Refocused by military service, New Jersey contractor rebuild’s company culture, transforms his business

COY Lead

While most people deal with work as one of life’s harsh necessities, Jason Ciavarro not only puts in the hours, he relishes them.

“Work is where I find my joy and passion,” he says with a smile from the end of a conference room table at the offices of Supreme Metro Corporation in South Plainfield, New Jersey, office.

A childhood full of days baling hay and shoveling horse manure on his family’s farm long ago instilled within him a strong work ethic. And while that love of work is responsible for his establishing Supreme Metro, Ciavarro points not to his time spent working as the reason for the company’s success. Rather, he credits a more contemplative time – years spent away from his business entirely.

Ciavarro joined the military the one day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He left his wife Kristen in charge of the company, which then employed between 10 and 15 employees, for the next three years while he served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The biggest change was when I came back from the war,” he recalls. “You’ve got so much time over there to think. Endless time.”

When he returned home, the business was in poor financial shape. And it wasn’t just because of his time away. Ciavarro realized that if the business was to not only survive, but thrive, he’d need to make major changes to how it was being run even before he left home.

The Army refocused him. It gave him a newfound ambition to go along with that unshakeable work ethic. “I was just so ready to tackle something and be the best I could be at something,” he says.

His new vision for the company required a change not only to the markets it served but to the culture as well. Supreme Metro would need to change from the inside out.

Seeing the whole picture

Ciavarro started his first business while he was still in high school. In fact, he was so young that his parents actually had to drive him out to the houses he would service. The experience forged in him an attention to detail and affinity for customer service and being his own boss.

“I love challenge. I love high expectations. One of the things that really fulfills me is trying to make everybody happy. You can say you can’t make everybody happy, but I really like to try,” he says.

As soon as he graduated, he took a $500 loan from his father Joseph to start a seal coating business in 1988 that evolved into Supreme.

In 1994, the company graduated from smaller seal coating jobs to residential concrete and pavement installation. Ten years later, after his return from military service, the company jumped heavily into the homeowner/condominium owner association market. He calls it the toughest industry to be in due to the amount of eyes judging the work, but says the attention to detail he learned in the Army perfectly prepared him to operate in that environment.

“I feel like it was a graduated step from working for independent home owners. The HOAs and COAs want the work to look like their dining room table,” he says. “I felt that I was well-groomed with customer service and attention to detail, which the Army only emphasized. There are so many layers to this market, from the scheduling and the logistics, to the execution.”

The move and Ciavarro’s renewed focus transformed the company from one that was barely hanging on when he returned from service to one that now employs 42 people and pulls in more than $10 million each year. Today, the company offers milling and paving, concrete, asphalt and concrete maintenance and drainage services.

The company operates primarily on referrals. “We may not be the fastest, but when it comes to attention to detail we can’t be beat,” Ciavarro says.

In fact, heightened attention in general is a big reason Supreme gets all those referrals, Ciavarro says. Supreme focuses on not only meeting its clients’ expectations, but also working closely with them to ensure they’re seeing the whole picture.

“I think the biggest thing that sets us apart is going out there and meeting with the owner and the management and finding out what they’re looking to achieve,” he says. “A lot of times they make a suggestion and they’re missing it. We’re able to fix it. What they’re looking at may not be the problem. It may be what’s surrounding it.”

In efforts to provide clients and potential clients with that bigger picture, Supreme provides many options with their bidding allowing the customer a game a plan for the next few years. “We look at all their assets and give general comments and recommendations,” which gives the client various work scope options based on their available budget. Through this process, Supreme educates their potential customers to better understand the longevity of their assets and the services the company provides.

The other piece to Supreme’s success – and just as important as the actual work – is its people, Ciavarro says. “My team is by far the best. And you’re only as good as your weakest link,” he says. Building that team required a reconstruction of the company’s culture.

The culture triangle

By 2010 things had turned around for Supreme. In a way, things were going too well. Ciavarro says the company had gotten so big there was no way for him to personally manage everything that was going on. And because so many different hands were required on the steering wheel, Ciavarro wanted to establish a foundation of trust beneath the company.

That’s where the company’s culture triangle comes in.

Modeled after the principles established in the book Tribal Leadership, the foundation of the triangle is Trust. Moving upward level by level are Mastering Conflict, Achieving Commitment, Embracing Accountability and finally at the peak, Focusing on Results.

Ever since the triangle became the basis for the company’s culture, it’s become “more of a family atmosphere,” says Patti Ventura, Supreme’s vice president of finance and a 10-year veteran of the company.

“People are willing to speak if they have an issue … You know that if you make a mistake it’s not the end of the world. You’re not worried someone will throw you under the bus,” she explains. “It has allowed us to grow and allowed Jason to step outside of the box and not micromanage.”

The comfort and trust within the company has allowed its employees to focus on doing a thorough job rather than a quick one. “They’re damn proud of what they do,” Ciavarro says of his guys in the field. “They are Picassos.”

He adds that the majority of the company’s management, superintendents and foremen have been with the company about eight years. “Beneath management there’s always turnover. There’s nothing you can do about the revolving door, but ours spins much slower than most,” he says. “We retain our upper guys. And we focus on furthering them and educating them.

“We want to promote from within. This is an extended family.”

Looking forward

In terms of the company’s future, Ciavarro says he’s not interested in getting any bigger. “I don’t care about being the biggest. Size isn’t of importance to me. As long as the monster is eating, I’m happy,” he says. “It’s all about controlled growth.”

Ventura says the company saw a 25-percent spike in revenues between 2013 and 2014, adding that each of the previous years Supreme had grown at least 10 percent per year. She says her main focus as the company’s head of finance is – and will continue to be – streamlining.

“There are two sides of the coin. You can increase sales or you can increase profits,” she explains “I’m not always about sales. I try to get people to think about how we can save money how can we do better.”

It’s a focus that plays well with Ciavarro’s penchant for improvement. “Every winter we come up with a to-do list; things that we want to improve on from the prior year,” he says. “We’re not one-hit wonders.”