When the team at Houston Construction finishes renovating a hotel lobby, guestroom or restaurant, operators can be sure the team hasn’t missed a single detail. In fact, the Concord, Ont.-based company has constructed a 35-year career by building trust with clients and becoming a preferred vendor by tracking every facet of their projects.
In the past, the family-run company typically marked down any lingering problems on a spreadsheet as they moved from room to room, looking for any deficiencies in the construction. But earlier this year, all that changed when Houston Construction began using a new software program to log issues by simply taking a picture with their smartphone.
“If it can’t be repaired at that time, we’ll log it for later,” says Peter D’Amato, president of Houston Construction. “We’re also able to assign people or trades to resolve that deficiency.” Painting issues, for example, can be assigned to a painter, while wiring problems can be routed to an electrician. Because the data is stored in the cloud, it’s accessible from anywhere. Workers are also held accountable with a subcontractor management tool. “Everyone is tracked. If the painter or the electrician takes care of something, they mark it as being complete and that’s the only way it gets removed from the list,” he adds.
Although Houston Construction didn’t create the software, called Closeout, identifying its potential for the Canadian hotel sector is the type of outside-the-box thinking that helped the firm nab the 2015 Pinnacle Award for Supplier of the Year. Sales might be another: the company projects to finish the year with a 28-per-cent increase in sales, recording one of the most profitable years in the history of the company.
Houston Construction has developed its approach to vision and leadership over the past 35 years since the company was formed by John D’Amato and his son Peter, who set out to establish themselves as a premier hotel renovations company. The firm got a head-start when it was awarded a $6.5-million, 700-room contract with the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto in 1985. Since then, the team of 11 (plus a number of subcontractors and tradespeople), has renovated close to 17,000 hotel rooms, 300 guestroom corridors, 150 lobbies, 75 restaurants and kitchens and 80 ballrooms spanning Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan. It counts Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Oxford Properties, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Marriott Hotels of Canada and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts as some of its clients. Today, it is slowly transitioning to its third generation of leadership with Peter’s son Johnny as the vice-president of Operations.
Houston Construction’s success can be attributed in part to an internal renovation of sorts: not of its offices, but its client list. “It’s been somewhat difficult, but we’ve been repositioning over the last year-and-a-half to concentrate on clients that understand the hotel renovation business and what it means to work with suppliers and contractors like us,” D’Amato says.
Of course, becoming more selective about clients and projects meant sales declined initially, D’Amato admits. “In the past we were up against situations where we were asked to meet certain schedules or deadlines where we knew that wasn’t going to happen,” he says. “We always took the position of letting our clients know what we feel is doable and maintain the end results, which is a high-quality product without compromise.”
The high quality work has earned Houston Construction praise with local designers. “Over the past 14 years and countless hotel projects, Houston Construction has always been reliable, professional and solid in dealing with our office. At Moncur Design Associates Inc. we have never hesitated putting our name behind [their] outstanding work,” says Robynne Moncur, president of Moncur Design Associates.
Ian Kenny, president of Savannah Project Consulting in Toronto, says the reason Houston Construction has become a favourite with his firm is the team’s remarkable ability to think like a hotel owner. “They are, no question, a good, small construction company,” he said. “In the hotel business, there is always the issue of budget and how they deal with that, and of course in the hotel business you need to deal with the schedule first and foremost. But they also have excellent employees, personalities and experience that is so important to make [the relationship] work well.”
Though his father passed away several years ago, D’Amato says the way the company runs remains the same, though he admits the competitive landscape of today’s hotel industry would probably surprise him. “There used to be a lot of owners with two, three or four hotels, maybe five. Now we’re seeing groups like Oxford and Indus [in Columbus, Ohio] that have thousands of hotels and tens of thousands of rooms,” he observes. “There’s more of a stronghold on ownership, but that’s not really a bad thing because the philosophy in a lot of these organizations is about a determination to make their branding, whether they’re three- or five-star, the highest possible within that category.”
Houston Construction shares that philosophy in its role as contractor. For example, the company tries to minimize and track the number of rooms unavailable at a given time and update the hotel as work progresses. “We understand that moving forward, they need to block off a bank of rooms, so with our rooms displacement spreadsheet they are able to see how many days a set of rooms are out of order,” D’Amato explains. “The more rooms they’re able to have on inventory, the better it is for their bottom line.”
The other Houston Construction trademark is “The List” — an itemized set of rules developed over the span of 20 years and given to the tradespeople it hires. It specifies protocols such as steering clear of guest-facing areas and reducing noise. “We want to make sure that if the hotel is under renovation, the clients that come in don’t feel that the hotel is under renovation if at all possible,” he says.
The team also makes its mark in the community by setting aside 10 per cent of net profits for donations to causes such as The Children’s Miracle Network, women’s shelters and cancer research. The team also supports the Heart and Stroke Foundation through many of their projects. “What we’re trying to do now is work with hotels we’re currently going under contract with and making proposals to them that, along with the renovations, [our donations help] put in a defibrillator, whether that’s in the front or back of the house.” So far, the team’s donations have resulted in Heart and Stroke Foundation Automated External Defibrillator (AED) stations at the Vaughan Mills shopping centre, the InterContinental Hotel Toronto and the Courtyard by Marriott Toronto Downtown, with plans for 10 more by 2017.
Hotel owners who respond to such overtures are likely to become mainstays in the client roster. “We’ve been steadfast in relationship-building,” D’Amato says. “It’s a two-way street for us. We want to make sure we’re able to provide the best service and quality possible, but at the same time we want great clients that understand and appreciate what we do.” It’s a philosophy that rings true for its employee base, which is encouraged to take training courses. “If we take care of our employees, they will take care of the clients.”
Written By: Shane Schick
Volume 27, Number 8