The Iacoboni family has a long history in the construction industry, starting with Camillo Iacoboni who came to America from Italy in 1913 at age 16 and started as a laborer. Ten years later, he owned his own construction company.
Fast forward to today, where his grandson Tom Iacoboni has formed his own successful construction business. His success has made him one of Equipment World’s 12 finalists for the 2022 Contractor of the Year program.
Tom started at age 15, working as a mechanic’s helper for his grandfather’s company. During summers as he got older, he would drive dump trucks, lay pipe and later operate a loader and backhoe. During that time, Tom got valuable lessons from an old-timer who has since passed away.
“We did our work in a small, cramped office. He smoked cigars nonstop, and the smoke in the room was blinding,” he says. “He taught me how to prepare a takeoff and what to look for.”
After college, he ran the family business along with his brother-in-law Bill Francik.
Tom and Francik later struck out on their own in 1991 to form Iacoboni Site Specialists.
They started with six employees in 1991 doing utility work after finally being able to land financing through a Small Business Administration loan. A recession was underway.
“The bonding company that we used was like a third-rate bonding company,” Tom says. “They were able to give us bonds when nobody else would give us bonds.”
That bonding company went bankrupt, but Iacoboni began to thrive.
They would rent to own their equipment and started out laying pipe.
“As the economy grew, we started adding on more utility crews,” he says. “And then eventually, we added a grading crew. And then we added a clearing crew. We added a paving crew. And we just kept expanding. … Now we are a full-scale sitework contractor. We do it all.”
Springboard to bigger jobs
A big break came early for the company when it landed work on the construction of the Homer Gudelsky Building in Baltimore. The 10-story facility houses neurocare, cardiac care, cancer care and organ transplantation for the University of Maryland Medical Center.
“It was a large job for us being such a small company at the time,” Tom says. “But we made a lot of money on the job, and it allowed us to grow the company through the profits.”
The job also helped get the company’s foot in the door to bid on projects with large general contractors in the area.
Iacoboni continued to expand and build a solid reputation, collecting many repeat customers.
“Our GCs like working with us because we try to work out problems and will negotiate extras so that everyone leaves happy,” Tom says.
One of those repeat customers is Duane Carter with Camden Development, which builds multifamily homes in the Washington, D.C., area.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years – they’re by far the best site contractors we’ve ever used,” Carter says. “Any time we had an issue, they immediately addressed it. In fact on the last job, I didn’t even send it out to bid.”
Surviving the Great Recession
It didn’t take long for the company to get to 165 employees. “Right from the start, we were blowing out our projections,” Tom says. “We were making a lot more money than we thought we would be making, which allowed us to grow a lot faster than we thought we were going to be able to grow, and we grew. We grew fast.”
The Great Recession, however, put a halt to the growth. That period was the first time Tom didn’t enjoy his work.
“I love what I do. I love coming into work every day, handling the challenges,” he says. “2008, 2009 – I hated it. It was doom and gloom every day. You had to make decisions that you did not want to make. It was a tough time to be in business.”
Bids were racing to the bottom, and contractors were losing money on the available jobs. Iacoboni had to lay off 60 or so workers.
A few years later, though, the company was growing again. The construction economy bounced back. “When it came back, it came back with a vengeance,” he says. “We had some of the best years we've ever had in 2011, 2012, 2013, because there wasn't anybody else out there to do the work.”
The company has also focused on being a one-stop shop for its customers.
“We find a lot of people like the total package now,” says Vice President Bill Francik, who started the company with Tom in 1991. “If we have a job that has a lot of landscaping on it or concrete footer work or stuff like that, something that we really don't do, they want to put it all under our umbrella and have us manage it and take care of it.”
Growth, however, has been limited since the recession as a large percentage of the construction workforce was gone for good after the industrywide layoffs. “They were fed up with construction, and they had found other fields to go into,” Tom says. “And even back then, you couldn't find anybody.”
The short supply of quality workers has gotten worse since then. Iacoboni has tried a variety of methods to find workers, including recruiters and offering bonuses for employee referrals.
“We're doing anything we can possibly do to get people in here,” he says.
When it comes to retaining workers, he says, the company treats employees like family and has an open-door policy. Many of its employees have been with the company for decades.
Don’t buy their equipment
The company also believes in keeping its equipment for a long time. It now mostly buys new machines.
“We hang onto our machines forever,” Tom says. “If you see one of our machines in an auction, don't buy it, because it's been through the wringer.”
The company typically has three full-time mechanics. Fleet Manager Chad Ulrich says Iacoboni has more than 200 pieces of equipment and uses telematics to keep track of them. The transition to telematics was tough at first to get the fleet set up and integrated with the software. “But the payoff is that we're able to become more efficient and more aware of where our difficult areas are to grow,” he says.
They have also added ride-along cameras in its heavy trucks. The drivers have adapted to them. “It's not only for their safety, but for learning curves and for making us better,” he says. “It saves our bottom line, and it also saves our insurance costs.”
The company emphasizes safety and has been a shareholder in National Contractors Insurance for 12 years. NCI offers an alternative to traditional insurance in that the members share the risk, control costs and thereby keep premiums down.
Dennis Grochowski, director of environmental health and safety and a former state trooper, says Iacoboni holds three to four safety meetings a month, everything from defensive driving to personal protection equipment. Grochowski also conducts OSHA 10 training. All laborers and operators are OSHA 10 certified, and foremen are certified OSHA 30. They are also certified in CPR, first aid and automated external defibrillator.
The company offers bonuses to employees with clear safety records. All of the foremen are responsible for toolbox talks, and Grochowski visits at least three jobsites a day to make sure safety procedures are being followed. He also performs equipment safety training, with classroom instruction and outside demonstrations.
Advice for new contractors
Having spent 45 years in the construction business, Tom has seen a lot of changes and has learned some hard lessons. For young contractors starting out in the business, he offers two pieces of advice.
First: Cash is king.
“I remember when I first went in business, if we would have had one major account not pay us, it would have killed us. Payables and payroll were taking all of our cash.”
Second: Treat your customers fairly.
“You're not going to win every battle. And you don’t want to win every battle, because you want the guy you're working for to feel like they come out ahead once in a while.”
As for the future of Iacoboni Site Specialists, Tom has no plans to retire.
“I intend to stay here and die with my boots on,” he says.
“I love what I do. I love coming into work. I love the challenges. I love everything about this,” he adds. “There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.”