without exception comes first.
“I try to provide clear and candid communication with our employees on whether they are excelling or falling a bit short. I’m forever reinforcing the importance of Torcon’s core values so that any confusion is eliminated.”
The message is often conveyed through the prism of Torcon’s own strong history of close relationships. The company was founded by Benedict Torcivia in 1965 and is now run by his sons, Benedict Jr. and Joseph.
“As far as we are concerned, in every respect and in every level of service we provide, we act fairly, with integrity and with honesty,” Armento says. “Ben and Joe are the two brothers who run this organization and through an incredible amount of hard work, they have built a stellar reputation for the company.”
But without the constant reinforcement that helps drive smart decisions, a reputation that took several lifetimes to build can collapse in an instant.
“That is so true in our industry of construction,” Armento says. “It’s very competitive and you work hard to finally win a project for a client that you have been pursuing for quite some time. It’s not just winning the project. You have to work very hard to be sure you are providing the services that the client is expecting.
“All it takes is one little error or mistake and in five minutes, that reputation can be ruined. That is what I teach and profess all the time. Try to look at things from the perspective of your client.
“Then you can understand what is important to them,” he says. “Business is built on reputation and performance and we have to show that in everything that we do.”
Performance has to be strong at all levels in order to maintain your great reputation. If a project is late in being completed, exceeds its budget or doesn’t fulfill your customer’s expectation, it’s clearly not a success.
“The definition of success is when a client says to us at the end of a project, ‘You folks at Torcon delivered on every promise and every commitment you made from the outset of the project,’” Armento says. “That is when we know we were successful in executing the project. We want to be sure that everyone involved views the project as a success and not just the construction manager.”
It’s the difference between possessing a reputation based simply on knocking out projects as quickly as possible and one that is consistently focused on a high level of customer satisfaction.
Reinforce the team concept
One key to building a team that is of one mind and can make strong connections with your customer base is to empower them to do what they do best. Build confidence in your people so that they know you see them as the experts at what they do. Create an environment where they don’t need to check in with you every time a decision needs to be made.
“We try not to be dictatorial,” Armento says. “We believe very much in allowing our people to be autonomous, to allow them to express their opinion and tell us about their findings and what they think the solution is to a particular challenge. We want them to feel like they are an integral part of the solution to problems on projects. When they do, they take ownership in solving those problems.”
Teamwork is part of the culture of the construction industry from your earliest days on the job, no matter where you work.
“Most people who are educated in construction management or construction management-related curriculum understand that every project is performed and completed by a team of those core positions,” Armento says.
“If there is a particular portion of the project that is struggling and needs some extra attention, we would expect the other team members to jump in and help out. It’s understood in our industry that it’s a group effort.”
Teamwork can easily fall apart, however, if that commitment to your team begins to waver or if you begin to provide evidence that you value one group in your organization over another.
“The key is to be consistent with your message and spend as much time listening to your people as you do talking to them and providing direction,” Armento says. “It’s essential for us to reinforce our message and reaffirm our employees’ value to our organization.”
When employees come to you with ideas or suggestions about how to do something better, demonstrate that it hasn’t been a waste of their time to come up with this new idea.
“It becomes a matter of personal pride,” Armento says. “If an employee has an idea after living with a certain situation day to day, they want to know that the time they have spent thinking about how to improve our approach is valued time and that their opinion is respected by management.
“When you hear an employee or a staff member who has a good idea on how to do something better, allow them to act on it. Give them the opportunity to take ownership if it was their idea.”
Take the time
You work each day to build a stronger team that is focused on providing the best service to your customers. Armento felt that was a winning strategy to achieving customer satisfaction.
But to drive home the connectedness that he wanted customers to feel with Torcon’s Philadelphia operations, Armento strongly encourages participation in the community.
“I’m a newly appointed board member with the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation,” Armento says.
He’s also involved with the American Heart Association and took part in the company’s effort to do a 9/11 memorial along the Schuylkill River.
“That was done gratis by Torcon along with a group of subcontractors,” Armento says.
These efforts were part of an overall push to show potential customers in Philadelphia that Torcon understood what they were all about and could relate to what it meant to be part of the Philadelphia community.
“The way we have overcome that challenge is one, to make sure everybody we employ here in the Philadelphia office comes from Philadelphia construction,” Armento says. “And two, to entrench ourselves as deeply as we can in the community and with community functions.”
How to reach: Torcon, (215) 271-1449 or www.torcon.com
The Armento File
Born: Camden, N.J.
Education: Construction management degree, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pa.
What was your very first job?
My first job as a kid was working for a local concrete contractor who did replacement sidewalks and driveways. My job was to break up the old concrete in preparation for the new. If it did anything for me, it gave me an appreciation for the difficulty of laboring on a daily basis.
What is the best business lesson you ever learned?
This is a very challenging business. We rely heavily on the performance of others in order to make a project successful. When I say others, I mean our own people as well as other members of the team.
To the best of your ability, try to manage situations on a project without emotion. Treat people the same way you expect to be treated. And that is coupled ironically with the understanding that you can’t blindly trust everyone. Remain objective and keep the clients’ interests in mind at all times.
What skills are essential for a leader?
Be firm when you need to be firm. Listen to people as much as you talk to people. Recognize it’s not always about issuing directives and establishing policies. A good leader sometimes has to be a teacher, a cheerleader and sometimes a confidant. Be open to your people when necessary, but be firm when being firm is necessary.
Set clear expectations.
Promote a team concept.